On Looking Into the Abyss

On Looking Into the Abyss

Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society

Book - 1994
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In On Looking Into the Abyss one of our most distinguished historians--author of Victorian Minds and Poverty and Compassion--brings her prodigious learning and authoritative moral vision to bear on the present. In particular, Gertrude Himmelfarb is concerned with exposing the intellectual arrogance and spiritual impoverishment of our most fashionable current ideas--and with tracing their dire consequences for our collective life.
Publisher: New York : Knopf, 1994.
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780679428268
0679428267
Branch Call Number: 973.9 H576
Characteristics: xvi, 192 pages

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dennismmiller
Nov 30, 2016

In On Looking into the Abyss, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb looks at the state of the study of history in the last decade of the twentieth century and is appalled by what she sees. Humanism is simultaneously threatened by a history from below that not only excludes heroes, but also villains, and a structuralist approach that denies free will and therefore moral agency. Meanwhile, the absolute relativism of postmodernism advocates the abandonment of any kind of commitment to academic standards or objectivity, the latter being seen as a myth and the former instruments of repression in the service of that myth. The result, Himmelfarb claims, is "an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide".

Those seeking a sensationalistic jeremiad or a reactionary call to arms will be disappointed by Himmelfarb. While she takes seriously the dangers she perceives in postmodern fads, her response is consistent with the values for for which she is arguing. In place of outrage she conducts careful analyses of the dehumanization essential to Marxist ideology and the nature of liberty in Mill's philosophy. The result is not only more interesting but more enduring than an impassioned screed.

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