I went last night to hear Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain papers at U.C. Berkeley, who spoke at the Sacramento Library. He gave an entertaining presentation, with some great examples of Twain’s correspondence and marginalia. I particularly enjoyed the letter in which Twain responded to a request for a contribution from an orphanage by offering to donate two of his own children, on the condition that his neighbors would all do the like. I was also very eager to hear when we can expect Volume 2 of the Autobiography, and Hirst said that a rough deadline would be summer of 2013, as the manuscript is still being edited. Which means I will have to stick around this vale of tears for at least another year and a half.
“Every one of us has our perceptions filtered by the thousands of stories and assumptions and rituals that constitute our culture. Every one of us has held beliefs that seemed self-evidently accurate but were actually contingent elements of the time and place that produced us. This is true not just of the people reading this article, but of every person, in every era, who has been capable of perceiving anything at all. You can stretch those perceptions, expose yourself to new worldviews, learn new things, but you’ll always be embedded in a cultural matrix….”
This passage comes from the managing editor of Reason Magazine, which I helped launch back in 1970 and which set out to be a corrective to our society’s widespread embrace of various versions of subjectivism and relativism. The passage exemplifies just such a viewpoint, whereby no one is capable of objectivity and everyone is caught in some set of preconceptions.
The aspiration at Reason had been to further the cause of using our reasoning powers so as to avoid being caught in the traps of prejudice, hasty generalization, bias, preconception, and the like, all of them foes of getting it right about the world. Indeed, some had argued even back then that prejudice is inevitable, we are all afflicted by it no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. Racists were particularly fond of this line of thinking since it would have served them well had it been sound. Who can help but be prejudiced? No one, just as the passage above indicates....
I am sad that one effort to put in a solid, unyielding defense of our capacity to think objectively, namely Reason Magazine, now seems to be managed by someone who finds the effort futile.
Cyrano: Method, let us say. It is my pleasure to displease. I love Hatred. Imagine how it feels to face The volley of a thousand angry eyes— The bile of envy and the froth of fear Spattering little drops about me—You— You are like those Italians, in great cowls Comfortable and loose—Your chin sinks down Into the folds, your shoulders droop. But I— The Spanish ruff I wear around my throat Is like a ring of enemies; hard, proud, Each point another pride, another thorn— So that I hold myself erect perforce Wearing the hatred of the common herd Haughtily, the harsh collar of Old Spain, At once a fetter and—a halo!