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January 13, 2005

Politics, Philosophy and Parents

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Have you ever wondered how much your political/artistic preferences and gripes have to do with your upbringing and/or your parents?

I was wandering around recently in my usual self-absorbed state, thinking about how much of my grumpiness about Modernism has to do with my own mom's attitude towards child-raising, which was basically that you could turn a kid into anything you want. The kid's kidhood might need to be indulged from time to time (ie., go outside and play, kid). But basically kids are to be viewed as raw material for molding. An attitude that resembles all-too-well the we-can-do-anything attitude of 20th century Modernists of all kinds, doesn't it?

Then I ran across an interview (not online, darn it) with Stephen Toulmin where's he's quite frank about how his own philosophical p-o-v had its source in his relationship with his dad, who was evidently an OK guy (my mom was an OK woman), but who was also a very dogmatic guy. Little Stephen went on to become Mr. Anti-Dogmatic. In my small way, I've gone on to become Mr. Anti-You-Can-Do-Anything.

I suppose such questions and avowals are kind of embarassing. But maybe not. I find it touching that Toulmin would see fit to personalize his philosophy in such a way. He left me thinking that more philosophers -- perhaps even more people generally -- could try to be a little more forthcoming about where their arguments and points-of-view come from. This wouldn't invalidate their arguments or points-of-view, of course. But it would certainly humanize them.



posted by Michael at January 13, 2005


'Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.' - Alan Watts

Posted by: back40 on January 13, 2005 7:29 PM

I agree with Watts. At the same time, there's also such a thing as being able to recognize who it is when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2005 8:27 PM

I think you're right on the money! A friend drives way too fast, always has. She admits its because her father always told her drive (and drove himself) five miles under the speed limit. She couldn't stand it! Many speeding tickets later, it's begun to occur to her that driving too fast is letting her dad control her every bit as much as if she'd always obeyed his speed rules. Hmmmm.

Posted by: annette on January 13, 2005 9:07 PM

Parental influence is so vast and pervasive it is probable that most of what we do is in some way a consequence of it. I see no problem in reflecting on this and trying to figure out why you think the way you do. You can't bite your own teeth, but you can look back at your own conduct and attitudes.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 13, 2005 9:54 PM

Each day

as I chew my morning gruel

I reflect that

I am biting my own teeth.

--Zen koan

Posted by: fenster on January 13, 2005 10:30 PM

Wouldn't it be cool to hear Descartes talk a bit about what personal reasons drove him to be as obsessed as he was with the Cartesian thing? Or to hear Marx 'fess up about what the family dynamics were that fed his vision? I mean, we could still have Cartesianism and Marxism to wrestle with. And they do or don't have their contributions and validity. But we might not be so prone to take the philosophies as objective, let alone as resplacements for the word of god. They're just the thoughts of people like us.

Anyone else want to volunteer how their upbringing or 'rents have affected their political or artistic p-o-v's? I confess that I have moments when I ask myself, Good lord, why do I come back to these topics and arguments over and over? I mean I think my arguments are pretty good and hope a few people find some of them worth a short wrestle. But I gotta admit there's a certain amount of personal content to them too.

Ever ask yourself: "Why am I replaying these issues in my mind so often?"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 14, 2005 12:11 AM

I suggest from time to time that books should have small objective biographies of their authors. With critical information like: was a member of the communist party until 1990; favorite book: "Don't Let the IRS Hold You UP"; hated her dominant mother; is married for the third time to a blonde after two divorces; hates children; drives a BMW.

That would make interpreting the texts so much easier.

But, maybe the internet could serve as a means to achieve such clarity, come to think of it.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 14, 2005 8:19 AM

I don't know for sure about artistry and politics, but I do know for sure that my parents, my mother in particular, was very much an "appearances are everything" kind of person. It doesn't matter if the family is falling apart, but don't raise your voice so the neighbors can hear. If the garden was tidy and the house was well-decorated, it meant the family was happy. Forget reality. I don't care if I am really relating to my kids. I care if they buy me a nice birthday present, coz, see, that means we're a happy family. I don't care if my kids really want to major in what they are majoring in---I want to feel good about what they are majoring in. And I want them to not mention that they don't like it.

It made me very allergic to all-form-no-substance environments in life. It makes me more likely than average to call "bullshit" in situations. Its part of the reason I loathe morning news shows like "Today"---all that happy-talk on the sofa which I am absolutely certain is bullshit. It makes me more likely to find "Romeo and Juliet" not as romantic as some---I just want to say, like Cher in "Moonstruck"--"snap out of it!" It has made me both more popular and less popular (as you can imagine)in the world. But I just can't help it.

Posted by: annette on January 14, 2005 9:40 AM

"It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of - namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography..."

from Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Posted by: JT on January 14, 2005 10:00 AM

On your advice, I took a look at Idiocentrism, and was especially amused/appalled by the quote in one entry from Freud on fire. Freud's theory was, more or less, that primitive man always pee'd on fires in the woods because fire is a phallic symbol and primitive man was in a homosexual/sexually competitive mood all the time, eager to use his penis on everything, even symbolic rivals. Finally, some guy with a poor libido realized that something useful could be done with fire, and thereby hangs a tail.

My first thought: 'Is this really what Freudians mean when they talk about the pervasive influence of the 'deep unconscious'--i.e., that people go around performing symbolic acts all the time? With the symbolism chiefly of the sexual variety? Even if true (and I have no idea how one could possibly objectively validate or invalidate such a hypothesis) one is left what? I mean, I think people do perform symbolic sex acts regularly, but I think they are fairly cognizant of doing so. No big whoop. This kind of theorizing seems like nothing but a parlor game.

After thinking about this for a while, I would say however that a significant form of 'unconscious' or 'dimly conscious' thought does affect us all, however, in the form of childhood emotional disappointments and longings. These retain such force (at least for me) that I can only assume they have some biological origin--some psycho-physiological necessity that wasn't met and keeps signalling me of its absence, decade after decade.

My experience, such as it is however, is that such longings cannot be assuaged, at least in the way we naturally wish them to be assuaged. Such boats, once missed, are never to be caught again. Looking in adult life for such assuagement seems fraught with frustration at best and disaster at worst.

Hence, the road of wisdom may be to remain highly conscious of such longings, but distrustful of the behavior they induce. And to keep in mind that the best you can do in life is to have other adults to treat you like an adult...nicely. And then, only if you behave like a nice adult to them.

I am ambivalent about the value of generalizing from such childhood disappointments to the failings of political authority figures. On the good side, there's no doubt that it is simply prudence to have very low expectations of (and, indeed, some paranoia toward) authority figures. On the other, it may result in some passivity. Just because as a child you had very little leverage over your parents, doesn't mean you have to have so little leverage over other authority figures.

Or does it....?

Like I said, I'm ambivalent.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 14, 2005 11:15 AM

Oh dear...just when I'm caught defending Freud, I read something like this. It makes me laugh, it seems to be taking things so far. i thought Freud was just as into violence as sex, so couldn't peeing on the fire be an act of violence over a rival---sort of an early version of jousting? Yeeeehaw!

Or...a way of impressing the girls? Whoever can douse the fire fastest...draw your own conclusion. But if this should go on longer than four hours....

But...I still think the way we were raised has something to do with visceral thoughts and likes and dislikes. Unless any of you are impulsively peeing on burning cigarettes on the sidewalk, which I think might indicate an unusual problem.

Posted by: annette on January 14, 2005 5:00 PM

I read in Alice Miller once about how Stalin was beaten and his left arm permanently injured as a child--how he once wanted to be an orthodox priest,etc, etc.--but this does NOT excuse his becoming an archfiend.

So far as upbringing goes, I'm probably a conservative because I was raised in Greenwich Village in the swinging sixties and seventies.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 14, 2005 7:55 PM

IJSbrand -- I think that's a great idea. Ideally that'd be so. We'd know who we were really dealing with. Realistically, though, I think you're right, maybe it's a function better taken care by critics, the web, etc.

Annette -- That certainly makes a lot of sense. Interesting the way these experiences kind of sift their way down through the rest of our lives, no? I was with an old, well-known writer once when she was looking at some early writing she'd done. She shook her head and said something like, "I've really been going on about the same two or three things all along, haven't I?" In fact, she'd written about scads of subjects, and made zillions of observations and insights, etc. But it was true: there really were only one or two centers of gravity in her work. She didn't say so, but we both knew it had to do with her relationship with her father. Incidentally, I like your "snap out of it!" response.

JT -- Great quote, thanks. I wonder how much insight into himself and his own drives Nietzsche had. I don't remember anything but the rough outlines of his life any more, and I can't recall how self-reflective he was. Not that self-reflectiveness is always a virtue, of course. I remember a long spell in the lit-fiction game when self-reflectiveness was supposed to be the ideal. You've never read such a lot of self-absorbed twaddle as what resulted.

FvB -- Nothing like a little wrestle with Freud to get the juices flowing! Come to think of it, I'd have nothing against Freud if only he'd presented his musings as what you're calling parlor games. I think parlor-game musing (like armchair philosophizing) is a great thing -- amusing, sometimes helpful, and often more productive than real, hard science, let alone "real" philosophy. We've got to get through life somehow, and if we relied only on what's been hard-science proved, or totally hashed-out in an official-philosophy way, we'd never make it out the front door. Yet we have to puzzle our way (maybe fake our way) through life somehow, and preferably in better rather than worse shape. Informal yakking and musing is a part of how we take care of that. So why not give it as much respect as we give hard science and "real" philosophy? Heck, if you lift it up a notch -- not in the sense of formalizing it but in the sense of organizing it and maybe even re-reflecting on it -- then you've got something like Montaigne, or Stendhal's "On Love." Neither guy presents his observations and musings as science, yet they're grrrrrrreat. What I can't stand about Freud (and about how he's taken) is that he presents his very idiosyncratic p-o-v as some kind of cross between science and the word of the Old Testament God. I read him thinking, "Who does this dude take himself for?" (And, "What kooky idea does he have of science?") That people should ever have fallen for such self-important carrying-on amazes me. The world must really have been ready for it. I wonder in what sense. To give Freud a little due: I've known a handful of people whose personalities seem very well accounted for in Freudian terms. So he was obviously onto something, and was a brilliant guy, if in limited, human-scale ways. But I've known an awful lot of people whose experiences and personalities would have to be tortured into total unrecognizability if you wanted to interpret them in Freudian terms. So (as far as I can tell), his ideas and perceptions have some limited validity and utility. But I have the feeling that Freud really, really didn't want to be taken as just another guy offering up his thoughts and musings. He wanted to be taken as Something More Important Than That. I wonder if he had any moments when he slowed down and thought, "Sheesh, really, why am I carrying on like this? Let's get things in a little perspective here." Maybe not.

Annette -- So that's where that impulse I feel (and barely restrain) to pee on discarded cigarettes comes from!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 11:58 AM

Well, to continue the parlor game, we could wonder what in Freud's childhood caused him to need to be More Important Than That. :)

Posted by: annette on January 15, 2005 4:26 PM

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