Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Short History of the Twentieth Century by John Lukacs

Do you want a Joe Friday ("Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts") history of the 20th century? Go elsewhere. Do you want to read an extended essay on the crucial events of the century by a master writer and historian? Then read this book. Do you want someone who will mouth common platitudes? Go elsewhere. Do you want the reflections and insights of a man who's studied and written about the 20th century in as much detail and with as much insight as anyone I can think of. Then read this book; in fact, you'd do well to read the rest of John Lukacs's work, too. 

Enjoying John Lukacs is the equivalent of enjoying a fine wine. Lukacs is a vineyard that keeps producing superb fare, now in his 90th year. Each new work provides a unique blend of insights. I'm a Lukacs connoisseur. But some do not care for what I consider an exquisite vintage. I read one review of this book that referred to him as "cranky", and in a charming sort of way, I can see that. Others find his opinions too harsh, dated, or limited in his perspective. I don't think so, but perfection isn't my primary concern. 


Lukacs sets forth many propositions, some of which he's stated before. For instance, his 20th century runs from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of Communism). This is foremost a political history, and many historians will agree with the shortened scope of the century about which he writes. He centers his concerns on Europe and America. He acknowledges that he gives short shrift to Latin America, Africa, and much of Asia (Japan the primary exception). But he argues, rightly I think, that in this century, with some exception for Japan and China (near the end) has centered on Europe. The main focus of U.S. policy has centered on Europe. In the short 20th century, Europe was at the center of the action, including the horrible killing fields of the two wars. Lukacs notes that we've now reached the End of the Modern Age (the title of an earlier work, by the way), which also marks the end of the European Age. We don't yet know what follows; just as those who lived in (what we now call) the Middle Ages didn't know what would follow from the changes they saw as thheir age waned. Lukacs also states that "the twentieth century was--an? the?--American century". (2-3).


Lukacs sees Democracy as the great movement, but Democracy (as popular sovereignty) was shaped in no small part by nationalism (different from patriotism, as Lukacs has often written) and populism, which differs from classical liberalism. Given his quote of Burkhardt near the end of the book, one senses that he feels uneasy about the continued success of Democracy subject to the demands of nationalism and populism. 


Lukacs most blatantly transgresses popular dogma by contending  that some individuals still guide history. He contends that World War II was Hitler's war. No Hitler, no war. He believes that the ascension of Churchill over Halifax made the difference that allowed Britain to survive until "the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old." (Churchill). Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin play outsized roles (for good and ill) in the course of events. 


In addition to these perspectives and many others, Lukacs at the beginning and at the end of the book reflects on the project of history, knowing, and the human future. Of history as a discipline, he writes: 



     I have devoted much of my life to asserting, teaching, and writing that "objective" and "scientific" history are inadequate desiderata; but so, too, is "subjective" history. Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate. We do not possess truth completely. Yet pursue truth we must. So many seemingly endless and incomplete truths about the history of the twentieth century are still worth pursuing, and perhaps forever. (1)
. . . .
    Historical knowledge, nay, understanding, depends on descriptions rather than on definition. It consists of words and sentences that are inseparable from "facts"; they are more than the wrapping of facts. "In the beginning was the Word," and so it will be at the end of the world. (1-2)
At the end of this book, he cites Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, who, along with Johan Huizinga, are the predecessors who have most influenced Lukacs. Among twentieth century thinkers, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, formulators of the Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics, have influenced Lukacs. Lukacs writes of the uncertainty principle in human knowing: 


    The knower cannot be separated from the known. And with this is a greater and deeper meaning: that we, on our little, warm planet, are (again? anew?) at the very center of the universe. The universe was, and is, not our creation. But we human beings on this earth have invented it, and go on inventing it from time to time.
. . . . 
    Our twentieth-century recognitions, no matter how scattered and still hardly conscious, must, and will, issue not from human arrogance but from human humility. Perhaps just as important as our recognition of our central situation in the universe is our recognition that the limitations of our human knowledge do not restrict but enrich us. (212).

New Pathways in Psychology: Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution by Colin Wilson



After writing my recent appreciation (and critique) of Colin Wilson, I found that one of my favorites books of his was available on Kindle, so I bought it and re-read it. I’m glad I did. It reminded me of what I find so valuable in Wilson (and it reminded me of some annoyances as well). This is Wilson at his best. He started the book as a biography of Abraham Maslow, with whom he met and corresponded, but it turned into more than that. In addition to it's appreciation of Maslow, it’s a history and appraisal of how psychology developed from the early moderns through the publication of the book in 1972. 

Wilson reports that when he first came upon Maslow’s work he ignored it, only to have it come back to his attention at a later time. We should be happy for that second look. Wilson’s first book, The Outsider, and continuing through a cycle of books that bore the imprint of the first, explored the contemporary human dilemma. How do we successfully engage in life? In the Outsider cycle, Wilson examined the dilemmas of modern life through extraordinary individuals, many of whom failed to find a satisfactory resolution to their problem of existence, such as Van Gogh, Nietzsche, and T.E. Lawrence, to name but three. Wilson explored the European existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, but he found their responses unsatisfactory. Wilson went on the construct a “new existentialism” that gloried in choice and will. When Wilson got around to looking at Maslow’s work, he found a kindred spirit. Maslow’s most well-known contributions to psychology, his hierarchy of needs and the reality of peak experiences, fit with Wilson’s growing belief that we ignore opportunities and abilities to summon peak experiences at will.

After some initial reflections touching on many of Wilson’s favorite themes and examples, as well as a brief introduction to Maslow’s work, Wilson begins a summary of modern psychology and philosophy starting with Hobbes and Descartes. I found this brief history valuable and instructive. Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, despite their rationalist-empiricist differences, all premised their understanding of humans as essentially mechanistic with little (if any) room for free will. But there is another current of thought that blossoms later in the 19th century. It manifests in the work of Brentano and Husserl on the Continent and in America through the work of William James. Wilson quotes James a lot, and rightly so. Wilson finds James, especially in his essays, pointing in the right direction, although James doesn’t connect all the dots for Wilson. But while James was pointing in the right direction, Sigmund Freud was taking a different perspective in Vienna. 

Freud gave us depth psychology, but his “depth”, with its reference to hidden sexuality and Greek myths, overlays a deterministic and mechanistic outlook. While prying deeply into psychic injuries, Freud's theories reflected a rigid idea of how our psyche works. Freud, who had a deep personal rigidity about him, dismissed various disciples who tried to take the master’s work in different directions, like Adler, Jung, and Rank. Wilson does an excellent job of mixing biography and ideas in this section (something that he tends to do well). Each of the three apostates (Adler, Jung, and Rank) pointed psychoanalysis in new and promising directions, identifying different sources of psychic disturbance and motivation. But still, Wilson concludes, this viewpoint focused on the disturbed, unhealthy individual. 

After this informative and entertaining history of psychology and philosophy, Wilson turns to Maslow’s biography and work. I was surprised to learn that Maslow started in the rat and monkey business. Stimulus-response theory was all the rage at the time (1930’s), and Maslow worked that angle. He also came to terms with Freud and considered himself a Freudian. However, Maslow realized that Freud and his cohort focused on the sick individual, and Maslow decided to explore the psychology of the healthy. Maslow follows a path similar to Wilson’s in turning his focus from the sick to the healthy. Wilson explores and appreciates Maslow’s insights and how Maslow developed his theories. The down side of the tale is that Maslow died relatively young (bad heart) and wasn’t able to further develop his perspectives. 

In the final chapter, we get Wilson’s synthesis of his own insights, Maslow’s, and a host of others, especially those connected with “existentialist psychology”. Existential psychologists, such as Victor Frankel and Rollo May, draw upon Husserl’s intentionality and its concern with will to help put a patient back in control of his or her destiny. Meaning, intentionality, and will once again become important aspects of psychology. As Wilson does, he dances between psychology, literature, and anecdote to make his points. This trait is both delightful and frustrating, as Wilson can be. But Wilson is a man of ideas, not a scientist or academic who does the necessary grunt work of the lab or field, necessary as that is. Sometimes Wilson seems dated, as in his adherence to the right brain-left brain dichotomy or his understanding of schizophrenia, but I don’t think that these dated conceptions have much affect on his arguments. (I am interested to learn if Leah Greenfeld’s work Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Experience of Culture on Human Experience about mental illness or Ian McGilchrist’s work on the different brain functions in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World provide any vindication of Wilson’s larger perspective.) 

I’ve read about six or eight Wilson books, and other than perhaps the first two works in the Outsider cycle (The Outsider and Religion and the Outsider), this might be the best book to jump into. Wilson’s speculations—his strength and his weakness—are tempered by his commitment to Maslow’s project and by his exposition of the history of modern psychology. Thus, we get the best of Colin Wilson’s enterprise here in a balanced, informative, and thought-provoking work.