Bereft of Reason:
 On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal

by Eugene Halton

Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997.

Excerpt from Chapter 4: Lewis Mumford's Organic Worldview

    ....One half of a century ago Mumford was at Stanford calling for an inclusiveness quite similar to that demanded by many multiculturalists today. But his reason for including non-western sources at Stanford, namely that these were works which transcended the cultures and civilizations in which they arose, was diametrically opposed to the relativistic premisses of many contemporary multiculturalists.  One possibly legitimate critique of Mumford by contemporary multiculturalists might be an underemphasis on ethnic, class, and gender diversities in portraying American culture and history in general. Here the crucial question is what role do these factors play within the civilizational context.
     Mumford was calling for a general education which would make a big picture of the varieties and continuities of humanity available to students, because he believed that a deep sense of history, cultural diversity, and common humanity was essential both to a humanistic education, and to a world culture in the making, and that a humanistic education must address the whole person, not simply the intellectual portion. His outlook could not be more at odds with the postmodern temper and its view that everything is a question of ideology.
     Again the emotions, as well as aesthetic and moral standards of discrimination and judgment weighed heavily in Mumford's view of education:

  If we are to create balanced human beings, capable of entering into world-wide co-operation with all other men of good will--and that is the supreme task of our generation, and the foundation of all its other potential achievements--we must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent. And values do not come ready-made: they are achieved by a resolute attempt to square the facts of one's own experience with the historic patterns formed in the past by those who devoted their whole lives to achieving and expressing values. If we are to express the love in our own hearts, we must also understand what love meant to Socrates and Saint Francis, to Dante and Shakespeare, to Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, to the explorer Shackleton and to the intrepid physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to yellow fever. These historic manifestations of love are not recorded in the day's newspaper or the current radio program: they are hidden to people who possess only fashionable minds. Virtue is not a chemical product, as Taine once described it: it is a historic product, like language and literature; and this means that if we cease to care about it, cease to cultivate it, cease to transmit its funded values, a large part of it will become meaningless, like a dead language to which we have lost the key. That, I submit, is what has happened in our own lifetime.

     The cultivation of moral and aesthetic values and emotions became a hot potato in twentieth-century educational life in America. Public schools, from kindergarten through college, absorbed many of the tasks formerly centered in the Church and family. But the cultivation of values and virtues in universities was taken to be primarily an intellectual task, rather than also moral and aesthetic. Hence the cultivation of passions and standards of discrimination and discipline requisite for passionate living were too often relegated to "physical education," or worse, to collegiate spectator sport. Values and emotions were either etherealized into abstract mind, whether modern or postmodern, or materialized into gladiatorial spectacle, into Ariel or Caliban. There is little place for a Prospero, the agent and mediator of values and emotional life, in such an educational system.
     Mumford's lament in 1946 that virtue has become meaningless, "like a dead language to which we have lost the key," resonates with the recent work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1981 book, After Virtue, and subsequent works. MacIntyre's critique of the fragmentation of moral reasoning and language and his defense of the virtues as real components of the human self so grates against contemporary intellectual life that he begins After Virtue using the metaphor of a catastrophe which has gone virtually unrecognized.  He shows how the conception of morality as involving a whole self, that is, one embedded within a variety of social groups and a cultural tradition and also capable of acting from, while cultivating, the goal of a good life, "is something that ceases to be generally available at some point in the progress--if we can call it such--towards and into modernity." In place of a whole self oriented by the goal of a good life, contemporary social life in MacIntyre's view is the realization of the bifurcated modern world depicted earlier by Max Weber, characterized by an organizational realm whose depersonalized rational ends are taken for granted and a personal realm of the "emotivist self," whose subjectivist ends are ultimately criterionless.
     MacIntyre believes that this modern world-view must be rejected through a renewal of local community and the practices which contribute to making the good life in Aristotle's sense. He urges a retreat from "the new dark ages" we have entered similar to that undertaken at the end of the Roman imperium, and in this echoes Mumford's call in 1970 to withdraw from "the pentagon of power."  Yet Mumford, despite his pessimism concerning the power complex, hoped for more than the endurance of the tradition of the virtues: "How long, those who are now awake must ask themselves, how long can the physical structure of an advanced technology hold together when all its human foundations are crumbling away?...the human institutions and moral convictions that have taken thousands of years to achieve even minimal efficacy have disappeared before our eyes: so completely that the next generation will scarcely believe they ever existed....The Roman empire in the East won a new lease on life by coming to terms with Christianity...But it must be remembered that this intermixture of Roman and Christian institutions was achieved at the expense of creativity. So until the disintegration of our own society has gone even further, there is reason to look for a more vigorous life-promoting solution. Whether such a response is possible depends upon an unknown factor: how viable are the formative ideas that are now in the air, and how ready are our contemporaries to undertake the efforts and sacrifices that are essential for human renewal?...Has Western civilization reached the point in etherialization where detachment and withdrawal will lead to the assemblage of an organic world picture, in which the human personality in all its dimensions will have primacy over its biological needs and technological pressures?....When the moment comes to replace power with plenitude, compulsive external rituals with internal, self-imposed discipline, depersonalization with individuation, automation with autonomy, we shall find that the necessary change of attitude has been going on beneath the surface during the last century, and the long buried seeds of a richer human culture are now ready to strike root and grow, as soon as the ice breaks up and the sun reaches them. If that growth is to prosper, it will draw freely on the compost from many previous cultures."

Click here to return to  Bereft of Reason