“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals


April 26, 2017

May 1, 2017 Issue

“Making It”: The Book That Scandalized the New York Intellectuals

With “Making It,” Norman Podhoretz attempted to craft a sociology of his set—and ended up ostracized from it.

He should have known the book was loaded. Norman Podhoretz started writing “Making It” in 1964. He was thirty-four years old and the editor of Commentary. His idea was to write a book about how people in his world, literary intellectuals, were secretly motivated by a desire for success—money, power, and fame—and were also secretly ashamed of it. He offered himself as Exhibit A. By confessing to his own ambition, he would make it safe for others to confess to theirs, and thereby enjoy without guilt the worldly goods their strivings had brought them. As he put it, he would do for ambition what D. H. Lawrence had done for sex. He would make the case for Mammon.

Image result for Making It--Norman Podhoretz

Norman Podhoretz

Podhoretz was a young man, but he had been in the business for a while. He had published his first piece in Commentary when he was twenty-three, his first piece in Partisan Review when he was twenty-four, and his first piece in The New Yorker when he was twenty-six. He had even published a piece in Scrutiny, the British quarterly edited by F. R. Leavis, a critical Gorgon few could hope to please, when he was just twenty-one. He had been named editor of Commentary at twenty-nine. He was invited to cocktail parties with all the smart people. He hung around with Norman Mailer. Jackie Kennedy was a friend.

Those pieces were all book reviews, actually, and Commentary was a nonprofit monthly, owned by the American Jewish Committee, with a circulation of around forty thousand. But Podhoretz assumed—as, in our own cases, we all tend to assume—that since his accomplishments were supremely gratifying to him, they must rank high in the world’s estimation as well. He suspected—he was certain—that others were envious of his precocity and success, and he was writing the book to explain why he had no reason to pretend humility.

When he finished, he showed the manuscript to mentors, colleagues, and friends. Almost all of them advised him not to publish it. Lionel Trilling told him that it would take ten years for his reputation to recover. Diana Trilling told him that the book was “crudely boastful” and humorless. Daniel Bell told him that it lacked “irony and self-distancing” (cardinal virtues in New York intellectual life back then), and recommended adding three or four pages at the end in which he took it back. His close friend Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, begged him to throw it out. “If I were God,” Epstein is supposed to have said, “I’d drown it in the river.”

Those who read the manuscript felt little compunction about sharing their reactions with others, and the word of mouth quickly became toxic. Friends of Podhoretz’s started wondering if he had lost his mind. Nearly a year before the book came out, Edmund Wilson noted in his diary that it was one of “the principal subjects of conversation” in New York. “Everyone I saw who had read it thought that it was awful,” he wrote.

Podhoretz’s publisher, Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, refused to promote the book. Podhoretz’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, said she would no longer represent it. Podhoretz withdrew the book from FSG (handing back the advance) and retained a new agent, Candida Donadio, who managed to sell it to Random House. (Epstein was not involved in the acquisition; it was enthusiastically approved by the head of the company, Bennett Cerf, no stranger to chutzpah.) “Making It” came out at the very end of 1967; a reprint has just been issued by New York Review Books. Trilling was wrong about one thing: ten years was not enough.

With a couple of exceptions, it wasn’t the reviews that hurt the most. The one in the Times was quite positive; the reviewer, Frederic Raphael, called the book “frank and honest . . . a warning and a model.” What hurt the most was the parties. “Parties,” Podhoretz had explained in the book, “always served as a barometer of the progress of my career.” Friends took note, and the invitations stopped coming. Podhoretz underwent what amounted to a ritual shunning. He might as well have worn a scarlet “A,” for “ambition.”

The experience was crushing, and he never got over it. “When I talked to Norman, it was almost as if the whole thing had happened yesterday afternoon,” a reporter for the Times wrote, four years after the book’s publication. “None of the sores had scabbed over.” Four years after that, Podhoretz still sounded dazed. “I was raised intellectually to believe there was something admirable in taking risks . . . but the people who raised me, in effect, punished me whenever I did what I was raised to do,” he complained to another interviewer. “I’ve never quite understood why.”

In 1979, he published a second memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” and devoted several pages to the reception of “Making It.” In 1999, now retired as the editor of Commentary, he published a third memoir, called “Ex-Friends,” and devoted many more pages to the subject. “Making It” was the pivotal episode in Podhoretz’s career.

It also appeared at a pivotal moment in American intellectual life. Intended, naïvely or not, as a celebration of a little-magazine world created largely by the children of immigrants, some of whom had, by 1967, risen triumphantly to a place at the national table—“Jews were culturally all the rage in America,” as Podhoretz put it in the book—“Making It” marked a fissure that would never be healed. It was the end of more than Podhoretz’s social life.

Podhoretz told his story as a combination of Exodus and “Saturday Night Fever”: gifted youth escapes an ethnic cul-de-sac in the outer boroughs and makes it to cosmopolitan Manhattan. In Podhoretz’s case, the promised land was a big apartment on West End Avenue. He called crossing the East River “one of the longest journeys in the world,” and he believed, correctly, that his story was also, more or less, the story of many of the people he hoped would admire the book—people like Bell, the Trillings, and the writers and editors at places like Dissent, The New Leader, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. What he did not imagine was that his version might not be one they wished to be identified with.

As Thomas Jeffers tells us in a scholarly and sympathetic biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” published in 2010, Podhoretz grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn that was then equal parts Italians, Jews, and African-Americans recently arrived from the South. Podhoretz’s parents were immigrants from Galicia; his father, Julius, spoke Yiddish and drove a horse-drawn milk truck. Podhoretz went to P.S. 28, where, one day, a teacher asked him what he was doing. “I goink op de stez,” he explained, and was immediately placed in a remedial-speech class. His assimilation had begun.

Little Norman was a natural student—“everyone knew I was the smartest kid in the class,” he says in “Making It”—but he also had an active street life as a member of a “social athletic club” (i.e., gang) called the Cherokees, whose red satin jacket he wore everywhere. (In the book, he is boyishly proud of this part of his past.) At Brooklyn’s Boys High School, where Mailer had also been a student, he was plucked out by a teacher he calls, in “Making It,” Mrs. K. Her real name was Mrs. Haft, and she took on Norman as a Pygmalion project. Her goal was to gentrify him sufficiently to win him a scholarship to Harvard. One of the best bits in “Making It” is Podhoretz’s description of Mrs. K’s disastrous attempt to introduce her teen-age protégé to genteel manners by taking him to lunch in a (non-kosher) restaurant in Manhattan, where he is confronted with some sort of dish involving duck.

Podhoretz did get into Harvard (as did Mailer, who went there), but he also won a Pulitzer scholarship, which was awarded to graduates of New York public schools and covered the costs of attending Columbia. He entered the college at the age of sixteen (commuting from Brooklyn) and took the required great-books course, Literature Humanities. “Possessed,” as he explains, “by something like total recall and a great gift for intellectual mimicry,” he quickly became a star student in Columbia’s famous English Department.

There he attached himself to Trilling, whose major book, “The Liberal Imagination,” came out in 1950, the year Podhoretz graduated. He took away from his Columbia education the belief that being a serious literary critic meant holding in contempt the things that belong to Caesar. “It was at Columbia,” he writes, “that I was introduced to the ethos—destined to grow more and more powerful in the ensuing years—in which success was replacing sex as the major ‘dirty little secret’ of the age.”

Podhoretz was awarded a Kellett, a postgraduate fellowship that, at Columbia, is almost as prestigious as the Rhodes. John Hollander, who graduated from Columbia in the same year, later said that Podhoretz had had his eye on the Kellett even as a freshman. Podhoretz was amazed by his classmates’ reaction. “It was the first time I had ever experienced the poisoning of success by envy,” he says in “Making It.”

He went to Cambridge. He loved it, especially the perks that students there then enjoyed. “There are few things in the world easier to get used to than having lots of space to live in and being called ‘Sir,’ ” he writes. It was at Cambridge that he sought out Leavis. “Soon he was inviting me . . . to the indoctrination sessions, thinly disguised as tea parties, which he and his wife Queenie, a famous critic in her own right, would hold on the lawn of their home every Saturday afternoon,” and it was not long before he scored his big Scrutiny assignment. It was to review “The Liberal Imagination.” In his piece, Podhoretz called Trilling “the most significant American critic now writing.” The “American” was a judicious sop to Leavis.

Podhoretz did some travelling while he was on the fellowship, and, after a visit to Israel, he wrote to Trilling to report his impressions. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis,” he confided. “They’re gratuitously surly and boorish. . . . They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” Trilling typed these words out and sent them to the editor of Commentary, Elliot Cohen. Cohen had another editor, Irving Kristol, contact Podhoretz about writing a piece, and the connection was made.

This might not seem the obvious way to recommend a new writer to a magazine published by an organization dedicated to the welfare of Jews, and, in “Making It,” Podhoretz leaves out the part about his letter to Trilling. He possibly felt that it suggested a calculation a shade too subtle. For in fact, as Benjamin Balint explains in his history of the magazine, “Running Commentary” (2010), the people around Commentary and the A.J.C. in those days were cool to Zionism. (By the time “Making It” came out, of course, this had changed.)

It is easy to believe that Podhoretz would not have characterized Israeli Jews in quite those terms if he had not guessed that his observations would meet Trilling’s preconceptions, and if he had not also guessed that a bright young diaspora Jew comfortable in America and skeptical of Zionism might be just the kind of writer Commentary was looking for. If so, he guessed right. His first piece was a review of Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural.”

Podhoretz had thoughts about continuing at Cambridge for a Ph.D., and even went back, but an article he submitted to Leavis on Benjamin Disraeli was returned with a classic rejection (mentioned, though not quoted, in “Making It”). “We couldn’t print anything that did so little more than a hundred or two readers of Scrutiny could do impromptu,” Leavis told him. Podhoretz read this, not inaccurately, as “You don’t belong,” and he returned to the United States, where he was duly drafted. He served two years. (Interestingly, in the light of his later views, he is completely contemptuous of military life and culture in “Making It.”) When he was discharged, in December, 1955, he started working as an editor at Commentary.

Elliot Cohen was hospitalized with severe depression, and the magazine was being run by two men referred to in “Making It” only as The Boss. In real life, they were the art critic Clement Greenberg and his brother Martin. The Greenbergs belittled and abused Podhoretz. He had a hard time managing his resentment, and, by 1958, he was out. He got involved in a couple of short-lived publishing ventures with Epstein that didn’t pay off. The New Yorker had dropped him, without explanation, but he had become known as a fearless young critic—“I came to be held by some in almost priestly regard” is his description—and he was able to survive as a freelancer. Then, in 1959, Cohen committed suicide, and the A.J.C. offered Podhoretz the job.

Friends advised him not to accept, some of them making disparaging remarks about the magazine which he unwisely printed, with attribution, in “Making It.” But Podhoretz had few doubts; this was what he had been waiting for. “I’m . . . exhilarated by the possibilities that may now open up for me, and by the power (which is something you can understand as my high-minded friends can’t), and by the money (my income will be more than doubled),” he wrote to the English novelist C. P. Snow, Balint reports.

Podhoretz had spent a decade observing the little-magazine business; he knew what worked and what didn’t; and he transformed Commentary. He fired most of the staff, expanded the letters section (which, for readers of intellectual journalism, can be as addictive as crossword puzzles or cartoons), stopped publishing poetry, and got rid of the remnants of Yiddishkeit. As one contributor put it, he removed the mezuzahs from all the doors. He made Commentary what Cohen and the Greenbergs had tried but failed to make it: a magazine for every educated reader, run by Jews.

Podhoretz understood how magazine writing works—his account in “Making It” of what it is like to write a magazine piece, and not only for magazines like Commentary, is the best that I have ever read—and he was a talented editor. He turned down the seminal document of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement, but he serialized Paul Goodman’s “Growing Up Absurd,” which is now almost unreadable but which at the time was received as an important diagnosis of contemporary life. Podhoretz’s own politics were liberal. He loved Kennedy; he opposed the war in Vietnam. He was in synch with the highbrow readership of the day.

He was invited to be co-editor, with Jason Epstein’s wife, Barbara, of The New York Review of Books when it was launched, in 1963, but he told them the salary was too low. (“Thank God,” Barbara later said.) He continued to write, and he was disappointed when critical praise for a collection of his pieces, “Doings and Undoings,” published in 1964, was not unmitigated. “I had been dreaming that the appearance of the book would become the occasion for a general proclamation of my appointment to the office of ‘leading young critic in America,’ ” he admits in “Making It”; “instead it became the occasion for several people to present me with the first installments of the bill for all those glorious years when everyone had been on my side.” But the nineteen-sixties was a boom time for magazines, and Commentary thrived. By 1968, its circulation was up to sixty-four thousand. That was the year the bomb went off.

There are two ways to understand the reaction to “Making It.” One has to do with the politics (small “p”), and the other has to do with the merits. Politically, Podhoretz did an unfathomably stupid thing. The reason that people like Jason Epstein and Lionel Trilling argued so strenuously against publishing the book—Diana Trilling reported taking Podhoretz and his wife out to dinner on a trip to Berlin in 1967 to make one final plea—was not, or not only, that they were concerned for the reputation of their friend and protégé. It was that their own names appear all through it.

It seems not to have dawned on Podhoretz that he was not only writing about himself; he was telling stories about people he worked and socialized with. People do not like to read about themselves in someone else’s book, and this goes double for writers. Writers are control freaks engaged in what is, among other things, a business of self-presentation. If they are in a story, they want to be the ones to tell that story. No one would have understood this better than Podhoretz, but somehow it failed to register when he was showing his book around.

Image result for lionel trillingLionel Trilling

Even worse, at the same time that he was confessing to his own ambition, he was implicitly accusing his friends and colleagues of hiding theirs. In the brief acknowledgments section, Podhoretz thanks Lionel Trilling, who, he says, “has taught me more than he or I ever realized—though not, I fear, precisely what he would have wanted me to learn.” This reads pretty clearly as a suggestion that Trilling, too, was a suck-up who wrote literary criticism in the hope of getting invited to a party with Jackie Kennedy. You can see why Trilling was not eager for Podhoretz’s memoir to see the light of day.

And not only Trilling. “Making It” is a book about what Podhoretz, borrowing the term from Murray Kempton, calls the Family—the writers and editors, mostly but not exclusively Jewish, who dominated the New York intellectual scene in the decades after the war. It is as their proud product that Podhoretz presents himself, and he obviously hoped to retain the approval of these people, as he had done so often in the past, by daring to write something they were afraid to write. He believed that they would admire his courage, recognize the justice of his account, forgive any indiscretions he may have committed, and, freed at last from a stifling hypocrisy, embrace him and the book. Many writers have tried this kind of thing. It never works.

On the merits, the idea that English professors, magazine writers, and intellectuals generally are consciously competing for various types of worldly recognition, and that success in those lines of work requires some awareness of the contours of the playing field, is noncontroversial today. As with members of any profession—rock stars, concert pianists, Olympic athletes, even politicians—there is an implicitly observed and tacitly enforced distinction between what counts as success and what counts as selling out. (In no profession does owning an apartment on West End Avenue constitute selling out.) There is a sociology of intellectual life. Podhoretz’s mistake was to overgeneralize from his own experience.

This is often the flaw in his writing. His most talked-about early piece, “My Negro Problem––and Ours,” published in 1963, an essay about coming to terms with “the hatred I still feel for Negroes,” is based entirely on observations of the young African-American men he encountered as a teen-ager on the streets of Brooklyn or, later, on the sidewalks of the Upper West Side. From these experiences, he is able to conclude that African-Americans are characterized by “superior physical grace and beauty . . . They are on the kind of terms with their own bodies that I should like to be on with mine.” As usual, the root of the problem is envy. The solution? Intermarriage: “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.”

As a personal reflection, “My Negro Problem” is compelling. As a take on the problem of race in the United States, it is ridiculous. For Podhoretz, though, as he confesses in “Making It,” the real significance of the essay was that, by publishing it, he was putting the reputation he had struggled to achieve on the line—and his reputation only got better! (Goodman, however, did tell him he needed to see a therapist.) He called the essay “certainly the best piece of writing I had ever done.” Something like this was his hope for “Making It”: that it would be received as “my ambition problem—and ours.”

The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.

As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.

To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism. The magazine attacked feminism; it attacked homosexuality; it attacked affirmative action. In 1972, Podhoretz wrote a column that effectively announced the new editorial policy. Its title was “Is It Good for the Jews?” He did not mean it ironically. It was exactly the mentality that Cohen and his successors, including Podhoretz I, had been trying to get away from.

Old friends stopped speaking to Podhoretz and old contributors dropped away. They were replaced by a new stable of hawks and neoconservatives: Joseph Epstein, Edward Luttwak, Michael Ledeen, William Bennett, Elliott Abrams (who married one of Podhoretz’s stepdaughters). Podhoretz adopted a new test of his own importance: the celebrity of the people he was no longer speaking to. “It’s important to have enemies,” he once told Cynthia Ozick, “because everything depends on the kind of enemies you have.” (Ozick was a little taken aback.)

In 1972, Podhoretz voted for Richard Nixon in the Presidential election. He voted for Jimmy Carter four years later, but called it “the worst political mistake of my life.” Ronald Reagan was his political messiah, and he believed that Commentary had something to do with his election. “People like us made Reagan’s victory,” he proclaimed in 1983. By 1990, subscriptions were down to twenty-nine thousand, and the magazine was obliged to raise money in order to keep going. It was legally separated from the A.J.C. in 2007.

Podhoretz developed his own interpretation of the reaction to “Making It”: he decided that he was praising the pleasures of success in America, and that his critics were America haters. This doesn’t correspond to what most of the reviewers actually said, but the book did appear at a politically fractious moment, during the height of agitation against the war in Vietnam. Although Podhoretz had been an early opponent of the war, he feared and despised the main active ingredient in the antiwar movement, the New Left.

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The New Left was a problem for the Family. The Family was Old Left turned liberal anti-Communist. The New Left was cavalier about Communism, it was hostile to liberalism, and it was hugely disrespectful of the engine of social mobility that had carried so many members of the Family out of Egypt, the university. And the identity-based movements that emerged after 1965—the women’s movement and black separatist movements like the Panthers—seemed to threaten a crucial value for diaspora Jews, cosmopolitanism. After 1965, if you were a white, male, anti-Communist, and integrationist liberal, Jew or Gentile, whose side were you on? The question split what used to be called the liberal left, and that political-intellectual coalition has never been put back together. The fact that the Podhoretzes stopped being invited to Manhattan cocktail parties was not the cause of the split. But it was a symptom.

The New York intellectual community Podhoretz grew up in was compulsively internecine. Its members were like cats in a bag. They thrived on—they got off on—the narcissism of small differences. People at a magazine with a circulation of ten thousand were more interested in what people at a magazine with a circulation of twenty thousand were saying about Communism than they were in what the President of the United States was saying about it. Life with the Family was like a Thanksgiving dinner from hell. This is why little magazines are little.

In this tiny cosmos, Podhoretz was therefore in the awkward position of being reviewed by people he knew in magazines run by people he knew. Two reviews of “Making It” were especially galling. One was in The New York Review of Books. The reviewer was Edgar Z. Friedenberg, a sociologist, whose piece was not exactly a strike at the jugular; it was mainly focussed on sounding dismissive. Podhoretz was annoyed by it because he had reason to believe that he had “discovered” Friedenberg for Commentary, and now his own writer was condescending to him in someone else’s pages.

Podhoretz assumed that Jason Epstein was behind that review, and he made sure that Epstein’s (rather good) book on the trial of the Chicago Seven, “The Great Conspiracy Trial,” published in 1970, was solemnly lacerated in Commentary by a professor at Yale Law School. The New York Review became a regular punching bag at Commentary, and Podhoretz and Epstein began a feud that was soon made the subject of a long article in the Times Magazine and that is not over yet. (Both men are still with us. It’s amusing that the reprint of “Making It” is from the publishing arm of the Review.)

Podhoretz had better reason to resent the piece that ran in Partisan Review. Mailer was the critic. He had read some of the manuscript and had told Podhoretz how much he admired it, but the piece in Partisan Review was a put-down. Most of the reviews had already come out, and Mailer did his readers a favor by quoting several of the nastiest. (The New Leader had called the book “a career expressed as a matchless 360-page ejaculation,” a phrase Mailer liked so much he quoted it twice.) He summed the book up as “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” It failed, Mailer said, because it didn’t go far enough. Podhoretz had pulled his punches. He should have called out the Family as a bunch of second-raters who were terrified of being exposed. But he was nice to everyone.

Podhoretz was right to rank this as a betrayal. He had known Mailer since 1957, when they met at a party at Lillian Hellman’s, and they had been close friends. He had stood by Mailer through many difficult times. In 1960, after Mailer stabbed and nearly killed his wife during a party in their apartment, Podhoretz was one of the first people he sought out, and he accompanied Mailer to the police station for booking.

Podhoretz had even paid homage to Mailer in the final pages of “Making It.” Mailer had already written a book like “Making It,” Podhoretz admitted; this was “Advertisements for Myself.” That book had come out in 1959, when Mailer was at a low point; it attacked, by name and with Mailer’s special gift for invective, several prominent book publishers and many of Mailer’s contemporaries; and it relaunched Mailer’s career. Podhoretz called it “one of the great works of confessional autobiography in American literature,” and concluded his book by saying he hoped that “Making It” would be appreciated as a similarly bold literary act.

Image result for Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

By 1968, when Mailer wrote his review of “Making It,” his career was at its peak. He had just finished “The Armies of the Night,” which was published in May and which won him his first Pulitzer Prize. That book, a nonfiction account of Mailer’s participation in an antiwar march in Washington, was serialized in two magazines. The first half was published in Harper’s, where Mailer’s editor was Midge Decter, who happens to be Mrs. Norman Podhoretz. The second half was published in Commentary.

Many years later, Mailer was asked why he had turned on his friend. He said that he thought that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the promise of the pages he had read in manuscript. Then why hadn’t he recused himself? The reason, Mailer said, was that he was angry at Podhoretz for not inviting him to a party that Jackie Kennedy was expected to attend. Not the classiest excuse, but at least the punishment fit the crime. 

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse


April 17, 2017

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

 by Paul Levinson and reply by Jonathan Lieberson

In response to:

The Romantic Rationalist from the December 2, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Despite Jonathan Lieberson’s unsubstantiated summary of my In Pursuit of Truth (a Festschrift in honor of Karl Popper’s 80th birthday) as a series of “sugary and obsequious expressions of praise” in your December 2 issue, I found this and the first part of Mr. Lieberson’s two-part essay on Karl Popper’s philosophy to be a generally fair and reasonable attempt to explicate Popper’s work. Lieberson’s achievement, however, is unfortunately marred and nearly nullified by a conclusion that seriously misunderstands one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy.

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Lieberson begins with an essentially accurate description of how Popper’s method of “falsification” or conjectures and refutations seeks to improve upon the traditional Baconian scientific method of induction or absorption of knowledge from mere repeated experience. As Hume and even Sextus Empiricus before him had seen, no amount of induction or positive repeated experience can ever verify or even support a general theory (for all of our repeated observations may merely be at the tip of an iceberg that runs counter to our general theory); but even one negative or counter experience can, as Popper emphasizes, serve to logically falsify or refute a general theory. Thus, no amount of repeated observations of white polar bears can prove or strengthen a theory that all polar bears are white (for we may from then on encounter nothing but black polar bears), but observation of even one black polar bear—assuming it is indeed a black polar bear—means our theory that all polar bears are white cannot be right.

Lieberson then correctly points out, however, that Popper’s fallibilism is so pervasive as to lead Popper to assert that even observations of black or white polar bears are theory-impregnated (we identify the black object that we see as a polar bear rather than, say, a crow, because of theories that we hold about what polar bears look like, the constancies of species, etc.), and thus conjectural, uncertain, and eminently unprovable. How, then, Lieberson asks, may conjectures-and-refutations and its uncertainty be considered an improvement over induction and its problems? And why, recognizing the inconclusiveness of both, should we reject induction and rejoice in falsification? Since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, Lieberson concludes that Popper’s hope for a non-inductive growth of knowledge is an impossible and thus misleading and dangerous ideal, a romantic “wild-goose chase.”

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The problem that Lieberson raises—the conjectural nature of falsifying observations—is indeed profound, and one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper. Indeed, had Lieberson come upon his knowledge of Popper a priori, or from some casual discussion in a classroom, then the conclusions that Lieberson draws from the fallibility of falsifications would be entirely understandable. But the fact of the matter is that Popper himself has continuously raised, addressed, and dealt with this problem throughout his writings, going back to his first published work on scientific method, Logik der Forschung of 1935; and, I am obliged to add, this problem is similarly raised and dispatched with in at least four of the “sugary” essays in my volume. The situation is actually quite simple. We indeed must begin, as Popper does, with the recognition that all observations—whether used to falsify or “verify”—are themselves conjectural, and of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory. We are then faced with a choice: do we use these uncertain, problematic observations to build knowledge inductively, or via a process of conjectures and refutations as suggested by Popper?

Our decision might take into account the fact that induction is, quite independently of the uncertainty of all observations, logically untenable (as Hume had shown, there is no logical warrant that allows us to jump from even a huge number of specifics to a general theory), but that falsification, or the negation of generalities by specifics, is (as Popper and others have shown) quite logically acceptable as a process, even though the contents of that process (the observations) may be forever uncertain. Our choice would thus seem to amount to this: use conjectural, uncertain tools in an illogical process (induction), or use conjectural, uncertain tools in a logical process (falsification). Granting the obvious fact that neither choice can yield perfect or certain knowledge, which one would you choose, Mr. Lieberson?

But if we opt for conjectures and refutations as at least being logically possible, does not the uncertainty of the observations used as refutations condemn us to stagnate in our knowledge, to wallow in a perpetual state of conjecture? Is Lieberson’s characterization of Popperian method as a wild-goose chase appropriate after all? It is not—as a careful reading of Popper and, again, any one of a number of the contributions to my own In Pursuit of Truth makes clear. Indeed, discussions of how knowledge can progress and even flourish despite the endemic uncertainty of our cognition predate Popper by many years, and in Peirce we even find an implication that knowledge grows precisely because it is uncertain (see, for example, the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 1, paragraphs 135-149; for extended discussions of Peirce on certainty and fallibilism, see any of Peter Skagestad’s recent writings).

From among the many arguments for the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world that Popper provides, let us look at but one—the biological or evolutionary analogy central to the field of “evolutionary epistemology,” which is where my own interest in Popper most lies. Assuming the general accuracy of the Darwinian model (but of course alert to its inevitable flaws), we notice three aspects of evolution that have pertinence to the possible growth of uncertain knowledge: (a) all organisms and organic adaptations are imperfect relative to their environments (i.e., they don’t always survive or succeed); (b) all organisms and adaptations appear to develop via a series of trial and error encounters with the environment, with organic characteristics initially generated or “proposed” independently of the environment, and then either eliminated or not by the environment; (c) on the basis of the first two processes, evolution or progressive change does indeed seem to occur, e.g., organisms seem to have developed from simple to complex, from non-intelligent to intelligent, etc., across time.

Now to the extent that the trial-and-error evolution of organisms seems descriptive of the conjectures-and-refutations growth of human ideas—and despite some obvious differences (for example, the important role of intentional rationality in the development of human knowledge), the two processes do seem to have much in common—we have in biological evolution an example of how progress can occur in a world utterly pervaded by, indeed constituted of, imperfection or uncertainty. In other words, if we accept the biological evolution of imperfect organisms as real, the growth of uncertain human knowledge through non-inductive conjectures and refutations seems possible: the nihilism that Lieberson imputes to Popper’s thoroughly conjectural method is unwarranted.

Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution and for that matter the living world itself may be a chimera; reality and all our perceptions of it may be false or even non-existent. Popper’s philosophy does hold open such disturbing possibilities. But Popper’s philosophy also allows, more, encourages us to choose an alternative to the despair of nihilism and the illogic of inductivism, an alternative which seeks to parlay our uncertainty into a genuine, hard-won, painfully groping growth of knowledge. Granted that such a choice is something less than rational—I elsewhere call it “pre-rational”—but a choice and possibility it nonetheless is. It is just this golden egg of opportunity that Lieberson’s banishment of Popper’s wild geese would destroy.

Paul Levinson, Bronx, New York

Jonathan Lieberson replies:

Paul Levinson claims that the conclusion of my pieces on Popper displays a serious “misunderstanding” of “one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy,” namely Popper’s views on the nature and status of “falsifying observations.” But he does not accurately report my thesis: I did not say that since falsifying observation statements (not “falsifying observations”) are “fallible” or “conjectural” Popper’s theory of science falls to the ground. Nor did I claim that “since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, his views are unacceptable.

My difficulty, as I explicitly stated [NYR, December 2] was that a combination of views held by Popper render his alternative to inductionism (as contrasted with Baconian inductivism, which nearly all contemporary philosophers disagree with) a self-defeating and incoherent account of scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. As such, I went on, it does not constitute a serious alternative to inductionism.

Thus, although I certainly discussed it, the problem of falsifying observation statements was not my main concern. I was aware that Popper has repeatedly discussed this problem, which Mr. Levinson believes is “one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper.” I was not aware, however, until I read Mr. Levinson’s letter, that it has been “dispatched with” in his collection of essays. Mr. Levinson claims that the “situation” with regard to falsifying observation statements is “actually quite simple”: all observations are conjectural, “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.” Granting this point, he continues, we should clearly prefer the process of falsification to that of induction, which is “illogical.” I do not agree. While it is true that observation statements are, in a sense, “theory soaked” (as Popper says), not all the theories in which such statements are soaked are of equal merit, and not all observations are “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.”

I wonder whether Mr. Levinson actually believes what he says; for my part, I have no difficulty in concluding that the claim that I am now seated before a typewriter is of far greater “epistemic import” than the abstract theory that the world is entirely made up of butter. I also hold, for reasons I set forth in my articles, that we do upon occasion possess perfectly good reasons for accepting such observation statements as true, a view Popper does not hold. Secondly, while we await an accurate codification of inductive practice—a task to which many philosophers, statisticians, and others have devoted their labors—I do not think that we can responsibly and without qualification claim that induction is “illogical.” That induction does not conform to the standards of deductive logic is obvious, but as I took pains to point out in my essay, there are no good reasons for regarding deductive standards of inference as establishing the standard of rationality in science.

In short, I think I can answer the portentous question Mr. Levinson poses: granting that observation statements are not infallible, and that neither the methods of induction or of falsification can yield perfect knowledge, I continue to hold that induction is an activity—a “method” if you will—that we can in some circumstances rely on. It turns out, accordingly, that my alleged “misunderstanding” of Popper is no such thing, only disagreement.

I must add that the force of the evolutionary tale Mr. Levinson tells toward the end of his letter eludes me. Presumably it is an argument that is intended to contribute toward showing that the “nihilism” I impute to Popper, the view that his account of science describes a wild-goose chase (with respect to the aim of discovering the truth), is unwarranted. But does it do so? First of all, the argument depends upon an analogy that is seriously imperfect: the example of “obvious differences” between the “growth” of conjectures and refutations and the trial-and-error evolution of organisms that Mr. Levinson mentions is only one of many that could be presented—another would be the lack of analogy between the truth of a scientific statement and the adaptation of an organism to an uncertain environment.

Moreover, it is not clear to me that, even if we grant the analogy, the claim that imperfect organisms can develop through trial-and-error encounters with the environment into increasingly complex entities damages any of the points I made. The key issue, it seems to me, concerns “progress,” which in the case of science means making some advance toward the aim of discovering the truth about the world. After all, the whole process of evolution might yet be a non-progressive affair, displaying only a temporary “progressive” character, as indeed some celebrated and dismal evolutionary speculations have suggested. As such, the analogy does not seem to me to support Mr. Levinson’s thesis that he has presented a good argument for “the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world.”

When scientists speak of the growth of knowledge, they do not mean, I take it, simply a gradual increase in the complexity of their guesswork, or the increasingly successful adaptation of guesses to still other guesses. A parlor game or the process of creating myths and fairy tales, spurred on by problems of internal consistency, might exhibit this character; but while science might be an uncertain affair, wouldn’t this be a grossly exaggerated and perverse description of this uncertainty?

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1983/09/29/the-truth-of-karl-popper/

Also read this: http://practicaltheorist.com/article/karl-popper-revisited

Malaysia:Expressing an Opinion or doing Research IS deemed an unlawful act


April 2, 2017

Only Chimpy Malaysia where expressing an Opinion or doing Research IS deemed an unlawful act

by Azmi Sharom@www.thestar.com.my

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FIVE school teachers have been given show cause letters by the Education Ministry for being “excessively” critical of the Government in public forums and the like. I wish I could find out what they said; it would be nice to see what “excessive” is.

The Education Minister also said that civil servants should be loyal to the Government and any criticism should be done via the “correct channels”. But all this silencing of educators is not undemocratic, he says because it is done via the law – namely the General Orders which civil servants are bound by.

How quaint. These are really old justifications that have been used for decades. Firstly, one has to wonder what “proper channels” there are and whether they are effective or not. If these channels are not open to the public (and I am certain by “proper” it is meant “discreet”) then they can easily be ignored.

Secondly, just because a law exists to silence people, that does not make it right. A power provided by legislation can be just as undemocratic as an unfettered discretionary power.

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These five teachers are facing the beginnings of disciplinary action for things which they did outside of the classroom. But the Youth and Sports Minister has chipped in saying that things done within the classrooms should not be used as a “political platform”.

Well, sure, it would be unseemly and inappropriate for any sort of political campaigning to be done in classrooms. Kind of pointless as well, since schoolchildren can’t vote.

But I wonder; what if a history teacher decides to point out the fact that UMNO was late in joining the calls for independence and in fact the originator for that call was the Malayan Left. Would this be political?

And that is just within the context of schools. Universities offer courses and have departments whose entire purpose is to examine critically what happens in society, which includes what the Government does.

A Social Science Department that does not cover race-based policies in the country will not be doing its job. An economics department that does not explore the effect of corruption on the well-being of the country will not be doing its job. A law faculty that does not criticise unjust laws and judgments will not be doing its job.

However, recently, public universities have received a circular, once again written under the authority of legislation meant to control civil servants, where we have been told that we can’t say or do anything that could be deemed as manifesting disloyalty to King, country and government.

Well, I can tell you that makes my job as a Human Rights and Environmental Law lecturer very simple then.bI think I can just turn up to class for the rest of the semester with a guitar and sing Kumbaya with my students for an hour.

Of course I won’t do that. This is because my responsibility as a lecturer, and a teacher’s responsibility, is first and foremost to our students. Our job is to broaden their horizons and to show them not just what is, but what can and should be.

As long as what is being taught is backed up by good research and sound reasoning, then what is said should not be penalised. If we do our jobs well, we produce thinking graduates and by this we serve the people and the nation. Not the Government.

It is not just teachers and lecturers who have been under the cosh recently; university students have not escaped either. Nowadays any show of dissent from students will ensure disciplinary hearings. But one student in particular has had the full force of so called anti-terrorism laws, and all the intense pain and stress that implies for her and her family, used against her.

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This is what I feel today about the Najib Administration. –Din Merican

Siti Nor Aishah Atan was a Master’s student in Universiti Malaya. She was apparently doing research on terrorism, and as part of her work she had in her possession, surprise surprise, books related to the subject. She was arrested last year for being in possession of “illegal” books.

The High Court released her on the grounds that there was no evidence that the books were “illegal”. She was then rearrested and detained without trial under the Prevention of Crime Act for 60 days.

Upon her release she was made to wear an electronic tag and report to the Police once a week. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, unhappy with the High Court, appealed the decision and she was detained without trial again, now under the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act.

My question is this: Siti has been under investigation and watch since September last year; she has been detained for two months, and she has had her movements monitored, so why the need to detain her further? Unless, this girl from Terengganu, is some sort of genius terrorist mastermind (which is the reason why one presumes the A-G’s Chambers are so dogged) or the investigating agencies are utterly incompetent for not being able to find enough evidence to charge her properly in court.

Besides, what she was doing was research. Surely in the face of very real terrorist threats the world over, such research should be carried out and not punished. But then, in a land where civil servants are expected to be docile and lecturers are faced with restrictions which are designed to cow them into total intellectual impotence, logic does not really come into the equation.

Big Challenge for Asian Modernization


March 30, 2017

Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenge for Asian Modernization

by Michael Heng Siam-Heng (received by e-mail with thanks)

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Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s, first Japan, then the Four Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers and now China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century?

How would Asians like this period of their history to be understood and remembered in centuries ahead?  It could be a period of impressive economic growth but also known for its environmental degradation, crimes, corruption, social disparities, religious extremism, and social conflicts. Or it could be a period that draws on the best of human achievements and advances them.  The second case would contribute immensely to a new global civilization characterized by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement, and sustainable economic growth.

I will dwell on four points.  First, on what basis can we argue for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation? Second, is such a historical project necessary? Third, three challenges facing us. Fourth, being in Malaysia, I will briefly touch on roles that can be played by this country.

Conceptual Basis for an Asian Cultural Rejuvenation

History tells us that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. The transformations generate social dislocations that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, and social institutions.  The problems are serious and they engage the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve the issues, these best and brightest draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.

Examples are Ancient Greece, the Spring-Autumn-Warring period of China, the Islamic golden age, and the Maurya and the Gupta period of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. We all know at least a dozen of such names.  These European thinkers or cultural giants acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as a social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization and continue to exert an influence on our thinking and cultures even until today.

The Need for the Historical Project

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Deng Xiao Peng–China’s Great Modernizer–Pragmatist

Ever since Asia suffered defeat and humiliation in its encounters with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realized the crucial importance of reform and modernization in order to face the onslaught. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we see in the case of Japanese imperialistic aggression.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan, through its  Meiji Restoration (明治維新), was the most successful in modernizing its military and economy, fulfilling its national agenda of being both powerful and wealthy. Once powerful, Japan began to behave aggressively, turning Korea into its colony, seizing large tracts of Chinese territories and occupying Southeast Asia. It was a military adventure which ended in total defeat at the closure of WWII.  To use a  simple metaphor, modernization is like the flight of a bird.  It requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing.  The other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.

Fast forward into early 21st century, Asia has regained much of its share of global economy.  Statistics provided by the IMF, the World Bank and transnational banks testify to this shift of economic power from the West.

To the ordinary public, this shift is visible, in the form of improved standards of living, and the new physical landscape.  The most visible is the super-tall buildings – architectural icons of modernity.  Of the ten tallest buildings in the world, 8 are in Asia, 2 in the USA.

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In contrast to the modern landscape in Asian cities, Asia has a string of disturbing social ills.  There is dysfunctional culture exhibited by the people at the top running the show.  State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent.  Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of sync with the demands of a modern economy. In societies where there are modern economic and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack integrity and independence.

Even in a modern economy and society operating efficiently, we need something more.  Again using the example of Japan.  It is the most modern Asian country. Yet its modernization is confined to the fields of economy, technology, and life styles. It has not undergone a philosophical development based on a foundation of critical rationality and humanism. The Japanese nation as whole has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during World War II.

 Three Major Challenges

Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history, namely (a) drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, (b) learning from others, and (c) learning from each other.

The first challenge can be formulated as: how and what Asians can draw from their own cultural and intellectual resources in the process of dealing with new problems.

With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. If a new interpretation provides an effective way in solving problems, the new solution is likely to find easier acceptance because it is framed in language familiar to the people. A sense of continuity is useful in coping with change.

Interestingly, there is often a link between the old and the new. Even a new philosophy is dependent on the intellectual achievements of the preceding centuries and millennia.  A scholar of the European Enlightenment observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas.  Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”  In other words, old beliefs can put on modern attires and assume modern colours. The result is a new idea.

This sounds rather straightforward. But it is not so if we observe carefully around us.  Hardcore conservatives prefer a literal and rigid interpretation of their traditions, all the more so if these are written. There is also the fear that in rejuvenating local culture and tradition to cope with the demands of a modern economy, the local culture and tradition may disappear, and that future generations will become culturally rootless.  Another problem is what to select from the past.

I believe that the proper attitude is to embrace change, and to see culture as something living, tradition as living tradition.  They are products of their times, and they will change with the demands of the time.

The second challenge is how and what to learn from others. To the extent that there are similarities in the issues involved in the transition from pre-modern societies to modern societies, we should learn from others’ experiences, both positive and negative. To quote the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan : “Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views”. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, Asia can certainly learn from them.

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Again like the first challenge, learning from others is not easy. Some believe that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to transplant ideas, values, and institutions that have sprouted and developed in a different culture and a different set of historical conditions.

Take the case of China’s difficult journey of learning after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. While the Chinese leadership welcomed the adoption of obviously more advanced technologies from the West, they had difficulties embracing the Western ideas and value system. The problem is less acute today but is not over.

What happened in China a century ago is happening in West Asia. The common belief was that “Eastern” culture of spirituality was superior to “Western” culture of materialism.  There is a fear that the spirit of local heritage and culture was threatened with destruction by the importation of western ideas and values.

Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. Though the process is complex, it has happened in history, in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Asia, and Europe.

Evidence in history support the claim that we can borrow ideas that originated in a very different historical context, and adapt them to serve local needs or even improve upon them in the process of creative synthesis. Let me list briefly three examples. First example: Southeast Asia was able to adopt religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. These influences from distant lands had originated in settings that were alien to Southeast Asia. Second example is Europe’s absorption of bureaucracy from China. Combining it with check and balance by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master. Third example: Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a profoundly different culture. After centuries of acclimatization, we have a synthesis of the two cultural traditions known as “Chan” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese.

The sensible attitude of learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernization, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West.  Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.

The above two challenges are related. It is difficult to learn from foreign sources and adopt their useful elements if we are not culturally and intellectually confident. With confidence in our own cultural heritage, we are at ease to critically appreciate the achievements of others. And cultural confidence can only stem from a deep and critical understanding of our own cultural roots, to the extent of discarding outdated ideas and practices of our own traditions.

he third challenge is for Asians to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions.  Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language which renders exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude.  Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe and America than their Asian neighbours.  

Given the guarded attitude many Asians have regarding learning from the West, they have less misgivings regarding learning from each other. They can benefit from sharing their experiences in modernization.  In fact, Japan’s path of rapid economic development has provided valuable insights to Southeast Asia and later on China and India. This pattern of economic development is described as the Flying Geese, with Japan as the leading goose. In coping with the broader social and cultural issues arising from modernization, the Middle Eastern countries are more likely to consult the experiences of Malaysia and Indonesia than those from the West.

As a concrete project of mutual learning and co-operation among Asian countries, they can compile a set of books – the Great Books of the East, containing the cream of Eastern intellectual achievements. It is a doable project.  It serves as a platform for top scholars of Asian countries to work together, creating as a byproduct a network Asian intellectuals of similar interests.  It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world.  It world form a key component of common body of knowledge for serious minded global citizens.

Another concrete project is traditional medicine.  Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Middle Eastern medicine. It represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of medical practice, often under poor material conditions. It is thus evidence-based.  However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of western medicine. Its theory needs a modern set of vocabulary and updated to take into account new medical findings. We can think of a productive sharing and conversation among the three streams of Asian traditional medicine. This is an area for active collaboration of Asian countries that can boost the cultural and intellectual confidence of Asia, while making concrete and valuable contributions to healthcare in the whole world.

Malaysia as the Italy of the Asian Mediterranean(Venice)

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Malaysia is unwilling to tap its rich diversity due to myopic Malay-centered leadership and  corruption–Bodoh Sombong

Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas.  Its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. For example, Italy, widely regarded as the birthplace of the European Renaissance, was an important meeting point of different cultures and intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean.

Malaysia can have an important role in such a historical process. Here, the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western) are co-existing as mainstreams of social life. They represent invaluable resources. Southeast Asia is a region with a multi-layered sedimentation of diverse cultures. It is a vibrant, peaceful and forward-looking region when we compare it to other regions with similar historical background. If we borrow the language of the European Renaissance, Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Malaysia can aspire to be the Italy of Asia (Venice).

Reinventing prevalent social-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes.  It is part of the efforts of a society to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is through such processes of renewal that societies try to overcome internal stagnation and meet external challenges.

The process touches societies profoundly, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture, and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concepts of goodness, truth, and beauty.  The blossoming of culture represents the sublimation of the human spirit, the enrichment of human experience and the nurturing of human nature towards goodness. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a historical soul.

Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.

The rise of Asia may thus be conceived of as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity. Will they translate the opportunity into a mission, and turn it into a reality?

The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking.  It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global.   This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long term well-being of humanity.  As co-operation and competition with the West can be expanded to include friendly co-operation and competition in the field of ideas, this new arena could well be an alternative to the geopolitical rivalry between an emerging China and a US in decline.

Let us imagine that East Asia or South Asia could provide a case of cultural revival together with economic modernization.  It would be an attractive alternative to the current Western model for the Middle East. It may offer new insights and solutions for solving the whole array of social, economic and political problems there.

If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilization to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilization.  It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.

This is the text of the author’s public lecture delivered at the Sungei Long Campus of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman on  March 17, 2017.