Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Imagine yourself effortlessly floating on your back in a warm sea, perfectly calm and content. The vague sound of the surf is just audible, a soothing husssh in your ear; the sky above is a deep and soothing blue streaked with white and golden cloud. The day is perfect. It is as if you have been here from eternity. You are at ease and at peace.

You turn your head gently to one side; something catches your eye among the sparkles on the water. You focus on its movement, and it becomes clear: about twenty feet away from your face, and twice as big as your face, the obvious and unmistakable curve of a dorsal fin. Shark. Huge. Shark.

If you are like me, it doesn’t even register in words. It’s a electro-chemical bolt of lightning through your chest. Get out, get out, fuck, fuck get OUT GET OUT—MY GOD GET OUT NOW , GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!


I had gone through an excruciating break-up. My life, which during the affair had been up-ended in delirium and zero-gravity awe, had suddenly short-circuited. It had happened in about two days, a vertigo-making implosion that I’d helped precipitate without being able to stop myself, always thinking the next thing I did would fix everything, always being sickeningly wrong, until I was more abjectly undone than I would have thought possible. My ego had been pulped; the regret and utter incapacity I felt left me stupid and barely communicative. Each evening, after barely pretending to work all day, I limped home feeling like I had been run over in the street. Every muscle was tightened into a grimace of denial and fear. I ran the hottest bath the plumbing would produce and soaked for hours, trying to induce the slightest relaxation.

After a week or two or seven of this, something slightly more normal reasserted itself. Slowly and inconsistently at first, I began to be able to think again. I was sitting on the bus one day, trying helplessly for the nth time to go over what had happened. I believed then and I believe now that, corniness or sentimentality notwithstanding, love is the experience which bestows our lives with meaning. The hallmark-card sense of this does not make it false. I was reflecting on this when it occurred to me that, nonetheless, it is obviously only half the story. It was so obvious as to be an algorithm: If you love, you will also, and inevitably, hurt and be hurt. It’s a pop song, it’s a Hallmark card, it’s a stupid slogan, and it’s true. If and insofar as you love, you will cause the one you love pain, great pain, probably the worst pain, and you will be caused it, tipped as I had been into one of the outer levels of Hell. Which means: the thing that makes life worth living is the same thing that makes life Hell. Not as a corollary; as an identity.

In another mood I might have been struck by this as if it were a kind of thought-provoking paradox, a sparkly toy to amuse the mind. That wasn’t how I felt. It struck me in my stomach, with the same hammer-force as if I had realized there was a shark in the water: GET OUT GET OUT NOW FUCK FUCK GET OUT! It wasn’t the fear (or reality) of emotional pain, but the identity of the meaning-bestowing and Hell-making, that was so shockingly intolerable, un-processable. I can’t live here. Unacceptable. I wanted and desperately needed to leap physically, in a direction perpendicular to the human condition, out of the world.


Many months passed, turning into a year and two years. I meditated on this strange identity. I knew very well that the notion of “leaping out” was nonsensical. “The thought of suicide”, Nietzsche remarked, gets a man through many a difficult night, and I have often thought that if I really felt I had cause to complain, well, I knew where the Exit door was -- but in truth I don’t believe that there is an Exit, not like that. The shark is real, and the water is real; what isn’t real is escape. You can despair, or you can make friends with the shark. There is no getting out of the water, I thought.

This little improvised koan became the object of much meditation. It appeared on my screen-saver, trailing across in (of course) red.

For a while, I thought I had solved it. What had actually happened, though, was that I had mistakenly elided a crucial detail, and in so doing I had tamed the shocking truth into a maxim; I had in fact Hallmark-ised it. Little by little, I began to lose grasp of the brute insight that had sparked the koan. I had slowly come to identify the shark with the suffering occasioned by love, instead of the fact that it is love which causes and undergoes suffering. The shark is the necessary coincidence of the occasion of suffering with the site of meaning. But this is confusing and difficult to keep firmly before the mind. I slid into a lazy if still twitchy distraction, content with having reached a comfortable resting-place.

Occasionally, as the months turned into years and then into a decade, I did remember the full koan. I meditated on it a great deal when I fell in love again; when I got married, it wove its way between the lines of the vows my wife and I wrote. But in fact, usually the water is warm and comfortable, or else there’s a lot of swimming to do and I forget.


Two months ago my father died after a brief and unexpected illness. I made it to his bedside for the last eighteen hours of his life. He was sedated and unconscious, and although I tell myself that he could hear what we said, or at least knew we were there, I do not know. Towards the end, as his heart was failing, it seemed to me that its rate would slow and it would slide into a non-sinus rhythm as long as I kept speaking to him. My mother, albeit exhausted from being awake for two nights in a row, had managed to get a blessed hour of sleep and was able to feel present and undistracted. As she held his hand and told him, “It’s all right, honey; we love you. You can go,” I was watching his heart monitor and watched his heart rate fall to zero immediately. (My sister noted at the funeral that my father always waited for my mother.) Although this is the sort of thing that calls to mind the phrase “anecdotal evidence,” in the end it is that sort of evidence of which our experience is made.

My mother went home. She thought she would fall asleep immediately. But it wasn’t what happened. Instead, she said, when she began to cry, she couldn’t stop. “It was like a banshee wail. It kept coming and coming. It was terrifying.” The cry went through her like a hailstorm. The next day, when she told me about it, she recalled a Buddhist friend’s husband’s funeral; nothing in my mother’s Mormon background had readied her for the fifteen-minute long ritual wail her friend made. My mother looked into my eye and said, “I was a good Buddhist yesterday.” Afterwards, she had looked in the mirror, frightened by her own grief-reddened face; but then she did sleep, and after she awoke, there was a great calm. “I’ve cried since then, but not like that,” she told me. “There’s a widow’s cry. It’s not like any other cry. I’ve cried it.”

And with that I felt the shark brush by my side.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Peter Kingsley: tone versus vision

Peter Kingsley's vision of philosophy is as a spiritual practice; an interweaving of discourses and exercises that induced trance, altered consciousness, all aimed at cultivating insight, transforming one's experience of the ordinary world, and preparing the human being for the ultimate journey of death (and rebirth). Kingsley is capable of making the case for this with forthrightness and formidable scholarship. His first book (Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic) is a powerful and well-argued re-reading of the tradition, mainly centered on Empedocles, but moving backward and forward with care, and trawling a broad set of data (scholarly, historical, anthropological, philosophical) to make his case. This was an exciting book, similar to but different from the work of Hadot, for instance. Those who, like myself, were already well-disposed to the notion of philosophy as a tradition, were eager to see what Kingsley would do next.

What he did next was change horses. In the Dark Places of Wisdom shows just as much comfort with the ancients and with scholarship as Ancient Philosophy, but it is written in a different key, a popular key; Kingsley was taking his message to the masses. He traces the lineage of Empedocles and Parmenides back through Greek religious and oracular practice, marshaling archaeology and textual analysis along the way, but clearly trying to keep this potentially intimidating array of evidence in its right proportion compared to the real issue, which is for him always the living possibility of philosophical insight now.

I liked this new tone, and I certainly liked the project; In the dark Places of Wisdom is still I think the best place to enter Kingsley's writings unless you are immune to being impressed by and intimidated by scholarship. But there was something else about Kingsley's second book that I didn't like so much, but couldn't quite place until I read -- on my second or third attempt -- his next one, the enormous tome Reality. Almost from the first of its six hundred pages, I felt a mounting sense of irritation, which did not diminish. It was like what I sometimes feel when reading Derek Jensen, another thinker I so often agree with and yet whose knowing fury I find painful to tread through (though Jensen is a better writer). There was a smugness, and simultaneously a weird defensiveness, as if every sentence were accompanied by a "what are you staring at" attitude, a unilateral "what? what?" that oozed out. And at the same time, a missionary zeal undercut the aggression, a plaintive petition for fair hearing; but always accompanied by this too-sure separation of receptive sheep from dubious goats.

It wears on one. Just how often can one read sentences like "Of course, these conclusions are scoffed at, or more often ignored, and nothing is easier if you want to close your eyes to the truth... but if you have willingness to see, you'll have your life transformed..."?

To be fair, I made that last one up, but if you open Reality at random, you'll find plenty pretty much like it. And the same is true, alas, of Kingsley's most recent book A Story Waiting to Pierce You. This is a pity, for it is in some ways his most accessible and (despite its slenderness) most ambitious work. (A sympathetic review is here.) Kingsley here traces, or tries to trace, the Pythagorean roots of Western philosophy via Mongolian shamanism to Tibetan Bön and the proto-tradition of the Amerindians. The main hinge in Kingsley's case is the textual record pertaining to Abaris the Hyperborean, a figure who came from the north walking in a great circle and carrying a golden arrow; we know of Abaris from scattered references in a number of ancient writers, and Kingsley's footnotes refer one to Herodotus, Pausanius, Iamblichus (especially), and all the other testimonia, but also (and this it seems is the more original part of the thesis) to anthropological literature on shamanism, especially from Siberia and Mongolia, where he finds many telling parallels. Here Kingsley makes a decent case, and one could come away convinced if it were not for the sense that one was being bullied into it. His prickliness at the ancients when they exhibit skepticism (Herodotus especially) and at the moderns when they are, well, modern, makes even the best-disposed of readers (and I am already three-quarters convinced before I open his book) turn skeptical in turn. He breezes past some difficulties and lingers over others, but always with the same belaboring "he-with-eyes-to-see" attitude. For instance, pesky chronology is barely acknowledged (the fact that Abaris and Pythagoras are said to have encountered each other despite being, by other reckonings, as much as six centuries apart), in order to contest, if that is the word, the Pythagoreans' assertions about what happened in that alleged meeting. Kingsley wants to make Abaris out as a kind of link between an ancient shamanic tradition and Pythagorean theurgy, so it is important to downplay or dismiss Greek claims that the recognition or initiation was the other way around. Despite this tendentiousness, his arguments here and elsewhere are plausible and his vision is inspiring. As he makes his case for cultural diffusion, he traces particular motifs (the theme of a five-arrow bundle being unbreakable in comparison to a single arrow, for instance) from the Mongols to Greece in one direction and to the Iroquois in the other; this geographical breadth is matched by the urgency and relevance he clearly believes the tradition has (or can have) to us now. This mission notwithstanding, Kingsley is not moved by mere enthusiasm; he is confident of his ground, and the apparatus makes it clear that he knows what he's doing with this material (though I have heard occasional complaints that he does not always credit all his sources). The endnotes, at least as long as the main text, are better-written (and often less tendentious) than the book itself, and many of them are little essays. They remind me of some of Ken Wilber's good ones in the last third of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

I don't know what success Kingsley is likely to get, or has got, with his popularizing strategies. I certainly do not think that philosophy is obliged to be polite, and certainly not to confirm people in their prejudices. Philosophy will confuse you, irritate you, scare you; tell you you are wrong, tell you to change your life. If it doesn't get you in trouble, it's not philosophy. God knows Socrates pissed some people off. But to my ears, Kingsley lacks (at least on the page) a certain Socratic balance and humility, to say nothing of good humor. (This may not distress him overmuch, as Kingsley -- like Nietzsche, now that I think of it -- seems to think Socrates is about where things started to go wrong.) Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic is a fine piece of work, admirably free from his later three books' growing stylistic faults. The mix in the later work of annoying alteration between cloying congratulation (if you buy in) and brusque Bulverism (if you don't) risks burying in bluster their central urgent insight.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews Recap

Looking back at the twelve- or thirteen-part series as a whole, I find:
* Two reviews of Christian theology (Just Thomism, Glory to God for All Things)

* Two reviews of literary criticism and poetics (Isola di Rifiuti, Poems and Poetics).

* Two reviews of socio-political history and current events, one respectably mainstream, one fringey (Duck of Minerva, Disinformation)

* Two reviews of philosophy (Meaningness and Noir Realism)

* One review of Jewish thought (The Talmud Blog).

* One review of music (Rate Your Music)

* One review of cuisine (Smitten Kitchen)

* One attempted review of Occultism (Light of a Golden Day, but you're out of luck on that one -- the site's gone)

* One review of general smart-person topical writing about things that interest him (Slate Star Codex)
This is actually not a bad rough sketch of my general interests, in something approaching realistic (if not very fine-grained) proportion.

A lot got left out. A more fine-tuned self-portrait would include more more scholarship -- classical, medieval, modern. Also Anthropology ("hard" and "soft"), contemporary science from neurobiology to cosmology and physics, and mathematics, which I read as the interested layperson I am. But of course mostly what was left out was more philosophy. To remind anyone who may care, the original notion was to mention blogs I had not already mentioned in other connections. This automatically excluded a scad or more (how much is a scad?) of philosophy blogs, and I'm not sure I didn't cheat a little when I snuck in Noir Realism.

The series kept me writing and posting, but it was also a little distracting, and I'm not sure whether I'll attempt anything similar next year. But I do find it interesting, in retrospect, to see that someone could get a fairly good idea of my concerns and interests just from the list of what's included in this series, and yet wouldn't have a clue about what I actually thought. What they'd know is a rough idea of where I thought the interesting issues were; but not my own poor attempts at the answers. There's a reason for that. It's the same reason Plato mentions in the Seventh Letter.

Mandelstam did not say, "It suffices to recount the blogs he has read, and his biography is complete." It is interesting to think about why this would completely deform what he meant.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"This was to fulfill..."

I wrote earlier about the way the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent seems to undercut its setting. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, something similar (and different) occurs. Much of the Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) attends to St. Joseph:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Joseph and Mary are bound by marriage (the text is usually translated with some reference to "engagement" but the culture at the time considered an engaged couple "married," for legal purposes, even though the ceremony was in the future); the Law permits Joseph to call for a public tribunal inquiry into whether Mary has become pregnant as a result of a liaison she entered into willingly, or whether she was forced. Joseph's decision to forego all such investigation shows him to be a man who is not simply observant of the Law but fully attuned to its spirit; he does not insist on his rights, he does not bank on the privilege his position gives him; he is ready to do everything he feels called upon to do. It is after this readiness that his dream says to him: something further, something orthagonal to the Law, is transpiring. And yet in it, both the law and the prophets are fulfilled. It is via Joseph that Jesus' connection to the Davidic promise derives; Joseph is Jesus' father in the eyes of the Law by virtue of having named Him. Modern commentators worry over the words that get rendered as "virgin," the Masoretic text's almah (strictly speaking this is inexact; lexicographers assure us that the word more precisely means "young woman") and the LXX's (accurate) parthenos, but Matthew is not concerned with these. What is all the more striking is that Matthew provides the explicit gloss on "Emmanuel," and an implicit one on "Jesus", i.e., "Joshua", but he passes over in silence the obvious fact that these names are not the same name -- this despite his presenting the one narrative as the fulfillment of the other.

So the Law is thus not abrogated, but its fulfillment in letter and spirit point beyond it, to something strange and new. And prophecy is presented as fulfilled in a manner that clearly is not "literal" (it is precisely the letter which is not fulfilled), but in such a way that the writer does not bat an eye at any discrepancy.

The first Sunday of Advent, the reading (in the liturgical context of the beginning of the Year): you cannot measure time accurately, you cannot know the times. It is about the future exceeding the present. The fourth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel is about the present exceeding the past. This puts the matter far too schematically; the point however is that whatever scheme we have in place is fulfilled precisely in being shown to fail as too schematic.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XII: Smitten Kitchen

This twelfth and last of the Brief Blog Reviews is devoted to the hedonistic art of cooking. It was one of Plato's favorite discourses to borrow from; it was, W.H. Auden said, the only art in which the 20th century had truly excelled. And so I commend to you this culinary gem, Smitten Kitchen.

Besides featuring really lovely photographs, a calming cream-white and dusk web design reminiscent of blue china plates, and a charming across-the-table conversational style, Smitten Kitchen casts as wide a net as ever I have found on a cooking blog, presenting recipes from as many culinary styles as I can name. (As an experiment, I typed as many "-ese" and "-ish" and "-ian" ethnic names into the search function as I could think of, one after another. I finally pretty much stumped it with 'Sudanese'. Some of those hits come from the comments section, but I'm reviewing the blog as a whole, and its community of readers is part of that -- especially when they report their own variations on the recipes.) There is savory, there is salty, there is spicy, there is hot, there is sweet, there is sour, there is umami. Soup, salad, sandwich, pastry, pasta, casserole, cocktail, canape, main course, or weird in-between cross-over, every third day or so you can find a new recipe, sometimes a whole new menu or a whole new family of food. All you need is the resolution to attempt it.

There's an element of privilege in concerning oneself with cuisine. That issue is the matter for a separate post, but I would argue that anyone who struggles to put food on the table (and that's been me, more than once in my life) ought to care about what happens next -- indeed, insisting on that care is one of the ways to keep hold of the self-respect poverty can drain away. And the good news is that Smitten Kitchen is as economically smart as it is enthusiastic.

Her catholicity notwithstanding (maybe that's a funny word to use for a Jewish cook, but I stand by it), Deb Perelman (Smitten's chef and writer) declines to present "fussy foods" which require ultra-specific parameters or ingredients (say, those infused oils or special varieties of pepper you can only get at some out of the way snooty specialty store, or via catalog). She likes food that is comfortable and easy to prepare (as is necessary in her very small kitchen). But this does not prevent her from making chocolate souffle cupcakes or hollandaise sauce, or poaching an egg (which is not as easy as you might think); and she knows there is a difference between organic produce and what comes from factory farms. She scrupulously credits her sources, acknowledges her tweaks, and shamelessly enjoys her results, which are presented in such succulent and juicy graphic splendor that, though it be cliché, I am tempted to write you can almost taste them from the photos. I think you can smell them, anyway. She writes writes about these with style and aplomb and self-deprecating humor, and with the unobtrusive confidence of a good teacher -- the confidence that makes you think, "I could try that." Go. Try that. I assure you it's a good idea.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge

I am always bemused by the Gospel reading at the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year: Matthew 24:36-44:
"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."
This is the Gospel with which the year commences; it occurs in its precisely calibrated position of an intricate system of days and their correlated readings, meant to align a seven-day cycle with a 365-day solar cycle, complicated by a lunar calendar on which it has been overlaid. In this elaborate apparatus of timekeeping and ritual observance, every feast of the church finds its place, and is observed with ordained scripture, prayer, and psalmody. Obligation to feast or to fast is specified. Colors of vestments, melodies for chant, kinds of incense, are indicated for different seasons. All is mapped out with extraordinary attention to detail (although there is also great local variation). And prefacing the entire cycle, in pride of place as the first Gospel reading of the year, is a warning that none of our careful calibration will suffice to indicate when the hour will come for which we wait. It will intervene (if the future-tense "will" even makes sense in this connection) from a plane orthagonal to all mortal timekeeping whatsoever. Our painstaking and precise calendar, this product of human ingenuity and refinement, has seen to it that this reminder of its own short-circuiting is built in to its recurrent initial moment.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews XI: Disinformation

I’m posting this Brief Blog Review on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so it seems appropriate to go way out on a paranoid limb. This month’s review is of the prolific and imperfect Disinformation, a witch’s brew of all sorts of minority and fringe positions. You name it, you’ll find it here: mind-control, surveillance, anti-vaccination, 9/11, hyper-elite secret cabals, alien invaders, and scads more. Most of the blogs reviewed in this series have one or two posts a week. Disinfo has sometimes ten or twenty in a day. Way too many. Too many to read, too many to take in. Nonetheless, I’m putting Disinfo up here as the best single-source digest of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style”, and not just because we need a bunch of cautionary tales. I admit that I am probably more open to raising my eyebrows at the received version of the daily news, no matter which appointed gatekeeper has passed it on stamped “Approved for General Distribution.” Truth be told, with corporate offices in NYC and several glossy publications (and a television series) to its credit, Disinfo is already itself dangerously close to becoming an alternative gatekeeper for the self-styled cynical hip -- skepticism (of a sort) commodified. But my commending the paranoid style isn’t so much about content. I cut my teeth on Robert Anton Wilson, that zetetic apostle, and while I obviously think that one must problematize doubt as well as certainty, there is much to commend a serious and recurrent engagement with Not Buying What You Are Told.

I once was at a spiritual retreat with a number of other people, including a gracious and articulate woman who suddenly surprised me by expressing dismay over the many “chemtrails” she observed in the otherwise blue sky. Whoo-boy, I thought, and tried to gently redirect the conversation. It was considerably later that I reflected: I don’t know what “warrant” she thinks she has for “believing” in chemtrails, but what warrant do I have for disbelieving in them? I went around in circles a few times like this: “Well, if that were true, then... then, the experts... then somebody would have... I mean, somebody other than those people...” Sigh. Honesty finally compelled me (not without a fight) to confess that it mostly boiled down to “chemtrails” seeming, well, just outlandish. Crazy. Paranoid. In short, I wasn’t really thinking. I had already decided, on purely extra-intellectual considerations, that I need not think. This idea was beyond the pale.

Now, is this a bad reason to not consider any given hypothesis? No, not really; or not always. No one has the time, energy, and competence to decide the merits of every last claim “on the evidence.” Sometimes parsimony has to suffice, and doubtless it is often right that it suffices. But one may concede this finitude of personal resource, without resigning oneself to the conveniently available default positions of one’s demographic. It is very easy to act as if one has rejected the “obviously” false, nutty, weirdo claims on some kind of evidence, and forget that one is shooting from the hip of prejudice. Remembering this is one part of what it means to remember that one is awash in a sea of ideology.

There are indeed ideas that are beyond the pale. Some ideas I cannot entertain even if I try. They are not, as William James put it, “living options” for me. But ideas don’t just start out that way by definition, nor do they inevitably remain that way. It is worth asking why certain hypotheses with a general family-resemblance to each other tend to recur in the paranoid fringe, but it’s also worth noting that ninety percent of the time, the term “paranoid fringe” is already a way of chiming in with your superego’s not-so-subtle “Nothing to see here. Move along.” On most days, chemtrails still seem beyond the pale to me. But I don't pretend that I have, or understand, any evidence that makes them plausible or not. And I am less cozy living within the pale; it no longer seems so self-evidently solid to me.

Disinfo’s posts, all presented in a well-designed format whose readability is several cuts above the average paranoid site, are cumulatively a virtual smorgasbord of Things They Don’t Want You To Know. It'll point you to reports that vaccine companies falsify evidence; that incandescent light bulbs are more efficient than fluorescent lights, and safer as well; that fluoride in the water is lulling you into a sleepy conformism, and the evidence is precisely that you find the claim outlandish! These are just a few of the more boring examples. Plenty of the Usual Suspects (Bilderbergers, Trilateralists, Bohemian Grove, Skull’n’Bones, and so on), plenty of surprising eye-openers, lots of conflicting points of view (as I write there is a post on the “selectively doubting” psychology of conspiracy theorists). Most importantly, there is a certain sense of humor about the whole thing, a levity which nonetheless usually resists the temptation to treat the whole thing as a joke (and although it does tend towards the typical standard-issue suspicion of organized religion, there are exceptions even here). Disinfo won’t leave you knowing what to believe or what not to, but it might get the question, “Why don’t I believe that?” to be a little more explicit... and the answer, a little less automatic.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Argument Against Naturalism, and intellectual fashion

Jim S at the blogs Quodlibet and Agent Intellect has been publishing a series on the so-called “Argument from Reason,” an argument purporting to show that naturalism is flawed at best and self-contradictory at worst precisely insofar as naturalism is a set of conclusions arrived at by rational means. This argument was formulated in a succinct form by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, and it was the object of an attack by Elizabeth Anscombe in a famous exchange between the two thinkers at the Socratic Club, an exchange which, philosophical folklore has it, Anscombe was generally perceived to have “won” and which certainly issued in Lewis’ revision of the relevant portion of his book for the second edition. The series just reached its seventh and possibly last installation, and is well worth reading.

I know plenty of people, including Christians and theologians, who do not take Lewis seriously as a thinker. I think this is a mistake. He is not a major philosopher or theologian like, say, Lonergan, or even like his friend Austin Farrer; it would have appalled him to be considered one. But he is one of the preeminent minds of the 20th century when it comes to what used to be called "men of letters," a category which in the long run may be the more significant. (It is not the same as "intellectuals.")

The "Argument From Reason," is not, of course, Lewis’ alone; a number of other thinkers, notably Plantinga, adapted it. It seems to me to be one of those convenient litmus tests for “kinds of thinkers;” nobody tends to be neutral about it. You either find it compelling (at least in a strange sort of way, maybe like the ontological proof of God), or you find it makes you squirm with impatience -- how could anyone ever find such an “argument” persuasive?! This makes it a either a conversation-stopper or an ideal conversation-starter, depending.

The argument, in very rough, indeed caricaturish, outline, is as follows: naturalism is the claim that nothing but natural processes exist and occur. These processes are all cause-and-effect processes; indeed, according to naturalism, there is no other kind of process. Such processes, being exhaustive of everything, obviously per hypothesis include the human mind and its conclusions, whether false or true. But this entails, then, that any true conclusions must have been occasioned by cause-&-effect, and in fact by “causes” that are not strictly what we recognize as “reasons” at all. We can, in fact, not have reasons for believing anything at all, including naturalism, if every “reason” reduces to a cause in the ordinary sense.

Anscombe’s case against Lewis has a decidedly “analytic” flavor to it (unsurprisingly), even an “ordinary-language” flavor, as, e.g., her argument that a reason is not what produces a belief but is rather “what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.” This reads like everyday common-sense to someone who has been steeped in Wittgenstein, and the first several times I encountered it I breezed right past, but in fact it is starkly implausible and surely gets the phenomenology of insight very skew. Nonetheless, the story of Anscombe’s “defeat” of Lewis became a kind of bit of received wisdom, an anecdote substituting for an argument, and has played a role both in the general dismissal of the “Argument from Reason,” and its adoption by special interests, like Plantinga’s -- widely perceived as rear-guard actions in a losing defense of Christianity against the inevitable progress of science. I have some sympathy for the underdog in that scenario, but framed in those terms, it will never do.

I have come to regard the Lewis-Anscombe debate as a late and minor skirmish in a war that was already over, had in fact been over for some time. Lewis’ intellect was shaped, as he said himself, out of the confluence of a number of factors: leaving aside aesthetic and what we would (but he would not) have called existential concerns, these were Scottish common-sensism (derived from Reid) and the Idealism of Bradley, Green, Bosanquet, and so on. Neither of these were the atmosphere of the Socratic Club at Cambridge. The atmosphere that made Anscombe’s arguments so persuasive, so that the verdict of the audience was that Lewis needed to make his argument “more rigorously analytical,” was one that had been made by Russell and Moore, and by Wittgenstein. This does not mean that those audience members simply concluded that Anscombe was right “because they were analytical philosophers” -- as though the weight of the arguments themselves were so much sizzle. To say this would be to commit the fallacy Lewis memorably described as Bulverism. But one may avoid Bulverism and still acknowledge that fashions matter in the history of thinking; that conclusion which look altogether inevitable in one context look starkly implausible in another; and that adjudicating between these contexts is no simple matter of “merely thinking honestly.” We think in contexts, not outside of them.

In fact, a second or third look at the famous disputes -- mainly between Russell and Bradley -- which re-shaped the philosophical landscape in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century, leaves little room for doubt that the change was not decided on the merits of the arguments alone. This re-evaluation has been undertaken by Stewart Candlish in a really valuable work of scholarship (and not just scholarship), The Russell/Bradley Dispute. From a hundred years’ distance, it is obvious that Bradley was not “defeated” by Russell’s arguments, and that in many cases Russell seriously misconceived what Bradley had said or meant. What really happened, it seems to me, is that philosophers got tired of talking in one way, and were excited and intrigued by the possibilities of talking in another way. This sociological slant does not mean that there is no such thing as genuine philosophical insight to be had. It does not consign us to a maze of relativism. But it does mean we must be more cautious in rejecting out of hand positions to which we are unsympathetic, or at least, assuming that we have the weight of argument on our side when we do so.

Of course, if Lewis is correct, claiming that “the weight of argument” has any bearing on the case at all, may commit us to certain other ramifications -- not just epistemological, but ontological. For a deeper consideration of those claims, I refer you to the Quodlibet series, and its numerous references.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"It's like..."

Ombhurbhuva has a short post commenting on Shakara’s use of the notion of the sun’s reflection in water as an extended metaphor for Brahman. An objection is put forward to the effect that the comparison is not apt in every respect. For Sankara, this is a feature, not a bug. The citation, in part, goes:
A material thing, such as water, is seen to be clearly separate from and remotely placed from the sun etc. which are themselves material entities (with forms). There it is proper that an image of the sun should be formed. But the Self is not such a material entity (having form); and since It is all-pervasive and non-different from all, It can have no limiting adjuncts either separate or remote from It.
Shankara responds:
nobody can show equality in every respect over and above some point of similarity in some way...For if such an all-round similarity exists, the very relation between the illustration and the thing illustrated will fall through.
This is a crucial element of analogical thinking, but (at least to me) also extremely difficult to grasp, despite looking simple. We routinely analogize in conversation, and then, when our rough-spun comparison bumps into a problem, we usually say something like, "well, here the metaphor falls apart." Sometimes we take this in stride, but other times it leaves us oddly dissatisfied, as though something promised had failed to be delivered.

The really pertinent question is not, "what is the specific dissimilarity in this case?" but "Why do all such extended metaphors stop pertaining?" It seems to me that the reason is: because a perfect point-for-point isomorphism in every respect would not be illustration, but identity. (E.g. the map with a scale of “a mile to the mile” in Sylvie and Bruno; in Borges’ On Exactitude in Science, the Empire’s inhabitants “who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless.”)

The whole point of an analogy is the instantiating of the similar in the dissimilar.

N.b.: Ombhurbhuva seems to make a more rigorous distinction between metaphor and analogy than I am making. He promises “more anon,” so check in over there.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews X: The Talmud Blog

Some may have wondered if I was going to miss the Brief Blog Review this month. Down to the wire.

It’s a somewhat technical blog this time, The Talmud Blog, and it's a somewhat paradoxical blog at that, since no blog can possibly approximate the experience of studying Talmud. I have no formal experience of such study, and only such informal study as my observant Jewish friends undertook with me; but that study is very different from any research I've done by myself. It is one thing to read Jacob Neusner or David Halivni or other scholars, or even primary texts, whether on your own or in a university setting. It is another to study Talmud. When I did this (to the degree that my experience may be called "studying"), I sat with one or a couple of fellow-students, all of whom were absurdly more advanced than I; we would read aloud a portion of a tractate, first the Mishnah and then the Gemara, but usually before we had got even that far, someone would have raised a question -- what does it mean that it says this? Why is such-&-such a scriptural reference deemed relevant? And so on. The conversation goes on from there, everyone teaching everyone else.

It soon becomes apparent that the conversation in the room is echoing a conversation in the pages of the Talmud, much of which reads like stenographer’s notes on an ancient symposium on Jewish law. You get the school of Hillel responding to the school of Shammai, and vice-versa; you get later students offering their various rationales for a given ruling; you get objections and rejoinders and “but if that’s the case, then -–,” and minority opinions that are preserved even if no one else agrees. Crucially, these minority positions can still, like dissenting opinions in American jurisprudence, wind up impacting practical cases much later.

The Talmud Blog is devoted to these ancient documents, compiled (like the Bible itself) over many, many centuries, layers and layers deep, commentaries swathing commentaries, in the living tradition that gave rise to them and still returns to them. It belies the prejudice that texts are inherently unrevisable, that they enshrine and encourage an incorrigible fundamentalism. The Talmud is a concrete illustration of the Latourian claim that a religious tradition is constituted by continually changing its form.

In studying Talmud you can move very rapidly between a practical question like how to compensate your neighbor whose animal has been hurt after wandering onto your land, to abstruse matters of grammar or exegesis, and even spiritual devotion. “What do we learn from this?” and “How do we know this?” are two questions that recur over and over. What emerges from enough of this is not just a competence in Talmudic disquisition, but a sense of what it is like to engage with an open text on multiple and interpenetrating levels. It is not an exaggeration to say that it can change what it means to read.

There is no slavish obeisance to the text in such a setting. My own experience was doubtless unusual in some respects, not least because I was there as a graciously welcomed goy; probably my remedial status slowed things down for everyone. But one thing that was very clear was that the dialogism of the setting came perfectly naturally. The Talmudic term for this is shaqla vetarya, “give and take.” In reminded me, oddly, of what the Platonic academy must have been like.

This experience is impossible to enter into without some personal contacts, and while web-based Talmud-study resources have many laudable features, real-time dialogue is almost never one of them. The Talmud Blog can’t substitute for that, but it can provide an introduction (albeit very asystematic) into the issues and terms a scholarly engagement with the Talmud will involve. If you are an outsider, this introduction leaves a lot to reader’s initiative. You have to be prepared to look up terms like, well, shaqla vetarya, if their meaning doesn't become clear by the third occurrence; you need to read with an awareness that there is a broad context in which the issues addressed are meaningful. If you do this with antennae tuned for these matters, and without pre-judging them, you’ll find that this “broad context” becomes more real and more complex to you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What, exactly, is alive with the sound of music?

My attention was directed to a short Japanese film. I am late in commenting on this (it originally went up in march of last year), but in case you have not seen it I am putting the link first, before any of my more or less haphazard remarks, so you can enjoy it unimpeded by what I say. There are actually two videos; each is barely over 3 minutes long (the second is a mini-documentary on the making of the first). Click Here, then if you still feel interested, come back.

OK, so where was I?

There is a great deal that could be said here about the relationship between the forest, the stream, the birds and the deer, the cell phone, the boom mike, the proportions of wood weight and density that give rise to individual notes that, taken together in order, comprise a piece of music. Is it just another in the long, long, long series of moves by which capitalism appropriates art and/or nature, or can it be read as art appropriating capitalism? Is this even an interesting question? Is the idea that something like Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring being "appropriated" by something like capitalism laughable, or spooky, or just trivial, or...?

Sue Thompson in her just-published Technobiophilia considers the extensive interface between our attraction to cyber-tech and our attraction to (what's left of) the natural world (and yes, I know "nature" is a construct, I'm writing shorthand here). In an interview Thompson conducted with Kevin Kelley which I presume made it into the book (it's just been published, so I haven't had time to see it yet), Kelley remarks:
Just as we go into a redwood grove and get that cathedral-like feeling, I think that as the Internet continues to complexify and become larger, it will also become a spiritual place where people will retreat to feel something bigger than themselves.
Well, on the one hand, any human endeavor that stays around very long is going to "become spiritual". On the other hand, note that he doesn't say we go into a cathedral to get that redwood-grove-like feeling. Is this part of the problem, or does it point us to something about the grammar of the "feeling" we're talking about? (On the other hand, there is something I balk at when I find "the spiritual" spoken of in terms of feeling, as though that were its primary locus. This needs a lot more unpacking; it isn't the main point here.)

But the grove and the cathedral do shed light on one another, and the comparison makes me see this online film a little differently. When I consider the exquisite care that must have gone into the preparation for this film, my response is somewhat akin to what I feel looking at a stained glass window and thinking of (among other things) the tremendous human effort it represents -- hours and hours of coloring, cutting, and shaping the glass, fitting it into place with strips of lead, carefully, carefully raising it up hundreds of feet into the air, by pulley and rope, to insert it into the stone wall. Moreover, the appearance of the cell phone at the end of the film does not feel like "product placement" analogous to having the hero of an action movie refresh himself with a soft drink between bouts of kicking bad guys' asses. It seems more akin to a medieval guild paying for a panel of stained glass window or altarpiece in a medieval cathedral, and being included in a little picture in detail. But I'm not sure this is the right analogy either.

Bach's melody was the very first one (that I recall) to furnish evidence to my young mind of the existence of Platonic forms. It seemed to me obvious, even at the age of 8 or however old I was, that the music had been discovered not invented. As I listen to it in this permutation, it still seems obvious.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews IX: Poems and Poetics

This month's Brief Blog Review, of Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics, is one I have planned to do for a while. I am glad I waited until now, though, because it now follows quick on the heels of the publication by Black Widow Press of Eye of Witness: a Jerome Rothenberg Reader, a retrospective look at Rothenberg's extremely long, prolific, and important career as one of our foremost poet-critics. It would be an exaggeration, but a forgivable one, to call Rothenberg the father of comparative poetics. His early anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred and Symposium of the Whole, introduced many of us to things like Navajo creation stories and the Chinese Book of Songs. To read these things side-by-side with Plato or The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in a setting like Rothenberg's which so clearly bespoke respect and care for the original context of the work, was for me a formative experience. Here the assumption was at work that one could meaningfully compare Robert Duncan, songs from the Bantu or the Cherokee, Li Po, or Lady Murasaki, without doing violence to any of them, neither handing them over to the careful handling of experts nor slapping them together as though they were all "saying the same thing," but simply treating them as all mutually relevant in a tremendous ongoing conversation that it would take the rest of one's life to begin to enter oneself. Reading these books in my early 20's permanently cured me of any fear of trespassing.

When I discovered, a couple of years ago, that Rothenberg was blogging, I had two thoughts. One was a kind of not being able to believe the good luck. The other was, Of course. Rothenberg comes out of the great experimental and democratic tradition of poetry, that welcomes all comers, and will try anything twice. Of course he would jump into this medium with both feet. Of course he would self-publish. Of course he would put his email address up. His is the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Stanley Burnshaw, and Guy Davenport -- of great learning matched with great generosity.

This lineage, moreover, is a stream of thought that has kept faith with the conception of poetry as a wisdom tradition. It is rooted in a worldwide practice of myth and storytelling and singing, a practice that has not learned to despair even in the face of everything the twentieth century could throw at it. You can just splash around over at Poems and Poetics and not come to the end for a long while. Rothenberg sometimes posts up to two or three times a week, and his archives go back five years. You will wind up learning much, much more about world literature. But you might also come away nourished and steeled for the fight.