Sunday, March 31, 2019

When Cynicism Came to the West

3/31/2019—Peter Sloterdijk, the German philosopher, wrote in Critique of Cynical Reason in 1987—1987!—that cynicism came to the West through the Enlightenment’s critique of religion:

“I maintain that this enlightenment theory of religion represents the first logical construction of modern, self-reflective master cynicism.”

That critique had two parts. Ordinary people believed the myths and constructions of religion and tried to live by them. Political and religious leaders, and philosophers, on the other hand, did not, and used these religious teachings to keep themselves in power and enforce an oppressive status quo.

If you listen hard enough, you will hear in this critique the very way we today treat our opponents. Pro-life critics talk about Planned Parenthood being in it for the money. Representative Omar’s comment about the Benjamins can be put there, too.

Roberto Unger once criticized this kind of cynicism as failing to capture the consciousness of people we claim to be describing and understanding. We may think they are fooling themselves, but they undoubtedly believe much of the things they say. It may even be that they don’t act consistently with the beliefs they profess. But even that is a long way from the bitter cynicism of the critique.

And it suggests projection by the critic. After all, says Sloterdijk, the one who sees such cynicism is the master cynic. Does this mean that the critic does not believe in what he or she professes?

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