Something of the Mind of Hell

I am presently battling with the notions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism in epistemology and metaphysics from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to Fichte, Schlegel and Novalis, the latter of whom seemed, as a Christian believer, to be looking for a via media between absolute truth and the unthinkable. The crux of the problem seems to be the notion of idealism, consciousness before matter in modern terms and a truth preceding such consciousness. Chicken and egg? Fides et ratio? If any of you philosophers have studied German Idealism and can break this thing down into bite-size pieces, I will be grateful. I am presently reading Manfred Frank’s The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism, which expresses itself in quite plain and comprehensible language for my aching brain!

I went onto the Internet (imagine if I had had that as a student!!!) and wondered what our beloved German Pope thought about all that. There is a book by Emery de Gaál, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: The Christocentric Shift, published in 2010. Perhaps I’ll buy it next month because I have been spending quite a lot on books this month. Google Books allows you to read samples of books on the screen, but no copying or quoting. I copied out by hand a harrowing passage from pages 152-153. It was unrelated to my problem of understanding early German Romanticism in terms of epistemology and metaphysics, but Ratzinger was quoted as defending beauty as a manifestation of truth, a very Neo-Platonist idea. Its antithesis is absolutely chilling:

Ratzinger’s words must also be understood in the context of recent post-war German intellectual history. In a most pronounced way, the influential German philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) subscribed to anti-Platonism. The holocaust and the kitsch of National Socialist art discredited the appreciation of beauty. It likewise suggested the untenability of both German idealism and Platonism. The theory of a reality beyond an underlying palpable reality seemed obsolete. It is little wonder in 1948 Adorno postulated the provocative axiom that the inhumanity of art must excel that of the world, so that a remnant of humanity might survive. Three years later, in 1951, he declared that everything contains negativity. One cannot see the blossoming of a tree without anguish, because the tree lies. His Aesthetic Theory was published posthumously in 1970. In it, he argues art is merely “the memory of accumulated suffering.” To his mind, the only authentic form of music is that of Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique. The tonality of Beethoven and Mozart is fraud. Ratzinger responds to such negative dialectics with the rhetorical question of whether all joy must be suppressed in order to exercise solidarity with the suffering.

I had never heard of Theodor W. Adorno. Wikipedia describes him as a philosopher, sociologist, and composer known for his critical theory of society. He was a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Perhaps this kind of “post-modernism” will help us to distinguish this chilling indictment of the post-Nazi world from the real intuitions of Romanticism and Idealism. The causes of this particular kind of nihilism are obscure, and need careful study. I have often been quite distressed by the brutality of modern ugliness presented as “art”, a kind of punishment for man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps we should have World War III and be done with it! The sheer negativity of it all speaks of pure evil, the very evil it set out to punish. On a critical note, Schönberg came up with his twelve-tone, atonal or serial system long before Nazism and two years before World War I, in 1912. Music was the first art form to be destroyed, long before painting, sculpture and architecture. Why?

Schönberg seemed to have devised this system, the destruction of harmony and melody, to solve the problem of the “collapse of tonality”. His late tonal music is often quite beautiful in its chromaticism, perhaps a little reminiscent of Richard Strauss or some of Wagner’s music. Something snapped. There was an idea of “progress”, something irreversible, deterministic and teleological. There seems to be a kind of foundationalism inherited from the Enlightenment and so-called realism. Does all this not sound familiar in terms of other domains like what happens in churches?

I don’t know how I am going to sort out the issue of foundationalism and the relationship between reason and imagination and all the other aspects of what it is to be human. C.S. Lewis has probably given one of the clearest accounts of a transition (his own) from Realism to Idealism to Romanticism to his conversion to Christianity. I have yet to read Lewis’ views on foundationalism, because Christian apologetics are built on the notion of a foundation of self-evident truths that are evident to our senses or otherwise beyond dispute. It would seem that Lewis returned somewhat from his Romanticism to a rational foundationalist position. I would like to be more sure about this.

My reading thus far is slowly revealing a kind of via media between this non-negotiable truth and “given” and the retreat from reason one finds in a lot of post-modernism. This is why I am so interested in German Idealism and the diversity of theories between philosophers of a same school. I seem to have deviated from the subject of Adorno and his anti-everything.

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1 Response to Something of the Mind of Hell

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “The holocaust and the kitsch of National Socialist art discredited the appreciation of beauty.” I think Marc Chagall (1887-1985), for one, would disagree! And David Jones (1895-1974), for another. I have heard that Nietzsche attacked Christianity as “Platonism for the masses” (in Beyond Good and Evil [Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886)]). By contrast, i think people like Lewis, Eric Voegelin, and George Grant are very much in a thoughtfully modern Christian Platonist tradition – which variously includes what I take to be the best of German Romanticism and also a lot of ‘classical’ Anglicanism, (Roman) Catholicism, and Orthodoxy in its ‘background’.

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