Monday, May 16, 2011

A book review at Salon reminds me of a word whose dictionary meaning I suspect would change over time if the notion that objective knowledge about philosophical questions were possible gained culture-wide acceptance:

disillusion vt: to free from or deprive of illusion, belief, idealism, etc.; disenchant.
The overall negative connotation of this word has always puzzled me a little bit, on several levels. On the mundane level: Why would one want to be deceived about anything? On the philosophical level: If one's beliefs are wrong, why would one want to cling to them? (Even when I was religious as a youth, I was convinced that theological questions were open to rational inquiry. When I learned otherwise, and became aware that I would have to choose between reason and faith, I rejected faith. An obnoxious and particularly dogmatic creationist acquaintance unwittingly made that much easier for me to do.) On the sense-of-life level, too, the word has long bothered me: It implies, although in a less vulgar way than is common today, the modernist view that reality is fundamentally malevolent, as if anything good is illusory. I have always rejected the idea that disillusionment could apply to life (or reality) in general. Disappointment, however great or small, reflects but a correction to one's grasp of the way things are. The sooner and more thorough the correction, the better. In that sense, disillusionment is a good thing.

That said, I'll shift to the book review, which is interesting in itself, being about a book in which two members of an American diplomatic family became disillusioned with Germany's new Nazi government shortly before World War II. Here's an excerpt:
Her father had a leveler head -- perhaps too level. His great weakness, according to Larson, was that he saw the world "as the product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people." Although born and educated in the South, he resembled the quintessential Midwesterner: industrious, conscientious, principled and self-effacing but also a bit dull. It did not help that he harbored what Larson calls a "rudimental anti-Semitism" and once told the German foreign minister, "We have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life." Like many, many Americans at that time, Dodd expected Hitler's reign to be short-lived and regarded reports of Nazi persecution and harassment as exaggerations or isolated incidents.

Their first year in Berlin stripped both Dodds of such comforting illusions. (Dodd's wife and grown son were also with them, but William and Martha left the most extensive written accounts of their German years.) Martha, whose circle included both members and critics of the regime, finally got the message when she and a dissident friend paid a visit to the author Hans Fallada, who had supposedly come to some sort of accommodation with the Nazis. "I saw the stamp of naked fear on a writer's face for the first time," she recalled, although considering some of what she had witnessed before that, she could well be faulted for not taking the terrorizing of non-writers more seriously. ...
Judging by the review, the book is not clear on why, as Laura Miller put it, it took the Dodds "so long to wise up," but a couple of possibilities leap out at me. First, the family did not have a firm grasp of the philosophical foundations of freedom or of how antithetical Nazism was to freedom, or, for that matter, of the role of philosophical principles in influencing human action. Second, and particularly in William Dodd's case, his cultural background acclimated him to a greater degree of bigotry than one should ordinarily be comfortable with. Both could cause someone to think along the lines of, "Oh, nobody really means something like that."

Finally disillusioned himself, William Dodd tried to disillusion his country about Nazi Germany, but to little avail. His country, though, would soon become disillusioned, anyway.

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

Speaking of disillusionment, Jack Kelly warns us that Pakistan is not our friend. Or is he reminding us? Look to philosophy to explain why we are getting ready to hand that country another $3 billion in aid, rather than its own head on a platter.

Harry Binswanger has made public his eyewitness account of John Hospers's selling-out of Ayn Rand.

Recent polling data show that over a third of New Yorkers under thirty plan to leave the Big Apple to escape high taxes. Unsurprisingly, a poll in the sidebar shows Houston, TX, leading all other choices (after "None of the Above") for the question, "What [sic] big city would you most like to live?"


Jennifer Snow said...

Gus, I left a comment earlier, but Blogger did something stupid so I'm not sure it went through. If it did, just delete this comment.

Gus Van Horn said...


Try again, it apparently got sucked into the ether.



Vigilis said...

re: Pakistan -another $3 billion in aid

"Look to philosophy to explain why we are getting ready to hand that country another $3 billion in aid, rather than its own head on a platter."

Government philosophy of the last decade has unfortunately been no deeper than what may be easier for elected politicians: dispensing dollars, or taking a Reaganesque stand with another nuclear state?

Gus, those who have re-elected such wimpy sellouts to offices of national governance would perhaps be better off asking if their private philosophy includes giving monetary bribes to the con artists in their own precincts.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's an interesting question you ask, Vigilis, and that sort of thing is crucial: Help people see how their own ideas lead to bad results when put into practice. That doesn't change everyone's minds, but it motivate many to step back and think about what they're doing.

Jennifer Snow said...

Grrr stupid blogger! HULK SMASH!!

Ahem, anyway, basically I just stated that the reason why people consider disillusionment to be a bad thing is that there's a *loss* involved, potentially an emotionally devastating one. Nobody uses the term disillusionment when they suddenly realize they were wrong and something is actually much BETTER than they thought.

The fact that you're better off knowing the horrific truth doesn't mean that you won't feel like crap when you discover it.

Gus Van Horn said...


You are absolutely right. The word would always have SOME negative connotation because of the kinds of unpleasant emotions you describe.