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Class Discussion
March 16, 2004



European philosophy has recognized, at least since the time of G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), its ineliminable historical inherence in contingent social, political, cultural, economic, and intellectual conditions (historicity). Our question: What are the salient, defining, or distinctive characteristics of our historical present or the "spirit of the age" (German = Zeitgeist)?

This broad, exploratory question about the dominant and distinctive characteristics of our contemporary historical context sets the stage for an informed, constructive, and wide-ranging "critique of the present." European philosophy, in one form or another, has engaged in such a critique of the present at least since the time of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Representative critiques include:

    1. Immanuel Kantís critique of speculative metaphysics and its pretensions to theoretical knowledge, philosophical limitation of the scope of religious knowledge, critique of dogmatic superstition, uncritical traditionalism, and heteronomous institutional authorities; need of rational enlightenment and its corresponding education, etc.

    2. SÝren Kierkegaardís (1813-1855) existential-religious critique of bourgeois society, formalized state religion, loss of genuine individualism, lack of passion, overly reflective, leveling power of mass media [print particularly ó newspapers, journals, etc.], widespread superficiality, idle chatter devoid of real communication, etc.

    3. Karl Marxís (1818-1883) humanist critique of modern capitalism and society (economic exploitation, industrial dehumanization, ideological power and propaganda, historical critique of theoretical consciousness, religion and morality as mechanism of social conformism and existential leveling, etc.

    4. Friedrich Nietzscheís (1844-1900) Revaluation of Values as a critique of modern values, practices, concepts, and institutions (liberalism, democracy, egalitarianism, existential conformism, societal normalization, loss of vital strength, bourgeoisie, etc.)

    5. Martin Heideggerís (1889-1976) existential-ontological critique of modernity as socially reductionistic, overly preoccupied with specialized knowledge, anthropocentric and arrogant humanism proclaiming itself enlightened, grave dangers of calculative and technological reason, etc.

    6. The Frankfurt School of Social Research (founded in 1923): Critical theory of society based upon an interdisciplinary research program inspired by Hegel, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, etc. Critical of enlightenment reason, bourgeois values and practices, liberal institutions, fascist political systems and attendant authoritarian personalities, dogmatic belief systems [traditional religion, etc.], nationalistic expansionism and imperialism, capitalist exploitation, manís alienation from nature and himself, reductive instrumental rationality of the modern age, etc.

Class Discussion and Miscellaneous Additions

Decline of cohesive community
: isolation of individuals, lack of common civility, road rage, anonymous and impersonal communication (answering machines, Internet chat rooms, etc.), rise of one-sided or unbalanced individualism, self-absorption, etc.

Abuse of power: institutional (religious, political, corporate, governmental, legal, educational, etc.) corruption, opportunism, greed, obfuscation, rationalization, hypocrisy, violation of public trust, arrogance, pompous self-importance, blatant deception, obstruction of justice, political nepotism, stock market fraud, economic exploitation, etc. (Enron debacle, Roman Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, Buddy Cianci ó Prince of Providence Plunder, Martha Stewart case, Bush administration pseudo-case [fraudulent intelligence, etc.] for preemptive war on Iraq, etc.)

Crass consumerism and shallow materialism: misplaced priority or value, props up an empty and hollow ego, constitutes self-identity of many (illustrating a variation on the modern French philosopher Descartes (1596-1650) ó "I consume commodities, therefore I am"), shopping addiction, acquisition and collection of commodities as indicator of social status, proprietary mindset and attitudes, recent association of American economic consumption with patriotism, collusion with religious tradition, particularly Christmas, etc.

Image over substance: image consultants (cf. the ancient Greek Sophists who taught others how to achieve success by deceptive measures), political handlers, spin control and spin doctors, deceptive business advertising, small-print disclaimers, packaged political photo-ops, cultural and media glamorization of physical appearance, being all things to all people (chameleon syndrome), pervasive preoccupation with the body (tanning booths, gym regiment, practicing the diet du jour, designer clothes and accessories, etc.) to the neglect of the mind or spirit, etc.

Rampant egocentrism and narcissism: self-indulgent individualism, self-centeredness, pursuit of pampered privilege, subjectivistic irrationality and prejudice, willful stubbornness, infantile self-absorption, crass selfishness, lack of humanity and social solidarity, domination or submission to others in order to get one wants, seeking and giving preferential treatment, "look out for number one" attitude, source of competitive defensiveness, exhibited in passive-aggressive behavior, fragments communal bonds, etc.

Guns galore: Wild-West mindset, NRA lobby, militia malaise, America first in the world in murders, the Brady bill, semi-automatic weapons, hunting accidents, domestic accidents and murders, facilitates murder since it "levels the playing field" ó an anemic and anorexic 90 pound female can now kill a 250 pound, muscular male, gang turf wars, innocent youth killed in drive-by shootings, etc.

Widespread voyeurism and escapism: reality TV, cultic fascination with rich and powerful celebrities, virtual reality of the Internet, Entertainment Tonight, contrived and exploitive Survivor series, vapid game shows, prurient tabloid journalism, highly sexualized cultural environment, Access Hollywood, sleazy strip joints, proliferation of cable and satellite channels, American glorification and addiction to violent Hollywood movies, increase of escapist entertainment as a dominant social and cultural force, etc.

Power of the mass media: propaganda, slanting, selective reporting, formative influence on impressionable individuals, addictive TV, commercial exploitation, prostitution of professional journalism for profit, tabloid sensationalism, facilitates triumph of image over substance, homogeneous effect upon uncritical population, discourages authentic individuality, etc.)

Economic exploitation and manipulation: crass, intrusive and ubiquitous capitalist commercialism (advertising, SPAM, infomercials, billboards, junk mail, TV commercials, telemarketers, credit card seduction, small print, scam artists, electronic identity theft, mega corporations swallowing up family-owned businesses [Wal-mart, Home Depot, etc.], stock market fraud, Madison avenue manipulation, ease of financial credit as seductive bait for capitalist exploitation, etc.)

Sexism: Islamic repression and suppression of women (Taliban, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.), religious devaluing of women, the proverbial professional glass ceiling, still lacking gender equity, domestic abuse crimes and cases, general violence toward females (kidnapping, sex slave trade in the Far East, Japanese executives taking sex vacations in Thailand [children prostitution], rape, Mike Tyson on the loose, pornographic commodification and dehumanizing objectification of women, Rap music, etc.

Pervasive passivity of population: popularity of and desire for comfort and convenience (dependency, "soft" type of human being), pampered privilege as cultural ideal, lack of interest in world affairs, obesity, technological erosion of physical exercise and social interaction (children playing video games, surfing the net, watching TV and DVDs, etc.), couch potatoes, uncritical thinking, sheep mentality, etc.

Obesity: fast food, eating on the run, lack of physical exercise, hours at the computer, couch potatoes, self-indulgence, undisciplined, laziness, comfort and convenience rule, etc.

Commercialization of pre-packaged and artificial life-styles: marketing types of personal identity, sexual orientation, personal worldviews, and life-attitudes; promoting designer products, media driven self-image and self-esteem, social conformism to recognized lifestyles, etc.

Excessive competiveness: winners-and-losers mentality permeating several cultural spheres (war, business, marketing, advertising, politics, economics, celebrity du jour, infiltration of egocentric and ethnocentric partisanship into moral, legal, religious domains; gambling, stock market speculation, sports entertainment, partisan political mudslinging, abstract dichotomies and the divisive polarization of issues and groups, ideological inertia, etc.

Erosion of personal accountability: widespread sense of entitlement, decline in personal integrity, blame everyone else syndrome, "Iím a victim of circumstance" ó the Three Stoogesí excuse for evading responsibility, pseudo-scientific rationalizations or dismissals of accountability, self-help industry and simplistic psychobabble (12-step programs, ten easy steps to unparalleled happiness, etc.), confused concept of self-esteem poisoning culture and educational system, "daily affirmations with Roy Smalley" (Saturday Night Live skit), boldface lies and hypocrisy (Clintonís "I did not have sex with that women"), etc.

Victimization run amok: new legal defenses [TV, movies, sugar, childhood, etc. made me do X], everyone a victim of something, avoidance of accountability, culture of victimization, attitude of entitlement, strategically playing the race card, etc.

Technological transformations of the everyday lifeworld [German = lebenswelt]: cell phones, laptops, palm pilots, pagers, technological work environment, TV viewing, talk radio, e-mail, information technology, SPAM, instantaneous communication and information, depersonalization of social interaction, gadgets galore, technological toys, etc.

Instantaneous information, communication, and solutions: self-help books, 12-step programs, Dr. Phil, banal and idle chatter, Dr. Laura, Oprah, small talk without substance, shallow dilettantism, social superficiality, pervasive psychobabble, evasion of necessary effort and discipline, quick is better, "I need it yesterday," etc.

Globalization, modernization, and technology: dependency, "soft" type of human being, bureaucratic mindset, high-tech elitism and power, development of third-world nations, Eurocentrism, capitalist agenda, cultural polarization into haves and have-nots, surveillance technology, decline in privacy, etc.

Litigation mania: legal self-protection, and trial entertainment (Court TV, insurance, waivers, disclaimers, contracts, pre-nuptial agreements, etc.)

Monetary and materialistic concept of success: class consciousness, trophy wife, economic power, image as reality, vanity, the almighty $, social prestige and status, etc.

High-tech, chic vanity: plastic surgery, Botox parties, American apotheosis of youth, etc.

Absolutist religious fundamentalisms: Islamic Jihad, Christian fundamentalism, various cults, Jehovahís Witnesses, Jewish messianism, Nation of Islam (Louis Farrakhan), etc.

Political correctness: overextension of valid moral and legal principles into a social straightjacket that smothers free speech and becomes a new fascism; thought police, inconsistent application of so-called PC principles and practices (example: Brown students several years ago gathered all the school newspapers and destroyed them because they contained an article contrary to their PC views ó doesnít this behavior contradict PC?)

Post-9/11 America: Homeland security, Patriot act, constitutional rights at risk, ideological concept of hyperbolic patriotism, censorship and self-censorship, false information to make the case for the Iraqi war, confusing alert system, etc.

Decline in genuine education: acquisition of quantitative information or data (factoids) uncritically equated with knowledge, decline in genuine education (inculcation of independent thinking) in favor of societal "normalization" (rote memorization of canonical content devoid of critical questioning), education becoming too much like job or technological training etc.

Islamic Jihad and Western secularism: 9/11, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, suicide-martyrs, terrorism, homeland security, patriotism, demonization, "the Great Satan" (Ayatollah Khomeiniís term for the US),

Pervasive apathy: Americanís lack of interest or knowledge of the world, geography, and other cultural traditions; indifference to public affairs beyond oneís insulated and isolated little world, symptom of egocentric narcissism, etc.

Weakening of family fabric or cohesion: high divorce rate, increased geographical mobility and dispersion, single-parent households, excessive work schedules, everyone too busy, the "rat race," etc.)

Environmental myopia and global sustainability: global warming, decrease of energy resources, pollution, endangered species, stripping forests, change in weather patterns, etc.

New diseases and medical advances: Aids, various viruses, cloning, living wills, mad cow disease, etc.

Rise of identity issues: sexual identity and orientation, sex-change operations, personal identity, gender bending, nationalistic identity, identity politics, etc.

Sexual vulgarization and exploitation: cultural sexualization in entertainment (Howard Stern, sexist rap music, Janet Jacksonís momentary mammary gland exposure, MTV soft porn, Hollywood moviesí gratuitous nudity targeting the teenage market, Sex in the City, etc.), sex and advertising, Internet, commercial use, economic exploitation, etc.

Accelerating pace of life: road rage, fast food, speed is cool, the "rat race," effects on social structures and institutions (family, friendship, etc.),

Nuclear issues and instability: India, Pakistan, North Korea, terrorism, etc.

The World Wide Web: virtual reality, unregulated domain, voyeurism, virtual relationships, SPAM, hackers, viruses and worms, marital infidelity, scam artists, identity theft, etc.

New Age spiritualism and contemporary cults: Wicca, neo-paganism, Heavenís Gate, David Koresh, apocalyptic millennialism, customized belief systems, Raelian cult, etc.

Machismo culture: violence galore, street gangs, murders, competiveness everywhere, win-at-all-costs attitude, too much testosterone, Hollywood "action films," etc.