Review of The Closing of the American Mind

Sheldon Wolin, review of The Closing of the American Mind, Theory and Society, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Mar. 1989), pp. 273-282.


Moreover, Bloom deceives his readership by failing to own up to the hornet’s nest of complications that arises once so much is wagered on a rejection of “openness” and “cultural relativism.”(T he irony here, that only the self-critical spirit fostered by Western rationalism would be capable of seriously entertaining cultural relativist views, apparently escapes him. In this sense, philosophical relativism can be traced back to the sophists of the fifth century B.C.; it is, contra Bloom, an eminently Western phenomenon.) As Bloom remarks at one point (41), “Openness, as currently conceived, is a way of making surrender to whatever is most powerful or worship of vulgar success, look principled.”  Yet, this rejection of openness sits poorly with his impassioned defense of the autonomy of the university.  But Bloom would like to eat his cake and have it too. A defense of university autonomy sanctions the value-pluralism that is implicit in the concept. Yet, the notion of value-pluralism itself, and the intellectual tolerance it implies, is not so far removed from the unprincipled” openness” Bloom deplores. Similarly, Bloom fudges the issue when it comes to addressing the possible intellectual alternatives to the value-relativism he scorns. For on the one hand, were he to define his own conception of the “the Good,” or a positive value scheme, too narrowly he would slide into a dangerously non-Western position of value-absolutism, with all the distasteful intolerance that necessarily attends such a stance. On the other hand, if Bloom merely insists on the need to pursue “an indeterminate Good,” however one may choose to define it, he will find himself once more in discomfiting proximity to the camp of the pluralist namby-pambies.  Either way, Bloom loses out.