Thursday, May 01, 2008

Update on Ascent of Man

I have now watched eleven of the thirteen episodes of the documentary series Ascent of Man, hosted by Jacob Bronowski. For the most part I have very much enjoyed the show. Bronowski is a passionate, engaging presenter and the content is mostly very rational and at times profound. Nevertheless, at times the presentation suffers from Bronowski's unwillingness to apply the same rational standards that he applies to the sciences to art. He seems to have no issue with modern art, viewing it simply as a response to developments in the sciences and certainly making no attempt to judge it.

However, Bronowski's worst moments are when he attempts to discuss Nazism and its consequences. Here he follows many liberal thinkers in arguing that what makes Nazism (as well as other totalitarian systems) so destructive is their commitment to "absolute knowledge" which he equates with unthinking dogma. Certainly it was the case that what the Nazis considered "absolutes" was dogma to them. Nevertheless, as Leonard Peikoff has pointed out, the Nazis were simultaneously the greatest pragmatists and the greatest dogmatists. This is because they were following the centuries-old philosophical trends that had undermined the objectivity and absoluteness of knowledge, some of their rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. In fact, had there been a proper philosophic opposition to the Nazis ideas in Germany, an opposition that upheld contextual absolutes based on the reality and reason, history would likely have been very different.

The fact is that fanatical commitment to systematic ideas cannot be fought with calls for "tolerance." It simply does not work. This is a lesson that is still not widely understood even today, 35 years after Ascent of Man was broadcast.

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