Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part One

In Part Zero, we accomplished two things. First, the value of higher education is considered as a combination of internal self-fulfillment and external function-filling in society. Second, The Enlightenment was cast as an evolving machine that may not even have the qualities that allow little-e enlightenment. We may be trying to milk a bull. I will use Cynicism to sort it out.

In The Cynic Enlightenment: Diogenes in the Salon, Louisa Shea gives a tour of Cynicism's role in critiques of The Enlightenment. It's a wonderful book to add to your summer reading list. Here's part of the description:
Louisa Shea explores modernity's debt to Cynicism by examining the works of thinkers who turned to the ancient Cynics as a model for reinventing philosophy and dared to imagine an alliance between a socially engaged Enlightenment and the least respectable of early Greek philosophies. While Cynicism has always resided on the fringes of philosophy, Shea argues, it remained a vital touchstone for writers committed to social change and helped define the emerging figure of the public intellectual in the 18th century. 
Reading the book, one sees that Cynicism has constantly been reinterpreted and put to use for different purposes. I'll follow that tradition with yet another interpretation. What follows is my own thinking informed by Shea's book; please don't attribute  mistakes that may follow to her. I won't review the history of Cynicism, but here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.

Our fascinating story begins with Diogenes of Sinope, who was charged to "debase the coin of the realm." A close reading of that mission will give us an analytical tool we can try out on the "Problem of Education" quoted in Part Zero.

Debasing the coin, taken literally, means to add a base (valueless) alloy to good metal in order to fool the receiver into thinking that he has received a real coin, when that is actually not the case. The coin by itself is of little value (you can't eat it, and it won't keep rain off your head), but "in the realm" it communicates value by virtue of law or convention. You can trade it for food or shelter. The coin is a signal.

The ingredients necessary for Cynicism are therefore a social system (formal or informal) that uses signals, and the act of  Cynicism is to successfully and falsely signal something of value, so that the signal is degraded. It might appear that I'm suggesting with the deconstruction above is that Cynicism is nothing more than being a good liar. It's more subtle than that, because we have to look beyond the lying itself to the purpose: debasing the coin of the realm is adding noise to signals. It may not make the signal useless, but it calls it into question. Cynicism forces us to rethink the value of our societal signals because they are becoming less valuable due to the acts of Cynics.

To illustrate, it's useful to distinguish between Cynicism and cynicism. An example:
  • Cynical: add tin to coins to make them appear more valuable than they are. Succeed so well that the currency is gradually actually worth less (adding noise to signal).
  • cynical: telling everyone that the coins are counterfeit (calling the signal into question, regardless of the facts).
The original Cynics lived their philosophy; they mocked theory. It's much harder and riskier to be a Cynic than to be a cynic. Rather than thinking that Diogenes and his followers were encouraging everyone to behave like them (everyone would have starved), I will choose to think of the Cynics as performing a valuable public service, much like a newspaper. The purpose of the newspaper isn't to encourage everyone to become newsmen and women, but to test the nature of truth challenging and exposure. Just like the news, Cynicism doesn't come pre-stamped as 'good for society'. As we will see, The Dogs still have teeth.

Test your understanding with the quiz below.

Quiz Questions: insert the appropriate c or C to complete the following.
  1. _ynical: Successfully perpetrate a literary hoax.
  2. _ynical: Newspaper articles like "The Diploma's Vanishing Value." or "Your So-called Education"
  3. _ynical: Teen tweets a threat to an airline, prompting a full anti-terrorism response.
  4. _ynical: The debasement of Cynicism into cynisicm in everyday English.
  5. _ynical: Creating financial instruments knowing they will fail. Selling and betting against them.
  6. _ynical: Creating and disseminating conspiracy theories.
  7. _ynical: A successful April Fool's joke
  8. _ynical: FDR's "Bank Holiday" to restore faith in banks
Answers next time. Bonus points for posting your own examples below.

Next: Part Two

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