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New Left Review 94, July-August 2015


David Simpson

CONSTRUCTING THE LIBERAL SUBJECT

The ambition of this book—Mark Greif’s first—is to identify a set of ideas from the relatively recent past, dated with arresting precision to the forty years from 1933, which bear on the present we now inhabit. [1] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford 2015, £19.95, hardback 434 pp, 978 0 691 14639 3 It is an American past, or very largely so, and its defining feature as a passage of thought, Greif argues, was a proliferation of attempts at a universalist account of human nature—far from outdated, even if it is, in many circles, wholly discredited. He begins with the observation that a great many of the mid-twentieth century’s prominent intellectuals concerned themselves with the fate of ‘man’, or ‘mankind’, mostly seen as in a state of urgent crisis. The first part of his argument offers a history and interpretation of this compulsion. For Greif, the ‘crisis of man’ debate acted as a kind of ‘unseen principle of determination’ throughout this period, exerting a gravitational force across ‘the whole space of public thought’ in the us from the thirties to the seventies. If this has so far gone unrecognized, it is in part because the different aspects of the ‘crisis of man’ discourse have hitherto only been seen inside their own intellectual-historical compartments: the ‘nature of man’ as a foundational problem for political theory since Aristotle; the critique of capitalist modernity as a problem for ‘man’ since Weber, or Marx, or the Romantics; the inter-war ‘crisis of liberalism’, both economic and democratic; liberalism’s (troubled) post-war reaffirmation; the ‘Free World’ defence of the individual against totalitarianism, as leading ideology of the Cold War.

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