Social Science?

The social sciences began as an attempt to apply the procedures of the hard sciences — in particular the use of empirical evidence coupled with mathematics — to a study of human behavior. Today it includes such academic disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, at times, even history — though the latter sits on the fence between social science and the humanities, depending on how heavily historians lean on mathematics. The mathematics of choice is statistics and probability theory and the technique usually involves studies of individuals or groups and their behaviors, though behavioral psychologists have shown a remarkable affection for the study of rats. I have left many holes in this brief overview and my hope is that my friend Jerry Stark will fill some of them in as I am once again venturing outside my area of expertise.

But in venturing outside I resemble in important respects the work of the Australian sociologist John Carroll, to whom I have referred a number of times. Carroll seems to be venturing outside his area of expertise to the point that his brothers and sisters within the walls of sociology may well refuse to accept his credentials. I say this despite the fact that he holds two positions at present: at La Trobe University in Melbourne and as a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. The reason I suspect that his credentials might be rejected (despite his lofty positions) is because he relies less on the methods of sociology as traditionally understood and more on the careful reading of the great works of the Western World. This is why I like him and find myself nodding in agreement as I read him, I suppose. We share the belief that we can turn to the novelists, poets, and philosophers to find out important things about our fellow human beings.

Carroll especially prefers such thinkers as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, and Rilke. He refers to them time and again in his book Guilt, to which I have referred in previous blog posts. He is particularly enamored of Kafka — especially in that author’s take on the current human condition, rife with guilt and unable to find peace. Carroll has developed a notion of what he calls “dispositional guilt” that he is convinced we are all born with — like original sin, if you will. It differs from moral guilt which can be eleviated by confession and remission in the form of good works and genuine remorse. Dispositional guilt, on the other hand, is something we are born with and which we simply cannot shake off. It’s with us always — in different degrees.

His book is an attempt to trace the history of guilt from very early times to the present — which would be 1985 when he wrote the book. And while I marvel at his observations and careful readings of the authors he takes up (even including a brief story by Kafka about a mouse who sings to her fellow mice to keep them calm) I cannot accept his conclusions about dispositional guilt. Outside the readings Carroll refers to I simply do not see a people wallowing in a sense of guilt they cannot shake off. I see, rather, folks filled with feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, occasional joy, and even tendencies toward violence — as I have noted in previous posts. A lively conscience is rare, especially a guilty conscience.

In saying this, I tend to agree when Carroll turns to contemporary times, times of “Matricidal Guilt,” as he sees it. Of these times, we are told that

“There are any least six main strands in modern culture that appeal directly to the value of oral remission [characteristic of matricidal guilt].”

These six strands include Consumerism; the Welfare State; Indulgent parenting and schooling; Nature, Community, Creativity, and Feeling; image and celebrity; and fear of poisoning. I shan’t take you through each of these, you will be happy to know, but I must mention that under the topic of consumerism he notes that “Consumerism operates on one very simple principle: if you feel bad, eat!”  What can one say? One must bear with Carroll, because, despite the fact that his reasoning at times seems off the mark, he strikes chords of brilliance and much of his analysis — be it in accordance with standard sociological procedures or not — is spot on. Take, for example, his analysis of “indulgent parenting and schooling,” a topic near to my heart:

“The dominant reformist strain in modern child-rearing and educational theory has been that of pure indulgence. Do away with punishment and repression; let the child’s innate goodness and creativity flourish. The ideology’s founding father was Rousseau [whose mother died soon after he was born], and it is consistent with his own need to restore the lost maternal paradise. In effect weaning is to be abolished. Parents are not to say No: in reality what they do is take to bribing their children to keep peace, offering a constant supply of biscuits and sweets. Here is the basic lesson for the child in being educated into the consumer society. Advertising psychology is followed: to offer the right product will get you anything — the consumer version of everyone having his price. And of course children have their price, but they do not get what they need, love that constrains as it encourages. Similarly teachers are not to say No, but rather worship at the feet of the child’s potentiality.”

Now, whether or not one agrees with everything Carroll says — or whether one wants to take him to task for leaning more on classics of literature and philosophy than he does the latest study in a professional journal — he is interesting, insightful, and provocative. And what he says almost always has the ring of truth, as when he says that what children need is “love that constrains as it encourages.” The constraint is missing because of the replacement of patricidal and what he calls “civilized” guilt with a matricidal guilt. In a word, authority is not a bad thing — in moderation — and our culture has erred in the direction of far too much permissiveness.

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Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.

Ressentiment

The French have a word for it: ressentiment. It describes a concept that has been widely discussed by a number of philosophers including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Max Scheler even wrote an entire book about this emotion, its power and the various ways it can surface and motivate people. It has to do with the phenomenon discussed by J.D. Vance which I posted recently by way of understanding the mind-set of the followers of Donald Trump. How could so many people be taken in by a charlatan who sells them snake oil which can only make them sick?

Vance gives us a very interesting picture of the sense of ressentiment that so many people feel in our society where they are looked down upon while the good things seem to be going to others and life is passing them by. They are hungry and outside a posh restaurant; through the window they see many a fat cat sitting down to a gourmet meal while they can only look on. That they are on the outside and not inside eating their fill is not their fault. And those who are in there are so by accident or subterfuge. Resentment can easily give rise to hatred. Trump invites them into the restaurant. It matters not what he says or how many lies he tells when he says what he says. What matters is that he promises them some sense of self which is otherwise lacking. This they firmly believe: they are hungry, tired of eating grits, and they are grasping at straws. Moreover, the internet and the evening news are filled with a confusing mass of misinformation disguised as “facts” and they have no idea what is true and what is false.

To take a quick peek at the philosophical discussion of the concept of ressentiment, I give some general information, borrowed from the always reliable Wikipedia (in this case trustworthy) and then quote first Kierkegaard and then Nietzsche:

Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external “evil.”
According to Kierkegaard, ressentiment occurs in a “reflective, passionless age”, in which the populace stifles creativity and passion in passionate individuals. Kierkegaard argues that individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain status quo and to instill into the masses their own sense of superiority.
Ressentiment, for Nietzsche, comes from reactiveness: the weaker someone is, the less their capability to suppress reaction. According to Nietzsche, the more a person is active, strong-willed, and dynamic, the less place and time is left for contemplating all that is done to them, and their reactions (like imagining they are actually better) become less compulsive.

One of the reasons I myself have had difficulty in coming to grips with the mindset of the minions who follow Trump blindly is my own status as one inside the restaurant. I have been unable to envision a world where ressentiment reigns supreme. I am not rich by any means, but I live comfortably and I am an educated person who thinks as well as feels. I eat three square meals each day. I have my insecurities and even feel ressentiment at times, though it does not possess my soul. For many who are stepping forth these days at the urging of the Trumpet, ressentiment is all-consuming: it possesses them and drives them toward irrational behavior that is directed against those inside the restaurant. Please note that those in the restaurant are regarded as “enemies”; they are “evil” and somehow they must be dealt with. They are filling their bellies while those outside go hungry.

The minions themselves, like Trump, are totally without fault. Of course. When things go bad it cannot be their fault. The feeling of ressentiment, according to those who have studied the emotion, is very powerful indeed. Those outside the restaurant want some of the rich food; they suspect that those inside cheated their way in and are no “better” than they themselves; and they look to the man with the funny hair, the incoherent speech, and the tiny hands to take them in and pay for their meals. He has promised them that much. That promise they understand and they are becoming increasingly agitated and hopeful. Their disappointment, when it comes, will assuredly have consequences for all of those who are within the restaurant — whether they are eating filet mignon or merely hamburger.