The Cultural Anthropologist as Philosopher and Conspirator

n the European side of the Atlantic one hardly ever hears mentioned the contributions of American academics to the fierce debate on multiculturalism going on in Europe. Given that America is a symphony of cultures, or a nation of nations, it seems obvious to me that the American contribution to such a debate would prove at the very least valuable, if not essential.

Alas, that is not always the case, more often than not it is simply dismissed with spurious condescending charges that somehow American popular culture has vulgarized and reduced to a lower common denominator the more sophisticated culture of Europe.

The above may contain a kernel of truth but it is that kind of rather superficial analysis that, in my opinion, renders a great disservice to any serious dialogue on multiculturalism between the two sides that that ought to be going on but is often missing. I’d venture to say that frankly, this phenomenon smacks of elitism and condescension. When Matthew Arnold finally visited America in the 19th century he realized that his own European culture had fed him with many misconceptions about America and changed his mind on quite a few of them.

After Croce in Italy, the intellectual that did an great deal of work to popularize Vico in America was Giorgio Tagliacozzo who ailed from Italy but lived and worked in America for many years and via Vico was able to build a crucial bridge of cultural understanding between the two continents.

Indeed, there is much more to American culture than Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Las Vegas, or making money on Wall Street, and global business and the assorted vulgarities of popular culture and entrepreneurship, as the caricaturists love to assert. Unfortunately a President Trump will be the icon of that sort of culture for the forseable future.

Nevertheless, I am always bewildered, whenever I visit Europe, at how many Europeans, who consider themselves well educated, have no inkling of the fact that Disney and Las Vegas are not the whole of American culture, and not even an important part of it, even if millions of Europeans flock to it every year and then proceed to make negative judgments on the whole culture. Admittedly American culture is slightly different from European culture, if for no other reason that it has the Afro-American and the Native-American and Asian-American component, but I would submit that it is a culture worth knowing on more than a superficial level.

I’d like to now introduce to the MD readership Claes G. Ryn, another American author and academic who originally was a European ailing from Sweden, but was educated in America (Ph.D in 1974 from Louisiana State University) and subsequently taught at the University of Virginia and Georgetown University. He presently teaches political philosophy and Ethics at the Catholic University of America. One of his later books is A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World (2003), a highly commendable book on the subject of historicism and multiculturalism. He is also the editor of the academic journal Humanitas and president of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters.

Ryn's fields of teaching and research include ethics and politics; epistemology; historicism; politics and culture; the history of Western political thought; conservatism; the theory of constitutionalism and democracy. He has written on ethics and politics and on the central role of culture, specifically, the imagination, in shaping politics and society, has sought to reconstitute the epistemology of the humanities and social sciences, paying close attention to the interaction of will, imagination and reason.

Most importantly, he has criticized abstract, a-historical conceptions of rationality as inadequate to the study of distinctively human life and to the study of real universality. He has argued that there is a much different, experientially grounded form of rationality, the reason of philosophy proper, that is capable of at once humble and penetrating observation. He has therefore developed a philosophy known as value-centered historicism, which demonstrates the potential union of universality and historical particularity and is redolent of Vico’s philosophy. In political theory he has been a sharp critic of Straussian anti-historical thinking and so-called neo-conservatism.

Many in the Western world trust in “democracy,” “capitalism,” “liberal tolerance,” “scientific progress,” or “general enlightenment” to handle this problem. Ryn argues that the problem is much more complex and demanding than is usually recognized. He reasons that, most fundamentally, good relations among individuals and nations have moral and cultural preconditions. What can predispose them to mutual respect and peace? One Western philosophical tradition, for which Plato set the pattern, maintains that the only way to genuine unity is for historical diversity to yield to universality. The implication of this view for a multicultural world would be a peace that requires that cultural distinctiveness be effaced as far as possible and replaced with a universal culture. Undoubtedly, the Enlightenment set the pattern for this view.

A very different Western philosophical tradition denies the existence of universality altogether. It is represented today by postmodernist multiculturalism—a view that leaves unanswered the question as to how conflict between diverse groups, especially when originating from religious principles, might be averted.

Ryn questions both of these traditions, arguing for the potential union of universality and particularity. He contends that the two need not be enemies and mutually exclusive, but in fact can complement each other. Cultivating individual and national particularities is potentially compatible with strengthening and enriching our common humanity. His book embraces the notion of universality, while at the same time historicizing it. His approach is interdisciplinary, discussing not only political ideas, but also fiction, drama, and other arts. To be sure, this is an approach proposed by Vico in the 18th century, and by Croce in the 20th century.

Ryn's discussion of modern democracy emphasizes that popular government can assume radically different forms, only some of which can be judged compatible with a higher, ethical striving. Theories of what he calls plebiscitary democracy assume romantic and utopian notions of human nature and society. Constitutional democracy is based on a more realistic view of man and is more consonant with the actual moral terms of human existence. This form of government has demanding moral and cultural preconditions and is endangered wherever those preconditions are not satisfied.

In the year 2000 Ryn gave the Distinguished Foreign Scholar Lectures at Beijing University, which also published this lecture series in Chinese translation as a book, Unity Through Diversity (2001). He has lectured and published widely in China. In 2007 he gave a keynote address at the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing. The Chinese edition (2007) of his book America the Virtuous became one of the most hotly discussed in China. Dushu, China's preeminent intellectual magazine, described it as "the kind of classical work that will be read over the generations."

The above background ought to convince the reader of how important is Ryn’s thought for present philosophical political and ethical concerns. I believe that his most signal contribution is in the field of historicism, or the restoration of Vichian historicism in an academic world devastated by a-historical abstract Cartesian absolutistic thought. In 2005 Ryn published a devastating critique of Straussianism in Humanitas (Vol. XVIII, n. 1 and 2) in an article titled “Leo Strauss and History: the Philosopher as Conspirator.” The article points out how dangerous it is for those teaching philosophy to choose a pet philosopher (in Strauss’ case, Plato) from the ancient world and subsume the whole philosophical enterprise to his thought as a sort of footnote, as if nothing had been thought and nothing had happened in the field of philosophy in two thousand plus years.

Here is a selected but relevant excerpt from the article which renders the idea and hopefully will motivate the reader to pick it up and read it in its entirety:

“So radical and seemingly forced is this dichotomy between philosophy and history that one has to suspect that its origins are mainly non-philosophical. The dichotomy seems to have more to do with a felt need to discredit tradition, presumably to advance a partisan interest. It might be said that Strauss and the Straussians are simply following the pattern set by Plato, who also taught disdain of what he thought of as history. But Strauss is presenting his arguments more than two millennia after Plato, and in the wake of philosophical developments that can only make the adoption of a Platonic conception of the relation of history and universality appear to the philosophically educated to be archaic and far-fetched.

Strauss is also more radically anti-historical than any ancient Greek could have been. It might be retorted that Strauss and the Straussians are not alone today in ignoring centuries of philosophical development, but this means merely that the question of extra-philosophical motives must be raised with regard to others as well. It is not uncommon in intellectual history for groups to avoid facing up to profound philosophical challenges to themselves by acting as if nothing had really happened and by hiding behind some old, more pleasing figure who is accorded the status of unimpeachable authority and is interpreted as representing just what the group thinks he should represent. This is philosophical evasion, group partisanship intensified by intellectual insecurity, for which the particular group pays a high price in the long run. Strauss’s exaltation of Plato, as he chooses to interpret him, would appear to be in large measure an example of such evasion, however helpful it may be in discrediting tradition and dislodging corresponding elites.

Though not a philosopher in the more narrow, ‘technical’ sense, Burke sees deeply into the connection between history and universality. Other philosophically more systematic and conceptually precise minds, including Hegel in the nineteenth and Benedetto Croce in the twentieth century [and I would add Vico in the 18th century], have, in spite of philosophical weaknesses of their own, provided a more penetrating account of what Burke understood more intuitively.

One of the weaknesses of modern American intellectual conservatism has been its failure fully to absorb the historical consciousness that gave rise to and gave distinctiveness to modern conservatism. A certain resistance in the Anglo-American world to philosophy above a certain level of difficulty helps explain this problem. One finds, for example, in a thinker like Richard M. Weaver a failure similar to Strauss’s to grasp the possibility of synthesis between universality and the particulars of history. To be sure, that deficiency does not make Weaver as unfriendly as Strauss towards tradition, but, although Weaver himself may not recognize it, it does give tradition a philosophically precarious existence. The absence in Weaver’s thought of the idea of synthesis makes him see the need for a choice between ‘imitating a transcendent model,’ which is to him the appropriate stance, and giving prominence to individuality.

What will invest life with meaning is ‘the imposition of this ideational pattern upon conduct.’ To Weaver, ‘ideas which have their reference to . . . the individuum . . . are false.’ Echoing an ancient notion that had long been challenged by historicist philosophy when Weaver wrote, he asserts that ‘knowledge’ has to be of the universal, not the individual. He decries ‘the shift from speculative inquiry to investigation of experience.’ That universality might be a concrete, experiential reality rather than a purely intellective, a-historical truth does not here occur to him.

Eric Voegelin provides a much needed counterweight to the abstractionist intellectual trend that affects even a thinker like Weaver. Voegelin does so by drawing attention to the experiential reality of what he calls the Ground. Unfortunately, he at the same time and inconsistently gives aid-and-comfort to anti-historicism by propounding a notion of radical transcendence. That notion, too, tends to rob history as such of meaning and contradicts the possibility of incarnation. Straussians and Voegelinians find common ground at the point where their respective positions are philosophically the weakest. Straussianism has been able to invade American conservatism on its philosophically perhaps most unprotected flank, which is its halting, fumbling conception of history and its correspondingly weak notion of universality or ‘higher values.’”

A rather long quote, but perhaps necessary to make the case that indeed Ryn may have it on target in insisting that Philosophy and Cultural Anthropology are the sine qua non for a recovery of what is best in Western Culture. Some have called the approach a conspiracy, a conspiracy of hope.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.


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