Monday, July 31, 2006

When religion-infested politics is on the march

Reasonable Doubt By REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN Homepage: July 29, 2006
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.
Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us — whether Jew or Christian or Muslim — a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding...
For Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals...The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary — both were born in 1632 — is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke’s library not only included all of Spinoza’s important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned. It’s worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state’s power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.
Locke’s claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza’s. He was firm in defending Christianity’s revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza’s universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson’s view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza’s collected works were also in Jefferson’s library, so Spinoza’s impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)
If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired “life, liberty and pursuit of property”), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.
Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.
Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.”

Marx, Freud, Saussure, Focault, Feminism etc.

The Middle Way: On being an Indian in Britian today Ranjit Sondhi CBE Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Dinner, Leicester Stage Hotel, 18 November 2005
It is now universally accepted that the modern age has given rise to a decisive form of individualism. The individual has been torn free from his/her stable moorings in traditions and structures. Those who hold that modern identities have been let loose argue that we are not simply estranged from others but also dislocated in themselves. The social scientist, Stuart Hall argues that this dislocation has resulted from five great influences in social thinking during the second half of the twentieth century.
The first of these was the way in which Marxist thought was first rediscovered and reworked in the sixties in the light of the argument that individuals could not be in any sense the agents of history. There was no universal essence of man, no free will, and that he was entirely determined, not by cultural tradition or by divine grace, but by social and economic relations. His identity was not internally generated but externally imposed. His destiny was determined not by himself but by larger processes over which he had no control.
The second of the great dislocation was Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. Our identities, our sexuality, and the structure of our desires, are formed by the psychic processes of the unconscious, not by reason. Now, like Marxist thought, Freudian thought also plays havoc with the notion of man as an all-knowing rational subject in complete control of himself. Freud says that we learn about ourselves gradually, and the feelings that our ‘self’ is divided, or is somehow incomplete, remain with us for life. Thus identity is something that is formed through unconscious processes over time, rather than being innate in consciousness at birth, and that the process is never finished. So identity arises not so much from the fullness of an identity which is already inside us, but from a lack of wholeness which is filled from outside us by the ways we imagine ourselves to be seen by others.
The third great dislocation arises from the work of the linguist Saussure. He argued that we are not in any absolute sense the authors of the statements we make. We can only use the rules and meanings of a language constructed by others. Language was there before us. It is a social, not an individual system. To speak a language is not so much to express our own innermost thoughts but also to activate the vast range of meanings already embedded in our language and our cultural system. Our identity is structured like language which in turn is fixed by our cultural system. And like language, identity is not entirely in our control. No matter how much we try to fix our identity, it is constantly sliding away from us, just as we cannot close down the meaning of what we say.
The fourth major dislocation of identity is to do with the work of the philosopher Focault. He tried to show how our lives are controlled by what he calls disciplinary power. This power arises out of the regulation and government of whole populations and of individuals. The control centres of this power are the workshops, the schools, the hospitals, the prisons, the barracks. The aim is to bring the individuals’ physical health, sexual practices, family and work life under stricter discipline and control, to turn the human being into a docile body. The interesting and paradoxical aspect of such control is that collective institutions bear down upon people to further individualise and isolate them.
The fifth great dislocation occurs through the impact of identity politics like feminism which appealed to the specific social identity of its followers. Such movements questioned opened up whole new areas of debate around the family, housework, domestic division of labour, and child-rearing, and the individuals place in relation to these issues.
The result of all these developments has been to transform the idea of fixed and stable identities of the past into open, contradictory, unfinished, fragmented identities of the present. Now what is happening to the rest of this society is also, up to a point, also happening to its constituent parts.

Morality cannot be captured in a universal code

In a riff on capitalism and morals, the maverick economist makes the case for the bourgeois life. First Chapter: ‘The Bourgeois Virtues’
Deirdre McCloskey is a maverick, and in more ways than one. A classically trained economist — Harvard Ph.D., junior appointment to the star-studded University of Chicago economics department, résumé packed with rigorous quantitative research — McCloskey broke ranks in 1985 with “The Rhetoric of Economics,” which mocked the pretensions of economists to scientific objectivity. What the profession needed was less highfalutin mathematics and more emphasis on persuasion, stories, rhetoric: so she argued. Or he, I should say. For, at the time, Deirdre was still a man named Donald. In 1995 McCloskey broke ranks again by choosing to undergo a sex-change operation, the central event in her memoir, “Crossing” (1999). Currently a distinguished professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, McCloskey is that rarest of things, a transexual, new-Christian, postmodern, minimal-government conservative. She is also, by her own avowal, “a tough urban girl who can take it as well as dish it out.”
And dish it out she does. Foremost among the many, many recipients of McCloskey’s abuse are those who (she thinks) misunderstand the nature of morality. How do we determine what is right and wrong? Modern moral philosophers have offered two sorts of answer. One focuses on consequences: according to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the right action is the one that results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The other focuses on the acts themselves: for Immanuel Kant, the right action is the one that conforms to a certain idea of duty, regardless of consequences. (Thus, by Kant’s lights, it is always wrong to kill an innocent person on purpose, even to save the world.) McCloskey will have neither of these; each, she thinks, wants to reduce ethics to “a quick little formula, the pocket-sized card.”
In the last few decades, however, an alternative to utilitarian and Kantian ethics has emerged, one that harks back to the ancient philosophers. It centers neither on acts nor on their consequences, but on character. According to “virtue ethics,” morality cannot be captured in a universal code; the right thing to do in a particular situation is what a virtuous person would do. And how do we identify a virtuous person? Aristotle defined virtue as a quality of character that makes for a life well lived. Then he characterized the good life as a life lived in accordance with virtue. Circular? Today’s virtue ethicists obviously don’t think so, but they have nevertheless struggled to come up with an account of human nature that would give some definite content to the idea of virtue.
McCloskey likes virtue ethics for two reasons. First, it elevates stories over abstract rules. The guide to action becomes “What would X do?” where X is to be filled in by one’s moral exemplar of choice, who might be drawn from the Bible, say, or from a Jane Austen novel. Second, virtue ethics lends a womanly touch to moral theory, which has long been a “guy thing,” with masculine notions like justice and autonomy shutting out feminine notions like caring and love. Many of the movers behind virtue ethics, she notes with satisfaction, have been women, like Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum. (On the other hand, some pretty important male philosophers — Alasdair MacIntyre, Bernard Williams, John McDowell — have also played a role. One man that McCloskey decidedly does not want on her team is William J. Bennett, who, she observes with some severity, pumped his royalties from “The Book of Virtues” into slot machines.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sweetness & Light

Van said... I've been reading this series of post with great interest, but I suspect that you may be overplaying both the Pro's of the Jew's and the Con's of the Greco-Roman's.Recall that both cultures (Jew's & Greeks) were the first to begin to step out of the darkness, the Greeks with Reason, and the Jew's with the poetic idea of Goodness being one, what eventually became monotheism - keep in mind though, that the early Jew's weren't monotheists - they believed there were many God's, they just chose to keep it simple and attach themselves to just one (pardon the cheek).
While the Greeks, and later Roman's acceptance of pederasty is indeed strange, I think if you check deeper into your sources, you'll find that that was more of an aberration of the elite's, sort of like our current elite's adoration of all things "Will & Grace" swishy-ness gone wild. It may get approval in some parts of the city’s but step into the 'burbs and it gets a whole different kind of attention. Still though, it did exist, and accelerated as civilization grew, and that, as well as the norm of making women virtual shut-in's (more among the Greeks, lessening among the Roman's) couldn’t help but have a warpening affect upon their cultures.
I would argue that it was a bit of a vicious circle, in that the Greeks having raised Reason to the center of their admiration, found little of it being evident among their closeted women. I think Men are naturally drawn to femininity, and if the truly feminine - woman - who having been shut-in, demonstrated little or no evidence of their central focus of admiration, Reason, they out of necessity sought substitutes for the idealized mind & body femininity elsewhere, which left children as their hapless and sickening focus.
But cut them some slack, they were the first to step from the darkness and towards "Sweetness & Light"; the practices you mention were EVERYWHERE the norm. History gathers momentum so slowly, it takes a great deal of time to pick up speed. The Greeks, beginning with the philosophers & playwrights of the Periclean age were beginning to question why Woman was thought to be inferior, and in time I think they would have corrected themselves through the implacability of Reason as it continued to question all.
The Jews, on the other hand, may have been the first to value the children (I applaud your post's insight here, I hadn't thought of Abraham & Issac from that perspective before, or the idea of where else would Love thy Neighbor be heard, but among the Jews?), but if you've read the old testament lately, there's a whole lot of darkness persisted there, towards women, children & all else.
But please cut the Greeks & Romans some slack, take another look at Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Cicero, and remember that they were the first of their kind to begin trying to shrug off the darkness of thousands of years, and your style of writing and analysis (not to mention the science that made Blogs possible) owes far more to them than to the Old Testament. (I’m trying to dash this off before being late for work – ooh, too late - and it looks more antagonistic than intended, sorry GOTTA GO!, I really enjoy your site) 6:14 AM
Gagdad Bob said...Van--Yes, we are necessarily speaking in large generalizations. And yet, there was a time that virtually all children had what we would call an abusive childhood. True, primitive and barbaric people were primitive and barbaric, including the ancient Hebrews. And yet, we clearly see the dawn of a new concern for children and women, that sliver of light I'm talkign about. You are correct that men are naturally drawn to femininity, but not without ambivalence. Likewise, almost all parents love their children, but not without ambivalence. It seems that the further back in history you go, the more ambivalence there is and the more it is acted out rather than internalized as a neurosis. And there is no doubt that some of the Greek philosophers intuited the light, especially, of course, Plato. But his ideas did not trickle down to the masses. 6:29 AM One Cosmos

Sri Aurobindo not admitted to Delhi University

The greatest philosopher of modern India, Sri Aurobindo, does not find a place in the Philosophy syllabus of Delhi University. Many great scholars of the country and from abroad have already authored several treatises on the philosophy as well as the metaphysical poetry of Sri Aurobindo. Many comparative works, too, have been brought out by established publishing houses and top academic institutes. But Sri Aurobindo has yet to pass a test by our pedantic Professors of the University of Delhi.
"One of Sri Aurobindo's main philosophical achievements was to introduce the concept of evolution into Vedantic thought. Samkhya philosophy had already proposed such a notion centuries earlier, but Aurobindo rejected the materialistic tendencies of both Darwinism and Samkhya, and proposed an evolution of spirit rather than matter. He rejects the Mayavada of Advaita Vedanta, and solves the problem of the linkage between the ineffable Brahman or Absolute and the world of multiplicity by positing a transitional hypostasis between the two, which he called The Supermind...There are interesting parallels between Sri Aurobindo's vision and that of Teilhard de Chardin...
"Sri Aurobindo comes at a very crucial moment in the history of thought when Marxist materialism, Nietzschean individualism and Freudian vitalism were popular and fashionable. Besides, phenomenology and existentialism had their run along-side him. On the whole, along with the new-fangled science and Theosophy, these new philosophical formulations fermented enough confusion among the elite. In a way, the disparate positions arrived at in Western thought find their synthesis in Sri Aurobindo's philosophy. By aligning them with the ancient Indian wisdom, he comes up with an integral vision that breathes universality as well as contemporarity. Thus, Kant's sublime, Hegel's absolute, Schopenhauer's will, Kierkegaard's passion, Marx's matter, Darwin's evolution, Nietzsche's overman, Bergson's élan vital, all find their due representation in Sri Aurobindo's grand exposition." Wikipedia

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Freud, Cioran

Pessimism, Philosophical opinion or doctrine that evil predominates over good; the opposite of optimism
Systematic forms of pessimism may be found in philosophy and religion. In religion Buddhism and Hinduism pessimistically appraise the world, while Christianity's pessimism is more restricted. Numerous philosophers have been pessimistic, notably Arthur Schopenhauer in the 19th cent. and Martin Heidegger in the 20th cent.
Sigmund Freud could also be described as a pessimist and he shared many of Schopenhauer's ideas. He saw human existence as being under constant attack from both within the self, from the forces of nature and from relations with others.
Cioran's pessimism (in fact, his skepticism, even nihilism) is more than that of one who looks deeply into the abyss, yet is able to continue existing with the tragic wisdom he has discovered and remain, in his own particular manner, joyful.