April 30, 2009

Sorel's great accomplishment was to marry James' "Will to Believe" and Nietzsche's "Will to Power"

Jonah Goldberg

In Germany, Pragmatism was a more Nietzschean affair. But as Richard Rorty argued vigorously, the similarities and ties between American Pragmatism and German deconstructionism and post-structuralism were profound. According to Rorty, James and Nietzsche and Dewey and Heidegger, were parallel thinkers who agreed in their prescriptive understanding that the age of Socratic man was over, but disagreed about what that meant for the future.

In short, the American and German post-Socratics agreed on philosophical means but diverged sharply on philosophical ends. There's much that I liked about Rorty's analysis, and some that I disagreed with. But it was supremely convenient for the arguments I wanted to make that one of America's foremost liberal philosophers basically agreed with me (I wish I had known when I was writing the book that Rorty was Rauschenbusch's grandson) and was simultaneously desperate to revive the American Progressive tradition of Herbert Croly and Richard Ely.

Anyway, in Italy, Pragmatism became an obsession among the early nationalist intellectuals who helped lay the ground work for fascism. Mussolini said more than once that William James was one of the three most important philosophical influences in his life (though he was probably embellishing for American audiences). He sold many of his policies as applications of William James' idea of the "moral equivalent of war" — just as FDR had done with his New Deal.

Moreover, Georges Sorel, the philosophic father of both Italian Fascism and Leninism, was a devout follower of James. It's been said many times that Sorel's great accomplishment was to marry James' "Will to Believe" and Nietzsche's "Will to Power." Moreover, the influence worked both ways. James was hugely influenced by the Italian Pragmatists. He deeply admired Giuseppe Prezzolini — later a New Republic contributor and muckety-muck at Columbia University's pro-fascist Casa Italiana. In a letter to the philosopher FCS Schiller James wrote of Giovanni Papini: "Papini is a Jewel! To think of that little Dago putting himself ahead of every one of us … at a single stride.”

The relationship between Pragmatism and Statism is hard for some to see at first blush. But it boils down to the fact that the Progressives used Pragmatic philosophy (correctly or not) to destroy the Old Order of liberal democracy. It was a tool, sometimes sledgehammer, sometimes scalpel, aimed at dismantling the "old ideas" that held back the free exercise of will by social planners and others who wanted to start the world over at year zero, or at least to reshuffle the existing deck for a "new deal." More later, if any one is still reading. 04/27 10:00 AM Share

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