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

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kant, still

A few years ago I wrote a very, very short review of Kant's philosophy -- not at all a summary or a précis, but what I hoped was a provocation to ordinary readers (that is, not those who usually self-identify as philosophers) to give him a try. I had in mind especially three shorter works -- the Prolegomena, the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, and (in some ways my favorite) the early Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime; I wrote there that
these works by Kant exhibit the absolute rigor and confidence of hard thinking. Reading them slowly, one almost recaptures the sense that, if the difficulties are simply thought through to the end, even the most immovable problems will yield to the irresistible force of the mind.
David Milliern has posted a welcome encomium on Immanuel Kant, where he admittedly does pretty much the same thing, but with more detail, more emphasis on the epistemology and natural philosophy, and expressly talking to philosophers. Milliern's praise may seem over-the-top--
in my opinion, far and away, the greatest thinker of all-time — and I mean it isn’t even close
--but I find this welcome, I say, given the reaction among some philosophers against Kant. This reaction has arisen largely in the wake of Meillassoux, whose critique of Kant is really a critique of a particular reading -- Meillassoux's reading -- of Kant, but because of the geniality and ingenuity with which Meillassoux makes it, the critique has caught on. On the other hand, there is Žižek's "Kant was the first philosopher" line, which like so much in Žižek overstates in order to provoke, and I read Milliern's enthusiasm in the same way, though he'd probably protest that he means it absolutely literally.

I deeply admire Meillassoux, and I spend more time than I like to admit arguing with him in my mind; but for all the talk about reversing the "Ptolemaic counter-revolution," I will bet anyone who dares to take me up on it that as the dust settles and people stop using "correlationist" as a swear-word, there will be more than one proposed synthesis of Kant and Meillassoux (or indeed of your Speculative Realist of choice). I note, for instance, that Kant singles out three questions -- the reality of free will, the existence of God, and the possibility of immortality -- as crucial to moral philosophy (and I am one for whom this is the centerpiece of his thinking in general). Very few major thinkers have seriously addressed immortality the way Kant did, and back when I first studied him I even thought he was making a kind of category mistake. But I've come to understand since then. And one of the signs that Meillassoux is the real thing is that the more you read him the more you realize that his thinking begins and ends with this very same issue. (There is a sense in which Meillassoux is Kant modulated into a new key: read the concerns about Ancestrality as the starry heavens, and the concerns about the world of justice as the moral law.)

As a Platonist, I'm on the ancients' side whenever I can be, but when I have to be a modern (and of course I do) I am (in certain crucial ways that have to do with the thematization of finitude) Kantian. Millierd prefaces his post with that famous remark of Kant about moral law and the starry heavens. I know this is over-quoted, like the first bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, but I don't care -- it really is gorgeous and as fine a one-sentence summary of philosophy itself as one could ask for -- and it is also (and not coincidentally) one of the places where Kant's kinship with Plato is most apparent. And with Meillassoux, now that I think of it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On post-humanism

It is easy to conceive of an animal more intelligent than man, that is to say, capable of more ingenious inventions in order to achieve its final conditions, to act according to valences in its vital domain -- but remaining, nonetheless, in a vital domain without acceding to the world of values and meanings, i.e., to the human level.
--Raymond Ruyer, "The Vital Domain of Animals and the Religious World of Man."
And, one might add, it is sometimes easy to imagine the human species creating, or indeed even becoming, such an animal.

Ruyer is not much known in English, it seems; I've been able to find only a few essays. There's a case to be made that he was a strong influence on Deleuze. You can find some other pointers about him at Neofinalism and courtesy of the apparently indefatigable Taylor Atkins, here and here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A massive reaction formation

I know Levi Bryant has his die-hard detractors and his many fans. I've never belonged squarely in one camp or the other. Bryant has written a lot of posts and I don't read his blog regularly, but from time to time I look in, occasionally I venture to comment, and usually I've learned something. I have also read a good bit of The Democracy of Objects, an undertaking I embarked upon with no agenda at all except, at first, to get a better handle on how Bryant uses the term "translation." From what I read, I genuinely think Bryant's book is a perfectly respectable presentation of an interesting metaphysical (yes, metaphysical) position. I have no axe to grind with his general approach. I am far from being a knee-jerk opponent (or champion) of Object-Oriented philosophy (you know who you are), and am indeed on record not just as admiring Graham Harman, but as seeing him as one of the most interesting and significant contemporary re-interpreters of the phenomenological tradition. Harman's philosophy has obvious affinities with (to say nothing of having inspired) Bryant's work; a fact I mention in hope of dispelling any suspicions of what follows as coming from some kind of unspoken partisan motive.

These caveats really ought to be totally unnecessary. If I feel the need to add them nonetheless, it's because blood gets pretty hot out there sometimes, and Bryant's latest is clearly meant to push those temperatures higher. Credit where it's due: Bryant calls it "Fighting Words," so he clearly knows he's being provocative. Just a little.
The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution.... It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation on the part of the humanities. ...We do everything to evade the truth of our age, to preserve our privilege. The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here –is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today. If you find yourself explaining being in terms of the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history, or lived experience, then your thought deserves to be committed to flame.....This does not entail that what you’ve said is entirely useless. Nothing entirely misses the truth, including your secularized theological conception of being. There’s even a bit of truth in Christ, Paul, and Buddha. All you need to do is abandon the notion that humans aren’t an animal, that somehow being is dependent on humans and culture, and that somehow we have ends like knowledge and transcendence. All you have to do is re-interpret the entirety of your claims about lived experience, the signifier, culture, power, etc., in naturalistic terms. Then you might make a real contribution.
That "I won't even bother to make arguments here" is a nice touch, but I especially like the way he concedes generously that everyone -- even the Buddha, even Christ! -- has, you know, "a bit of truth." And so can you!, as Stephen Colbert might put it. Well, then, what must you do? Glad you asked! "All" you need to do is "re-interpret the entirety of your claims" in "naturalistic terms."

This is obviously polemic, and polemic hath its place. The question is, what place?

Myself, I always go back to Socrates. Socrates is no stranger to polemic, but it usually found him, not the other way around, and the Socratic motives for polemic are almost entirely negative, by which I mean, Socrates offers no position of his own. These days if you try that tack, you are liable to get scolded: "Dude, you're so negative! Do you have any actual proposal to put forward?" Well, pace those interpreters who insist that Socrates' professions of ignorance are all sarcastic, I believe he really does mean it when he claims not to know (though this is not all he means), and that this Socratic stance is far from having outlived its pertinence. To tell someone, in the name of honest inquiry, that you don't understand how their theory can work, is plainly different from telling them that your theory works, is, in fact the only realistic contender. Let alone that you also have a theory of why they are presenting such obfuscation and nonsense and daring to call it a theory.

By "It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation", one means -- difficult for whom? Because I don't find it difficult at all. Yes, it's an admissible hypothesis which, on a very, very prima facie basis, "saves the appearances," but there's about a dozen others that can do that too, and that do so without the high cost of pathologizing your interlocutor. Hmmm, say, maybe, you really don't buy the dismissal of "irreducible complexity" to the chance collision of molecules. Could you actually have reasons for this? Well, we'll never know, because you aren't even invited to the table. Or let's see, perhaps like Chalmers or Nagel you just think that the "hard problem" of consciousness is aptly named, that no account "from the outside" is likely to ever render a plausible transition to questions about "what it is like to be... [insert sentient being of choice]," and that this yields insuperable difficulties for naturalism. Or again, perhaps you have concluded that normativity points to a real and irreducible dimension of experience -- that, in short, Is cannot render us an Ought. All of these might be made the matter of interesting debates. But again, we don't really need to find out what those reasons are because we've already explained them in terms of your hurt feelings from being told you weren't the center of the universe anymore.

In short, those who are having difficulty "escap[ing] the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation" are those for whom "naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today." I have to say, this betokens a disappointing failure of imagination, to say nothing of being, well, tautological. You know what else are the only credible positions? I'll mention only a few:

Liberal democracy is the only viable political system, and free market capitalism is its economic counterpart.
Liberal democracy is the ever-thinner mask of a rapacious capitalism whose bankruptcy is apparent for all who have eyes to see.
The crisis of our day is a spiritual crisis that can only be met by re-tapping into the spiritual values of our heritage.
The crisis of our day arises from the mindless repetition of memes that were once functional and have outlived their use.
The gravest threat the West faces is radical Islam, which is waiting, waiting, waiting for us to show a moment of weakness.
The gravest threat the West faces is its own arrogant sense of manifest destiny which renders it incapable of even hearing the grievances of other cultures.

My point is not that these, too, are widely shared tunnel-vision versions of the inescapable horizon of thought in our day, and that Bryant's account leaves them out of consideration. It is that the very notion of an inescapable horizon of thought just leads to this sort of back-and-forth. If there is an inescapable horizon of thought, guess what? You don't need to worry, 'cause it's inescapable.

If we read Bryant's piece of polemic as a kind of manifesto, then I can acknowledge that it does a good job of not pulling punches and of laying out his position in an uncompromising way. He's told us who has a right to be heard and who has a warm and crackly destiny awaiting them in the auto-da-fé; who is going to be listened to and who is not. You stand advised.

There is, as I say, a place for this, and not every blog post needs to (or can) be argued in every detail. In his follow-up post, Bryant does provide some spelling-out of what he does and does not mean by the "naturalism" he endorses. But I'm not concerned with what he wants to defend. I am concerned with the jaw-dropping smugness with which he declares by fiat that his bottom line is the bottom line.

As mentioned, I do not speak here as an opponent of Object-Oriented philosophy -- a camp by whose vehemence I am occasionally taken aback. I also have no need to defend speaking in terms of "the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history," though of course all of these are relevant for certain purposes. I am ready to defend talking about "lived experience," another category Bryant says ought to be "consigned to the flames," but even this one I wouldn't say trumps everything. There is a discourse in which first-person, lived experience talk is inescapable, and it is folly (to say nothing of self-contradictory) to suggest we could do without it, but there are also discourses in which the role of the first person is vestigal and idealized away. What is interesting are the borders between these arenas. I've talked a bit about this here.

But if I call Bryant's post -- let's say, questionable -- it isn't because he's trashed my special discursive toy. I am not an academic and have no vested interest in any discipline's standard operating procedures. What I object to, and what anyone who is a philosopher ought to object to, is his two-easy-steps-procedure by which he stipulates which accounts of the universe will and will not be deemed "credible," and then explains away any dissenters with some hand-waving about trauma -- hand waving which, by the rules he's set up, cannot be disputed without confirming his conclusions. All anyone has to do, once they've bought in to this sort of double-bind, is to nod knowingly and exchange meaningful looks when someone looks flabbergasted at this dismissal, or tries to present a case against it. In this game, a smug Mmm-hmm counts as a knock-down argument.

This is a very pragmatist, almost Rortyan, stance on Bryant's part (and the one observation I will make about OOO in this context is that it is often more pragmatist than it lets on. Please remember that in my estimation this is not a slur). Rorty was quite clear that argument served other purposes, political, social, and so on, and made no apologies for including among his rhetorical moves mockery, derision, and (feigned, as I see it) incomprehension. He was perfectly happy to say things like "no one can argue this way any more," simply defining those who we were "inclined to listen to" as those who had recourse to certain premises and arguments and not others. As a description, this seems to me to be incontestable -- there are in fact always certain moves that are excluded by the norms of any community. But to stipulate in advance what norms pertain to "today" -- to try to legislate these by fiat -- this is the kind of overreaching it is just hard to imagine Socrates attempting.

Stanley Rosen once remarked, about Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that it was a polemic work and invited a polemic response -- an invitation, Rosen said, one would do well to resist, lest one find oneself playing on its terms. Obviously, in this case, I haven't done so. (Jon Cogburn makes a more measured -- and shorter! response in the comments to the post in question.) Perhaps I couldn't help it. I leave it to you to diagnose the underlying neurosis.

But I'll add one more thing on a non-polemic note. As complex and multilateral philosophical positions, naturalism and materialism obviously must be wrestled with, even (or rather, especially) by someone like myself who finds (some forms of) them so unsatisfactory. A thinker like Brassier, who obviously is as materialist as the universe is cold, knows enough to not take such views for granted but to establish them with a tremendous armature of justification. Brassier indicates the dimensions (and proportions) of this justificatory work in the interview I cited a while ago. But once one has done this justification (and it will likely always leave some of us -- me for instance, if I know me -- unsatisfied), one can also follow through with building upon these premises in interesting and novel ways. I actually do like a good deal of what Bryant does with naturalism in his own work, and even if I do not buy into his entire project, I find many of his illustrations thought-provoking, and doubtless I will keep reading and occasionally commenting on his blog. But the good news is, he doesn't have to reinterpret the entirety of what he says in non-naturalistic and non-materialist terms in order to salvage the bit of truth. He should just keep doing what he's doing. I just think he's not thinking very clearly when he's throwing fighting words around.

(UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that in a comment) on his post, Bryant characterizes his psychoanalyzing stance about "narcissistic wounds" as a throwaway remark. This makes a big difference and my reaction is softened by it. I can't retract everything because I simply disagree that what Bryant (I think) means by saying naturalism and materialism are in fact the only admissible positions today (or ever!), but I am glad to see him back off from what I could only see as an unfair tactic.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

A moderately important post

My friend Amod Lele writes posts that engage me far more often than I comment. I want to record here a response to his criticism of this remark of C.S. Lewis':
Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.
Unlike a lot of philosophers (and theologians!) I know, I am a fan of CSL, but (like Lele) I've never thought much of his "trilemma" (Jesus: either liar, lunatic, or Lord). And like that argument, this one clearly aims at pressing a mild sympathy into a decision. What Lewis means to do is to rule out the middle-of-the-road, noncommittal view that sees Jesus as "a good man, a great moral teacher," and nothing else. A "great moral teacher" would not say "the sorts of things Jesus says" in the Gospels, Lewis contends. The trilemma does not work very well partly because it leaves out of account a host of vexed questions about the reliability of the Gospels themselves, but mostly because it presumes we are in a position to know what Jesus meant, when even the Gospels go out of their way to insist that we don't know what he meant. It may still be that the trilemma is meaningful under some circumstances (for instance, once you identify as a Christian and are satisfied that the tradition does reliably communicate an identifiable meaning, you may find it so), but as a compelling argument for persuading the sympathetic (to say nothing of the unsympathetic), it fails badly.

The argument of Lewis that Lele has in his sights this time seems, however, a little bit (even if just a little) more defensible. Lele's critique is straightforward:
Christians ... can put you in jail for your choice of sexual partners. They can make it impossible for you to access abortion or even contraception. And [on the other hand] they can fight for – and achieve – the equality of people of all races amid a society that denies it. In the past century, Christians of various sorts have done all these things many times, and done them because they were Christians: because they believed in, identified with and/or practised Christian tradition.
This leads to the obvious conclusion, for Lele: when it comes to Christianity (and I assume that it goes without saying that one could insert the name of any other religious or non-religious tradition here), its ultimate truth or falsity is one of many things that might be "important" about it, but its real this-world consequences show that, true or false, there are plenty of other important things about it as well.

Bearing in mind the caveat offered in the Lele's comments section by Michael Reidy (to wit, Lewis is writing a popular article and not a learned treatise or an academic paper), I'd venture to say that Lewis just means that if you are satisfied for yourself that Christianity's claim is false, you can simply leave it alone and go on your way. Yes, it matters in one sense -- often a far-reaching sense -- that people believe and act upon falsehoods or nonsense. But you don't need to concern yourself with Christianity -- just with people making "christian" arguments. You aren't engaging with it (not on an existential level) -- it is no longer, as William James would put it, a "living option" for you. If someone tells me the earth is flat, this claim content-wise makes no difference to me, even though the person claiming it may be in a position to impose the view on all the public schools, burn me at the stake for denying it, or build hospitals and orphanages in the name of flat-earthism.

I won't argue that there is a bright and obvious line in every case between such "existential" engagement and merely prudential negotiations with those who maintain something I don't. And if there isn't, perhaps Lewis' claim cannot be defended even on these grounds. But the distinction I take him to be making is not prima facie silly. For Lewis, there really is a bifurcation here, but not because of the claims of Christianity per se; rather, it's because of the arena in which the relevance is being assessed. This arena is existential. As Lessing said, and Kierkegaard riffed on, one can't generate a claim of eternal force from any historically contingent fact. Within that arena there are (per hypothesis) no "moderately important" claims. This argument may seem surprisingly Manichean, and I have some sympathy with such a counter-argument. (My usual default way of negotiating it is via Tillich's articulation of "ultimate concern," re. which see here.) But then, philosophy too (not just theology) has insisted that there are things of ultimate importance, in comparison with which everything else becomes trivial. Socrates chastened his fellow Athenians for precisely this, neglecting their souls. The fact that he likely didn't mean exactly what Lewis would have meant by "soul" shouldn't distract us overmuch here. Philosophy, also, requires decision.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Rawls' veil of ignorance. Bradley's Appearance and Reality. Philosophers love -- one might even say they depend upon -- the distinction between truth and semblance; all the more when truth turns out to be a surprising reversal of semblance. And what better than a reversal that involves an actual unveiling?

One of my favorite counter-intuitive assertions is the so-called Monty Hall paradox, named for the game show host who exploited it on Let's Make A Deal. Imagine a set of three closed doors. Two of them are known to conceal a worthless booby-prize (I think it was a goat on the TV show); one of them conceals a coveted prize of considerable worth. It is of course unknown to you which door hides the real prize. In the scenario we are considering, you are instructed to pick a door to open: A, B, or C. You do so (let us say you pick A). At this point, the host (who does know which door hides the prize you want) opens one of the unchosen doors (say, C) to reveal a booby-prize. The choice is then presented to you: Do you wish to stick with your original door pick, or would you like to switch your choice?

Usually, one's intuition says; what's the difference? You've shown me a goat, so I know that one of the doors hides the prize and the other one hides a goat. Fifty-fifty. It makes no difference if I switch or not.

The answer is: You would like to switch. If you switch, you in fact double your chances of winning the prize.

This solution can be very difficult for some people (myself included) to accept. If you are one of them, you are in good company. Besides my illustrious self, the famous and brilliant Paul Erdos refused to believe his own calculations (which showed that the above solution was correct) until a computer program ran many, many simulations and demonstrated the statistical reliability of the switching strategy.

Why is it so hard to believe? Well, you initially choose a door with a random 1-in-3 chance of being correct, and the opening of the other door obviously does not change that likelihood. And that being the case, why should you switch? You could have chosen the other closed door before, but that door too had a 1-in-3 chance of being right, and still does. Yes?

No. The door you chose before is just as likely as it was to hide the prize. But the other door now has a probability of 1-in-2.

But wait -- your own choice also has a probability of 1-in-2, surely?

Think of it this way. Initially you had a 2-in-3 chance of picking wrong. Now you have a 1-in-2 chance of picking wrong. You thus should re-pick, because now you chances of being wrong are less than they were before.

But -- but -- (my own mind sputters) -- why can't I re-pick the same door as I picked before?

Here is where logic starts to stammer and mathematics (in the form of a table of probabilities) steps in to convince. Let us take the case where you picked door A. There are three possibilities. Door A could hide The Prize. Or it could hide booby-prize 1 or booby-prize 2 (we will call them both goats). You have a choice of staying with your choice or switching. Here is a table of outcomes:

Even with this clearly laid out, the rationale is (typically) not easy to accept. But the solution is usually referred to as a "veridical paradox," that is, an assertion demonstrably true despite its prima facie counter-intuitive nature. You can run a simulation over and over again, comparing switching to non-switching strategies, and see the former's success rate slowly but surely outdistance the latter's, and thus pile up empirical evidence of the unreliability of intuition. This sort of thing is frequently alleged to build up the case for the fallibility of our often-incorrigible prejudices; to show yet again that we have certain deep-seated fallacies built into our much-vaunted "rationality." There are schools of cognitive science and philosophy of mind which like this sort of thing because it (ostensibly) gives implicit sanction to other arguments that are less demonstrable but no less counter-intuitive.

I am not so sure. I don't dispute the mathematics. But there is a very simple variation that doubles-down on the counter-intuition and makes its resolution far less amenable to tablature. (I don't assume this variation is original to me, but I don't keep up with the literature.)

Rather than one contestant, imagine three: we will call them Xavier, Yorick, and Zane. These three decide, by whatever means they like, to each choose one door (A, B, or C), so that each one of them has selected a different door. Or alternately, Monty can assign them their doors without telling them which door is whose, until revealing their assignments all at once. Now the host reveals the unpleasant truth: Zane has chosen (or been assigned) poorly: He is matched with door C, but behind door C was only a goat. The question now is: should Xavier and Yorick switch doors? And here the paradox comes into full force. For of course both Xavier and Yorick, being no fools, have studied the Monty Hall problem, and they both know that it would be advantageous to switch.... but then, it would also be advantageous to the opponent to switch. But it can't be in both their interests to switch! And here, no series of simulations will avail, no matter how many quintillions or googolplexes you run, for in any case, either Xavier or Yorick will win, but not both. Which should mean that their proportion of winning will remain 50/50.

This does seem to be a paradox, because the veridicality works both ways. Both Xavier and Yorick "should" switch (and therefore, equally, should not). You can't resolve it by calling the problem a positive-sum deal, for the terms of the problem are that one will lose and one will win.

One option for trying to resolve it is by saying that the probability enters in when X, Y, and Z make their original choices, since one of them must have chosen first, leaving the other two with only two options. This could mean that the one who chose first (either X or Y) ought to switch, while the one who chose second ought not.

There is an objection to this attempted solution: the question is not whether you had three choices initially, but rather whether what your initial chances were, at the outset of the problem, of being right in your choice. That variable is not altered by the order in which the choices are made.

I'm not sure what I think of this objection, which may just show up my slow-learning curve when I try to think about probability. But the scenario in which the host arbitrarily assigns the doors to X, Y, and Z and only reveals the assignments after all assignments have been made. makes the issue irrelevant, because in that situation, the three contestants are not aware of the order of the assignments; but they are aware that the mathematics indicates that they should switch.

It is possible that I am missing something here, in which I will be grateful for a statistician to step in and offer some damned lies explanation.

What makes this more than just a logic puzzle is the fact that the intuitively "obvious" solution, which is shown to be wrong by patient application of probabilities, is the fact that it is a kind of re-instatement of intuition. What's involved here isn't just probability; it's the very essence of the experience of being right or wrong. Wittgenstein said that there were never surprises in logic (not in logic qua logic); but this is the sort of logical question in which the very premise involves a surprise. Yet the surprise is in having one's expectations momentarily suspended and then fulfilled. It reminds me of Nietzsche's remark on "Kant's joke," which was (he said) to demonstrate "in a way that would astound the common man," that the common man was right. Not so far from "bad reasons for what one believes on instinct," to come back to Bradley here at the end. But of course this "rightness" of intuition -- if one even grants it -- is itself puzzling. Which perhaps should highlight the puzzlingness of intuition per se.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Styles of antagonism

And often with our love we want merely to overleap envy. And often we attack and make ourselves enemies, to conceal that we are vulnerable.

“Be at least mine enemy!”—thus speaketh the true reverence, which doth not venture to solicit friendship.

If one would have a friend, then must one also be willing to wage war for him: and to wage war, one must be
capable of being an enemy.

One ought still to honour the enemy in one’s friend. Canst thou go nigh unto thy friend, and not go over to him?

In one’s friend one shall have one’s best enemy. Thou shalt be closest unto him with thy heart when thou withstandest him.
--Nietzsche, Thus spake Zarathustra Book I, 14, "On the Friend."
We find our antagonists in more than one way. For me, there are some whose position is so much like my own in so many ways that when they veer off, it's in a manner or direction that is clearly both very plausible and very disastrous. There are others whose entire project, from starting point onward, is either alien or antagonistic.

As to the first, Badiou comes to mind. Badiou's reconvening of Platonism was such a welcome and obviously right move, that I had to take special care to understand the point at which he (as I see things) veers -- his foreclosure of the religious ("not an event, but a fable about the event," as he puts it). Badiou sees very clearly the allure of Romanticism, and he wants to make it impossible; he wants, as he puts it, to sever the connection between meaning and truth. In other words, he wants to loathe what I cherish, even though we stand on the same, Platonist, ground. I see very well why he makes these critiques, and I admire his chutzpah in wanting to push them, but of course I consider it ruinous. In Badiou I see, not just a tremendous attack on my position, from very close to home, which needs to be parried and turned; but also a mistake to be understood, for it is, as it were, the sort of move I might have made.

With Brassier it's another story; it's his position I think is wrong. He hasn't made attacks on any particular stance or argument that I happen to hold; rather, he articulates, with tremendous force and consistency, a stance I can only find antipathetic more or less from beginning to end. He welcomes with nonchalance positions I find untenable in the extreme (e.g., eliminiativism), and has a kind of grim and (to me) unsettling enthusiasm for an aesthetics of horror to which I am largely unsympathetic. Above all, I stand amazed and chilled at the way he would make a virtue of nihilism. This is not to say that I can't imagine going there. I know those cold winds from my own experience. But when I imagine believing what he believes, it doesn't feel like a slight (albeit decisive) veering; it feels like a capitulation; or better, an inversion.

Badiou, to put the matter far too coarsely, is a secularizing philosopher; he wants to transpose the themes of the infinite, of meaning, and of love (or, we might say at the risk of a too-neat parallelism, the true, the good, the beautiful) into the laicised terms of a thinking after-the-death-of-God. In his instincts he is post-Christian; he wants to inherit the legacy of Christianity and divert it to ends more worthy than a venial superstition and a servile alliance with statecraft.

By contrast, Brassier is pre-Christian. Secularization is meaningless to him. His instincts in Nihil Unbound are pagan -- specifically, Lucretian. He belongs to the stream of thinking that has always seen human aspirations as mildly pitiable; a tradition for which the one glory of the mind is to be able to see that life is accidental -- and so, pointless.

This is not a reading of Nihil Unbound in its argument, but rather in what I take to be its esprit. But for myself, I regard Brassier's position as a capitulation to the sad wisdom of Silenus, that "best for man is not to be born." But Socrates' avowal of the examined life, that "to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good," is an express rebuttal of this. Philosophy from the beginning is a repudiation of nihilism.

To be sure, Brassier sees rightly that there is a kind of nihilism that can arise out of "believing in truth," as well as nihilism that is a denial of truth. Brassier's nihilism is not Nietzschean, though it is noble. It is a self-conscious falling on his sword. It is despairing and proud, and I would say honorable, if such a word could have any meaning in the light of its own values. But it is not the drinking of hemlock, discoursing to the end about the Good.

A Sellarsian vocabulary of the "Space of Reasons" does offer some modal possibilities for talk of values of a sort. It is possible Brassier will yet articulate an account of the Good, albeit maybe as a local (and necessarily besieged) epiphenomenon. His political commitments are serious, and he has not yet written an ethics.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Foxes and perennialists, hedgehogs and revolutionaries

Isaiah Berlin famously took Archilochus' line about foxes and hedgehogs -- "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" -- as the occasion for an ad hoc divvying of human beings into "two kinds of people":
There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
It's at least a 15-minute party game to name various figures and have people slot them into one of the categories (Hitler? "Hedgehog." George Elliot? "Fox." David Byrne? "Fox." "No, hedgehog!" Isaiah Berlin? Fox, definitely.) Berlin of course uses the categorization to push beyond it, arguing that in Tolstoy's case we have a fox who struggled to be a hedgehog. Another question, less universally suitable for parties, is to compare this human dichotomy to other ways of sorting thinkers into Type A and Type B; for example, Critical and Constructive philosophy (these are David Pears' terms in his brief book Paradox and Platitude in Wittgenstein's Philosophy):
Does [philosophy] explore the world like a science, but in a deeper and more general way? Or does it only examine our own thinking about the world? And why is the object onto which it is most sharply focused so often itself? ...The history of philosophy reveals a pattern...of oscillation between two very different endeavors: expansive exploration and anxious self-criticism....critical philosophy is needed to sharpen the tools that are used by constructive philosophy. But....constructive philosophy has often claimed to explore a field of its own...and that is a claim that critical philosophy...has strenuously rejected.
Chris Vitale at Networkologies drew a distinction last year between Apodictic and Descriptive philosophies. He spins it out in interesting ways, but here I'll just give his preliminary account:
Apodictic philosophies are those which propose that that we can say something about the world about which we can be certain.... These philosophers often use terms like ‘proof’, ‘proven,’ and ‘truth,’ and when these notions are attacked, argue that there may be human error, or perhaps we haven’t gotten there yet, but that somewhere, somehow, notions like truth, certainty, proof, etc., are possible. ... Descriptive philosophers believe that there are many possible descriptions of the world, and some are better or worse than others, often depending upon notions like context, or use, but that there are no philosophies that are inherently correct or true.
And in his yet-to-be-translated (anyone? anyone?) Spirit of Nihilism, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem bases a distinction between the ontological right and left on Heidegger's and Badiou's differing use of the vocabulary surrounding the term Event:
hermeneutics reckons that it is possible to found the site, the site that will give rise to the event. We will call this metaphysical tendency the ontological far right. [A] second tendency holds that it is absolutely impossible to found the site. Rather, it is the site that "founds," meaning that it gives rise to, without any preparation, any willfulness, or any decision, the event. We will call this metaphysical tendency the ontological far left.
It's easy to see how any of these might overlap, but they are not equivalent distinctions.

Nor is the one I'm going to propose, which comes to light most overtly when philosophers comment upon the history of philosophy, and most especially when philosophers say things like "Hitherto, philosophers of no matter what school have always tried to do X." This is almost always preliminary to making one of two moves. On the one hand there are perennialists, who follow up by saying, "let us therefore see what it is that is required to do X in our day," (or sometimes, more grandiosely, "to do X right"); on the other hand, there are revolutionaries, who say, "but henceforth, we shall do Z instead." These latter usually mean "Hitherto, philosophers have always fallen prey to X; but now we see how we may set things aright, and do Z." More modestly, they may say, "X has always sent out its insidious siren call; here is my new proposal to inoculate us,at least for the short term." In any case, whether modest or grandiose, the essential difference is that for perennialists, X is a feature; for revolutionaries, X is a bug.

For now, I am leaving X undefined. It could be "explaining the world," or seeking mystical illumination, or apprehending the Whole, or stopping the wheel of karma.

The example of a revolutionary you are likely thinking of is Marx in Theses on Feuerbach, but there are revolutionaries of all sorts. Brassier is a revolutionary, as is Dennett (on my read); so too is Laruelle. But so was Kant and so was Descartes; so too Bacon, St. Paul, the Buddha.

On the other hand, Badiou is every bit as much a perennialist as his bête noire Levinas; so too Aquinas and so Leibniz; so too Plato and Aristotle; so too Confucius and Mencius; so too Ravaisson, or Rosmini.

As should be clear from the above list, perennialism does not exclude making a drastic conceptual revision; the important criterion is to what end the revision is made. But the more grandiose the perennialist, the more easily mistaken they can be (even by themselves) for a revolutionary. Thus, e.g., Vico is a perennialist despite his "new" science, and Hegel is a perennialist, who looks like a revolutionary in his claim that now we have wisdom (or at least, he did). (On the other hand, Nietzsche's claim that he divides history in two really is the claim of a revolutionary.)

Perennialists often comment upon revolutionaries, pointing out how the revolutionary was really just doing X all along. (One of the clearest instances I know is Gilson's Unity of Philosophical Experience.) But on the other hand revolutionaries are also likely to follow revolutionaries, pointing out how their predecessor succumbed to X despite himself, but this time, this time for sure. Thus Heidegger's reading of Nietzsche: "Overturning Platonism is still Platonism."

I said that this distinction comes to light mostly when philosophers remark on history, but it need not be the center of their attention. While revolutionaries do usually make some kind of sweeping pronouncement on the past, they are usually much more eager to get on with their new program. But perennialism may be almost entirely implicit. A thinker like Robert Brandom engages extensively and sympathetically with the tradition, but Whitehead's work, while hardly disengaged from his predecessors, is no less perennialist, despite all the surprising new turns of his thought.

It's tempting, maybe, to see perennialists as hedgehogs, but clearly a revolutionary might also know "one big thing," so Berlin's dichotomy doesn't map onto this one. Nor does Pears', even though one of Pears' examples of "Critique" is (for obvious reasons) Kant. Vitale's two flavors have been with us from the beginning, even though what he calls "Descriptive" has perhaps been in the minority. (On the other hand, there seems to me a good case for guessing that many who Vitale would identify as Descriptive philosophers have been Berlinian foxes.)

To me the most interesting comparison would be with Belhaj Kacem's, but I am not confident that the match would be very close. Since I haven't read his book, which is in French, but only Alexander Galloway's excellent introduction and commentary, I can't say for sure, but it seems fairly clear to me that, despite a certain facile equivalence some would like to draw, perennialism does not in any simple way correlate with "conservativism," (small-c or large-), let alone with reactionary. Note that I do not mean by "perennialist" a propounder of "the perennial philosophy" a la Aldous Huxley's famous book, but simply a position that sees philosophers as always engaged in the same project -- regardless of their answers. Thus on my reading, Julius Evola or Ken Wilber is certainly a perennialist; but so is John McDowell or Michael Dummett or Judith Butler. Evola and Wilber are doubtless close enough to the Huxley mold for these purposes, McDowell and Dummett and Butler, rather far; but more to the point, they are figures from all over the political spectrum. A revolutionary, by contrast, believes there can (and should) be a break (not just a development) in the history of the project of thinking -- by which rationale, Machiavelli is as much a revolutionary as Bakunin, and Galileo as much as Kierkegaard.

Of course like all such schemes, this one is rife with crossovers; and one can be a perennialist in some matters and a revolutionary in others. Wittgenstein wanted badly to be a revolutionary, but he was too honest. On the one hand, he thought he had a way of resolving problems by dissolving them, a method he justifiably considered new; but on the other, he knew very well that the questions he approached thus were venerable and not at all stupid -- were, in a word, perennial. Heidegger, less honest, posed as a kind of radical perennialist; he was, rather, deeply ambivalent. Cassirer, who was the real thing, sized him up well in his diary during their famous confrontation at Davos: "Heidegger speaks no longer as a commentator but as a usurper."

Another interesting case is Derrida. Easy to say "revolutionary," but Derrida knew very well that there was no "final overcoming of metaphysics;" I tend to read him as a perennialist who saw the perennial nature of the revolutionary urge. This is also my stance, and, I suspect, was also Plato's.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ray Brassier interviewed at After Nature

There is a recent interview with Ray Brassier over at the After Nature blog, run by Leon Niemoczynski. It's not easy for me to name, off the top of my head, two philosophers who I would expect to get along less. Niemoczynski is a a Process philosopher, heavily influenced by Whitehead and Peirce, Hartshorne and Buchler; an advocate of Robert Corrington's Ecstatic Naturalism, who doesn't hesitate to speak in panentheistic terms of God and nature. By contrast, Brassier is openly hostile to such talk, or to any project of "restoring meaning." To him, Nihilism is not to be recoiled from but to be pushed all the way.
[N]ihilism is... the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable.... Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Nihil Unbound p xi)
This is the vision against which I have set my face. Dismissive of the "existential quandary" of nihilism, Brassier is also dismissive of the subject for whom the quandary would arise, and I sometimes feel his curtness about it betrays more than an intellectual stance -- I would almost say, an existential satisfaction. Note those scare quotes around ‘values’ and ‘meanings.’ He is not merely willing to accept and participate in the dismantling of the "manifest image" of our experience, but seems, at least to this reader, to take a certain positive if grim satisfaction in the demolition job.

He's also one of the most formidable of contemporary thinkers. Precisely because he formulates this (to me, wholly uncongenial) philosophy so strongly, he's someone who I knew, as soon as I encountered his thought, that I would need to read and wrestle with. Brassier has a force that you can't dismiss just because he doesn't make you feel all cozy and "at home in the universe." His integrity as a thinker is unimpeachable. For one thing, Brassier has given us some priceless translations of Badiou and Meillassoux, showing a sustained attention for very powerful thinkers not wholly in line with his own projects. He gives sympathetic and critical readings of sources which are surprisingly diverse -- e.g., Daniel Dennett and Francois Laruelle, Wilfred Sellars and Thomas Ligotti -- and he weaves them into a coherent and compelling whole. Above all, he writes clearly and cogently. Nietzsche or Ligotti can make you feel nihilism, but Brassier makes you understand the case for nihilism -- that it is, indeed, a "case," and not just a disposition or a dyspepsia.

I've never met Brassier; he doesn't have me in his cross-hairs when he voices his disdain for "re-enchantment." It is not, as they say, personal -- and indeed, much of Brassier's thinking is about the most impersonal thinking I can imagine. I do correspond with a number of people who have met him, some who see eye-to-eye with him and some who are like me strongly resistant to at least aspects of his thought. All tell me that, beside his rigor of mind, he is also an affable and approachable figure, frank but respectful and able to have a powerfully engaging conversation about disagreements. This is one of the most telling of marks for me of philosophy per se. There is a distinction between making a shibboleth out of "respecting differences," and on the other hand being able to talk to people you recognize to have reasons to maintain things you don't yourself maintain, even things you think are distressingly wrong.

I mention this here because there is not a trace of snideness or disdain in any of Brassier's responses to Niemoczynski, nor of implied rebuff in Niemoczynski's questions. The interview is brief, but reading carefully, one can see the tracings of tangential connections between their two projects. A shared interest in Bergson (albeit for very different reasons, I suspect -- Niemoczynski is I would guess sympathetic to some version of Bergson's vitalism, and Brassier in the interview is overtly critical of it); likewise, perhaps, in Plato, and again in naturalism itself -- doubtless a contested term. The interview whetted my appetite for Brassier's further work, for although I doubt he will be moving in a direction I will find altogether appealing, he's sure to formulate powerful and telling arguments. The way Niemoczynski posed the inquiries also makes me think again that there are always secret connections that can be brought to light between very disparate and apparently antagonistic projects.

There is some interesting commentary, especially on Brassier's mention of his work on Sellars, at Dark Chemistry.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A remark on the Greek motto of this blog

Just back from a week-long working vacation, helping facilitate a summer camp for kids between about five and twelve years old. We managed to do all right with the assistance of some very energetic and willing youth counselors. The fact that we were situated in gorgeous and semi-wild land and sea also helped, both with the energetic mornings and the afternoons' recuperation. There were swallows nesting on the house where we stayed, swooping all around sometimes three feet from one's nose. There were golden eagles that circled afar at nearly all hours. There were deer and sea otters; and on the domestic side, there were llamas and sheep, pigs and cows, and a number of friendly dogs and cats.

Most mornings before camp, I attended Mass at a small Benedictine monastery with a community of nuns and some other parishioners. This was a coincidence -- the camp wasn't religious -- but one for which I was very grateful; it started the day with a sane rhythm. As Christian monastics have done for the better part of two millennia, they sang most of their liturgy according to the ancient forms; in this case, Gregorian chant in Latin. I could follow along about a quarter of the time, but even when lost, one could, as it were, let the service carry one. The voices were quavery and tremulous but strong, and it was amazing to me that although the singing was imperfect by any number of criteria, the music itself somehow lifted the rendition. It had permeated the souls of those who were singing.

Also while there I heard a band of four early teens and pre-teens playing bluegrass. Their performances were occasionally rough and never astonishing technically, although the beautiful and soulful voice of the singer was clearly fraught with genuine talent and real instinct. It was clear was that this gorgeous instrument combined with real music with deep roots -- and country music goes very deep -- was enough to again lift and carry the musicians into a space in which they felt something real and powerful, and their listeners did too. It didn't matter if they hadn't quite learned one of the songs or if one couldn't help but smile at a 13-year-old singing about lost love and a broken heart -- the music itself had brought them into a relationship with itself and each other that was powerful and palpable.

It isn't all music that can do this, and I'm not quite able to put into words just what the difference is; but it has something to do with music not serving as the vehicle of egotism. The nuns were not singing for their own self-expression or their own gratification; and on some level those kids were aware, precisely by virtue of their neophyte status, of being in the service of something "bigger than themselves," as the over-used phrase goes -- not just the group, but the songs. There are some musicians who never lose this awareness, no matter what level of virtuosity they attain. Schopenhauer said that all art aspires to the state of music. The amazing thing is that this "state" is available at every step of the way. If there is a royal road to philosophy, it's music: the closest we can come to the articulation of a silence that is not the absence but the condition, and even the overabundance, of meaning.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Grammar of the real

(I borrow my title from the literary criticism of James McAuley, part of whose work is featured here.)

Nietzsche held that our "beliefs" in God, Being, causality, and much else, were functions of grammar. He seemed to consider this a bad thing. It took Wittgenstein to invert this move and show us how to read the recourse to de facto assumptions, i.e., grammar, in a less pejorative way.

E.g.: the experience of feeling moral compulsion or recoil simply means the experience of a reality; not a phantom, not a preference, not a sublimation, but a simple fact. I don't pretend that the status of this fact is easy to explicate -- it is hard, like the status of Hamlet's psychology, or whether there is a series of twenty-five 0's in the decimal expression of pi, or the nature of qualia -- but when someone says "it's wrong to steal," this does not mean "I don't like it when people steal (from me)" or "In my culture, we consider stealing something not done." The grammar of "It is wrong to ---" is different from that of these other claims. This grammar is not in itself sufficient to establish the case for moral realism but it is enough to establish that naive attempts to dissolve such realism into something else are, well, naive.

Similarly, I am not a metaphysical Monist (despite great temptation in that direction), because I do not see how monism can account for the meaning of the experience of encounter between I and Thou. When I look into my friend's or my enemy's eyes or at the height of a mountain or a sum on a piece of paper, I encounter something, someone, not-me. This experience has a "grammar" to it that is simply not accounted for by any Thou-art-That-ness. Again, this is not in itself sufficient to refute monism, but all I am trying to establish here is that the experience of encounter is not corrigible in the same way that Lewis Carroll's "Mad Gardener's Song" illustrates:
He thought he saw an elephant
that practiced on a fife.
He looked again and found it was
a letter from his wife
However implausible such a realization might be, this is not the same as thinking one meets another person and having this meeting dissolve into being (with) oneself (however expanded a sense of oneself this entails). In the former case, one meeting has been replaced by another; in the latter, meeting itself has vanished. The point here is that "meeting" has a grammar, and Monism claims that this grammar is (ultimately) meaningless.

One could multiply examples: The Anselmian, a.k.a. "ontological," argument for God's existence, also appeals to grounds one might construe as grammatical. The reason why people have such difficulty accepting quantum mechanics is that it contradicts certain grammatical conditions about what we mean when we use certain terms -- the ordinary grammar of conditions tends to imply a kind of "object permanence" which apparently fails at the sub-atomic level, so that it becomes more and more difficult to meaningfully sustain talk about what an electron, say, is doing when one isn't looking. Even the appeal of poetry often turns upon the revealing of a grammatically permissible but surprising use of language:
A stranger always has
his homeland in his arms
(Nellie Sachs, "Someone comes")
a song
is an ever-hostile tree
across the border
(Bei Dao, "Midnight Singer")
Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf
Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver
(Susan Howe, "Pythagorean Silence")
The acknowledged prince of such effects is of course Celan:
As one speaks to stone, like
from the chasm, from
a home become a
sister to me...
(Paul Celan, "Radix, Matrix")
It is not sufficiently recognized that Meillassoux's initial argument against correlationism is such a grammatical argument. This will probably raise some eyebrows. But what the argument amounts to is this: the correlationist cannot understand science in science's terms, but must always add a "codicil," implicitly or explicitly: "The formation of the solar system occurred x billion years ago, for us." This "for us" completely re-frames the scientific assertion in a way that makes it mean something else, something so different as to be almost the opposite, Meillassoux insists. In the grammar of science, an assertion means that what it asserts happens, as it were, on its own. To append the correlationist codicil is to invert the meaning of whatever scientific assertion it is attached to.

I am still thinking over what this grammatical re-framing of Meillassoux might mean for his overall argument. As many have observed, the argument about "ancestral" assertions is not the strongest part of After Finitude (the essential portion of the book is chapter 3). But the prominence of the role of grammar, even for a thinker who is widely taken to have hurled the gauntlet down before the Linguistic Turn, ought to remind us that it is no simple matter to shake off the shadow of language, or indeed of the human practices of which it is a paradigm.

Samuel Johnson's refutation of Berkeley usually raises a condescending smile, even though few people really believe Berkely these days. But what Johnson was getting at was that there is a grammar to claims about reality -- a grammar that is often implicit, and, as Wittgenstein saw, extends to practice in general.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

What is the truth about the Good and the True? (And what good is it?)

A friend writes me off-blog to observe that the point I made a couple of days ago in passing, regarding naturalism and moral realism skirts (or maybe doesn't skirt) a difficulty:
If God exists (for lack of a better word), then God IS natural. And there is no reason to take that naturalness as any more grounding than the "ewwww" you posit here as problematic for naturalists. What transcendence do you seek at that point to ground your moral verities?

Seriously, I think Plato's
Euthyphro still shows the gaping chasm of trying to ground morality in God as everyone keeps trying to do.
I might quibble with "natural" here, but I think that issue may be a red herring.

As to the main difficulty, I don't have an answer to this (and neither, as far as I can see, did Socrates), except to say that as long as the Truth and the Good are kept separate there will always be the question of what the Truth is about the Good, and whether it is always Good to know the Truth.

This is also bound up in the connection and distinction between jnana and bhakti I referred to yesterday. In an earlier post I related these to abstraction and encounter, and I noted that this can generate apparent paradoxes: privileging encounter over abstraction leads to abstractions like "encounter" rather than specific, um, encounters with whoever you are living with and alongside.

I'll add that it is not the "ewwww" recoil which is itself, in my opinion, problematic, but rather the claim that moral indignation reduces to this emotive state. One question that arises is, are there any wrong actions that, in any given setting, don't arouse this response, and ought to? (On can ask this, for instance, with regard to the eating of meat, or the procuring of an abortion, or the continued use of fossil fuels, or the assassination of political enemies. Some aspects of these questions might hinge on epistemic or even empirical issues; for instance, a "climate change skeptic" might even be ready to concede that driving a gas-powered car is wrong under any conditions at all if there is a link between climate change and fossil fuels, but reject all evidence of the latter. But it is also possible (though alas, unnecessary) to imagine someone who shrugs off the moral issue of whether oil consumption and air pollution is right or wrong. Even if such a one decides to drive less, it will be solely for what Kant called reasons of prudence.) This is, I take it, part of Libresco's point that moral norms cannot be merely equated with cultural ones. (see, e.g., here, and other of her posts in the series.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

And another one.

As an addendum to my last post:

Just a few hours after I posted it, I stumbled on a post at the New APPS Blog about philosopher Michael Sidduth, who converted last year from a Christianity of the Reformed flavor to a Hindu devotion to Krsna. The post's author, Helen De Cruz, observes in terms that fairly closely match my own, but also render the matter a bit more subtle:
I think religious conversion is rarely, if ever, a matter of disinterested rational thinking. There are always pragmatic and contextual factors involved. For one thing, had Sudduth not taught world religions, he would probably not have been sufficiently familiar with hindu writings to know what they are about. And his religious experiences postdate his familiarization with this. But obviously, religious conversion is also a matter of making a conscious live choice (as William James said). The fact is that people tend to underplay contextual factors for conversions they do like, and overplay them for conversions they don't like.
Sidduth's own account of his conversion was posted on his Facebook account, and reblogged frequently. It can be found, e.g., here, courtesy of the Maverick Philosopher, and in numerous other places online. So, alas, can a lot of the depressingly reductive critique I am talking about. "He was on antidepressants...." "How do you know it was Krishna?" Sigh.

In addition to the rather obvious point this story raises (it's not just Christian conversions at issue), this reminds me that I'd mean to suggest a tentative analogy between, on the one hand, the terms Leah Libresco used -- Truth and Person -- when she described her intuitions about Morality, and on the other hand, the Indian tradtitions pertaining to Jnana(roughly "wisdom") and Bhakhti yoga. I talked a little bit about these in a post on the problem of evil for Gospel and Dharma. This is, as I say, only a rough-and-ready analogy, but I think it holds up.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two conversions

In one corner of the internet not long ago, Leah Libresco announced that she had been swayed by argument to convert to Roman Catholicism. Apparently Libresco is, or was, in some circles, a "prominent atheist blogger"; at least that's what the first few Google hits say. (I had not heard of her until I read Amod Lele's post about her conversion, but as you can tell from how often this blog is updated, I don't spend as much time online as I used to.) What is clear from my (far from complete) reading of her blog is that she's very smart, and loves a good argument (also a good meal). (She also writes perhaps a bit too quickly, but then I am a glacier, so I don't really understand cataracts.) Libresco identifies as a virtue ethicist and a moral realist, and she eventually conceded --to oversimplify a bit -- that this position was untenable if one's presuppositions are strictly naturalist. This is an argument I find very appealing, personally; I do not understand how one can get to moral realism -- the claim that, say, stealing a dollar, or tossing your estranged spouse in front of a subway, or driving a species to extinction through willfully ignorant rapaciousness, is really wrong (if it is wrong) in a way that means more than "ewwww" -- from premises that the universe, the life within it, and the consciousness some life exhibits, arose purely as Lucretian swerves of some energy-matter. (I think the same about sentience, but then, I would.) So Libresco's conversion makes sense; she says she has been "translating" her moral arguments "out of Catholic" for a good long while; that both atheists and Christians had been telling her "convert already!", and one night, when pressed for an account of where she thought moral intuitions actually came from, she found herself spontaneously improvising that "Morality loves me," (and thus, implicitly, communicates itself.)
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth.
I've begun to categorize the general forms of analysis of reaction to Libresco's announcement. On the Christian side, there are Christians who make gratified noises, either rejoicing over the prodigal or merrily triumphalist crowing -- an embarrassing gesture that, needless to say, persuades no one. There are Christians who say she hasn't gone far enough ("Another cafeteria Catholic, so what?" or "Catholcism isn't Christian" are the two forms this takes). At the very least, all of this seems a bit premature, if only because Libresco has only announced her intention to convert (she's still a catechumen, she's not shy about saying what she can and can't buy into, and whether she can, as it were, "suspend judgment" to the point of baptism is an open question).

On the atheist side, some are dismayed ("How can someone so smart..."), some say they saw it coming long ago ("she always did have these weird notions..."; at its extreme, this becomes the silly assertion that she was never really an atheist at all!), some are engaging on some level ("Well, but then give up moral realism instead!" or at least "OK, but Leah, how do you justify...") and some are outright dismissive ("Well, she certainly boosted her blog readership!" or even "Duh! She was dating a Catholic! Next question.") There is also the surprisingly popular theory that she's suffered a stroke.

In a different corner of the 'net, earlier this year, Tim Lavenz at fragilekeys posted an account of a number of experiences over many years: his parents' deaths, his own struggles with cancer and with drugs, his engagements with poetry, philosophy, and meditation. Partly as a culmination of these and partly as a surprising interruption of them, Lavenz found himself in a kind of crisis which culminated in a different conversion experience; on the other side of which he found himself saying things about God like
All my work in philosophy – years – has amounted to nothing compared with just a few days in prayer with Him. Why is that? Because with reading, studying philosophy, writing, you can always dwell in the realm of concepts, ideas, argumentation. You can compare and contrast, you can make theses. But before God, you can only repent (metanoia). Before God, you can only melt your heart into pieces. You can only humble yourself – infinitely.
This remark was in response to a comment I had left on his blog to the effect that his self-revelation risked putting him in the line of public ridicule. I shuddered to imagine the snide mockery of his experience as a trivial fallout from ordinary human suffering and easy-target college student stereotypes. Happily, Lavenz was not a "prominent atheist blogger," and his post has not garnered the sort of attention (negative or positive) that Libresco's has. Most responses have been long on supportiveness, and so far, anyone doing head-shaking is keeping it off the comments section.

But it's the contrast between the styles of his announcement and Libresco's that has me pondering. Lavenz's post wears its personal history on its sleeve; written not so much in arguments as in existential gestures, it would be well placed next to Shestov or Unamuno or Pascal. Libresco's post on the other hand is fraught with rationale, like Aquinas or MacIntyre. It would be a caricature to say that Libresco has thought her way to where she is now, whereas Lavenz has felt his way. Lavenz's blog is full of considered reasoning, and Libresco's narrative is after all a frankly personal one. But it strikes me that the more dismissive kinds of objections Libresco is receiving are, weirdly, easier for Lavenz to fend off than for her. Not that Libresco is remotely vulnerable to them; but she has considered them less; her energy is not directed towards that front. Whereas Lavenz, while he is not concerned about people being snide, knows that his rationale is motivated with the whole body and soul; and so while he would not need to fend off every pointless dismissal ("sure dude, you're on drugs, whatya expect?"), he is also more sensitive to where such reactions come from -- an existential recoil.

Yet oddly, this recoil projects itself outward: religion is a wish-fulfillment, an opiate flower bedecking our human chains, the echo of the infant bawling of our species. In other words, a recoil from the starkness of what is. These critiques all boil down to reducing the reasons offered for a position (or change of position) to causes. In a discussion over at Amod's blog, Sabio Lantz commented that
“we are rarely aware of what makes us decide things. we make up “just so” stories that satisfy our listeners and remain blind to the mysterious complex working of minds we are deluded to thinking we control.”
My response to this, slightly modified, was: I rather suspect that this skepticism about what lies behind our own decisions is well-founded, and there is a growing body of psychological research (not to mention What the Buddha Taught) that lends ammunition to anyone who likes to talk this way. (Christian theology of grace has never quite settled the issue of motive in conversion, either. Augustine, for instance, went back and forth on whether God persuaded the will, or simply changed it.) But there is a difficulty: what are my reasons for deciding that this is true? (Or will we insert a special distinction between 'judgment' and 'decision' here?)
What, indeed, would count as knowing why one had decided? Holding a distillate of the decision in a test-tube? Plotting a graph of all the moments that led up to the “moment” of conscious decision? A Eureka moment on a Viennese couch? Doesn’t the very act of evaluating any evidence of “what really motivated me” involve its own decision, a deciding that this is evidence? And in that case, don’t we back ourselves into a series of just-so stories– unless we grant that there is such a thing as an unconstrained evaluation of our own decision-making? But of course, if we admit that, we don’t need to open the issue of “evidence” at all.

In short, we may be as skeptical as we like about any given account of a reason, but we cannot reduce all reasons to causes.

It was only after I had posted this (in a slightly less complicated form) that I reflected on the contrast between Lavenz's and Libresco's posts and indeed the whole style of their respective blogs. I cannot, frankly, imagine the run-of-the-mill internet atheist currently engaging Libresco giving Lavenz anything like the respect they give her, because she is at least engaged in the giving and defending of reasons -- a common language between her and those outside the church. Lavenz on the other hand is writing (and I must emphasize, I am giving my impressions) a kind of poetry that wishes to demonstrate the attractiveness of where it stands but is also resigned to a kind of failure of communication. This resignation is well-founded. Reading his heartfelt spiritual autobiography (e.g. here, from a more recent follow-up to his original announcement) is a chastening experience for me:
it is important for me to tell you how I got here, so that you will not think I am living under any illusions or that I have somehow gone off the deep end. I’ve told you how my reading shifted almost imperceptibly to Christian authors and then to the Gospel, which is an important piece here. But much more important has been my sobering up before the Lord. I have been led to this revelation because, for the first time in my life, I began asking for what I’d always wanted to know: Lord, what am I to do with the vast emptiness inside of me? Lord, how am I to make sense of suffering and death? Lord, how am I to address this world that is so full of lies, deceit, hatred, and selfishness? I’ve realized that I cannot answer these questions on my own. The depth of the problem, which I spent years struggling to understand, has led me to the depth of the solution: it can only come through a pact of eternal love and the labor of love that flows from it. This pact is precisely what took place “once and for all” in the revelation of the Son of God. I cannot get in to how all the “dogmas” in the Church support and have helped me understand the mystery of this pact and the mystery of its eternal work. But I can tell you, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). If you really want the truth, it is there waiting for you. If there is one person who never lied, it was Jesus Christ. But once you understand that, and then realize that this applies to everything recorded in the New Testament (which you are now reading with the “eyes of faith”), you will see how there is no turning back
I read all this with a strong sense of recognition, and if I would phrase it differently than Lavenz in places, it's a question of nuance. But I can easily imagine a different response than my own.
One of Leah Libresco's brilliant inventions is the Ideological Turing Test, in which she posts three questions, then has a set of self-declared atheists and of self-declared Christians each post two sets of answers: one setting out their own, honest responses, and one in which they try to adopt the voice of the other side. The test here is to see whether they can aptly and persuasively argue not with but like their opponent, surely one precondition of being able to say they understand them. There are problems with this method and methodology (it can just turn into the engineering of trolls), but in general it's a thought-provoking "intuition pump," as Daniel Dennet likes to say. When I play this game with Lavenz's posts, I get something like this:

"Your discovery of the magnitude of the problem of suffering may seem like a revelation to you, but this is no reason to grasp at a "revealing" god, let alone a "church" which by your own admission you have to see "with the eyes of faith," i.e., disregarding an enormous amount of empirical and anecdotal evidence as to just how human it is. When it comes to explaining what "pact of love" means, there are some promises about the dogmas of the church again, an understanding that's in the wings if I just "ask" (but, you know, really ask) -- and then, watch out! because there will be "no turning back"-- which can only mean, you've surrendered your right to critically evaluate, to trust yourself or your own capacity to understand; you trust instead a "person who never lied", but who you don't even know existed, except that you are told so in a book (but of course, it's a holy book). As to why you believe this, you give us some stories of your own: you had questions that were "answered," you cried in a church, you "sobered up" figuratively or literally; all no doubt very good for you; but not furnishing any reason to think it is true outside of your head."

I wrote this pretty quickly and felt downright dirty after I had composed it, even after editing out the more trollish heckling. Note that there's an elision here between argument and dismissal (e.g. "oooh, a holy book," in which flippancy functions as a surrogate for a reason). But this elision is mirrored in Lavenz's paragraph that I've cited, which is fraught, and, I must emphasize, must be fraught, with a kind of deferral of articulated rationale, because the experience it names is on the far side of reasons. Not the near side -- where a reason collapses into a cause -- but the far side, where one meets The Cause (ἀρχή), The Aim (τέλος), the Beginning and the End, and where one's freedom and one's being acted upon are too inextricably bound up with each other to distinguish.

But one doesn't just jump there, or start there; one starts here. The difficulty facing Libresco is: eventually, you have to see things Lavenz's way. The difficulty facing Lavenz is: talk that way too soon and you will get dismissed without a hearing. They will just shrug you off with a remark -- polite, if you are lucky -- about a stroke, or who you were who you were dating, or what you were smoking.

Those we understand, have reasons. Those we cannot comprehend, are caused.

Philosophy as discourse is the rejection of this impasse.

Toward the beginning of this post I cited Libresco's insight about her own position:
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth.
A simple (far too simple) reduction would be to say: Lavenz is talking about the Person; Libresco is talking about the Truth.

Beyond (and pointed to by) the discourse of philosophy is the experience which dissolves this distinction.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A brief note on Adorno and Tillich

I have been reading some of Adorno's lectures from 1965-66, as a way back into Negative Dialectics. The printed English translation of this latter work is subject to so much negative press it is almost impossible to read it with a good conscience. It reads perfectly fine and smoothly to someone like me, whose facility in German exhausts itself in being able to pronounce "Goethe" more or less correctly, but the denunciations one finds of it (e.g., "a kind of pidgin Adorno") are many and vociferous, and made by those who seem to know what they are talking about, so I have been supplementing it with a couple of available online versions, and the aforementioned lectures, which often go over the same ground in a more brief and, well, "lecturey" style. Recently I've been looking at the 1965 course Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems and the '65-'66 course Lectures on Negative Dialectics. This latter opens up with a brief homage to Paul Tillich, who had died a few weeks before the first lecture of the course was delivered. Tillich approved Adorno's 1931 Habilitation thesis on Kierkegaard (which became his first book); Adorno was Tillich's unofficial assistant for a few years, and they remained collaborators in seminars until Tillich's death, but the usual scholarly verdict is that there was little intellectual influence between them in either direction. No doubt Tillich was more open to the spirit of existentialism in general, and Heidegger in particular, than was Adorno, who is pretty scathing in The Jargon of Authenticity. While Adorno in this tribute is explicit in attributing to Tillich "whatever I have myself acquired in the way of pedagogic expertise" (he says he has never met anyone more gifted as a teacher), it seems to me there is more here than just interpersonal or professional skills.

What strikes me is that Tillich's famous conception of "ultimate concern" is itself an instance of what Adorno calls a constellation. Adorno writes:
The determinate flaw in every concept makes it necessary to cite other [concepts]; this is the font of those constellations which alone inherited some of the hope of the Name. (Negative Dialectics, p 53).
I read Adorno here as saying roughly that the "Name" would have been the (impossibly) fully sufficient word for the thing; the constellation is the way concepts are deployed to correct for one another in order to bring the thing, as it were, into focus for consciousness. Late in the lectures on Metaphysics, Adorno, commenting upon what is probably the remark that everyone knows even if they know nothing else about him -- his declaration that it is impossible after Auschwitz to write poetry -- says that he was surprised by the storm of controversy that followed this judgment.
I did not anticipate it because it is in the nature of philosophy... that nothing is meant quite literally. Philosophy always relates to tendencies and does not consist in statements of fact....[i]t could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems....And, heaven knows, I do not claim to be able to resolve this antinomy. (Metaphysics p. 110)>
This seems to me to illustrate well the notion of the constellation. Every statement is an overstatement, and needs to be balanced, countered, in a delicate play of conceptual interaction. I might note that this is even true of "nothing is meant quite literally"-- though this strikes me as one of the best one-sentence accounts of philosophy I've ever read.

Tillich's account of ultimate concern has obvious resonance here. Tillich's categories are the absolute and the concrete. Only what is concrete can concern us at all, because concern just is a concrete engagement; but, Tillich goes on, only what is absolute can concern us ultimately, without reservation, without condition. The notion of ultimate concern is thus a constellation of two opposing tendencies in thought moving dialectically across each other. But how does it actually play out in ordinary human practice? Early in volume I of Systematic Theology, Tillich gives his answer. He writes,
What is the content of our ultimate concern? What does concern us unconditionally? ...Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. (Systematic Theology vol I, p. 15)
In the same passage as he talks about the question of poetry after Auschwitz, Adorno says that this issue mutates into another one, connected, but with larger consequences.
One must ask a further question, and this is a metaphysical question, although it has its basis in the total suspension of metaphysics.... It is the question whether one can live after Auschwitz....the bleaters of connivance soon turned this into the argument that it was high time for anyone who thought as I did to do away with himself as well....But...since it concerns the possibility of any affirmation of life, this question cannot be evaded. (Metaphysics pp 110-111)
Adorno's question and Tillich's are not absolutely identical, but it's obvious that they share a field of overlapping issues. I will add that this question of "to be or not to be" really does seem to me to be the question to which philosophy was devised to engage. The Greek tragic poets are, emphatically, not sanguine about whether human life can be good. "Best of all for man is not to be born," is the melancholy advice of Silenus to Midas, "and next-best is to die soon." Against this (and I believe it was expressly devised as a response) Socrates claims that the difference between a human life worth living and one not worth living is examination, a kind of intense and unrelenting scrutiny, and declares that "what is best for man" is
daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others. (Plato, Apology 38a)
Two thousand years later, Adorno and Tillich formulated different (not opposite) responses to the question, but they both knew that this was the question.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Triumphalism at any cost?

In that terrific tale of the passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. ...When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross; the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionist choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will only find one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Žižek makes a big deal of quoting Chesterton, including this somewhat overstated passage (mythology does record other rebel gods), in a Hegelian key, in a way that more or less scans as an attempt to read the death of Christ as the death of God, and unpacking a chastened dialectics from an cosmosoteriological myth. I think that knife cuts both ways, but I am going to keep this post nice and simple and leave Hegel out of it.

Christianity Today has an article by Al Hsu, asserting that the cry from the cross, eloi eloi lama sabachthani, is not a cry of despondency but of a kind of triumph. It's a citation of the whole of Psalm 22, the author avers, not just the first line. This is on its face an admissible argument (albeit not a new one); to this day in the Latin, the Psalms are each denoted by their first lines, just as in Hebrew the books of the Torah are called by their opening phrases. So, Hsu continues, since Psalm 22 as a whole goes on to say, "I will declare thy Name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee," and "I will declare to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that He has done," its occurrence among Jesus' last words must also include these resonances. Hence, the cry is not one of abandonment, but one of exultation! QED.

I was referred to the article in question by Kevin Davis of After Existentialism, Light, who takes a dim view of the article:
He completely undermines the significance of Jesus’ cry — neutralizing the impact it does and should have on all readers.
I should clarify that Davis disclaims any attempt to do the full critique he thinks is called for. After all, one may not care for the writing (Davis finds it "meandering all over the place," whereas I think Hsu is just trying to situate his article for the sake of what is known as "relevance"; and anyway, I like to meander myself.) One may recoil from the conclusions the article reaches (or at least its possible triumphalist implications). But a refutation of the argument must go beyond "but that would mean-- [something I don't like]!"

Davis restricts himself to the observation,
I really do not want to see the author handle the garden at Gethsemane scene in the previous chapter of Mark: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (14.34) and “remove this cup from me” (14.36). Maybe these also mean the exact opposite of what they say.
The claim that quotation of the opening of the psalm intends to refer listeners to its entirety is an old one, and not in itself implausible. That said, one must go deeper by far than Hsu goes, and I share Davis' suspicion of any interpretation of the cross-cry that conjures away the despondency. I don't think much of the views he takes himself to be refuting ("God can't stand sin, so He turned away from Jesus"--please), but why such views should need a "refutation"--and what it would take to make them feel vulnerable to refutation--is beyond me.

Hsu's way of putting it leaves something to be desired--
Is Jesus saying "I have been forsaken by God"? No. He's declaring, "Psalm 22!"
The whole thing reminds me of a joke about jokes:
On his first night in prison, a new convict is lying in his bunk after lights out. Suddenly someone in another cell calls out "Thirty-four!" The whole cell block erupts in laughter. A bit later another voice calls "Fifty-nine!" and again everyone laughs. The guy whispers to his cellmate, "What's going on? What're these numbers?"

"Some of us have been here so long, we know all the jokes by now," comes the answer. "We've compiled a big book of them-- it's in the prison library. We've memorized all the jokes. So if anybody wants to tell one, they just call out the number."

The guy spends the next day studying the joke book in the prison library, noting the numbers of the best ones. That night, sure enough, someone shouts "Nineteen!" to raucous laughter. Someone else responds "Sixty-one!" and the prisoners all guffaw. Then there's a lull, so the new guy, remembering his favorite, calls out "Thirty-seven!" Silence. So he tries again, "Forty-eight!" But no one laughs.

"What's going on?" the guy asks. "Why isn't anyone laughing?"

And his cell mate sighs, "Well, man, some people can tell 'em, and some can't."
It must be conceded that it is absurd to think Jesus would cite the beginning of the psalm--or that Matthew or mark would attribute this to him--without knowing where it came from. Indeed,attributing this to Matthew or Mark is worse, because one has to ignore all the other details of the text which the writers clearly intended to resonate with the Psalm:
they cast lots for my clothing,
or again,
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their head, saying, “He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let Him deliver him, if He delights in him.”
These issues are entirely distinct from whether these are Jesus' own words or not; they refer to the meaning intended by the evangelists.

If I have quoted almost nothing from Hsu's article here, it's because I don't find it's central thesis all that controversial or even interesting. I'm not interested much in his opponents, either--neither his "atheists" who, he says, dismiss Evangelical Christianity as a religion of "divine child abuse", nor his Evangelical readers who are the atheists' targets. These are welcome to each other. Hsu's argument seems to me to be offering Evangelicals a triumphalism at any cost, and an exegetical evasion of the Church's declaration made, and not just by Chesterton, that in Christ God assumed the whole of human nature--and all its temptations. One can stipulate, if one likes, that Jesus meant to refer to all thirty-one verses and not just the first. But the case for what Hsu thinks follows from this is not self-evident. One piece of Hsu's article that I think worth quoting is this:
Both Matthew and Mark record the cry, but neither unpacks the meaning. They just let it stand.
And that's what I'm going to do with this from Hsu as well.

The notion that Jesus was citing the whole of Psalm 22 is not absurd, and even has a scholarly case to be made for it. But the notion that he would cry out the first line as a kind of didactic address to his followers, meaning them to "call to mind" the psalm in question--this is absurd. If Jesus cried this out, he did so the way a devout Jew in extemis says the Psalms; as a prayer. The entire exercise of reading the cross-cry in this way is a grotesque anachronism. Jesus was not a 19th-century Fundamentalist provider of proof-texts. More to the point, the citation of the entire psalm leaves the attribution of despair to Jesus completely untouched. This is clear from the argument itself. The whole allegation that these words of Jesus' indicate exaltation and triumph rather than despair turns on the observation that the Psalm as a whole contains all of these. But if Psalm 22 itself includes both the exaltation and the despair, then so would Christ's cry of "Psalm 22"! There is a hope of deliverance in the psalm, but it comes out of the despondency and abandonment, not instead of it; and if Jesus meant the whole thing, he meant the whole thing. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" One may coherently claim that there is more than despair in this; I do not see how one can hold that there is less.