Future, Present, & Past:

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

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Analogy and pedagogy

Philosophy is originally a pedagogy, and indeed a counter-pedagogy. It is not separable from the drive to communicate, foster, teach; but it is a very specific sort of teaching, a teaching which is almost a non-teaching. (A “letting-learn,” Heidegger said.) It arises from mystery-religions and rites of passage, from initiations and secrets. It is no profanation of the mysteries, not a tearing-open of the curtain, nor yet a mere substitution of one set of mysteries for another set that has worn thin, but a re-institution of mystery per se in the face of a set of pseudo-mysteries. It is not a reaction against the critique of mystery, but is in fact a re-institution by means of critique. It clashes with this other set of mysteries, a set of norms of homage to family, cult, polis; above all, with the apologists for that order who will shrug off objections. In The Clouds, Aristophanes’ caricature depicts Socrates’ students as mouthing off to their parents under Socrates’ tutelage. As if in response, Xenophon preserves a teaching of Socrates to his own son about respecting his mother, and Plato shows us Socrates attempting to dissuade Euthyphro from prosecuting his father in court. Thus philosophy intertwines with power well before Philip of Macedon entrusts young Alexander to Aristotle’s care. Philosophy is engaged with power, and so with politics, because it is a teaching.

Philosophy’s primary polemic, however, is with the sophist; even, especially, with (to appropriate a coinage of pop-psychology), one’s “inner sophist.” The teaching of the sophists is, as Badiou notes, a perpetual shadow of philosophy, and it cannot be dealt with once and for all. The philosopher’s uncanny double, the sophist teaches that truth is relative, as indeed it is in the realm of the relative—the realm of the cave.

The besetting danger of teaching is condescension, a casting of oneself as the one who knows; to adopt willy-nilly the relativism of the cave (which confers authority by virtue of arbitrary marks, such as one’s age or social role). This is a danger to ones students, who may idolize too quickly, or conversely refuse to learn; but it is a greater danger to oneself. Socrates continually eschews this picture of himself, as we know, but always ambiguously. Socrates was not just a teacher, but a continual learner, and this learning was a consciousness as well as a passion.
It is essential, to be immediately engaged, but this passion by itself remains insufficient, because it is possible to be immediately engaged and still enslaved. The aim of a philosophical education is to live an interested life, an examined life—a life engaged both immediately and consciously, that is, freely.

The matter of participation (in the sense I use the word) in philosophy’s pedagogy is double. On the one hand, philosophy cultivates participation, for this is a synonym for lived interest. On the other hand, philosophy makes use of participation, as a way of instilling interest. Thus philosophy must assume what it aims at. It is an enthymeme, a supreme question-begging; “weak thought” itself, as Vattimo might say. Voegelin was irked at Marx and Comte for their dismissiveness towards those who do not share their premises, and took it as a sure index of their having set up a “second reality” in place of the real world. But Voegelin is only half-right. Marx, Comte and others may have been wrong in dismissing “idle questions,” but their philosophies are gedankenexperiments in just the same way as are poems. All philosophy insofar as it is philosophy is “without consequences” in this sense. It is a continually revisable thought-experiment, with always-shifting premises. “We said, did we not…?” is always Socrates’ refrain. But this is always rescindable in favor of some other guess, another “likely story.” “It’s like this…”

The claim that underneath every “like” must be something that it is is as old as philosophy, is almost synonymous with philosophy; this is philosophy’s continuous peregrination to and from ontology. But allude to it though we may and must, what is proves recalcitrant to every “it is like…,” and each lapse spurs a new likely story. Badiou’s aspiration to be done with interpretation is an impatience, an abrogation of every “it is like,” for the sake of the bare “it is,” which he finds in the mathematical. But here too the “it is like” is found already, like the hedgehog in Montaigne, for the assertion that the “is” is matheme is another likely story, and indeed is supplemented or complemented in Badiou by three others. Nagel is closer when he asks what it is like to be a bat, for “what is it like” is precisely the analogical structure of experience, and as Aquinas taught, analogy is of the essence, or as close as may be.

“It is like” has a further application in the pedagogical field: it is a curative for boredom. Boredom is the unbroken unfolding of the already. It is by no means an incidental discovery of truly egalitarian teaching, that is, teaching which eschews condescension, that the student experiences and wrestles with great expanses of boredom. This boredom is very close to the insomniac hostage which figures at the beginning of more than one of Levinas’ expositions, a consciousness captive to itself. It is an ontological and not a psychological state. It is true that boredom is also encountered in the traditional teaching model, which distinguishes itself precisely in construing boredom as psychological. Contemporary education is an incarceration, and every analysis of incarceration must treat the experience of boredom. (So too every analysis of modernity, which begins with Baudelaire and the demon ennui). Philosophy is original and radical in that is refuses to treat the student as hostage. This is the site, too, of an intersection of philosophy with contemporary (and not only contemporary) politics, as well as a critique of every spirituality that hinges upon the magical interpretation of the sacrificial victim (as Ivan Karamazov saw)—for the victim is a hostage.

The it is like offers a hinge, a fingerhold, a tiny schism in the absolute symmetry of boredom, for the similarity is also a difference, but not an alienating one. The right analogy means a possible way forward. Science has a name for the way analogy functions in its method: the word model. Every scientific experiment seeks a broken symmetry: the one altered parameter that will bring about an altered outcome, out of the desert of invariability. The experiment, in turn, is intimately linked with the model, as its proving ground and crucible. The experiment hones and refines and sometimes breaks the model; the model being simply the ruling analogy, the it is like

The example of the dialogue with the slave boy in the Meno is (notwithstanding Popper’s anti-Platonic arguments) a good place to start. A boy who knows nothing of geometry is led, step by step, to answer simple questions until he can confidently describe the procedure for doubling a square. One could argue here at length about the frame-story or rhetoric; the implicit approval of slavery, for instance; or the yes-or-no parameters of Socrates’ questions. In fact, it is rare for a real non-coercive dialogue to proceed along merely yes/no lines; real equality between speakers implies an ability for each of them to address questions to the other. And to be sure, Socrates turns out to welcome questions himself, though he disclaims any expertise and always casts himself as a fellow-inquirer.

In general, those who get befuddled in a Platonic dialogue voice some suspicion that Socrates is trying to trick them; that is, they do not trust Socrates. There is good reason for this. They correctly intuit that the Socratic project will entail something they do not want—a choice between changing their conduct or continuing to live as they were but under the inchoate impression of grievous inconsistency. Socrates says that he consistently urges his fellow citizens to concern themselves about what matters most of all: the soul. (If you want a measure of how far our time has diverged from Plato’s, just ask yourself how many of our contemporaries who are called philosophers could, with a straight face, urge concern about the soul). It should be underlined: this matters, for Socrates, most of all, so much that he prefers a death sentence rather than stop publically philosophizing. For Socrates, the stakes in a philosophical dispute are quite explicitly the highest stakes that could be.

And yet, when Socrates disputes, he maintains a dispassion that is nearly infamous. Philosophy is, as it were, an irenic agonism; it readily enters, and even courts, disagreements of all sorts, but its conduct and manner of engagement in every conflict is always impassive.

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful do not comprise the Platonic triumvirate by accident. It is to these three that are all human disputation comes down. Philosophy is an urgent engagement: the unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates maintained; a verdict of considerable ferocity. And yet, Socrates is often seen to laugh, to shrug, to admit defeat over and over, even to fall silent for vast stretches of the dialogues; while his opponents frequently get angry, denounce him, storm off. The paradox is that one cannot contend for the soul in any way except dispassionately; one must know that the stakes are of the utmost gravity, and yet engage as with as light a touch as that of “a child playing draughts.” Philosophy is, and is about, a decision, as Socrates knew, as Heidegger knew, as Gödel and Lonergan and Badiou each say in different ways; and yet that decision, of the gravest significance, is and can only be undertaken in a manner that is lighthearted and even joyous. This is also the secret of philosophy’s patience, and its “scandalous” lack of progress.

The higher the stakes, the more investment in them feels like fear. But Socrates goes to his death unafraid. There is a secret link between this fear and the boredom we spoke of earlier: boredom secretes fear as a kind of attempt at self-cure. One can see this quite clearly in contemporary western culture, which has grown more fearful as it has grown more secure, for the periodic upsettings of security become more traumatic and they leave a viral half-life of unsettling phantoms, traumatic enough to drive one back into the arms of a comfortable boredom, in a terrible cycle. Heidegger and Kierkegaard articulated angst, but they did not discover it. Philosophy is as unavoidably concerned with fear as with ennui, in an effort to break this vicious circle. But its efforts, paradoxical as always, find the exit by entering into the circle more deeply.

One often meets a flippant dismissal of disputes considered “merely philosophical,” to the effect that they have no consequences. But the consequences of a true philosophical contest are the most far-reaching precisely because they allude, because they are indirect; such debates clarify the consequences of ideas already in play. An argument about politics, religion, education, economics, etc., becomes philosophical as it turns both more urgent and more dispassionate. A debate over the status of a discourse—‘science’ versus ‘pseudoscience,’ ‘history’ versus ‘revisionism,’ ‘education’ versus ‘propaganda,’ ‘art’ versus ‘kitsch’ or ‘decadence,’ ‘true religion’ versus ‘heresy,’ ‘realism’ versus ‘ideology’—is at once the most intractable and (potentially) the most fruitful. One is very close to a real breakthrough, if one can slow down enough to discern the values actually in play; for one can then apprehend one’s values as exempla of value and as definition or essence. But of course, once this happens, the status quo is unsettled. It is precisely this unsettling that provokes Socrates’ most intractable foes, who in their defensiveness see the Socratic dispassion as (i.e., project upon it their own) condescension, superiority, game-playing, indifference, or relativism. Philosophy is accused of “leaving everything as it is,” of “merely interpreting the world.” In the Phaedrus, Socrates indeed says he is perfectly willing to provisionally accept the popular wisdom concerning the myths, rather than strive after convoluted reductions to plausibility, since he does not yet understand himself. Likewise, the best teaching always starts with where the student is already engaged—that is where the energy is—and is in no hurry to wrest this into a new direction. This is indeed a kind of “relativism” or even quietism (rather close in fact to the advice of the Delphic oracle regarding how to best please the gods: heed the local customs and be humble). And yet, Socrates acquires the reputation for being a constant arguer and is condemned for not honoring the gods of the city.

Speed is heat, and slowness cools. As I have said, philosophy is a matter of patience. I said there that there are conclusions that work only as conclusions, not as premises, and I might even say that philosophy is the articulating of such conclusions, conclusions that cannot be turned in to axioms and indeed, paradoxically, cannot be reached by any axioms. Philosophy, true to the Red Queen’s maxim, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” is still engaged with Zeno after all these years, for it will not dispense with this running nonetheless.

To think coolly about hot matters, but without cooling them. A very strange alchemy—and perhaps a secret of why or how philosophy and alchemy are related.

left, right, and wrong

Over at None So Blind, Andrew Bard Schmookler has a post underscoring (again) what I think is one of his core insights, to wit, that the difference between Left and Right in the USA is a fundamentally spiritual one. This is a touchy subject to articulate, and I am not always sure Schmookler gets it exactly right, but I'm even less sanguine about my own gropings. This is because the rhetoric in which such "spiritual struggle" is couched is so assumed to tend towards a polarization of us vs.them that it is hard to use it without making even one's allies worry that you are firing up the tanks.

As an aspiring philosopher my commitment is always to find the way to speak in a sober and non-inflammatory way about the most important things. This means: no playing down the import, and no ratcheting up the rhetoric. (Due allowance made for human failings.) We might think that Exhibit A of what "spiritual warfare" means is the suicide bomber ready to send a few infidels to Hell in order to get into Paradise; but the alternative to this is not to deny the spiritual dimension but to redefine the struggle as something other than physical violence. I am absolutely committed to undoing the demonizing of my opponents, but the method of this is not to feign agreement.

I first read Schmookler years ago, back when The Parable of the Tribes was relatively new. I commend this book to anyone. Here I am re-posting, slightly edited, the comment I made on Schmookler's post, which specifically raises the issue of the "enthusiasm gap" between the two major political parties in the US.

When I first encountered NSB, it was this diagnosis that the missing dimension of the political discussion was spiritual which I found most compelling. He argued that the Right had generally tapped into a sense that Evil exists and was capitalizing on the energy this gave them, but that it was a misdirected recognition (they wrongly identified Good and Evil); whereas the Left was foundering because it lacked the ability to call evil Evil. (I hope ABS will correct me if he feels I’ve travestied his position). (And please pardon all the Officious Capital Letters, they are only there for emphasis).

My sense is that (at least some of) the current leadership of the right is cynical enough to exploit the spiritual enthusiasm that the righteous indignation of their base gives them, but I do not really believe that they (the leaders) really en bloc share that indignation except in bad faith.

As to the left: their difficulty is that the moral core of the left is far more left than the Democratic party. The leadership know themselves to be utterly morally compromised, and this can only be demoralizing. They settle for “what can be done” in the art of politics, but they know very well it is not much and not enough.

Schmookler asks, why is it that Obama the candidate could generate so much spiritual enthusiasm, but Obama the president, not so much? To this I answer: it was in part a fluke of the historical moment. Spiritual enthusiasm centers on symbols. There was a great symbolic momentum against not just 8 years of moral cretinism in the White House but the whole history of our country going back to the Missouri Compromise and before. The left was so fired about telling itself Yes We Can that it did not really ask what is was we could and would. Those who remained just a little dispassionate noted even at the time that the sizzle quite overshadowed the steak. At the time, enthusiasts who even heard this critique wrote it off as a necessity of election politics, confident that once in office, we would sort out the details. This might even have happened, but the details sorted us instead.

The symbolic triumph attained was a sugar high. The next rush would be that much harder to get because it would not come with a symbol.

The symbol that had kept the right going for (nearly) 8 years had been the smoking ruins of the WTC. A different symbol displaced that one with Barack Obama’s candidacy.

That symbol was: the coming of the Dream, the end of racism, palpable proof that we had put that behind us. In fact, insofar as we have “put it behind us,” this is shown not by having a black president but by the fact that the president still runs into the same intense difficulties that a white president would — this is how we know humanity, by its limits, not by its superpowers.

The great danger now though is that this same symbol has been seized by the right and combined with the first symbol, thereby inverting it. From the very beginning there have been snide insinuations, carefully never overtly endorsed by the GOP as a whole but nurtured: Obama is “not one of us.” This was not enough to derail the impetus of the candidacy, because that symbolic victory had a greater allure. But now that that sugar-rush has passed, now that we think racism has really been defeated (>snort<), there is only the workaday reality to stand against a new symbolic momentum, this time coming from the other direction, and this "not one of us" is being woven together with hints about who he "is": a Muslim, for instance. And we know what they do….

I hope no one will misunderstand me and think I am reducing Obama’s victory to his being voted for “because he was black.” I am speaking of the force of symbolic power-plays.

The last thing I might mention is that --to generalize again-- the Left has tended (for the same reasons mentioned above) to downplay the spiritual in general. It is thus not such a wonder that it flounders when trying to generate spiritual enthusiasm. For a long while, the spiritual per se (="the religious") has been thought of as the territory of the right, alas. It is not by chance that the last time the religious left took a major role was during the civil rights era — which bequeathed us the great symbol that gave us our last high.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Post up over yonder

My post for Speculative Heresy's Science and Metaphysics event is up today. I won't repost it here for now, in order to keep the conversation (if any) centered in one locale, but go check out it and several other excellent posts that have gone up this week. There will be more coming up, too. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

"No one is good enough."

We all know what Camus said was the "only... serious philosophical question." I've sometimes said that I can't really relate to someone who's made it to adulthood and never considered suicide--of all the ways of dividing the world into "two kinds of people," this one seems to me one of the few real fault-lines.

Of course there is another line, between those who commit suicide, and those who survive them. Today I read a blog post at Among the Poseidonians which drove home the freezing, flailing helplessness of those on the near side of that line, and the uncanniness of despair--despair that can seem almost banal to the onlooker--that pulls people across to the far side, like an undertow.

The only thing I want to say about this is that as a parent, as a teacher, and as a thinker, this has made me think very hard (and not merely think); not about a puzzle to be solved, but about the truth of relationships we live. Other than that, I don't want to smother this in commentary, so I will just say, read this.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mosque and motive

On the heels of my go-round trying to be the resented moderate voice as regards John Milbank’s alleged wistful harking back to Empire, I stumbled on a post at Gnosis and Noesis which referred me to (and critiqued) the Maverick Philosopher's having weighed in, back in July, about the much-maligned "Mosque at Ground Zero," Cordoba House. Bill Vallicella wrote:
I rather doubt that the Founders had Islam in mind when they ensured the right to the free exercise of religion.
I was nonplussed by this astonishing "doubt," and to his credit Vallicella hastened to confess that he'd been corrected in an addendum two days later. But, he went on,
I do not retract my main point, which is that we ought to give careful thought to the question whether, as I put it above, "Islam counts as a religion in a sufficiently robust sense of the term to justify affording it full First Amendment protection." I am raising this as a question.
Oh! just a question! That's different. Because, you know, for a second I thought Vallicella might have like an opinion about this, which made my liberal knee start to go all jerky. But now I see, he's just innocently raising, you know, a question, somethin' to think about.

I am not used to thinking of the Maverick Philosopher as disingenuous, and perhaps I am being uncharitable. I am relieved that in the face of empirical evidence, Vallicella partially recanted; but I remain frankly appalled that this would have seemed to be an empirical question in the first place. Vallicella offers the argument that Islam is "as much a political ideology as a religion." It is closer to the truth to say that there are political formulations of Islam, some of them quite powerful at present. I admit that there is an element of pedantry in insisting on such distinctions. I am happy to be pedantic in this case.

But something is strange. Why am I appalled by Vallicella's anti-Islamic stance and not by Milbank's? Why do I have two different responses to these two thinkers, both of whom I admire, who rather similarly characterize Islam in ways I think are questionable? I find myself moved to defend Milbank from his severest detractors, but in Vallicella's case I am just blown away by his overstatement.

Part of it is that I see Milbank as more nuanced, yes. Part of it is that Vallicella is taking a stance on a domestic, U.S. issue, and it is one whose subtext I think is very easy to discern. What, exactly, is it about the "Mosque at Ground Zero" that makes it, in Vallicella's terms, "this abomination"? Or even a "needless provocation"?

Milbank, whatever the excesses or even wrongness of any of his stances, regards the Christian-Islamic encounter as, well, a religious encounter. He may be all too ready to blur the line between politics and religion (and in fact the line is blurry), but Vallicella on the other hand is ready to etch it in stone-- for these purposes, anyway.

The question that is to be asked (about this specific domestic issue) is: Assuming one does object to the proposed Islamic Center (which yes, does include a mosque), what exactly is the objection? To this, there can be--almost--only one answer, unless one is just referring to other people's objections, in which case one can appeal to "majority rule."

But if one is answering for oneself, the only answer is: It feels inappropriate, wrong, offensive, whatever, to have an Islamic building so close to this place where Islamic people carried out a terrorist attack. That. Is. It. This is the final, un-further-analyzable attitude at the bottom of people's resistance to the building. And it is unsupportable, unless one grants that Islam=Islamic terrorism, "at least in some people's eyes."

But wait! “According to polls,” as we hear, many who object to the building of the Cordoba House would be fine, just fine, with the construction of a mosque within blocks of their home. It’s the WTC site—well, a certain radius around it—that is somehow sacred and “inappropriate” for Cordoba House. Presumably these folks don’t believe that all Islam = Islamic terror, or they wouldn’t be OK—or say they are OK—with such a mosque near their homes. Are they just being inconsistent? Are they lying?

I can only navigate this contradiction by means of some shameless psychoanalyzing of the motives of strangers (and I'm prepared to be better informed if anyone cares to school me). No, they’re not lying about whether they’d welcome (or at least countenance) a mosque next door. What they’re in bad faith about is their reasons for opposing the building of Cordoba House. They actually don’t see that their reaction boils down to believing that the same enemy who jihadjacked those planes is now preparing to build a 13-story al-Qaeda recruitment center at Ground Zero. Of course in any given case there could be variations on this, including the likelihood that they’re betting no one will call their bluff about a mosque in their own neighborhood, or the obvious psychological truism that human beings respond differently to hypotheticals (an imaginary mosque down their own street) than they do to imminent possibilities (a real mosque 2 blocks from the WTC site).

Presumably one could believe that there is a difference between Islam and Islamic terrorism, but still hold that the construction of the mosque, whoever its backers, would be seen by “our enemies” as a sign of victory. On these premises one reasonable response might be to wish to deny them this satisfaction, perhaps even this tactical advantage. This rationale has the advantage of being, for once, discernibly different from attributing (consciously or not) murderous anti-Americanism to every Muslim in the world. It suffers from being, as far as I know, not actually propounded by any of the actual opponents of Cordoba House.

The same goes for another possible objection, which was my own when I first heard about a "mosque at ground zero," and assumed that "at" meant, you know, at. Namely: I assumed that any projects there would be secular. Once I saw the actual location of Cordoba House (two blocks away and not actually visible from the WTC site) this objection evaporated.

To recapitulate: the possible reasons for opposing the building of the Cordoba House are:
1- They attacked us. Now they want to build a mosque?!

2- Of course they have the "right" to build a mosque, but it's inflammatory and "needlessly provocative." They should be more sensitive to our feelings.

3- I would be fine with a mosque a few blocks from my own home, but that Manhattan real estate is sacred ground.

4- I don't oppose the mosque personally, but nearly 70% of Americans do. Them's the breaks.

4a- Nearly 70% of Americans are bigots, and we'd best not piss them off too much.

5- Of course not all Muslims are our enemy; of course it is a minority who rejoiced at the 9/11 attacks, a small minority who support such efforts, and a tiny minority who actually carry them out. But this minority will see the mosque, no matter who builds it, as a victory for themselves and a sign of weakness on our part.

6- Wtf is a house of worship of any sort doing going up by Ground Zero? Any religious building of any sort is inappropriate. It was a national, not a religious, catastrophe.
(If there are any other rationales, I'd be grateful to have them pointed out.)

Reason 2 collapses into reason 1. So does reason 3, but with the addition of being incoherent. Reason 4 (and 4a) reduces to "nearly 70% of Americans believe in Reason 1, and that's enough."

Reasons 5 and 6 I've not actually heard anyone maintain; I had to make them up in an effort to try to come up with a rationale that did not reduce to Reason 1. Reason 6 fails because in fact there are plenty of houses of worship (including mosques) in NYC (it's well known that a Christian church was damaged on 9/11). As for Reason 5, this is the only one I can imagine being remotely defensible. There remain counterarguments, for instance a question of what message(s) preventing the building of the mosque sends.

But the main point here is that 2/3 of these reasons reduce to an equation of "Muslims" with "our enemy." This is what needs underscoring. These are the de facto grounds for opposing Cordoba House. If one claims to distinguish between Islam in general and an enclave of terrorists who hijack planes and blow up buildings, but one still opposes Cordoba House, the question to be asked is, "Why?" And the response will reveal that either one does oneself actually identify Islam in general as the enemy, or else believes that this equation, being widely (albeit perhaps regrettably) held, should be respected, instead of combated.

I know that in the "art of the possible," one must choose the ditches in which one is willing to die. I can imagine deciding that the erection of building in Manhattan is not the ideal teaching moment to address nearly 70% of Americans who have apparently bought into a stupid and unreflective identification of approximately 1.6 billion Muslims as The Enemy.

This brings me to the last reason to variation 4a. This is that, however it is interpreted by Muslims, the vast majority of Americans will deem this an act of arrogance by Our Great Enemy, and that it will inflame anti-Islamic sentiment stateside.

To this I reply, that ship seems to me to have sailed. But if we assume the argument's validity, the corollary surely follows: if the building is blocked on these grounds, it will be a blot on the American character, not to mention possibly further emboldening the enemies of genuine diversity and toleration.

I do not believe--and I do not want to believe--that 70% of my fellow citizens are bigots and slaves to a reactionary panic. While I do maintain that almost every rationale for opposing the mosque reduces to equating Islam per se with "al Qaeda and its allies," I do not believe that most Americans consciously make this equation, and do not really notice that it is entailed by their logic. I want to believe that they can reflect on the underlying rationale of their reactions, and make a different choice. Otherwise, the whole conception of Cordoba House will remain what it has become: a zero-sum game in which there will be winners and losers, whether construction goes ahead or not. It is, in fine, war in miniature. Which means, whatever the outcome, we will have all already lost. There would be for us only the possibility of our defeat being noble or ignoble.

Friday, September 17, 2010

patience, gentle reader

Some have noticed it's been a little quieter here than usual. I am grateful to commenters who keep the dialogue going during these down-times. I wish I could say that I've been polishing posts and more posts that will soon appear, but this is only barely true. I've worked for a while on a post for Speculative Heresy's upcoming Science and Metaphysics cross-blog event, and on some other things that will be up eventually, but mostly I've been distracted by the beginning of school and other real-time affairs.

When I began posting, going on a year ago now, it was after a long internal debate. Who the hell, I asked myself, really needs to have all of My Correct Opinions on Everything? The temptation to shout out into the void and glean the little ego-strokes of "someone agrees!" or even "someone thinks I'm an idiot but Ha Ha! Made them look!" could only be bad for me. I opted in after a while because I could see a real exchange -- an exchange I deeply needed, to hone my thinking -- taking place on a few blogs, and decided it was worth the price of self-vigilance to make sure I didn't fall into just "standing up and waving my beliefs," as Adrian recently put it on Immanence. I am sure I have not succeeded 100% of the time, and some may think the percentage is low indeed.

In general, the pace of blogging is too quick for me. I am not just referring to the fact that tempests can swarm up over a very few days and then blow over,leaving in their wake a moniker like "The Derrida Wars," as if something truly momentous had occurred instead of a few well-spoken hotheads typing loud at each other. It's that there's a pressure to put things out there or feel like one is somehow "not participating;" a blog that isn't updated every few days starts to emit the sounds of crickets chirping. One fears that people will acquire the habit turning their attention elsewhere. This generates a tension between keeping the quality of posts high, and keeping things moving so that it doesn't look like I'm asleep at the controls.

There is something attractive about this pressure, too; anyone who's ever written knows that a deadline can be mightily inspirational. So it's not as if a blog is a recipe for inauthenticity. It is an illusion that one has "all the time in the world," and one of the reasons I started blogging was to infuse my writing with a degree of salutary responsibility-to-readers.

At the same time, however, I know from the inside that my attention-span has, if not atrophied, then certainly shrunk as I have spent more and more time online. This is a complaint I read often, and it might be easy to say that there's a groundless blame-the-internet meme making the rounds, but my gut feeling is that there's more to it than this. My itch to post frequently is matched by an inability to read everything I find others posting. Yes, this is "just" information overload, not a very exciting topic, but what I want to suggest is specifically that it's antithetical to the work of philosophy, which necessarily involves being willing to sit with perplexity for as long as it takes. Adrian's post cited above contrasts the opinion-waving of blogging with the willingness to sit still and notice exhibited by a group of Buddhist meditators in New York, sitting silently between groups pro- and contra-Cordoba House on the anniversary of 9/11. Patience and silence are not the whole story for philosophy, which does entail articulation, but they are indispensable and not readily cultivated in the blogosphere.

I also just chanced upon a review of Czech theologian Tomáš Halík's book Patience with God, over at Benjamin Myers' blog Faith & Theology. Myers writes,
the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their insistence that the natural world doesn't point to God (or to any necessary meaning) is correct. Their experience of God's absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence. Faith is patience with God.
Now in fact I'm skeptical of any sweeping characterizations like this of of Myers' (and I have to acknowledge here that I have not yet read Halík's book), but there's something in it that sounds right to me and that I want to salvage from my knee-jerk skepticism.

There is an "impatience" I know well, perhaps akin to that which Halík speaks of; a desire to skip steps, to wrest into explicitness what needs to remain implicit. Wittgenstein says somewhere in his notebooks that one important characteristic of a thinker is the tempo of their sentences and thought. (All of his own sentences, Wittgenstein says, are meant to be read slowly). For every question there is an appropriate measure, and a desire to know the answer is not always just an intellectual curiosity but an appetite. William Desmond would perhaps call this appetite an eros for univocality, an impetus towards nailing down every detail. There is something to be said for this ferocious passion for the explicit, for leaving no vague cloud in which the obscurantist urge can find refuge. But as Desmond also notes, there simply is more to our habitation of being than the univocal. At some point I'll devote a post or three to Desmond's philosophy, in which he details four senses of Being: the univocal, the equivocal, the dialectical, and the metaxological. For now I will simply say that the univocal seems to me to be the realm of the problem, in the sense I've borrowed from Gabriel Marcel: the question with a specific and delimitable answer.

One occasionally meets the observation--it is a staple of popular psychology of men and women--that someone (usually male) has "jumped" to solving a problem before they have given real evidence of having heard the dissatisfaction. The problem-solving is viewed as a defense against the dissatisfaction. Like many bits of pop-psych, this one has its ground in reality. I'm not referring here to the statistics about male and female approached; but there is an approach that tries to start somewhere other than where one is. It tries to appropriate as a premise what can only be a conclusion.

In this sense, I recognize the kind of impatience Halík names. My hesitation regarding this as a characterization of atheism is that this, too, works best (if at all), as a conclusion. It is very little use as a premise. It's no good to start by saying, "as an atheist you are essentially impatient." In fact, it's a bit impatient to do so.

In fact, this notion of positions or formulations that work as conclusions but not as premises is--despite being pretty hard to make work in a rigorously logical way--close to the essence of thinking for me. There's an experiential component to wrestling with the hard problems that makes them akin to a sort of initiation; one needs to undergo these problems, not merely appropriate another's final line as one's own starting point. This is why Kant was right to speak of a scandalous lack of progress in philosophy, and why, for instance, Kant did not definitively refute "dogmatic" metaphysics once and for all, but only provided us with a model for how to wrestle with those issues. Anyone who does philosophy in the western mode after Kant recapitulates that struggle in their own way--and this regardless of whether they accept or reject Kant.

This isn't to say that if it's quiet here I'm always busy wrestling the giants (though you should see some of the 5th-graders I tussle with); but it's a reason for taking one's time. I want to keep the lights on, so to speak, but not at the cost of posting mere filler. But no matter how infrequent the posts here, I assure you they will all be the Correct and Final Word.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Defending John Milbank, sort of.

John Milbank has published an article claiming Christian paternity for the Enlightenment and more or less chiming in in agreement with parts of Pope Benedict's line-in-the-sand between Christian and Muslim presuppositions. This has made a lot of folks indignant, mainly due to (parts of) two little sentences:
Muslims....need to find their own Islamic path to Christ.
why [has] Islam has largely taken such a dangerous, non-mystical and often political direction in recent times[?] This surely has to do with the lamentably premature collapse of the Western colonial empires.
I commend the entire article for some useful context which does somewhat leave these sound-bites more sound than bite. Warning, though: after the expected opprobrium at An und für Sich and Inhabitatio Dei, the article itself was kind of a let-down. These are blogs I read regularly to my edification, so I expected something more, I don't know, shameless. When Milbank says Moslems "need to find their own Islamic path to Christ," he says it as a qualifier:
[Ayaan Hirsi Ali] appears to think that it would be better if Muslims all converted to Christianity. And yet, as a Christian theologian, I would say that, even where they do convert, they need to find their own Islamic path to Christ. (My emphasis).
"Even where they convert" implies, "and they may not," even admits "need not." This rather belies the way this is being read as just more evangelical colonialism with a condescending pat on the head thrown in. It is clear that Milbank believes there are substantive differences between Islam and Christianity, that these differences have to do with truth, and presumably, "as a Christian theologian," Milbank believes truth to be on his side. But at least from these sentences, it is not clear that he believes Muslims need to convert to Christianity, and certainly not, as Tim McGee (another blogger with whom I often agree) accused, under the auspices of "Euro-Catholicism," whatever that is.

Even the already mildly infamous "lamentably premature collapse of Western colonial[ism]," seems to me to admit a more charitable reading than the one that it has received, which is more or less treating it as if Milbank had said, "the lamentable collapse." Now one must admit the reaction is hardly surprising; Milbank should know better, unless he was intentionally baiting his opponents, and if so, well, he should still know better. At AUFS, Adam Kotsko said that
The problem with decolonization was ...that the only state structures that had been put in place in most colonies ...were geared solely toward population control and the extraction of natural resources,
and thus these were all that could be "turned over to the natives." But I would like to suppose that one of the things Milbank means by "premature" is "before it could happen responsibly," "responsibly" entailing, in such a context, "after colonialism itself had become responsible." Obviously even to talk this way is to court accusations of pining for ye good olde days when Her Majesty's Empire never saw the sun set. But of the many connotations of "premature," one of them is not "should never have happened, alack the day." It means it should have happened, should have happened better (yes, later, but better) and was botched. I humbly submit that Milbank means, or may charitably and plausibly be taken to mean: Given that there was all this balderdash about White Man's Burden, it is lamentable that so few white men really lived up to their own cant. Moreover, the fact that he's being read meaning something else, something more...sinister... is only partly attributable to his (willfully?) provocative phrase.

What Milbank rightly does is decline to subsume Muslim-Christian encounter under the liberal rubric of "religious studies," in which the tacit premise is that we are all talking about the same thing. He does not share the assumption that Islam and Christianity must not have real and substantive differences, or that all of these differences must be resolvable in the lecture-hall; but he does make a distinction between Islam and what we may call radical "Islamism," a distinction I can only call realistic. Now, one man's realism is another man's alarmism; and for every snide mockery of liberals playing ostrich one can find urbane and reasonable assurances that the radical Islamism remains a minority position despite its headline-grabbing. I am a non-expert, dismayed by instances of Islamism that I encounter out of context (and resolutely suspicious of claims that context could ever correct for some of it), but I feel sure that the truth lies between the urge to circle wagons and the readiness to present the keys to the city. What Milbank thinks should be done, is still not evident from his article. He seems to imagine that "we" can hope to "encourage" the development of certain strains of Islam ("mystical" strains, he calls them); I would like to know just what he means by this. But even in this dubious prospect, it must be admitted, he does not (here) call for such "mystical" aspects to be seen as a praeparatio evengelica.

Well, Milbank isn't needing my defense or my advice. But what's really striking is that, at least in the blogosphere, so many commenters are shaking their heads and wondering where it all went wrong; or even whether it was not wrong from the start. When I read folks now wanting to make amends for having "drunk the R[adical] O[rthodoxy] kool-aid"... I just have to sigh. Certainly, Milbank gets a great deal wrong. He is too quick to condemn Tariq Ramadan. He is making some moves and political alliances (with David Cameron) about which I am not sanguine. It is always, always dangerous for the church to cozy up to Caesar. Dangerous, but not a priori damnable. Does this really throw into disarray the entire Radical Orthodoxy project? Does it now stand exposed as just Christian imperialism all over again? What RO meant, fundamentally, (I thought) was a refusal to present or think theology in other terms than its own. This was and remains, just to remind everyone, an utterly audacious stance-- dangerously so, like religion itself. It declines to let sociology, anthropology, psychology or, yes, politics left right or center, tell us what good theology (or indeed any theology) is or should be about; and in asserting that theology is irreducible to these, it also claims that these are not the final word about humankind or the world. So if now Milbank is declining to think in the obligatory terms of "colonialism=BAD", are critics really entitled to their dismay? (Kotsko, of course, is just telling us we should have seen it coming.)

Milbank's, ahem, lamentable choice of words aside, I find it perplexing that this article seems to be the one that is making everyone consider jumping ship. I grant you that Milbank is not quite Heidegger, but if we weren't prepared to dismiss him, or Schmitt, or etc etc, for their dalliances (and much worse) with the Nazis, why should this article of Milbank's be so decisive? I'm also amused that a great deal of anti-RO animus seems (at least at AUFS) to be generated in part by the enthusiasm for Zizek, who has five times the bluster of Milbank and is at least twice as willfully provocative (Stalin, anyone?). I guess we just choose our favorite blusterers. I like 'em both, JM and SZ, and I think they both go "too far;" but from a Christian standpoint Milbank is (and I know I am oversimplifying here) wrong for the right reasons, and Zizek (on Christianity anyway) is right for the wrong ones. (This may, of course, only aggravate Milbank's offense, but it doesn't make him the fallen (or false) prophet some are casting him as).