THE DEFEAT OF THE MIND by Alain Finkielkraut


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 If you never made it all the way through Allan Bloom's ponderous bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), then this short and provocative book, first published in France in the same year, is the perfect way to catch up with the larger issues in the culture wars. Like Bloom, this reformed French radical provides the philosophical contexts for the current battles over multiculturalism, social constructionism, and postmodernism. Unlike Bloom, Finkielkraut (The Imaginary Jew, not reviewed, etc.) doesn't deplore popular culture, except when it's treated with the same reverence as the great works of Western civilization. Extremely lucid, this polemical meditation on the history of ideas diagnoses decline from Herder's historicism and concept of national cultures, which later transformed into the Germanic cult of origins, and the rise of the social sciences. Classic ideas of liberty were subsumed by collectivism--a struggle well illustrated by the battle over Alsace-Lorraine: Do individuals have any say in their national feelings? Along the way in this grand historical debate, transcendent ideas of art (as Good, True, and Beautiful) also fell into disrepute, so that the two notions of ``culture'' (the aesthetic and the anthropological) collapsed into one. Romantic ideas of nationalism transform in our time into the radical anti- individualism of post-colonial thinkers such as Fanon, who rejects cosmopolitanism for ``identity politics.'' Finkielkraut, unlike Bloom, attends to the materialist explanations for decline--the rise of consumer capitalism and the triumph of youth culture. Finkielkraut's celebration of the French Enlightenment tradition seems a far more rational prescription than Bloom's dyspeptic Platonism. Despite Finkielkraut's Gallic disregard for Anglo-American thought and his translator's clueless introduction, this passionate essay is a welcome moment of brightness in the increasingly murky debate.

Pub Date: April 28th, 1995
ISBN: 0-231-08022-0
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1995