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Closing of the American Mind

  1. Mar 12, 2011 #1
    Has anyone read Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind? I recently read it, and found that I thoroughly enjoyed some of it. Parts of it are initially very difficult to swallow (like the Mick Jagger spiel), but as he developed his thesis I found it incredibly compellingly.

    Any comments on the book? It's an enormously complex book, so there's a vast amount of stuff I could have put into this first posted. Instead, I'll see what other people enjoyed from it and we can start from there!
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  3. Mar 12, 2011 #2

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    This isn't focused enough on a particular topic to keep it in the Philosophy forum, so I am moving it to GD. Maybe something more targeted will emerge here that can become a discussion in Phil forum later. It does look like an interesting book.

    What's the "Mick Jagger spiel"?
  4. Mar 12, 2011 #3
    After reading the overview and some reviews on Amazon, I don't think I'll be picking this one up. However, I did find it interesting that there is also "The Opening of the American Mind"
  5. Mar 12, 2011 #4


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    Another way of looking at it is that liberalisation does indeed naturally produce both greater conformity as well as greater diversity. This is because if you open a system up, its statistics becomes scale free. The large can become very large. But just as much, you have a much greater variety of "smallness" - what has been dubbed the long tail effect.

    So Bloom complained about new mindless examples of mass culture in his day as the rules were suddenly relaxed. The conformity represented by everyone having long hair and jeans. And you could point to the pervasiveness of R&B today as the latest incarnation.

    But this is natural as larger cultural lumps must form as the total weight of culture is allowed to expand freely. There is a collectivising tendency - the Matthew effect or principle of preferential attachment.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect_(sociology [Broken])

    But that same freedom also allows a greater diversity of micro-cultures, niche interests and niche identities. This is pretty obvious in the liberalisation of sexual mores for example.

    So liberalisation - removing social constraints - leads to a general expansion in variety. And we would predict it to be lumpy - fractal or powerlaw - as a natural thing.

    Whether this is in general a good or bad thing is another story. But what Bloom diagnosed as a closing of minds was actually still the opening of social possibilities that found a lumpy statistical expression.
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  6. Mar 12, 2011 #5


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    Interesting post. Makes me think of the internet...certainly there are large mainstream 'groupings' (such as large news outlets - CNN, etc). But uncountable numbers of other news sources are out there, too.
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  7. Mar 12, 2011 #6


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    The internet is indeed a scalefree phenomenon. The 1960s was about a wave of youth with the money and optimism to feel less culturally restrained. A lot of productive energy was then spent stripping out the barriers to "cultural production" - gay liberation, racial equality, sexual freedom, etc.

    Then that generation hit their 30s and we saw Thatcher and Reagan. The focus became on stripping out the old economic constraints on consumption-led growth. Social inequality grew fast as economic innovation and wealth distribution became scalefree.

    Now we have the internet as another driver. Constraints on communication itself have been removed. Cultural revolution had to propagate at the slower pace of books and LPs in the 1960s. Economic revolution was still limited by national boundaries and old technology in the 1980s (faxes, standalone PCs, cost of travel). The internet removes so many restrictions on time and place that every thing that was going faster, can go faster still.

    So both the clumping and the splitting gets accelerated. Both the integration and the differentiation.
  8. Mar 13, 2011 #7
    It didn't really seem that Bloom was terribly concerned with this concept of homogeneity. Instead, he is mostly concerned with the an utter acceptance of all lifestyles, ie relativism. That is, in a liberal democratic society, we are all "equal." It doesn't matter if I am (hypothetically) vastly learned and wise, I am still evidently quite "equal" to any other person you might survey on the street who's spent his years at the bottom of a bottle. I am simply another human being as he is, right? Thus, my own views hold no more weight than his and his truths are in no way inferior to mine.

    This view of unadulterated, absolute equality has, perforce, destroyed truth as we know it. Since we are all equal, we all hold equal truths, hence relativism. There is no "right" way to live, we each have our "right" ways. Bloom basically complains that this destruction of any higher standard of truth has extirpated any desires to pursue such a possible absolute truth. Who cares for Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, or Hegel when my own world views need no temperance and I have nothing to learn from them? Any impulse to seek knowledge, seek truth, is effectively quelled when we accept that there is no truth.

    Thus, this "opening" of the mind (relativism) is really its closing.
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  9. Mar 13, 2011 #8
    This is only my personal experience, but I find that moral relativism is only an issue if you seek to resolve your cognitive dissonance. Rather, you need to accept the possible value in any given moral system, or philosophy, and go with what works, rather than imagine that there is a true RIGHT way.

    It's closing for those who want to be closed, for anyone else, it's just another view of the world like any other.
  10. Mar 13, 2011 #9
    Ok. Let me posit the following circumstance:

    A 19 year old kid, Pavel, shirks all responsibility. He is attending a good public university, but spends most of his time figuring out how to avoid class. He would rather smoke marijuana and drink all day, every day, with his friends.

    Pavel's a naturally smart kid, though, and understands that in a liberal democratic society, all people are equal. He knows that, accordingly, all of his "values" are intrinisically as valuable as any other member of the society. His maxim to "Avoid class in favor of smoking" is thus not any less valuable than a maxim thus: "Go to class to learn." Who is to claim that the latter is better than the former? Nobody can, because his "rights" and "values" are sacred, not to be impinged upon.

    In fact, a fairly substantial portion of the American population (and probably not just other 19-year olds like Pavel) would endorse Pavel's maxim.

    I am sure you agree that education is more productive than weed. However, we have just demonstrated that, per relativism, neither can be attributed a greater significance than the other. Bloom claims that, previously, the university was the one place where we did not have to accept all values as equally true. Instead, a student could explore some of the great thinkers of the past to come to a personal truth grounded not upon this farcical principle of "relativism," but rather upon a serious inquiry into the nature of life and truth.

    I might clarify that Bloom does not think there necessarily is some single, specific absolute truth for all. I believe he would probably agree that different people will come to different conclusion based upon their experiences. Rather, he says that the elimination of any such higher possibility of truth, and the justification of ANYTHING with relativism, leads to a "closed" mind. As I mentioned earlier: why do I care about Shakespeare if everything I hold is just as valid as everything he might have tried to teach?
  11. Mar 13, 2011 #10
    Somewhere, somebody said that around the world you will find many different types of diets for different cultures, but it certainly does not follow from this that ALL diets are EQAULLY nutritous. Though there may exist a plethora of ways of satisfying your dietary needs, you certainly cannot eat anything and everything. (This, of course, is assuming you care about health, but if you don't care about your health then die slowly).
    The problem with the relativism debate is that often times there is the moral pluralism and the popular moral relativism, and the two aren't differentiated. Moreover, another problem is that of motivation. The psychological motivation for a moral question is highly important, morality being intimatley related to ethics and the art of living, cannot be abstractly divorced from the birthing soil of the action. The main problem people have with relativism is its frequent use as a rationalizer for a lack of doing work, rather than as an intelligent philsophy of life. Though, of course we cannot conflate the mass usage of a philosophical ideal with its actuality, but unfortunatley I am not qualified to make an accurate comparison as I am not familiar with the real philosophical literature on relativism/pluralism. I can accept pluralism, but not an absolute relativism. The question that follows is "What is the differentiating line between the two?" This is a valid quesiton, but often times in matters of ethics, as in anything, things must be assumed and acted upon and only through actions can we come to a new understanding.
    Perhaps ethical philosophy is a bit behind modern epistemologies based around situatedness in the world, and action in an environment being intimatley related to perception and the aquisition of knowledge. The "epistemic cycle" includes living as a whole/ethics as well and sometimes it seems the old Cartesian abstractive paradigm is still being applied largely in ethics.
  12. Mar 13, 2011 #11
    There is a difference between absolute relativism, and accepting a lack of 'higher authority'. You don't have to ignore your internal moral compass, or reason, for the simple fact that it's clear these pro-social tendencies lead to some measure of success.

    Pavel is hurting himself, and although his choice may be his to make, it has consequences that ignore his philosophy. It's a fool who ignores reality as it exists in the moment in favor of ideology alone... a philosophy is not a shackle.

    So, I'd tell Pavel that there's a time and a place for weed, that he's abusing a drug in a pathological fashion (nothing to do with morality, just data), and lay out his future. In practice his choices, however relative, have real consequences beyond his control, and no need to invoke a higher authority beyond the law and societal pressures to get them.

    Pavel is a fool who is wasting a precious period of his life... relativism as an escape from thought is like Libertarian who just wants to see their own view become reality... not an accurate representation of the whole. You can be relative, and still ground yourself by CHOICE... why not after all?... work based on possible outcomes.
  13. Mar 13, 2011 #12


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    I'm arguing he misdiagnosed what was happening at the time as the production of homogeneity - a narrow sameness. A gaussian statistical distribution that you do in fact see in a closed system. But instead what was happening was the powerlaw story of a freely expanding system, where there is more of everything (diversity and homogeneity for instance).

    You can see this in the way Bloom said the old metaphysics, the great books, were concerned with dichotomies - polar concepts. And in his view, you had to engage with these fundamental dilemmas of life and make a choice. Some choices would be right-minded, others wrong.

    Your toking Pavel would be an example. Should we as individuals pursue sloth or industriousness?

    But in a scalefree system, you get both of any dichotomy in equal measure. The system is expanding freely in both of the directions defined by the dichotomy. And so what would be "natural" for individuals would be to reflect that intensification of both aspects of their societies.

    I certainly feel that I manage to be both intensely slothful and intensely industrious - I seem to pack a lot of both into my life these days. And if feels fairly balanced.

    Pavel would be an example of an individual who has gone to one extreme - sloth - and is being held there by a drug lifestyle. So that is unbalanced. But it would be just as unbalanced if Pavel studied or worked 12 hour days or whatever other extreme of attempted industriousness you might imagine.

    Anyway, it is not moral relativism that is the issue. That was just a removal of constraints on future cultural activity. The means of cultural production were deregulated. What followed was both an intensification of diversity and homogeneity.

    Has the result been well balanced? Probably not. It could be argued that the global goal was the production of human happiness. But perhaps both joy and discontent were intensified.

    You could point a finger at consumerism too. McCulture took over from the traditional cooking of the great books. And who does consumerism-driven economics (as opposed to something else, like sustainability-led economics) benefit in the end?

    I think the problem is that I want to agree with Bloom that there is a proper way to live life (and reading the great books is one of those principles). Yet then you step back and realise you devote a fair amount of your time to trivial stuff. And that seems part of the life balance.

    So this is what has happened with the removal of cultural restraints. Not a homogenisation but an intensification. Much more of what you might like, along with much more of what you might detest.
  14. Mar 13, 2011 #13
    Great post!

    I'm not really sure it vitiates Bloom's argument, however.

    You say that Bloom misdiagnosed relativism as engendering homogeneity. I think that this is somewhat misleading; while you are right that moral relativism does not engender homogeneity in the most conventional sense, it does create homogeneity in a more qualified sense (see below for explanation).

    Bloom's main concern is with the youth's loss of intellectual aspiration, however, so I think it might be appropriate to start from the beginning.

    More immediately, Bloom's gripe is that moral relativism destroys an intellectual curiosity and pursuit of knowledge. As you said, Bloom believes that we should be forced to engage with the big questions and make choices. That is, we should forced to grapple with intellectual problems and come to a resolution. Moral relativism denies us the necessity of such, thus destroying this intellectual pursuit.

    I think that Bloom's diagnosis of relativism causing homogeneity is essentially true, for the following reason. Bear with me as I set out a few steps to see if we're on the same page.

    1) A society becomes relativistic. (Although Bloom attributes our relativism to a misinterpretation of Nietzsche, that is not particularly important here)

    What does this mean? Mostly that all members of the society are relativistic. That is, each person recognizes that every other person has a notion of truth just as objectively true as his notion. Essentially, we realize that no other person holds a set of values more intrinsically valuable than our own.

    2) Loss of "intellectual curiosity."

    A journey for knowledge is wounded, some might say mortally, by this realization. Since each person's knowledge is as valuable as the next, and no less true, than it becomes unnecessary to consider past learning and grapple with the "big questions" that might fundamentally change someone's life. We can have a bland contentedness when presented with the options before (and within) us, because we have no conception that any other way should be the one to live. We are happy as we are. We are sure in our own value system, and don't want it any other way.

    3) Lumpiness, and intensification, arise.

    Freed from the necessity to seek and explore, each person settles down and forms an individual niche, content with the present set of values. Eventually, a niche inhabited by many different peoples becomes a lump. Thus, rock or rap music. More people drift to it, and it becomes larger. Another lump could be country music, and another, metal. A person entering this society is greeted with "rich" choice, formed of these divers possible options. He might choose between rock, rap, country, metal, etc. A broad array of possibilities, right?

    4) Homogeneity.

    This wide variety of choices reveals itself merely as homogeneity speciously parading as different options. All of your choices are essentially the same; no single choice has more weight than another, besides what might suit your passing fancy. While superficially, you are granted many different choices, in reality, all of these choices have arisen, and are based upon, NOT any search for truth, but rather, a bland satisfaction with the current. They are homogeneous insofar as they merely represent this heady sense of purported "freedom" granted by relativism. They are homogeneous because they all stem from the same source, each showing a different guise but fundamentally representing the same principle.

    I hope that made sense. I'm trying to reconcile our two different modes of discussion and form a common basis upon which we can continue discussion!

    I think the key is that Bloom's concern is not with any vast sociological telos in the long run of diversity vs. homogenization (at least overtly), but rather, with our current state of affairs. He recognizes the damaging effects of relativism, witnessing it firsthand in students at a university level. He is primarily concerned with how we might correct this loss of "truth." For Bloom, the university is that place where we might go and NOT be relativistic. instead, it would be a time of tempestuous intellectual exploration, a time of critically interpreting and deciding between different ways of life. He is mostly concerned that this relativism has thoroughly pervaded the university, destroying this ability for a student to enter be changed.
  15. Mar 13, 2011 #14


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    You are putting the case well. And I agree that there is something I like about the basic premise "modern life is rubbish, the children are in trouble". It appeals to my elitism. But I also think the elitist POV is much more wrong than right in the end.

    So for example what Bloom might see as an amorphous blob (like rock music or hippy culture) is in fact just "more scalefree" action. There is still, in fractal fashion, as much diversity as homogeneity to be found in a large lump.

    So I really don't like rap/R&B culture as a lump of culture and attitude. But I also have to accept that get in there, and it is still as much diverse as samey. I can detest P Diddy and like the Beastie Boys and Gorillaz, or whatever.

    So what is the real complaint? Possibly it is that the requirement of cultural relativism is that it presents individuals with more complex life choices. Liberalisation means more local degrees of freedom. That much is obvious. But what is not obvious (to many) is that to then give their life shape, they have to also identify the general constraints on their freedoms. With personal freedom comes a greater need to manufacture the sense of society around you, to form the moral and intellectual context that can give meaning to your life.

    So there is a difference between cultural relativism that leads to a self-conscious relativism - I am freer than I thought, so now I have to start building that life as a conscious choice. Or there is the mindless approach - I am free. But then I will act on unthinking impulse, or get sucked into the flow of whatever is going on around me.

    Nietzsche saw the problem as both - both breaking personally free of hidebound social constraints and then finding personal meaning within this new freedom. Existentialists moped about complaining they were individually now free, but could find no larger meaning now they had rejected the social. The modern condition (Maslow's self-actualisation) is that we are free, and the sharp cookies are busy manufacturing their social worlds so as to actually create meaningful lives.

    Kids these days can be very entreprenurial about creating a social order around them that is on balance industrious and optimistic. I see a lot of it (through having two teenage daughters). And yes, there are the other sort too. Some friends have kids locked in a bedroom, gaming their lives away. Or failing to take responsibility for making their own lives in other ways.

    But right there, I made the moralistic statement - failing to take responsibility. And you could say, have we just made life too complicated for many people? Are they unable to think things through because it is forever going to be beyond their pay grade?

    The reply might be that Bloom is right in the sense that parenting and education might have to pay more attention to the personal engagement with modern freedoms. But is the way to do this to send them back to the great books, or to get out into the world and practice meaning-making?

    Will they learn more from reading Plato and Shakespeare, or setting up an online trading enterprise of some kind, volunteering in the community, taking up a sport, etc?

    Happy cultures do seem to have something in common. People find their lives intensely meaningful. In some very poor, but reportedly happy places, people live in a web of relationships. Even each tree, stream and hill has "spiritual significance".

    So cultural relativism strips away old meanings. The old social webs were found to be too constraining (given the pressure of new ideas and possibilities that were gathering). But then new social organisation has to emerge to take is place to again give individual lives meaning.

    If this argument holds, then I guess that national happiness indexes (like Bhutan's) are the way to go. Country success is usually measured in raw economic through-puts like GDP. But perhaps the countries with the "good balance" are those with highest reported levels of satisfaction? Where people are finding that how they run their societies is creating the most sense of personal meaning.

    If there was a high correlation to an engagement with great books in countries with a happy population, then Bloom could have a case. (Noting that different countries have their own great books, and it includes religious ones as well as philosophical).
  16. Mar 13, 2011 #15
    Good points, I agree with them.

    I think the key to remember, however, is that Bloom is mostly interested in inspiring this "search for truth" within each person. He passionately wants each person to be an active member of the world and to live a rich, satisfied life. If his arguments seem incongruous with your views, then chances are, you're not one of those people!

    You raise legitimate concerns his "great books" hypothesis. I tend to agree that, for all, it might not be the final answer. I think Bloom came to his conclusion in the following manner, however (let me know if you agree):

    The "great" philosophical minds of recent (and ancient) history drew heavily upon the "great" books and traditions before them. Think of Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, even as recent as Heidegger. We might even consider Socrates' and Plato's assimilation of pre-Socratic tradition (Anaximander's apeiron!) as characteristic of this "past-looking" method. Bloom identifies that moral/intellectual "food," so to speak, has been necessary for every titanic mind and leap forward in human history. Hume -> Kant, much as Socrates -> Plato -> Aristotle -> neo-Platonists -> Christian philosophy -> etc. Looking to the past, the influence of the "great books" on "great minds" is undeniable. There are some great kernels of truth and knowledge in each philosopher's formulation, and successive generations draw upon and refine the ideas of the past (a bit Hegelian, in some senses).

    You have spoken a bit about new things replacing the great books. Bloom would probably congratulate you on such, if not totally agreeing with you. I believe that what Bloom saw was the abandonment of the great books with nothing to replace them. That is, he saw an emptiness in his new students: they had a vacuous air about them, an aimlessness. They had no means of differentiating the good from bad, right from wrong, and this disoriented them, dulling their sense of curiosity/inquisitiveness. He feared the complete cessation of any drive to "know." You advocate that we need not have great books in this void, but something else. I guess it's conceivable that we could avoid this listlessness with something other than the great books, though that's another point we could discuss--the merits of a "great books" education vs. a more practical education in our modern world.

    The main point, I think, is that SOMETHING fill this hole that Bloom identified.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Bloom that for a staggering majority of Americans, nothing has filled the gap. (The Platonic) Socrates came to the conclusion that philosophy is simply "the love of learning," as we might learn from its etymology. This seems to be often forgotten now-a-days. Blooms touts the "great books" as this learning, yet there might be other ways. The crisis seems to be, identifying those and somehow supplying the kids with them.

    I think this is part of the problem with Bloom's book, in main conception. It comes across as quite elitist, and seems to forecast this gloom-and-doom outlook. 200 pages into the book, this was my own interpretation. The more I considered his ideas however, I realized that they are strongly disconnected with conventional elitism. Bloom himself recognizes the necessity for change and the fallibility of past (and current) generations. He desperately wants to encapsulate what he views as the ancient "keys to knowledge" and pass them along. He is not so much speaking from the point of view of a pompous academic (though it might seem that way) but more from a concerned lover of wisdom.
  17. Mar 13, 2011 #16


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    I apologize in advance, because I certainly cannot bring my argument to the level of this thread. The posts so far are fantastic to read.

    My question is "why does it follow from cultural relativism that a personal search for truth is abandoned?" I see the points made, and the statement that it does follow, but I am not seeing where it is the only outcome. I was an unknowing culural relativist long before I ever knew that there were cultural relativists. I live my life questioning everything, and constantly expanding/modifying my view of the world. I've had my core beliefs/values rocked many times, and hope that I will continue to have this done throughout my life.

    Obviously, I have my current set of values, but to me, understanding that everyone else has their own and considering them equally valid, in no way limits me from personal growth. Learning another's values may cause me to adapt my own, or make me deeply question my "competing" value. In doing so, have I not just partaken in a "search for truth?" My throughts are, that if it weren't for my cultural relativism, I might never have probed the reason for my value system in the first place.

    Part of the reason for my situation, is that I don't currently have the time neccessary to devote to philosophy, that I wish I did. I'm 27, and attaining a stable position in life, as well as working to pursue my main goal in life of going back to school (pursuit of knowledge, although probably in a different sense than referenced in this thread) has not left me enough time. Philosophy is something I am very interested in, and I love lurking in the forum when I have time between work/class.
  18. Mar 13, 2011 #17


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    Oh, I agree that it should be both great books and practical learning, not an exclusive either/or.

    This is required by my own analysis. I said Bloom's fundamental misunderstanding was about the nature of dichotomies. He said choices had to be made between polarities. I said equilibrium balances have to be struck (as polarities are how systems are formed - by things going off in two directions at the same time and so creating actual development).

    So doing both is the recipe.

    Of course, it was the patently one-side nature of Bloom's book that made it a succès de scandale. He was clearly right, and also wrong. So people could line up on either side and start firing off at each other.

    A balanced analysis would most likely never have registered a flicker as there could have been no essential disagreement.

    You can witness exactly the same social dynamic on internet forums like this of course :smile:.

    So far it has been all too reasonable. But at any moment, someone will arrive and just start ranting. :rofl:

    The next question perhaps is what are the great books from a modern perspective?

    Eastern wisdom for example became mainstreamed through the counter-culture to some extent. Or are the key scientific texts like the Principia part of the modern canon more than Shakespeare?

    It would be an interesting exercise to create a personal list of the 10 books most worth preserving if all other human texts were destroyed. I would find it very hard to boil it down, but should give it a go. What about your selection first?

    OK, Aristotle's Metaphysics as a starter. Then maybe von Bertalanffy's General System Theory. Oh, I'm stuck now because I need more about the essential human condition (Locke? Hobbes? Epicurus?). And a novel or two.
  19. Mar 13, 2011 #18


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    My answer was the opposite - it places greater need to be responsible for the "truth" that exists. We have to weave a nest of what we like, plucked from an over-abundance of possibilities perhaps, and make ourselves cosy.

    The relativistic part is that there is a great diversity in life design as a result. This demands greater tolerance for "otherness".

    But that does not mean there might not also be global "truth" criterias. And maximising the happiness of the most would seem an obvious and widely accepted principle (yet not one that consumer societies are much given to measure and hence collectively target).

    First you are aware there is a choice, and then you can make choices. The problem lies with those who are rigid and unthinking in what they believe about morality (and it is as bad to believe there is "no morality" as that there is only one correct social code - ie: the kind of cultural relativism that says there are no rules, and therefore there should continue to be no rules).

    That's still young to be learning! But perhaps this is the valid part of the great books argument. A list of essential readings would help people to focus.

    And also reading the originals is important as I have frequently been astounded how mis-represented the words seem in the later commentaries. But then going straight to the originals can be very difficult without any of the context. I think personally the best method is to start with good modern introductions - then don't forget to go back and read the originals that they purport to represent.
  20. Mar 13, 2011 #19
    A key point in The Closing, by the way! Bloom rails on the new meanings of "culture," "lifestyle," "ideology, etc."


    Bloom mostly rejects the hard relativism taken by so many Americans today. There's a difference between being open to ideas and being acceptant of all ideas. The former is GOOD. It's what Bloom wants; an approach to the ancient (and modern) repositories of wisdom with an inquisitive attitude and a search for higher understanding of the nature of everything. The latter is BAD, according to Bloom. By denying the necessity of learning/pursuit of knowledge, it shuts us down, closing our mind. Bloom plays upon the irony that, theoretically, being acceptant of all ideas would "open" our minds. However, when we admit that no one set of values is preferable to another, we have destroyed the necessity of any search for truth, hence the "closing."

    Bloom attempts (fairly successfully, in my opinion) to make the argument that the latter has begun to dominate the liberal democratic scenery of America, what he calls the rise of relativism.
  21. Mar 13, 2011 #20
    That would be a lot of fun, and a fairly philosophic pursuit in itself. The problem almost always is that most great writers presuppose that the reader has a familiarity with the philosophers before him, to who he is responding. Some make it easier to "jump right in," while for others, it just won't make sense without understanding the tapestry upon which they are weaving.
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