Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ 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

Monday, March 30, 2015

Unrepeatable experiment


I go in today for a medical "procedure" (people seem to not use the word surgery as much now) which will, it is hoped, deliver me from the on-again, off-again agony of kidney stones. There's not much to be said about the pain itself. It's quite unmistakable; brings on a kind of nausea; and though it comes and goes, while it lasts it is intense to the point of being un-ignorable -- every other act of attention is (at best) soured by it. But what I want to register here is a few thoughts that I literally will not be able to think with the same clarity after I wake up from anaesthesia. That's because the thoughts are all about going in.

Once many years ago, before cell phones, I went to the airport to meet my girlfriend getting home from a business trip. The flight arrived, the passengers disembarked, and then a few more trickled off, and then the flight attendants... but not her. Sitting there, wondering what could have happened, trying not to assume the worst, I slipped into a kind of meta-rumination on my worry. That was the first time it occurred to me that there are some affective states that it's very hard to get into on purpose. In the days that followed, after everything had been resolved and she came in on a flight the next day, I kept returning to this discovery: "Wondering what happened," being brought up short by circumstance, is a state that befalls you. You can't intentionally bring it about; you have to be caught by it unawares. That's the very nature of the state in question.

There are other such states. Humility is a good example: very, very hard to intentionally, directly bring about, one nonetheless can cultivate a propensity for it indirectly. Humility is a kind of side-effect. In humility's case, it's even difficult to reflect upon it without dissolving it. Many spiritual writers warn that even noticing one's own humility undercuts it.

Another such state, and one that holds up more robustly under reflection, is really expecting that one will die. The impossibilities here are somewhat different. There are a few ways you could go about really triggering this in yourself; but usually, those bring about death itself, so the benefit of reflecting on it is somewhat diminished. But sometimes, one's life seems to round a corner and you find yourself facing a cliff-edge.

This has been my state for about a week and a half. It doesn't matter that "going to die" is an absurd overstatement of any coolly-evaluated likelihood in my case. I know what the statistics say; I have heard (and I believe) my doctors' reassurances (no cardio-pulmonary red flags, I'm well outside of the age range that gives doctors cause to worry, etc etc.) Trouble is: it isn't my intellect that's worried. I am going into an experience that is new (to me): general anaesthesia. Having no experiential landmarks, my emotions don't know what to do. In short, I'm scared. Not panicked, not petrified; but I have somehow locked onto a fixation that I can only with great patience and care turn my attention from.

Now, I don't mean here that my intellect and my emotions are responding differently to the same data. That may be what's happening, but that's not how it feels, and how it feels is all I'm dealing with here. To say that, while I intellectually "know" with reasonable security that I'll make it through anaesthesia just fine, this information hasn't got through to my limbic system, is no doubt relevant, but what I'm talking about is somewhat different. It's rather that with my emotions, I am processing a different data set than my intellect is. My intellect has evaluated the risks and benefits of a specific course of action. But this same situation has made my emotions -- or perhaps my intuition -- much more keenly aware of "what's really always there," as Philip Larkin put it:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now.
Indeed, I'm not even sure it is my emotions that are chiefly involved. It's like a narrative sense -- I can just see how, if my life did end today, it would make a kind of rounded whole (for all that would be left undone). And under the pressure of the attendant emotions, that sense can loom up into a vision that crowds other stories aside.

I'm not concerned with the "reasonableness" of these feelings. Let us stipulate that, by some lights, they are unreasonable. But I want to note what it's like to have them. This is hard to put into words because, as I say, it isn't primarily my discursive function that is involved. It's more the color of everything. It's not quite that I am irrationally "sure" I will die on the operating table; it's rather that my first sense of anything, what I lead with in any given encounter, is of a kind of quiet poignancy flanked on one side by anxiety, and on the other by a sort of feeling game -- a kind of curiosity to see what's up, even if what's before me is colored by long familiarity. All my small superstitions swarm to whisper into my ear: what if this is -- is this -- the last time I'll walk down this street? Sit in this café? Speak to this co-worker, this fellow parishioner, this friend?

To be clear: I have lots of plans for upcoming weeks and months, things I expect to do and look forward to doing. But alongside this rational assessment of the situation, there's also a kind of third-person view from outside myself, as if I were seeing a film about someone else and knowing, as they don't, what's coming up in the second half.

I'm not continually thinking about death. I'm not "taking leave" all the time (though I have made a few phone calls, sent some emails, and been a little more mindful of saying the important things to people). I am not,alas, much less prone to being unkind or thoughtless or selfish. I'm just as distractable by a sexy passerby or a catchy bit of music. But behind or beside all of that is a strong sense of it being fragile, and also here now.

I suppose I do already reflect upon death more than many I know. (Not all.) This isn't morbidity, and I won't waste time defending it; that would be a different post. It's part of my avocation; I am more with Montaigne ("to study philosophy is to learn to die") than with Spinoza ("the free man thinks on nothing so little as death"), though a full teasing-out of the tensions and secret alliances between these two thoughts would be still another post -- yet one more of the projects I am putting off. My thoughts and my feelings as I approach this new experience are surely colored by my practice up to now. God willing, this will prove to be a practice run for the real thing; and I will be able to take to heart what I have learned, which is: even "believing" that I'm going to die doesn't make me behave as differently as I would have thought.

I've become more aware of all my habits, of how ingrained they are, even in the face of this (imaginary, but very keenly imagined) upcoming deadline. I still waste time; I still function on autopilot. Doubtless, one response to this might be: just shows that you aren't really convinced. And of course I do not know that this is how I would feel if I received a grim six-months-to-live diagnosis, or if I were facing a firing squad in the morning. But it also seems to me to show that this is really how I live all the time, since my mortality is "really always there", and I "know" that nothing guarantees that I won't die in a traffic collision or from an unguessed blot clot on the way to the hospital.

This has made the idea of karma all the more real for me; the notion that the accumulated inertia and trajectories of a lifetime are very likely to keep going and may well determine one's "next life" just as they have determined much of this one, makes a kind of intuitive sense now in a way it did not before, for all my on-again off-again baby-step zazen I've done over the years. I'm not arguing for rebirth here, I'm merely asserting that the feeling of karma has gained more experiential traction for me in the last couple of weeks. The need for frequent confession, often urged by some Roman Catholics, among others, has never seemed so obvious to me. This is not a matter of morbidly dwelling on some kind of unbeatable perverse force in oneself, or spiritual chemotherapy for the dreaded gomboo. It's the cultivation of reflection and consciousness of how vast is the gulf between what we say and what we do; and, importantly, a cultivation whose terms we do not set ourselves. To go into the theology of Confession would be far beyond my point here (one more post, again...); but I see very clearly, not from any huge burden of sins, but rather from a clearer recognition of sin, just how wise are the words of the prayer-book to which my meditation these days keeps turning:
From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord deliver us.
I won't be able to see this in quite the same way when I come out of anaesthesia; this post will be unwriteable then. My irrational feeling will have been proven irrational, and anxiety about death will resume its ordinary shape and size against a horizon assumed to be far distant. But I hope I will have internalized something of a deeper resolution to reflect on what I don't know about my death, and what I do, beyond doubt.

*

Post-op Addendum, next day:

Thank you too all who kept (and keep) me in heart, mind, and prayer, and who wrote me on- and off-blog. Notwithstanding the stent which temporarily runs from kidney to bladder, I seem not to have moved on to Purgatory yet. Already my apprehension of the future has shifted to the vague middle-distance, confirming that I was right to capture these reflections while I could. There will be follow-up in the next while, once I can operate a computer again without supervision.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Rights and reasons

Excellent post up at Love of All Wisdom, where Amod Lele writes about the problem with the notion of human rights -- to wit, that although many people agree broadly on what human rights are, no one can really say what makes a right a right.

Lele's example is the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and he quotes Jacques Maritain's remark that in the absence of deep philosophical concord, no agreement about the principles that give rise to rights can be reached; only "agreement on a joint declaration is possible, given an approach pragmatic rather than theoretical..."

This point fits into a broader critique often made by thinkers like Leo Strauss, James Doull, Carl Schmitt, Alasdair MacIntyre, and so on (MacIntyre being one one of Lele's star witnesses later on in his post)-- to wit, that the modern, liberal consensus (such as it is) can offer no rationale for its own intuitions, but only a pragmatic shrug of "seems-to-work-OK-so-far." Many of these figures are seen as conservative, and the critique is not infrequently suspected of being a move in a crypto-reactionary campaign. (This is of course question-begging, since even if some nostalgic course were recommended -- and it almost never is -- it would still be an open question whether it had motivated the argument, or vice-versa.)

Doull noted this wryly:
To ask about the origin and foundation of what has been, one may say, for a century and a half an ever more fixed and settle dogma is not without difficulty. It may appear to be only an antiquarian inquiry, curious but without practical interest, or else, what is thought intolerable, to recommend a return to the institutions and beliefs of an unliberated age. But the necessity can no longer be disregarded: it becomes always more deeply felt that this contemporary society can give no account of its principle assumption, of the confidence which ones animated the democratic and social revolutions.*
But the criticism can be launched from the left as well; a large part of the urgency of Badiou's thought comes from his addressing the bankruptcy of the left-liberal consensus. It is evident that this consensus typically slides towards relativism (which is why conservatives frequently get some traction out of alleging that it can offer no coherent case against stoning heretics, female gential mutilation, foot-binding, and so on); also that it winds up unable to mount any significant resistance to capitalism -- which is what made plausible the infamous mantra "There is No Alternative." This impotence in the face of "market forces" is precisely why ostensibly "socially liberal" values are currently ascendant even as the rapaciousness of business and industry run unchecked. In both cases, the driving forces are advertising and profit. This is the cynical, shadow-side of pragmatism. I do not believe in cheap gotcha's, but I am struck by the fact that when William James offered a rough-and-ready pragmatist account of truth, his succinct phrase for it was an idea's "cash value."

It is instructive to compare the inability to say "Why" about rights to Euthyphro's stammering about piety. In both cases, a set of cultural mores that seemed OK-so-far suddenly reveals itself as having run its course in a way. Philosophy is the wresting of insight, beyond articulation, from the ruins of this stammering; but it must needs first make the inarticulation more, not less, obvious -- and so, painful. Rorty, with whom one strain of pragmatism culminates, advocated being pragmatically satisfied with not having answers. Since talk about rights seems to "work," hankering after a reason why is a pointless maneuver, he thought; a form of nostalgia for privilege, every bit as as suspect as longing for the bad old days when "everyone knew their place." This ploy of Rorty's amounts to a sort of changing the subject. I actually think is an interesting move, but what prevents it from being definitive is that the subject can always change back. Rorty wanted the question of why to become boring. I don't think that will happen.

*Doull, "The Christian Origin of Contemporary Institutions." Part II. In Dionysius vol VIII, Dec 1984. p53

Friday, February 27, 2015

(Re-post) For the feast day of blessed Fred Rogers


(I posted this two years ago. I've amended the year-count (it was the tenth anniversary of Rogers' death when I first posted it) but otherwise left it untouched. I don't tend to re-post things -- in fact, I've never done so before -- but, well, I really, really mean this. The Communion of Saints is like any community on Earth -- there are some in it to whom you feel especially close. (Doubtless this is "wrong" in the long run, but in the short run it can be the occasion of getting us to the long run.) Fred Rogers is one for whom I feel especial devotion.

*

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the death of Fred Rogers, yes that Fred Rogers, and in my own devotions, it is a Holy Day.

I have been working on a post off-and-on for a year to note this day, and by an accident of the internet, some mistake of mine has intersected with the design flaws of Blogger, and the post is gone. Solid weeks of work. The kind of thing that reduces me to helpless, indignant, this-is-not-acceptable spluttering egotism in the face of the indifferent state of affairs. Well, what would Mister Rogers do?

Start over, of course.

And so. This is not the post I wrote before. I'm going to state the case baldly: Fred Rogers was, I frankly and un-ironically maintain, a Saint in the technical theological sense. (Christianity is the tradition I stand in, as it was Rogers', but feel free to substitute "Tzadik" or "Bodhisattva" or "Really really good person", and forgive me the inexactitude of these comparisons for now.) The main entry in the hagiography is a justly famous article by Tom Junod, first published in Esquire. (This is essential reading. If you haven't read it, go do that now.) I have little to add to it; all my impressions of Rogers come via his children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, whose surreal and simple vision differs from that of nearly every other children's show in that it had no two-tiered audience strategy, no eye winking at the adults over the kids' heads. This (and Rogers' unobtrusive ahimsa) set it apart from Looney Tunes, from Disney, from Rocky & Bullwinkle, even from Sesame Street, whose mutations have proven it to be a bellwether of liberal culture. With Mister Rogers, you never graduated to the Oooh-I-get-the-joke level. He was entirely (and this was what made him so increasingly aberrant in the age of ironism) sincere, to use a word that is easily said and not easily attained. What you saw on television was, by all accounts, what you met if you shook his hand. He had no TV persona.

Anecdotes of his unassuming, ordinary, jaw-dropping goodness are plentiful. They are easy to yawn at if that's the way your jaw drops. Many of them are unverifiable. But, because of the aforementioned lack of persona, they're pretty much superfluous. They all exemplify one trait, over and over; Rogers was indefatigably interested in everything, and in particular in other people.

Rogers' lack of pretense went hand-in-hand with his mastery of pretending. Pretending, or "make-believe," was Rogers' general term of art for a certain joyful and indirect self-teaching. There was nothing undisciplined about it, and nothing manipulative. If you forget everything you know about Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the surrealism of it will astound you. An enormous mantelpiece clock is inhabited by a gentle, young tiger-cub. In a "Museum-go-'round," which is exactly what it sounds like, lives a semi-curmudgeonly woman curator who may, in a fit of pique, use her magical boomerang to invert the whole world. Many inhabitants are named with puns: the neighborhood is ruled, from a powder-blue castle, by King Friday XIII; an ingenious rodent named Cornflake S. Pecially lives in a factory next door; an indeterminate distance off, in "Someplace Else," a donkey ("Hodey") lives in a windmill. We are closer to The Wind in the Willows or the Hundred-Acre Wood (think of Piglet's grandfather, Trespassers W., whose name adorns a broken sign in front of Piglet's house), than we are to Sesame Street or The Electric Company. Among the human beings who live here are a jack-of-all-trades, a chef, and the crush of my young life, "Lady" Betty Aberlin. What strikes you when you stop taking it for granted is how weird it all is -- but without that terrifying undertone that affects, say, Alice in Wonderland, or PeeWee's Playhouse. You get here on a mysterious trolley car (with whom characters regularly converse, easily comprehending its back-&-forth dance on the tracks and its whistles). You can make calls from a telephone booth which occasionally descends out of the sky and then re-ascends. When an extraterrestrial Purple Panda, visiting from vast distances, breaks one of the rules of his home-world by sitting in a rocking chair (!?), how do his fellow-aliens, the indistinguishable Paul and Pauline, point out his error? Why, by chanting: "Sixteen! Sixteen!" Which makes all the sense in the world, right?

All these characters are shown having the ordinary kinds of relationships that obtain between people who usually get along and sometimes don't. They visit each other, surprise each other, get in arguments, work things out. They plan and execute long-term projects -- no less than thirteen full-scale short operas were put on by these characters, with episodes devoted to writing, planning, practicing, and performing them. (Rogers, who had a degree in music, composed them.) In short, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a consistent secondary world, and because it is richly imagined and coherent, it retains its pertinence to the world the child lives in, without ever becoming just a pedagogical annex to it.

This is important, because Rogers took very seriously his responsibility to children in a way almost unparalleled, without ever talking down to them and without trying, per impossible, to erase his adulthood. He was, after all, Mister Rogers, not "Fred." With this authority, he was able to assure children they could not go down the drain; with his childlike awe, on the other hand, he was able to see and absolutely respect the need for that assurance. This need arises in many other contexts, which can give the best-intentioned adults a deer-in-headlights stare. Rogers dealt with divorce, death, poverty, war, and disability, with the same calm and open gravity he brings to the going-down-the-drain conversation.
The world is not always a kind place. That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand.
Rogers' way of helping is marked by his complete lack of condescension. I have spent many years working with children and teens, and I have seen many teachers. I can testify that this lack of condescension is the mark of a past master. Rogers attained it because he was unfailingly himself, and refused to be embarrassed into a false, teacherly front:
The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you,
Not that I live up to it, but this pretty much sums up my pedagogy, with all due weight on understanding the word love.

This is where Rogers is usually caricatured, to say nothing of being blamed for fostering an "entitled" generation. As to blame, I can only pity those who argue this way, as if concern for children's self-esteem meant unhinging them from responsibility. But the caricature is worth dwelling on for a moment. "You are special," he would tell each person he encountered, young or old, for the first or the hundredth time. He ended each episode that way: "You always make my day a special day for me. You know how? By just your being you." If there was ever an easy target, this was it. The whole thing cried out to be mocked, and it was mocked. (Rogers could appreciate parody; he sought out Eddie Murphy to tell him he had laughed at Murphy's parody "Mr Robinson's Neighborhood" on Saturday Night Live.) "Special," people would roll their eyes. "And how is everyone 'special'?" Yes, yes, you are a unique snowflake. The easy flippancy of this argument is misplaced. Rogers, who had a degree in theology as well as in music, knew very well the paradoxes of particularity. The content of his show is unfailingly intelligent. One could recast this notion of specificity in language more intellectual or more technical, but not more sophisticated. It bears mention that Rogers in saying this to children was carrying on a tradition of sorts: his grandfather had told him this every day. This is not cant, not ideology, but practice. Rogers' doctrine of special-ness is the same as is found in Hopkins:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying
Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
This poem of course goes on to invoke Christ, playing "in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his," and Rogers certainly would have invoked Christ under certain circumstances. On his show, I think he did not so much as say the word "God," but a liturgist's precision informs everything (the music, the sneakers, the sweater, every time). For a look into Rogers' spirituality one must read the Junod article, or the briefer notice Junod wrote upon Rogers' death, or this essay by Margaret Mary Kimmel and Mark Collins, which includes a number of details from Rogers' early years. I call these entries in a "hagiography," and with a straight face, not because I think Rogers was without faults or because I want to create a myth of the perfect man, but simply because there's an obvious sense in which we need categories like "Saint" for certain people who vastly exceed -- to the point of provoking either our derision or our tears -- our sense of what good is humanly available. Hagiography has always attracted myths, and Rogers has his share. (He did not serve in the military, and his long sleeves covered no tattoos, no needle tracks.) Nearly all of the unverifiable anecdotes boil down to the same thing: Rogers gave people an experiential glimpse of their worth -- or, in Rogers' language, they felt special. It was not a passing emotional high; Rogers made people feel special because he regarded them as special, and this regard was not a mantra he repeated to himself but a practice he lived. He continued to be in touch for years with viewers who wrote fan letters, with reporters who found they had told him more about themselves than vice-versa, with people with whom he had chance encounters. You can see the powerful impression Rogers had on people unfold in real time if you watch his acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award. He says almost nothing, and what he says is not about him. Always calmly aware of the pernicious potential of television to alarm, overstimulate, or turn viewers into passive receptors, he quietly subverts the occasion of his award to call for ten pregnant seconds of broadcast silence -- and directs his listeners' attention to other people, people who will receive no award, whose name will not be televised, who will never have fame for any fraction of fifteen minutes, but by whose ordinary goodness have "loved us into being." It is a phrase as rife with philosophical import as any in the canon.

It may seem incongruous for a philosophy blog to have spent this much effort on the host of a children's television show. I hope that Rogers' pedagogy, his personalism, and his ingenious facility at navigating the border between worlds -- what he called pretending, what I would compare with metalepsis -- serves as some clarification for why I think Rogers germane. But the reasons go deeper. For, if philosophy means "love of wisdom" in any sense deeper than the merely etymological, it behooves philosophers to pay heed to an exemplar of wise love.
O God, Who dost exhort all to especial care of Thy little children, and didst grant to thy servant Fredrick Rogers the vision of the unmatched worth of every soul, making him a bearer of the knowledge of this love, grant us to know ourselves wholly precious in Thy sight, and to bear to each of Thy children witness of this joyful surety, by the grace of Thy Son Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, Amen.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Eric Voegelin at 114


Today is the birthday of Eric Voegelin, who was born on this date in 1901 in Cologne, Germany. A member of the great generation of German-language scholars who left Europe in the '30s in the face of the Nazi rise to power, Voegelin was thinker of remarkable breadth and depth, who turned his formidable learning and extremely hard-working curiosity to the task of understanding the deep metaphysical roots of the political ruin that had overtaken the West in fascism and Bolshevism. If he remains under-read today by philosophers who should know better, it is partly because his work was adopted by the political right. This infatuation on the part of the conservative movement was fairly tepidly returned. William F. Buckley Jr. offered Voegelin a monthly column at The National Review, only to be turned down; and Voegelin consistently declined to be associated with American conservativism, although occasionally an article by him would appear in a right-leaning publication. When the historian George H. Nash, wrapping up work on his book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (published 1976), wrote to Voeglin requesting a photograph to include, Voegelin wrote back: "Just because I am not stupid enough to be a liberal, does not mean that I am stupid enough to be a conservative." Nonetheless, the net effect was still that the academic left had, and still has, little interest in him, if they have even heard of him. (There is no article on Voegelin at the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, although he gets some mentions in various other articles; his name seems not to occur anywhere in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at all.) An equally plausible rationale for this neglect would seem to be Voegelin's idiosyncratic vocabulary; particularly in the works of his final two decades, Voegelin made a terminology for his project that, while not quite a jargon, nonetheless walks the line between an arsenal of terms of art and an etymological curiosity cabinet. Phrases suchas "metastatic faith," "luminosity of being," "egophanic history," and (one of my favorites, as you might imagine), "metaleptic consciousness," appear without notice or explanation; the reader is expected to rise to the occasion, which is an act of either great trust or tremendous presumption on Voeglin's part. They can be bewildering at first; but it must be said that, if one is willing to start at the beginning, re-read when one doesn't understand, and go deliberately, the terms usually open up and Voegelin's project becomes comprehensible. (And, just in case, the editors of Voegelin's Collected Works have included a glossary in the last volume.)

My own reading of Voegelin is doubtless as off-center as that of all my other "influences." I chanced to read him early, mainly by chance -- his volume Anamnesis was in the public library. This central volume to his work is a really strange and wonderful book. It begins in an autobiographical vein, weaving his philosophical concerns together with an account of how they arose for him (his learning of Hebrew and Greek; his study of Husserl with Alfred Schuetz; and so on), and then goes even further back: the third chapter is entirely made up of vignettes from his early childhood: the old seamstress who told him about paradise; the time he was laughed at for predicting rain because the steamboats by the docks had made great quantities of clouds. Only then does he cast his net wider, giving explorations of nature and reason, political reality, language and consciousness. What is Voegelin doing? He is wrestling with the great problem of historicism, which had come to preoccupy so much of German scholarship, and he is wrestling it down to the fundamental unit in which it is encountered: the experience of the human individual.

The best short summary (at least, the best I can come up with) of Voegelin's project -- though not one that I presume he ever considered himself -- frames it in terms of the famous debate between Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos in 1929. Heidegger had in some sense "won" (or at least had been judged as having won by the younger generation), by going "back" behind Cassirer's philosophy of culture to the unsettling ground of all of Dasein's works. His gaze was towards the origin, uncanny and dark; Cassirer's meanwhile is upon the positive project and achievement that has emerged. We could gloss this, at considerable risk of oversimplification, as the difference between nothing and something.

Voegelin is almost alone in both taking seriously the problem Heidegger has named, and also in really seeing the agreement that Cassirer maintained -- over Heidegger's indifference -- was there between them. (Another who saw this point, at least in practice, was Hannah Arendt.) Voegelin's concern, all throughout his career, is the tracing of how the "symbols" (his word, but clearly resonant with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms") emerge in the tension between consciousness and its ground, its being situated always in the "metaxy," the middle -- not at the beginning, not at the end; and how these symbols suffice and then fail, because this work is unfinished by definition (this is part of what being in the middle means), but also often because symbols get reified and set into would-be-permanent systems. Voegelin was especially interested in the way a healthy cultural life could live in its symbols without rigidity, continually open to the luminosity of being; but he spent a great deal of energy on those unhealthy systems which had, he said, erected a "second reality" that fundamentally deformed consciousness if it tried to live within them. Voegelin's word for all these systems is gnostic, and it is this characterization -- first set forth in The New Science of Politics -- for which he is most famous. (It has also come under scrutiny and critique, as the scholarship on gnosticism has continued since Voegelin wrote.)

Voegelin can seem an unabashedly religious thinker, but he does not obviously belong to any sect. He sometimes called himself a "pre-Nicene Christian," and he declined to apologize for any particular confession; moreover he writes with as great sympathy of Israelite prophets, Chinese historians, Egyptian poets, as he does of Christian theologians or saints. The only figures for whom he clearly has little sympathy are the "gnostics" -- but by this term, Voegelin might have meant Valentinus, or Joachim of Fiore, or Auguste Comte. (Even for certain "gnostics," Voegelin retains an ambivalent respect, especially for Hegel, a figure who epitomizes for Voegelin the modern turning-away from reality, but for whose intellectual power he clearly acknowledges.) His problems are not theological, and certainly not specific to a particular scriptural tradition; they are those of a thinker engaged with transcendence. Here is the another reason why Voegelin's star is so deeply eclipsed at the present time. No thinker of the twentieth century was so uncompromising in his insistence that the turning away from transcendence was a philosophical disaster. Voegelin was very conversant with the theologians; he cites Barth, von Balthasar, de Lubac, and others; but his argument was not theirs.

"Gnosticism" means, for Voegelin, a hankering for certainty. He sees it in fascism and in Marxism; he sees it in the overweening confidence of Hegel (which Marx inherited despite himself, and which Kierkegaard mocked). It is an attempt to bring about permanently in this world, here-and-now, a vision of meaning and understanding that can only happen fleetingly and is anticipated by Biblical faith beyond the horizon of the world. The desire to stage it within the world, Voegelin dubbed the attempt to "immanentize the eschaton." Of all the aforementioned special vocabulary, this is undoubtedly the most famous instance; it entered the general intellectual arsenal of American conservativism in the 50's, and thence into the counter-culture through Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's monumental spoof of paranoid style, the Illuminatus! Trilogy. Wilson and Shea glossed it, with facetious literalness, as "trying to bring the end of the world closer;" but to Voegelin it meant trying to instantiate within history what could only be realized with the abolition of history.

He traced this hankering back via Joachim of Fiore (whose "three stages of history" corresponding to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Voegelin saw as recapitulated over and over in the historicist schemes of Comte, Schelling, Marx, and even Husserl); he traced it all the way to the gnostics of Irenaus' diatribe. This was not in itself an novel move, as Voegelin was at pains to point out; Hegel had been seen as a gnostic even by his contemporaries. But Voegelin was astonishing in the tenacity with which he tracked this tendency down; and even more remarkable in the cause to which he attributed it. What could have occasioned such a drive to certainty, he asked? And he answered: obviously, Christianity itself.
Certainties, now, are in demand for the purpose of overcoming uncertainties with their accompaniment of anxiety; and the next question would be: What specific uncertainty was so disturbing that it had to be overcome by the dubious means of fallacious immanentization? One does not have to look far afield for an answer. Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. The feeling of security in a "world full of gods" is lost with the gods themselves; when the world is de-divinized, communication with the world-transcendent God is reduced to the tenuous bond of faith, in the sense of Hebrews 11:1, as the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen. Ontologically, the substance of things hoped for is nowhere to be found but in faith itself; and, epistemologically, there is no proof for things unseen but again this very faith. The bond is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily.(The New Science of Politics p. 122-123)
It seems to me that this account is more remarkable than anyone -- either Voegelin's critics or his partisans -- has yet accepted. It is of course not uncommon -- it was to become all too common in the years after Voegelin wrote this -- to trace to Christianity's door some catastrophic loss of meaning, a great draining-away of pagan joi de vivre. This too was not a novel move; it had long been suspected, on both sides of the argument, that the falling-silent of the oracles had something to do with the ascendancy of the cross -- something deeper than the mere political pressure that closed the temples (as witnessed by Plutarch writing of it long before this development came to pass). But it was unusual for a thinker who seemed to be on Christianity's side ("pre-Nicene" notwithstanding) to take this stance. Moreover, it remains eyebrow-raising to this day for Christians to be told that the essence of their religion is uncertainty; it certainly would have come as surprising news to those of Voegelin's readers who were really interested in what he was arguing, and not just looking for ammunition against communism.

I am not sure how seriously it was taken at the time by anyone else; but Voegelin himself was absolutely committed to not being tied down to any reified system, even one that was about the unfolding of the tendency to reification. This commitment was to undermine his most ambitious project -- originally planned as a six-volume series called Order and History (with The New Science frequently seen as prologue.) The first three volumes (of between 450 and 500 pages each) appeared in 1956-57, quite a short time for such dense and extensive work. They were well-received by scholars and popular among Voegelin's conservative audience. There was every reason to build success upon success. Instead, Voegelin suddenly applied the brakes. It was not until ten years later that Anamnesis appeared. This book -- not an official part of Order and History -- is, as I mentioned, in some ways the key to everything else. It signaled the serious conceptual difficulties that Voegelin had encountered along the way. In brief, he began to suspect that the entire project -- originally conceived as a tracing of historical consciousness from the ancient Near East and Greece to the present day in terms of the arising of symbol-complexes and their dissolution or their reification -- was itself suspect as too orderly, too much like a secret "system" purporting to give the real sense of history.

Volume four of Order and History, The Ecumenic Age, was not published until an additional seven years had passed. (Some of this delay is attributable to Voegelin's administrative responsibilities as well -- he had founded the Munich Institute for Political Science after returning to Germany in 1958 to occupy Max Weber's academic chair, vacant since Weber had died in 1920.) When volume four did appear, declaring at the outset that the whole enterprise had been re-thought and that the (real) gains of the first three volumes needed to be situated in a different and more flexible and open conceptual and symbolic context, reviewers were exceedingly divided. Already Voegelin's polymathy had frustrated attempts to understand what he was at -- was he an historian, a philosopher, a political scientist? Now this frustration was redoubled. No one could simply dismiss the book -- it was obviously a work of brilliance -- but no one knew quite what to do with it either. Many were disappointed.

But this revision -- a more far-reaching and profound kehre, in my opinion, than the failure of Heidegger to ever publish the second part of Being and Time -- was the mark not of Voegelin's inconsistency but of his integrity. The slowing-down and continual re-evaluation of his work meant that volume five, In Search of Order -- the last in the now-revised plan forOrder and History -- appeared only posthumously and in much smaller compass than the other volumes. (It should really be read in conjunction with volumes 12 and 28 of the Collected Works, which present his late published and unpublished essays, respectively.) This body of late work is extremely challenging, but not cripplingly so; anyone who is willing to go slowly and methodically can "get it." I will give one passage as an example of the substance and style, which moreover addresses the same issue as was mentioned above -- the transition from the "world full of gods". Note, too, in this excerpt, that the surpassing of the notion of "stages" with the conception of simultaneous poles of tension is part of the letting-go of an historicist account.
[S]ensitivity of human response to the mystery of divine revelation never was, and still is not, popular with dogmatic thinkers who want their fides to speak the language of the compact, personal gods. But the mystery resists and persists. The noetic thinker, who is conscious of this persistence, knows that even the fides of the One God does not put an end to his quest for the truly One in a reality that has to tell a story of tension and movement. ...On the one hand, the symbolization of the differentiated divine Beyond as One God would burden the symbol with the very compactness of the many gods that the differentiation tends to overcome; on the other hand, the insight into this difficulty lets the many gods appear in their dignity as experientially diversified representatives of the divine One. ... This tensional pressure appears to be a constant in the history of revelation. Neither will the gods disappear, nor will the Beyond let them live in peace. Compactness and differentiation, then, would not be simply historical stages of consciousness, the one succeeding the other in time, but poles of a tensional process in which the revelation of the Beyond has to overcome progressively a hard core of compact resistance without ever dissolving it completely. (In Search of History p 115-116)
Voegelin said (I paraphrase) that reading Santayana early in his life immunized him against the vogue of existentialim and particularly of Heidegger's influence. (It should be mentioned that one of his early books was On the Form of the American Mind -- it is Volume One in the Collected Works -- and in this, Voegelin was ahead of the curve.) In any case, I could say the same thing of Voegelin himself. I read him before I did any serious study of Heidegger, and I suspect that this helped ensure that, after the initial (quite significant) excitement had passed, I was able to pass more readily on to seeing Heidegger as one more philosopher, and not the culmination of a teleological process of the unfolding of the destiny of Western thought. Not that I understood Voegelin well -- I still feel I am only just beginning to understand sometimes what he was driving at. But from the beginning I suspected that he was one of the deepest, furthest-seeing, and least dogmatic of thinkers in the 20th century. I still think so, his mistakes, occasional slip ups, and false starts notwithstanding.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Anti-MacGuffin


Hitchcock's MacGuffin is the empty occasion for drama. Ostensibly, it doesn't matter what it is; it serves only to be the object of desire, a narrative engine. "Government secrets," plans for a submarine, compromising letters, the Ring of Power: the object just gets the story going; the story, however, is not about the object, but about the characters. It was a neat little trick of Zizek's to conflate this with the Lacanian objet a, the empty focus of the desiring gaze (often when one doesn't even know one is desiring.) Nonetheless, there is a question to be raised. The assertion that it "doesn't matter" what the object is, is ambiguous. True enough, the audience doesn't care about government secrets; it cares about Cary Grant escaping from thugs and cunning, ruthless bosses. But in the calculus of the story, there are indeed dire consequences, "should the secret fall into the wrong hands." Even if it turns out that the whole thing is a ruse -- that there is no "secret" -- this will be because this pretend-secret has a function in some other calculus; the agent who is an unknowing decoy or a sacrificed pawn is not playing the game he or she thinks is being played, but there is a game, and (in the story) it has an object, even though the audience may not know much or care much about what it is.

This point is sometimes deployed against the case of fantasy as a genre. Just what, exactly, are the "stakes" for the Dark Lord? While a real-life tyrant like Caligula may just be into orgies and a senatorship for his horse, an epic-scale evil like the Sith must have higher ambitions, right? Emperor Palpatine isn't just into relaxing in luxury, we assume. And Sauron -- what exactly does he plan to do if he finally can set the ring again on one of his remaining fingers? Just spread a thick cloud over Middle-Earth and enjoy the sounds of orcs cracking whips?

This ostensible reductio is supposed to function as a kind of "you didn't think of that, did you?" move. Probably for most derivative genre fantasy writers, it's a fair move. But Tolkien in fact had thought of it.

In the volume Morgoth's Ring, one of the books which Christopher Tolkien edited from his father's vast amount of unpublished daft material for The Silmarillion, there is an essay on "Notes on motives in the Silmarillion," in which Tolkien very explicitly addresses the question of the motive of both Sauron and Sauron's predecessor, the vastly more powerful and frightening Melkor (aka Morgoth), who is more or less the Satan-figure in the Silmarillion. Tolkien was engaged not in philosophy but in modern mythopoesis, and his account requires to be understood in its own terms, which are narrative; but despite its mythical tropes (he speaks for instance of Melkor's being having "pass[ed] into the physical constituents of the Earth"), he makes a philosophical, even a theological point. For Morgoth, initially the object was the imposing of his own will upon everything that had its origin outside of him -- the whole of the world. As long as the world resisted, this could be the project; but the only logical conclusion of it was the sheer nihilistic will to destroy all of "Arda," i.e., the created world.
Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have destroyed even his own 'creatures', such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men. Melkor's final impotence and despair lay in this: that whereas the Valar (and in their degree Elves and Men) could still love "Arda marred," that is, Arda with a Melkor-ingredient, and could still heal this or that hurt, or produce from its very marring, from its state as it was, things beautiful and lovely, Melkor could do nothing with Arda, which was not from his own mind, and was interwoven with the thoughts and works of others: even left alone he could only have gone raging on until all was leveled again into a formless chaos. And yet even so he would have been defeated, because it would still have 'existed' independent of his own mind, a world in potential.
This is essentially a (brief) theology of evil. It is, doubtless, vulnerable to a kind of critique: "Really? Evil as will-to-destruction? A failed demiurge's cosmic temper-tantrum?" But this rejoinder is too simple and misses the point that what Melkor wants (so says Tolkien) is not merely impossible, but nonsensical. And so in his despair he must "settle" for nonsense.

Sauron, Tolkien specifies, had not reached this stage of nihilism. He was content that the world should exist, "so long as he could do what he liked with it;" but already this had become an idée fixe:
his 'plans', the idea coming from his sole isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.
From this it should be clear that the apparent pointlessness of evil, which lies behind the question asked earlier ("what is the Dark Lord going to do if he gets the Ring?"), is intended. It is a feature, not a bug. Tolkien then adds a significant footnote:
But his capacity of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for 'order' had really envisioned the good estate (especially the physical well-being) of his 'subjects.'
I.e., Sauron's will really does have its roots in a good, albeit now perverted and obscured, desire. (This is already stated in The Lord of the Rings by Elrond: "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.") By the same token, one could say this even of Melkor; for the will to "self-expression" is not itself evil. But Melkor was immeasurably more powerful (and his fall more ancient) than Sauron's, and so his corruption was the greater. And so, by extension of the same principle, we are allowed to speculate that had Sauron succeeded and his will continued to turn upon itself, he too would have ended in will-to-destruction; in destroying (or attempting to destroy) Mordor, the Orcs, and eventually Arda itself.

A different writer gave us a similar (and no less fantastic) articulation of this destructive will in a famous passage:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.....

Power is power over human beings. Over the body-but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter external reality, as you would call it-is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute....We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. ...We make the laws of nature.... What are the stars?...They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. ...For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?....The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men....Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever.
Right at the beginning, one can note that Orwell has bitten the bullet about "motive." The Party has long passed the moment where they told anyone, even themselves, that they had anyone else's good at heart. Since Orwell never tells us the history of the ascendancy of the Party in Oceania, we are at liberty to doubt whether O'Brien is aptly characterizing the motives of the revolution; but that is a secondary point. Orwell's nightmare is justly known for many reasons, above all for its extreme and lucid articulation of this naked lust that had never before, perhaps, been so unapologetically spelled out. At the same time, as Orwell was doubtless aware, O'Brien's speech here betrays (not that this would have distressed O'Brien, who would have deftly employed doublethink) an inconsistency. The Party "is" omnipotent; and yet the Party is aiming for omnipotence ("when we are omnipotent, we will have no more need of science.") This is an index of a deeper, more desperate inconsistency. The project of the Inner Party is crucially dependent -- and this dependence is a metaphysical, not a "practical" one -- upon its need for something else to prey upon. A continual and inexhaustible source of helpless enemies. (One could spell this out in some detail with reference to Hegel's account of master and slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit.) This parasitism is precisely analogous with the incapacity of Morgoth to wipe out the world (though O'Brien claims to be able to do this). For now, the Party can be content to foster the sadism of tearing minds apart and putting them back together in shapes of their own choosing -- not unlike Morgoth's corruption of the Eldar and the Edain into Orcs. But ultimately, such a power -- if it should be ascendant, which is by no means impossible -- would end, like Tolkien's Dark Lord, in willing the destruction of everything.

This kind of unimaginable nihilism is easy to dismiss, as though it were a nonsensical boogeyman, or a massive projection. Doubtless we have many reasons to be skeptical of the notion of an "axis of evil;" to guard against casting even those who clearly will our destruction as simply willing Destruction per se. Much could be said about this; both about the hobbling of oneself when one undercuts one's moral intuitions by ruling unusable one of the most long-standing of moral categories, and about the many reasonable and good motivations for being tempted in this direction. That's yet another post. My point here is that neither Tolkien nor Orwell were naive about this question. They recognized that the "threat" he was envisioning in their narratives was "too big" to be really conceived; that everything it entailed was not clearly spelled out. It is, in essence, a kind of anti-MacGuffin. But this does not make it merely a narrative trick.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Symbol, Doubt, History, Faith


[This is a more obviously theological post than many of mine.]

Father Stephen Freeman reminds us that the way we ask questions regarding "what really happened," underpinning skepticism and fundamentalism alike, is a side-effect of a tremendous shift in consciousness. (Some will remember that I reviewed Fr. Freeman's blog Glory to God for All Things last year in my set of Brief Blog Reviews.) He sets the stage with way the problem is usually looked at today:
The question of faith in contemporary society is a matter of fact – "do I think this event actually happened?" It is around this single point that believers seem to arrange themselves.
Fr. Freeman traces this to the birth of historical consciousness in the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation.
The assault on the authority of the Church required (and still requires) a substitute. By what authority is the Church to be judged defective? .... Scripture is one obvious answer – with the lingering question of authoritative interpretation. And it was at this point that history, as something of a rational science, had its foundations.... The meaning of Scripture had to be loosed from its place within tradition, and sheltered under the guise of an independent fact. This is the birth of history as a collection of facts.... In our time this factualized sense of history has become the sole locus of reality, authority, etc. We have become thoroughly “historicized.”
Fr. Freeman's first illustrations of the contrast between the previous mindset and our own, however, do not concern the difference between an event "literally happening" and a story told for some other reason. It isn't a matter of saying, Oh, the Feeding of the Five Thousand -- that's just a parable; or with a shake of the head, "Creation in Seven Days -- don't you see, the Bible isn't a cosmology textbook?" Rather, Fr. Freeman's examples have to do with allegory:
The frequent assertion of images and types within the Scriptures runs deeply counter to the modern mind. That the Mother of God is also the Ark, the Candlestand, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, etc. is not a mere exercise in literary games. The Fathers (and the hymns of the Church) treat such assertions in a manner that carries as much weight as our modern sense of historical facts. They feel about such things the way we feel about our beloved concrete, provable, verifiable events. And that such assertions cannot be provable, or verifiable in a manner that would satisfy us, troubles them not in the least.
In short:
The Fathers simply do not think or feel in the manner in which we most commonly think or feel. Their perception of things is not the same as ours.
This complex of questions is so close to the heart of spiritual malaise that engaging with it in a dispassionate manner is extremely challenging. To enter into the consciousness that can understand things this way -- the ease of allegory and symbol without opposing them to the literal, without giving implicit veto power to a false dichotomy -- is part of what is meant by the frequent injunction in Christian spiritual writings to "put on the mind of the Fathers." But on the other hand, this "mind" can only be cultivated if we somehow already can relax our anxiety and step into faith in a different way than is assumed by the default definitions of our era.

This means that this world view is in one sense a prerequisite, and in another sense a result. This creates a paradox, which can be felt to varying degrees. At worst, it seems a sort of double-bind: if you have to ask, you'll never know; or, it's all grace, and without grace you can't understand... Pressed through to it's ultimate "logical" conclusion, this creates an impasse: there is no passage, however narrow, between the mind of the believer and an unbeliever, but only a discontinuity. This sort of guillotine-slice between two "ways of thinking' is often associated -- not entirely correctly -- with a certain thread in reformed theology, of which the work of Cornelius Van Til is a fair representative:
There can be no appeasement between those who presuppose in all their thought the sovereign God and those who presuppose in all their thought the would-be sovereign man. There can be no other point of contact between them than that of head-on collision.
--Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel, p. 19
Elsewhere Van Til nuanced this stark contrast -- a little:
the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life....all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, [but] the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. ...this latter assertion [must be] qualified by saying that this is so only in principle.... So far then as men self-consciously work from this principle [of sin, or autonomy], they have no notion in common with the believer. Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility to God.
--Van Til, The Defense of the Faith pp. 189-190
Although Van Til seems to restrict the ravages of depravity to unbeliever's epistemology, the effect here is much the same, since the whole question is, ostensibly, How Do I Know?

At this point,let us note, I have moved far from the Orthodox ambit of Fr. Freeman. We'll circle back.

It may surprise some (or maybe not) to read this, but I actually don't think that Van Til's sort of language is always out of place. I take my cue from Wittgenstein. Thus:
Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.
Wittgenstein, Culture and Value p 45, circa 1944
Wittgenstein was quite comfortable with using religious language -- usually Christian language -- in a way that was not about corresponding with facts:
Predestination: It is only permissible to write like this out of the most dreadful suffering - and then it means something quite different. But for the same reason it is not permissible for someone to assert it as a truth, unless he himself says it in torment. - It simply isn’t a theory. - Or, to put it another way: If this is truth, it is not truth that seems at first sight to be expressed by these words. It’s less a theory than a sigh, or a cry.
ibid, 1937
But Wittgenstein also knew that it was very possible to take such words in an utterly wrong, and indeed harmful, sense; and he had very specific examples in mind, from his own experience:
In religion it must be the case that corresponding to every level of devoutness there is a form of expression that has no sense at a lower level. For those still at the lower level, this doctrine, which means something at the higher level, is null and void; it can only be understood wrongly, and so these words are not valid for such a person. Paul's doctrine of election by grace, for instance, is at my level irreligious and ugly nonsense. So it is not meant for me since I can only apply wrongly the picture offered me." If it is a holy and good picture, then it is so for a quite different level, where it must be applied in life quite differently than I could apply it.
ibid, 1937
The sort of language Van Til employs (and I am only using him as an example) is disastrous until you are ready for it. Press this too soon and all you get is, "oh, so I've got a 'spirit of rebellion,' do I, because I ask questions?" and then, what do you know, you actually do feel kinda rebellious!

However, the disjunction, the "head-on collision" Van Til mentions, can also, in specific circumstances -- at the "right level," Wittgenstein might say -- be exactly the right move. Such a paradox can have a salvific effect for some when the crisis is broken through. Suddenly, in a hitting-rock-bottom sort of way, utterly cornered by the Hound of Heaven, such a one can see the whole dilemma just snap open. For a brief moment, the nature of grace becomes obviously inescapable, and this experience, modulated into the key of "belief," is quite accurately rendered in the language of I-once-was-lost-but-now-am-found.

As a way of "putting on the mind of the Fathers," though, it's pretty undependable.

Another way, much more reliable, is ordinary practice: the everyday use of language and music and full-immersion liturgical discipline, which after long exposure can suddenly appear in retrospect (and sometimes even if it has seemed "rote" or merely antiquarian) as an ascetic training in seeing the world otherwise. It is slow, and of course also requires intentionality; but it has the advantage of going deep into a person.

From the outside -- the modern, "historicized" outside -- of course, both of these "methods," if I may use the word, look suspicious. The latter looks like simple acculturation ("brainwashing," I hear some of my atheist friends mutter); the former looks sort of like Stockholm Syndrome.

Fortunately, there is also a third way (and in fact, a "modern", even a "historicized" way): to see that there remain commonalities between us and this ancient world: and this in two directions -- for the ancients not as indifferent to fact as we may think in our caricatures (Origen for instance is perfectly calm about calling the account in Genesis 1 "not true in a bodily fashion," but he's also quite comfortable with the Empty Tomb being, well, really Empty -- and very recently vacated); nor are we indifferent to symbol, even though we may have a skewed relation to it now. (E.g.: money.) This is where philosophy as propaedeutic comes in, for taking this route is partly a matter of scholarship, partly of philosophy proper; curiously it hinges upon the very historical discipline which has encouraged the spiritual narrowing of which Fr Freeman speaks. This is part of what I mean when I speak, as I often do, of philosophy as a kind of Salvage Ops -- philosophy characteristically grants a critique and then presses it far enough to discern and rescue the essential experience in what is critiqued. The fact that even this is becoming very difficult is part of the poison of historicism, which at first advertises itself as "awareness of history," but eventually becomes an erasure of historical memory. (Compare, obviously, the Phaedrus.)

All these three ways can be put together; practice and study and crisis trading off; there is an important sense in which for any of us in the modern world this is almost essential. But a question arises: are we saying that this is what Christianity thinks is important? Being able to inhabit this allegorical landscape with perfect Keatsean negative capability, no "irritable reaching after fact and reason"? Being able to see the Virgin Mary as the Jar of Manna and the Ark of the Covenant? Is this ancient way of thinking and feeling differently, constitutive of salvation? Or is it, as it were, a kind of prerequisite?

Trick question. Everyone's "False dichotomy" buzzer should be going off. In the course of a (very informative) conversation in the comments, Fr. Freeman refers to the etymology of "symbol" ("putting together") and, pertinently, its antonym -- diabole. He cites Alexander Schmemann (one of the theologians of the 20th century, a man who was crucial in letting Christianity speak to our age), to wit:
in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’” The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however—and we reach here the crux of the matter—not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. St. Maximus the Confessor, the sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age, calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation.
--Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pp. 138-139
After all, any sacramental Christian ought to be thinking, when you really receive the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, this is salvation.

And yet. While Scripture speaks of "putting on the mind of Christ," it does not have much to say about the capacity to be sanguine about icons or not uptight about whether such and such a miracle-story "really happened;" so urging us to cultivate such a mentality, while perhaps apposite, is still not quite obviously the same as relating to the truth of the miracle, or worshipping the God shown forth in the icon.

Thus the need not to substitute this "ancient way," the "Mind of the Fathers", for what is apprehended in this way, by this mind. I am very wary of phrasing the matter this way, and almost certainly have got it wrong. It may be that in really undergoing this noetic purification, one finds that there is no such difference -- but that is only the case at the end, not at the beginning: a matter of "level." One sets out not to "experience symbols" in a particularly penetrating mode, but to encounter God. It is, one might hazard, a question of form and content. This question may at some point become irrelevant -- and perhaps this point is even the most important point -- but it does not start out as irrelevant.

But surely this is too pat: "Set out to encounter God," indeed. As if God were a destination. Or as if I wanted to encounter Him! When I spend nearly every moment of every day running away. And no doubt, cultivating a different way of navigating facts and historicity, allowing them to become translucent, can itself be clever way of avoiding the real work of ascesis. But one may also suspect that -- even under such circumstances -- it may serve. If there is (as the Psalmist says) nowhere one can flee, not in the depths of the sea, not in Sheol, then even our ways of avoiding God must lead us to God. (Such, says C.S. Lewis, is "the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.") By grace one may find that even such ill-motivated or rote "practice" may still have been the occasion by which one trains oneself (or rather is trained by tradition) to be ready for the moment which will come -- the moment when there is no place left to hide. To see this moment and welcome it instead of panicking; to meet it with love and not fear.

There were indeed many "who had seen, and yet did not believe." They had had some experience of a kind of "content," but absent a certain "form," it turned out to not be the same content after all. And that is indeed, at least a point of the story -- whether or not it "really happened" in exactly that way.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gallery


A conversation a while ago with a friend sparked some reflection upon the sorts of arguments, or (more generally) philosophical "moves," that I find inherently intriguing. Not persuasive, but fascinating -- the kind that make me want to pick them up, turn them around, see how they work. Many -- most -- turn out to be what I would call grammatical arguments: they hinge upon taking a word's meaning seriously, as if with a kind of immanent critique. a few others introduce a crucial distinction. And one or two are the sort of cautionary warning that serves as a more elaborate version of a "rule for thinking."

Wittgenstein: distinction between saying / showing. The limits of language about language; a "performative" moment at the very beginning of "Analytic" philosophy.

Anselm: "ontological proof." The "prayer of the intellect," Simone Weil called it. Much as with Zeno's refereeing of the race between Achilles and the tortoise, generation after generation of philosophers has felt called upon to refute Anselm. When that many philosophers (who otherwise agree on so little) all feel you are wrong, you are certainly doing something right.

C.S. Lewis: foundering of naturalism ("cause" vs "reason"). This has been elaborated and made more sophisticated by Plantinga and others, but I still think that Lewis' presentation in Miracles is, while flawed, the best short summary. If all "reasons" reduce to "causes," then one can have, by definition, no reason to believe this.

Descartes: cogito. Do I even need to justify this? This was probably my first foray into the canon of philosophy, in a conversation with my next-door neighbor when I was 10 or so. There is much to object to in Cartesianism, but the beauty and simplicity of this grammatical moment is too often overlooked by Descartes' critics.

Frege: against psychologism. The locus classicus here is his review of Husserl's first book, but the import extends far beyond. At issue is, what do we mean by "valid"? Not just "convincing"! Not even really really really convincing.

Brentano: structure of intentionality. "Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not do so in the same way. In presentation, something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on." (Psychology From an Empirical Standpoint) A way of saying the obvious that suddenly shows that a great deal follows from the obvious.

Hume: is / ought non-transition. This one is taking a beating in some quarters these days via a kind of argument-by-poll. "Show me a counter-example!" is Sam Harris' refrain. This is a different argument.

Buber / Levinas: what encounter means. Otherness. This is the core of my debate with Monism, the claim that there is really One Big Thing. What I mean by "encounter" is not a sleight-of-perspective trick by which one part of a system forgets and then remembers another part.

Berkeley: The inconceivability of the inconceivable. Well, duh! Despite being lampooned by David Stove and many others as an argument "so bad it is hard to conceive of anyone being swayed by it," or words to that effect, it also has its defenders, notably (of late) Meillassoux. The beautiful thing about this defense is that Meillassoux doesn't believe the argument -- he just thinks it is strong. I.e., you don't have to be persuaded by an argument to admire it and think it is well worth, not just pausing over in the museum of Great Moments in Western Phil., but really being challenged by it.

Wilber: Pre-/Trans- Fallacy. This is a crucial distinction, and if Wilber is remembered for nothing else in fifty years, the elegance of this formulation will last. One thing that's often overlooked in considering it, is that those prepositions modify a noun: rationality.

Cantor / Gödel: knowing may exceed axiomatics. Like most of my generation I first bumped into this argument in Douglas Hofstadter's masterpiece. But I had the funny experience of being more and more persuaded by an argument Hofstadter was concerned to refute, by John Lucas, that (to put it briefly) human thinking was not reducible to the unfolding of algorithms. This application is only the beginning, though. It's not just that you can deduce something, it's what this capacity to deduce means.

Darwin, et al: time + randomness + stochastic mechanism + "anthropic" perspective can get you pretty much anything. Dennett's crucial modification in terms of "cranes" vs "skyhooks" (an elegant distinction) does much to expound the argument, which seems more or less irrefutable. So the pertinent question must be, is it -- or, in what sense is it -- interesting?

Great doubt, great enlightenment. Ok, this is not an "argument", it's a description of ascetic experience.

And, finally, the argument from Moral Realism. What do we mean by "Good"? And if we take this meaning seriously -- what follows? Or, if we think we "have no right" to this meaning -- then, (1) can we dispense with it? (and I don't mean "practically", I mean, coherently); and (2), if not, then... (This is very close to St Anselm's proof, above).

Looking over the above list, one could note that the verb "means" -- in italics, no less -- recurs frequently. Well, I warned you. One philosopher's Achilles' heel is another's Archimedean pivot. The trick is, to make it both.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

linked


From the preface to Recoltes et Semailles
Passionate love is, also, driven by the quest for discovery. It provides us with a certain kind of understanding known as 'carnal' which also restores itself, blossoms forth and grows in depth. These two impulses -- that which animates the mathematician at his desk (let's say), and that which impels the lover towards the loved one -- are much more closely linked than is commonly believed, or, let us say, people are inclined to want to believe.
--Alexandre Grothendieck (28 March 1928 – 13 November 2014)

Monday, November 10, 2014

faith, form, content: a fragment.


(From work-in-progress, and possibly may be left on the cutting-room floor. Some details may not make a great deal of sense out of context, but I think the gist is comprehensible.)

In one crucial sense, Meillassoux is right: philosophy as it culminates in correlationism (and it is indeed a culmination, for Meillassoux) does yield to "religiosity as such," i.e., to fideism. What Meillassoux seems to miss is that the Biblical paradox, like philosophy, is a critique of "religiosity." Only, whereas philosophy opens upon the pure “form” of faith -- without content -- Meillassoux would rather give us pure content -- "brute" content, as it were: contingency as such. The Biblical critique (the articulation of "revelation", i.e., theology), however, does not pursue reasons, as philosophy does, but the Person. Because of this, it was able to navigate the upheavals of cosmology; but it is also sanguine regarding the critique of "Sufficient Reason". Ancient philosophy does indeed lead up to the question of revelation; and music is the grammar of this preparatio. Modern philosophy accepts the formal critique of religion by the Bible, but not the experiential one; it thinks it can stipulate it and move on. Thus "faith" becomes a formal "as-if," and is either uncritiquable but empty, or (if there is any content to it) superstitious. Meillassoux’s novel move is to reject all this, in favor of "content" without form -- pure contingency. The only questions, then, are (1) whether this move is consistent and thinkable, and (2) whether philosophy can possibly be satisfied with such a conclusion and remain philosophy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Allen Grossman, זיכרונו לברכה


On Sunday, October 19 there will be a service at Brandeis University for the memory of the poet Allen Grossman, who died last June 27. I am tempted to call Grossman one of the last great American modernists. During a time when poetry was being dissolved into a play of power differentials, historical-political agendas, personal musings, and trivial deconstructive animadversions, Grossman seemed like a character from the wild Romantic bygone. Aside from his grey hair being pulled back in a short ponytail, he looked every bit the aging academic in tweed or corduroy; but no one who ever heard Grossman read left with that impression. The man proclaimed poetry, like that old recording of Yeats going off to Innisfree's bee-loud glen; "like an Old Testament prophet," I've known more than one person to say. Despite what you might think about that sort of elocution -- now that it is out of fashion, it seems to remind us, for no very clear reason, of bad Shakespearean actors -- Allen Grossman was absolutely convincing at it. (What is more, he could do this while remaining familiar, earthy, heartbreaking, and very funny.) If that tradition is still alive (and I'm not sure it is -- the only other reader I ever knew to use such a style was Ginsberg, which makes me wonder if it is a coincidence that these two late holdouts were both Jewish), it is due in no small part to Grossman's defense of it. He was sure that the over-cautious delivery of poems that he saw spreading was a sign of poets' self-protection -- from their public, but especially from poetry itself, in all its raw danger. Grossman thought this self-protectiveness was the symptom of our avoidance of a deeper crisis in representation itself. The task he set himself was to face that crisis and think it through. This was not a wistful wondering about on what restricted terms we might still hope that poetry matters; it was a warning about what "mattering" means at all, and what the consequences are if poetry doesn't.

Grossman was of the same generation as many of the so-called Confessional poets (he was born in 1936, the same year as Sylvia Plath), but his career took a different arc, although he mined as deeply as any the autobiographical, even turning back towards his early poetic self in his late publication Sweet Youth, which juxtaposed many of his first poems with those he had lately written, in a kind of unfolding dialogue between past and present, as the young man and the old man "meet and acknowledge one another for the first time and pass on a stair -- one going up and the other down."

Over his career Grossman not only produced poetry in the strong mode of late Modernism, he elaborated an astonishingly rich ars poetica. This enterprise has a tremendous theoretical range, unmatched in breadth or depth by any similar body of work in the past half-century. Through all this work of a lifetime -- profound wrestlings with predecessors from Homer or Caedmon to Stevens and Dickinson, and unflinching meditations about the problems of poetics under the conditions of late capitalism and the nuclear age -- Grossman never stints from asserting his basic faith: he fully believed that poetry still was, or could be, a kind of sacred vocation. Although he didn't talk about the Muse as White Goddess, there was still, from Grossman as from Graves, the same utterly serious and unapologetic straight talk about the power of poetry, with nary an overblown word. If you didn't see poetry that way, fine. Grossman wasn't going to wear himself out arguing with you; but he was quietly sure you were cheating yourself.

Grossman's deepening concerns can be traced over the length of his whole career, but three crucial installments in that oeuvre are found in The Sighted Singer, which is, I swear to you, one of the great, weird works of poetics in the West, to rank alongside the Biographia Literaria or In the American Grain. The first two portions of The Sighted Singer are records of two sets of conversations, a decade apart (in Winter of 1981 and Summer of 1990), between Grossman and poet Mark Halliday. In these talks, Halliday and Grossman transmute respectful and serious disagreements into a compelling, but open, assessment of the stakes for poetry. They don't converge upon a single vision, but let their mutual demurrals and unfinished trains of thought hang there like the minority views in a Talmudic tractate. After that comes the third part, Summa Lyrica -- a different sort of work, sprawling and systematic at the same time, a very strange sort of -- well, I'am tempted to say "gnosis," despite the Bloomian appropriation of the word. The first section of Summa Lyrica opens with a magisterial declaration:
Immortality I

1. The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will.

1.1 The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against access to other consciousness.

1.2 The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge—poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not “I” speaks but “language speaks” (Heidegger). The function of this knowledge is to rescue the natural will at the point of its death, that is to say, at the point where death arrests its intention.

1.3 Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world.

1.4 The kind of success poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”
If there is a more ambitious way of commencing a work of poetics, I do not know what it is. But the work is not merely ambitious; it is full of poignancy, depth, close analyses, erudition, refusals of stock response. It is profound but it is not portentous, and does not elaborate simple responses. In fact, Grossman believed that the notion of "sufficient response" to our human dilemma was a snare. As he wrote in an appendix to his late volume How To Do Things With Tears,
The poet...opposes the satisfaction of supposing that thinking is innocent....The conviction of "sufficient response" ("what will suffice," "answerable voice," "closure") is peculiarly delusive. Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice.
Or, as he enjoined elsewhere in the same volume:
Do not be content with an imaginary God.
This question of the new in poetry is also what accounts for the title of The Sighted Singer, a reversal of the traditional trope by which the poet's gift of prophecy was counterbalanced by blindness (e.g. Tiresias, Homer, Milton). This revision of a tradition in which he was so deeply grounded was not lightly undertaken. His were very high stakes, and Grossman did not claim he had won; only that there was no honor or praise in pretending the stakes were otherwise. For Grossman, when one reads a poem as a poem, one is seeking "the presence of a person," and personhood is (I think) the center about which his project turns -- what he called "the hard problem." Immortality. A non-imaginary God. From beginning to end, Grossman's work is a sustained engagement on the terms of this problem. He did not offer easy solace, and he did not despair.

Remember what he remembered.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Polycentric World"


I want to do my (modest) bit for publicity for this pitch from Jonardon Ganeri, a philosopher teaching at NYU and King's College, London. It is a learned, well-documented and very timely call for asking for philosophers to take seriously the cosmopolitan ideal. It is also imminently philosophical itself, in that it is a call for committed encounter -- not a pointless and going-nowhere "discussion" where everyone shares their story and nothing happens, but a proposal for action -- it is philosophy engagée, but it is very much philosophy.

Ganeri is a well-known scholar of Indian philosophy, and his proposal -- a blueprint for an “Institute for Cosmopolitan Philosophy in a Culturally Polycentric World” -- is informed by a formidable historical expertise. It is also all the more urgent in the wake of a great deal of discussion of Eugene Park's recent Huffington Post article on the way he thinks university philosophy departments, and philosophical assumptions at work in those departments, remain caught in a moribund patriarchal monoculture even as other humanities have successfully moved into a promising multicultural future.
Philosophy of mind does not typically engage at all with Indian, East Asian, African, or Native American ideas about the nature of mind. It’s as if non-Western thinkers had nothing to say about the matter. Similarly, those who work in the history of philosophy work almost exclusively on the history of Western philosophy — e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.
So why don’t Anglo-American philosophers engage with non-Western philosophical traditions? In my experience, professional philosophers today often perceive non-Western thinkers as inferior. Of course, few would say this explicitly. Rather, philosophers often point to non-Western philosophy’s unusual and unfamiliar methodology as the primary reason for the disconnect....[But] The excuses for excluding non-Western thinkers from the philosophical canon are sometimes more obviously derogatory. For instance, philosophers often claim that non-Western thought lacks "rigor" and "precision," essential characteristics of serious philosophy. As a result, many philosophers simply dismiss non-Western intellectual culture as (mere) religion, speculative thought, or literature.
Brian Leiter, who's made a nuisance and menace of himself in more than a few ways lately, acted like he had explained the whole thing thus:
My own impression, from having talked to a lot more philosophers than Mr. Park and for a much longer period of time, is that most Anglophone philosophers have no opinion at all about non-Western philosophy because they are simply ignorant of it. Some regret the ignorance, others think it is excusable since there are so many philosophical traditions in the world and one can only master so many, and others just don’t think about it at all because it is possible to pursue an academic career in philosophy ignorant of a lot of things, including large swaths of the history of European philosophy (and the further back in the past we go, the more the boundary lines of "what’s European, what’s not" get harder to draw).
Leiter's modest proposal is that, well, sure,
more study of non-Western philosophical traditions would be salutary and illuminating; ... that some parts of so-called "feminist" philosophy are as illuminating as their so-called "Marxist" predecessors; and... that race -- like class and gender -- benefits from philosophical attention, and that critical theory approaches to social-political philosophy are at least as important as the kind of work done by bourgeois liberals, whose work dominates the Anglophone curriculum. What I still do not believe is that we should add Asian philosophers, or African-American philosophers, to the curriculum in order to “encourage” (on some misguided theory) minorities to enroll in philosophy courses.
Leiter is not a guy I an used to agreeing with (well, to be fair, I'm not used to paying attention; sometimes I regret the ignorance, but mostly I think it is pretty damn excusable). So it is with reluctance that I even give the appearance of condoning, however tangentially, any part of his position. I find his tone condescending and I suspect that his posting on the topic at all is an act of grandstanding which distracts from his other woes at present. (I'm not even going to mention, though I will link to, the silliness that is his silly treatment of this guy "Terrence".) Nonetheless, I'd bet he's right that many or most academic philosophers don't have a thought in their heads about Mohism or Mīmāṃsā; and I mostly concur with the gist of his remark that the motivation for expanding the philosophy curriculum should be, well, philosophical. While I doubt is that Leiter has much interest in this, I could be wrong. But I'd also argue that there is -- obviously -- a genuine philosophical gain to be made in expanding philosophical attention beyond the usual railroad with its Plato - Augustine - Descartes - Hume - Russell - Husserl stations. That this should have to be argued for is just astounding. Does anyone really dispute that Platonism and, say, Confucianism are at least comparably robust and rich philosophical traditions? Leiter faults Eugene Park for never explaining or "even affirm[ing] the merits of these thinkers" from Asia and Africa and South America. Neither, of course, does Leiter defend or even mention the merits of Aristotle, Kant, or Quine. Their merits are self-evident to him. This is exactly the question, though: what is it that will go without saying?

Ganeri's proposal (which I first read about on Amod Lele's indispensible blog Love of All Wisdom, still one of the only online spots that really practices the kind of philosophy I am talking about in this post) suggests an autonomous institute, separate from academia's usual disciplinary boundaries ("Asian studies," "Philosophy of Mind"), which would be geographically spread out in multiple locations, structured as a linked network.

In his blueprint, Ganeri asks after the cross- and multi-cultural aspirations of philosophy, and speculates on the kind of institution that would best serve and embody them. As Lele underlines, Ganeri is frankly asking for input and discussion either by email -- he includes his email address on the blueprint -- or on blogs or other online forums. I don't know Ganeri personally, but it is obvious that something like his proposal needs to be taken seriously for Western philosophy to really face alterity, or for that matter, for philosophy per se to really aspire to universality, instead of a picture of "the universal" that looks the spit'n' image of something very parochial. It is shockingly clear that this is what philosophy should be doing -- not swaddling the love of wisdom in in a bundle of relativistic politeness, but really aspiring to genuine catholicity. And it seems more and more clear that it isn't going to happen in academe as it stands.

I am a strong proponent of the idea of "the canon"; as the twelve people who read this blog can attest, my shorthand for my position is "platonist," and it's all too plausible that I suffer from less than my share of white liberal affluent (by many standards) guilt -- i.e., that I reflect less often than I could on just how good I have it compared to so many (and that I act on this reflection even less). Point is, I'm not motivated here by standard-issue political correctness. I'm not sure anyone is, anymore. But the blinders on western philosophy have got to come off. I find it impossible to imagine Plato, or Diogenes-"citizen of the world"-the-Cynic, (or Leibniz or Spinoza for that matter) being threatened or annoyed by the suggestion that we might be able to seriously profit from really listening to people who have thought about the same things for going on three or four thousand years.