Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Little truths and big

In New School Century we've arrived at the University in Exile, the point in 1933 at which many of our colleagues think The New School really came into its own. The UiE - soon renamed Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science at the request of its first members - was a remarkable venture, "one for the history books," you might say. Like many events one might call "historic," though, it's clothed in myths, many of them simply untrue. It's worth unwrapping, and knowing for what it really was.

My co-teacher J started the class by debunking a series of myths, and then considering a few senses in which this really is myth material. So, in case you didn't know:
• The Frankfurt School did not come to The New School. Yes, they came from a place called the Institut für Sozialforschung (social research) and they came to New York, but they went to Columbia. To our knowledge, Horkheimer and Adorno were not on the lists of scholars the University in Exile reached out to.

• Hannah Arendt, while an exile and a theorist of totalitarianism (a New School staple from the thirties and into the fifties), was not one of the scholars rescued by The New School. Although she apparently taught a few classes in the adult division in the fifties, she did not join the faculty until 1967. She joined in part because the culture and reputation of the place matched her own, but to the extent The New School is Arendtian, it became so without Arendt.
• The University in Exile was not a leftist institution. If it had a prevailing sentiment it was social-democratic or liberal, but it may be best described as anti-totalitarian. There were conservatives, too, including Leo Strauss, father of modern Neoconservatism, who was known as "The Philosopher" during the glory days of 1938-48. Social science, the University, civilization and even German intellectual culture were among the things described as being saved. Relatedly, the refugee scholars were not all Jewish, although the majority were.

• The University in Exile did not save The New School. Histories focused on UiE depict The New School which received them as a shriveled husk at best, if they bother to describe it at all. The standard narrative jumps from the 1919 Columbia academic freedom moment right to 1933. But, as we've spent several weeks showing, The New School was alive and well, housed in a spanking new building, a center for important new movements in the arts, psychology and adult education, and the hub of the massive venture of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. It is true that its original mission to be a research center had been sidelined by financial limitations but that wasn't the only original mission. (Also, the integration of the UiE was no more harmonious and organic than were the first years of the institution, when founding visions competed and founders jumped ship.)
• Finally, academic freedom, while an important value of The New School from its founding, wasn't its sole ideal. Academic freedom is an indispensable part of the mix, but engaged forms of adult education in new and newly relevant fields were central, too. It also represented particular ways of understanding "social research." The permanent faculty of the UiE was not a cross-section of refugee scholars but a hand-picked group exemplifying particular academic traditions.

On the other hand, in the University in Exile things sometimes said metaphorically were literally true.
• Can a university save a life? This one helped save the lives of 180 scholars and their families. That this was literally the case is confirmed, tragically, by the stories of scholars it tried but was not in time to save.
• We've been naming and challenging the "great man" way of telling history, in the New School case taking the form of making its first president Alvin Johnson single-handedly responsible for the nature, vision and success of The New School, but in the case of the UiE he really was the great man. He saw the need to reach out to scholars fired from German universities in April 1933 sooner than anyone else, mobilized more resources and more quickly, defied the prevailing antisemitism of American academic life and battled the nativism and anti-socialism of the State Department, and set up a truly self-governing intellectual world to preserve and give voice to European scholarship. A magnificent achievement. J showed us examples of Johnson's vision and savvy, like this letter to the Rockefeller Foundation from March 1935.

Quite a strategic intelligence at work here, willing even to play on the anti-semitic worries of some of the folks at the Rockefeller. It's hard to get students today to realize the extent of anti-semitism in mid-20th century America, too, and how uniquely well-positioned the quota-less New School was to accommodate Jewish refugee scholars.

In sum, the story of The New School's rescue of endangered scholars from Europe is truly a remarkable one, and worth getting right. It has no need of mythical embellishment, though collective memory works more with mythic Gestalts than with carefully-parsed historical details and tensions. But what was its true Gestalt?

Did I say "Gestalt"? Indeed I did! My task in class was to discuss two essays from the refugee faculty, in the context of the world-historical situation, one by the Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer, and one by the fly in our allegedly lefty ointment, Leo Strauss. Strauss's "Persecution and the Art of Writing," which appeared in Social Research in 1941, is a handful, so I'll save him for another day. Wertheimer's "A Story of Three Days" (1940), which I supplemented with his essay for the first issue of Social Research in 1934, "On Truth," is more than enough for today.

Max Wertheimer was the father of "Gestalt psychology." He was in the original dozen faculty members Alvin Johnson assembled in 1933 (second from the left in the back row of the photo above), and very important for the intellectual life of the fledgling UiE/GFSPS, directing a weekly methodology seminar in which the whole faculty participated. What might a psychologist have to say about the methodology of the social sciences more generally? Lots, especially if it's a Gestalt psychologist.
Here are some well-known illustrations of the Gestalt claim that the mind detects patterns before parts, and that (as fellow Gestalt psychologist and fellow New Schooler Kurt Koffka put it) "the whole is other than the sum of its part." That triangle, that sphere, those worms - we see them clearly although, strictly speaking, they're not there. This has all sorts of implications for cognition, and also for communication. But the implications are broader than this, and really open a way to an engaged and interdisciplinary social science. 

But first, have a quick look at these figures from a pathbreaking article of 1923. Here the question is not how we might see things which aren't really there, but how one might arrange things so that we fail to see something which is there. The coffin shape at top left recurs in each of the other images, but it's hard to see it, even when you look for it.
I don't know that Wertheimer was thinking of the hiding of coffins at this point, but by 1934 his examples have clear resonance beyond the illustrative point. "On Truth" asks us to consider someone who hires another to break into a desk for him. The thief is caught, but when the person who hired him is asked if he broke into the desk, he of course answers no. I'll bet you anything Wertheimer was thinking about the arson attack on the Reichstag a month after Hitler came to power in 1933; progressives were convinced the Nazis had hired the unstable Dutch communist who "did it." (But you saw that coming, yes?!)
Wertheimer uses this cases to argue that a theory of truth as correspondence of propositions to facts is inadequate, since something could be true as far as it goes but lead ineluctibly to a larger false view. He suggests a terminology where the truth or falsity of parts is in lower-case, and of wholes in capitals. Accordingly, the hirer's not having broken into the desk is tF. To really understand the truth of a situation you need more than the sum of its parts. And, as the Reichstag case makes clear, how the Gestalt is defined is enormously important. The question to the one who hired the desk-robber is, a culpably badly formed, designed to shut things down rather than open them up.

(To say that a whole is different than the sum of its parts is also to acknowledge that a given part may be part of other wholes.) But, you might ask, who's to say that a needs to be understood as part of abc in a given case, rather than amn (let alone just as a)? It might seem that anyone could craft a Gestalt to suit her agendas. This is a version of the relativist (really nihilist) view that "everyone has their own interpretation." Wertheimer acknowledges it, indeed emphasizes what a serious challenge it is to the search for knowledge and communication, and proposes a solution. Truth will never reliably be understood in terms of propositions. Our best hope is to define it with reference to the people who make claims and their whole attitudes toward reality.

[Inset quotes from "On Truth," Social Research 1:1/4 (1934), 137, 145]

The Gestalt approach takes us from "piece-meal" understandings to a more holistic understanding of truth-telling (and its opposite). Truth will be found not by isolating individual bits of reality and studying them, but by developing an attitude to do justice to reality - an attitude which others can recognize from the way you behave in all of your doings. Similar conclusions might be drawn about institutions, whether of criminal justice (asking the right questions, or questions like "did you break into that desk?") or universities, and even of societies as a whole.

The essay we read, "A Story of Three Days," was published in 1940, and makes a similar argument for the Gestalt of freedom by way of a tour of various disciplines. It tells of a man who, disheartened and confused by what was happening in Europe, asks for help in understanding the nature of freedom, which he feels to be important, but others are attacking as an illusion. A sociologist gives him a relativist view, a novel suggests that the history of freedom is really a history of slavery, a psychoanalyst's book says civilization requires the suppression of instinctive urges, and a philosopher assures him that freewill is itself an illusion. Unsatisfied by what seem at best negative and piece-meal accounts of freedom, the man turns to his own experience of free and unfree people, and this solves the problem for him - while also defining a whole new research agenda beyond the disciplines he's so far sampled.

This is much the same as the illustration of truth in the 1934 essay, but here Wertheimer takes it further. Freedom is an attitude, but the considerations raised by the sociologist, psychoanalyst, novelist and philosopher, while incomplete and misleading on their own, each help one understand the complexity and importance of the question of freedom. They show that freedom is also something which is made more or less likely by conditions of various kinds. Different ways of raising children can make or break their capacity to act freely. Adult social and political experiences can have similarly positive or negative effects. Freedom is a social and political question. Returning to the distressing situation of freedom in Europe, Wertheimer echoes the theories of totalitarianism to which several New School thinkers contributed.
[Inset quotes from "A Story of Three Days," in Documents of Gestalt Psychology, ed. Mary Henle (Berkeley & LA: U of California Press, 1961), 63. Henle is another refugee psychologist who taught for many years at The New School, she's seated in the middle of the far side of the table in the late 1940s seminar picture above]

Do you get a sense of the earnest, truth- and freedom-loving discussions of the University in Exile, ranging across disciplines in their quest to respond to the pressing human questions of the day? I do. Well done, New School for Social Research.

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