The Wilderness and the City

July 4, 2014

wildernessWhenever we speak of American philosophy, our thoughts turn towards pragmatism. As they should, considering that its roots are in the United States, somewhere around 1870. We might think that there is nothing new anyone could possibly add regarding this subject, that those before us said everything there was to say about it. We would be proven wrong. The book we are about to review – The Wilderness and the City: American Classical Philosophy as a Moral Quest – was written by Michael A. Weinstein and is a good example in this direction.

Before actually seeing what the book has to offer, we should highlight the fact that it was published in 1982. Why is this aspect worth mentioning? The author speaks from the very beginning about the individual and the society “today”. His today. The book was written in the early 80’s and it is closely linked to the events which took place during the previous decade. A lot changed during that time, for better and for worse. We see more concern for civil rights and for the environment, but we also feel fear because of war (the Cold War and the Vietnam War were not yet history). The world is constantly changing, but there are periods of time when those changes are rushed and almost forced upon people. In such moments, we look towards the past in an attempt to understand who we are and how to move forward. This is exactly what the author is trying to do.

Weinstein states his intension from the very first page of the preface: “to determine what is still vital, in the sense of true to life, in the American philosophical tradition; what can be brought forward from it into our own time as the foundation for a contemporary philosophy of life”. The author turns his attention towards the American classical philosophers (Josiah Royce, C.S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey and George Santayana) in an attempt to recover pieces of this tradition and better understand the way people thought and acted one century after the “birth” of pragmatism. The book is divided into seven chapters, five of them focusing on the philosophers mentioned above. The first and the last one bind everything together, as the analysis starts and ends with an emphasis on contemporaneity and the part played by philosophy and individualism in everyday life.

The title does not reveal much, although we might be tempted to believe that it does. Weinstein is thorough in his research, starting from European philosophers of the nineteenth century (like Nietzsche or Schopenhauer), continuing with the American philosophers and finally drawing some conclusions regarding the times when the book was published. The “moral quest” never really comes to an end, but this does not mean that we cannot try and understand how morality changes over time and how much it is influenced by the ideas of the past. As for the first part of the title, we see that “the wilderness” and “the city” are concepts with a deeper meaning. When mentioning “wilderness”, we would not be completely wrong in thinking about a remote place, where people could discover themselves; after all, the philosopher is also described as a traveler or as wanderer. But here, “wilderness” stands for a mental place, “a place of doubting”. One does not need to search for a remote spot in nature in order to think, analyze facets of life or make decisions; it is enough for the philosopher to take a metaphorical step back and enter the vast inner world. What do we find in such wilderness? If Nietzsche was right about the death of God, we will find nothingness, an abyss. From this place, the individual can take control over his life and build something new. As for the city, it represents – as we might imagine – the society and everyday life.

Three of the most important concepts presented here are morality, wilderness and the city. We are told about the European ideas which influenced the American philosophers and we are shown the risks people expose themselves to if they cannot find the balance between individuality and community. Morality does not come from outside, but from the depths of consciousness. Weinstein takes the time to present the perspectives of various philosophers, comparing them, highlighting the strong points and the flaws of each theory. The book is a quest in itself and can be read as a starting point for further research of as a complementary part to the knowledge one already possesses. It should come as no surprise for us that at least some of the ideas presented here can be applied in today’s society as well. Thus, we see that the emphasis falls more than once on the importance of a strong connection between the individual and society. Without strong morals and community (“an aspect of divinity”), the individual might fall towards megalomania and eventually destroy himself.

Both then and now, society is no stranger to war, a situation criticized by the philosophers. Weinstein stresses upon the importance of a positive attitude, of having the strength to overcome the “world sickness” (or acedia) mentioned by James. We know that pragmatism encourages experimenting and human experiences from which one can learn and grow. It is important not only to think and dream, but also to take those ideas and make something concrete out of them. In a critical period, people are urged not to follow norms blindly, but to find the truth in themselves and make use of it in order to protect themselves and the community. They are urged to walk with confidence, to become better, to make use of the cure offered for acedia: inner tolerance. The individual might find God in the wilderness, or he might find an abyss, but he has control over his own life and has the possibility to decide which path to follow. Life is not only about what happens to and around us, but also about the attitude we adopt. Thus, humans can achieve happiness and can overcome solitude, hatred of existence and melancholy if they learn to control themselves and accept others. Unity means power, but that power has to come from each and every member of the community. In short, if we are to ask “is there a modern philosophy?”, the answer is yes, as long as the central theme is the self as an object of study.

Life-philosophy is promoted (“a means for helping people to live from one day to the next, a way of inspiring participation in the common life, and, above all, a way of accentuating the positive”, p 154), as well as an anti-war movement, the war-spirit being rooted in the hatred for existence. Or, continuing the puritan tradition, Americans are reminded of their duty in this world, of how important it is to create something new, something grand. Something they would not be able to do outside the protection of divinity, that of the community. Whatever they build, should be based on morality, on love and tolerance, all towards a common goal: happiness. The individuals are free to express themselves, but their duty is to respect both their independence and opinion and the point of view of the other. This is what democracy stands for; this is where harmony and peace can be found.

Hatred and despair have no place where tolerance and self-control guide one’s life. If respect and morality disappear, all that remains is the threat of anarchy brought about by the lust for power. Let us not forget that pragmatism does not stand for ideas which have no use in the material world. When speaking of moral principles, happiness, love or any other concept, they are not only words, but a way of life, a way of turning ideas into reality. Nothing is absolute, neither truth, nor science. The world evolves and people change with it. Science and technology are often seen as a threat to the established way of life, but it does not have to be so. New discoveries – as we have seen since the decade when the book was published – can easily become part of our daily lives; it is all a matter of how we use them, if they become tools for us to build a better community or tools which threaten our security.

The conclusions drawn by Weinstein are not quite encouraging. The idea of “sound individualism” appears throughout the book, but it is not easy to achieve it. Fanaticism and intolerance were as present back then as they are today and it seems to be even more difficult to keep a positive outlook on life. “We know too much”, claims the author. Perhaps we do, we have all the knowledge of the past at our disposal. And yet, do we truly understand it? The book was published more than thirty years ago, and the “now” mentioned there is awfully similar to the “now” unfolding in front of our eyes. People, Americans or not, are still trying to make sense of their lives and it is easy to notice that we can no longer speak of optimism or pessimism, but of optimism and pessimism. The course of history is never even; hatred and fear are part of who we are, and so are kindness and enthusiasm. The situation from the 70’s was overcome and so will any crises which might appear over time. Whether in the city or in the wilderness, people will always find a way to return to their roots and learn once more who they are and how to live together.  

by Elena Atudosiei

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *