Friday, November 18, 2011

Lionel Trilling on Ideas vs. Thinking

From The Sense of the Past, from The Liberal Imagination, the essay being written in 1942:

The "tyranny of words” became a popular phrase and is still in use, and the semanticists offer us an easier world and freedom from war if we only assert our independence from words. But nearly a century ago Dickens said, that he was tired of hearing about the “tyranny of words” (he used that phrase); he was, he said, less concerned with the way abuse us than with the way we abuse words. It is not words that make our troubles, but our own wills. Words cannot control us unless we desire to be controlled by them. And the same is true of the control of systematic ideas. We have come to believe that some ideas can betray us, others can save us. The educated classes are learning to blame ideas for our troubles rather than blaming what is a very different thing—our own bad thinking. This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking, and nowadays the errors of the academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world, and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds it fulfillment in policy and action.

In time of war, when two different cultures or two extreme modifications of the same culture, confront each other, this belief in the autonomy of ideas becomes especially strong and therefore especially clear. In any modern war there is likely to be involved a conflict of ideas which is in part factitious but which is largely genuine. But this conflict of ideas, genuine as it may be, suggests to both sides the necessity of believing in the fixed immutable nature of the ideas to which each side owes allegiance. What Gods were to the ancients, ideas are to us.

Me: This seems to me to be a good account of the diffference between ideology and liberalism and ties in with Trilling's theme of the idea of liberalism as it emerges from the essays in his book, a good account of the difference between closed systems of thought which are not self questioning and open minded, dead to evidence and to argument and liberalism as paradoxically simultaneously believing and doubting.

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