Monday, May 7, 2012

The Germans Invade Missouri

He was a typical Mid-Western suburbanite, a nice guy, a baseball fan.  He had a good sense of humor and a touch of common sense.  I could picture him standing by the grill in his backyard drinking a beer and listening to the radio while his neighbors cut their lawns on a humid summer day. 

But there he would sit every month in his office talking to me about Schelling and Goethe and Hegel and Kant, his American common sense compromised by a hefty dose of German idealism and Prussian paganism.

You see, I did not go straight from atheist to Catholic.  I spent many years in a broad middle ground in which I was "spiritual" but not "religious" - like the vast majority of people today.  What fed my hunger for the "spiritual" were the writings of Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, whose 30-volume collected works I had read and studied.  The Mid-Westerner I describe above was a "Jungian therapist" with whom I would meet occasionally and who would talk to me about my dreams - and about what I only later discovered was really really bad philosophy.

For Jung I knew well, and well enough that now, many years later, from a Catholic perspective, I can look back and say that he was at least an antidote to the worst of Freud and to the worst of materialism, that he was indeed "spiritual", but spiritual in a gnostic way, a man whose core teachings were either dangerous, such as the persistent counsel for men to integrate into their lives the dark side of human nature, or simply goofy, such as his bizarre fascination with UFOs as a symbol of "individuation" - a fancy sounding word that means "doing whatever you want and making a principle of it".

But I really never knew the philosophical foundations of Jung.  I knew he was a Kantian who felt a kind of pagan admiration for Norse myths, for the Arian race (though he denied he was a Nazi supporter) and for the convoluted writings of the idealists - but it is only recently that I have seen what a strange juxtaposition it is to have an otherwise healthy guy from Missouri admire and quote men who were so twisted and sick in a way that might make sense for a pseudo-intellectual mystic who spoke German but that makes no sense for a suburban St. Louis Cardinals fan.

Think I'm being too tough? 

In the first chapter of Stanley L. Jaki's brilliant book The Relevance of Physics, Jaki discusses the philosophical error that held back the development of exact science for over a millenium, the notion from the Greeks on that the world was an organism and that matter possessed some vague volitional nature.  Jaki surveys this belief, a belief that was endemic in science from Aristotle to Newton and that lingered in pseudo-science and bad philosophy after Newton, and that is making a comeback in our own day.

He discusses at length Goethe and Schelling and Hegel, who to a man endorsed this really weird neo-paganistic belief in the world as living organism and of man as god which may have given their poetic sense some charm but that fatally corrupted their attempts at science.

This bad philosophy "had trapped the greatest of German poets in a labyrinth of errors that stands as perhaps the most pathetic case of stubborn blindness and self-deceit in scientific history," Jaki writes.  Goethe, for example, believed that light could not be investigated physically, that mathematics must be kept out of physics and that Newton's discoveries were "mere twaddle".  Schelling believed that man "is the most perfect cube" (whatever that means), that man need not experiment or test his hypotheses for man can undestand all of nature a priori, man being "the integrated being, man become God".  Hegel asserted that "the time will come when these sciences will be governed by the constructs of the mind", and refused to acknowledge that there existed any more planets than he thought there ought to be. 

Obviously such beliefs prevent the practice of science and even the investigation of truth. 

But this prideful solipsism is the scaffolding that allowed C. G. Jung to construct the peculiar edifice he did.  It is, I'm sorry to say, the philosophy of the age, and you find it in the most unusual places - including your own backyard, beside the grill, with the game playing on the radio.

Here we see a typical suburban St. Louis Cardinals fan, on his boat at the Lake of the Ozarks.  This is not the guy I write about in my post.  This guy (and his dog) both have more sense.

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