Posts Tagged ‘Kierkegaard’

Kant to Marx

November 11, 2010

Hume snapped Kant out of his early infatuation with Leibniz and Rousseau, led him to draw a line between phenomenal knowledge and noumenal speculation, and (ironically) cracked the door just enough to imply the possibility of a rational faith. That’s a lot of philosophical heavy (though inadvertent) lifting, for a skeptic. [Kant’s answerbbc]

Kant said we constitute (kant-stitute, if you please) the objects of our experience, so we don’t have to infer or prove their  reality. Convenient, and revolutionary in a Copernican sort of way.

Copernicus recognized that the movement of the stars cannot be explained by making them revolve around the observer; it is the observer that must be revolving. Analogously, Kant argued that we must reformulate the way we think about our relationship to objects. It is the mind itself which gives objects at least some of their characteristics because they must conform to its structure and conceptual capacities. Thus, the mind’s active role in helping to create a world that is experiencable must put it at the center of our philosophical investigations. The appropriate starting place for any philosophical inquiry into knowledge, Kant decides, is with the mind that can have that knowledge.

As for Descartes’ res cogitans? Kant said it’s not yours or mine, it’s ours in the most inclusive/collective sense imaginable.  The ubiquitous transcendental ego knows all… except what it kant. (Sorry for the puns, it’s Harrison’s fault: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”)

Kant said freedom’s what you get when you suppress inclination and do your duty, as per the Categorical Imperative. But “categorical” means no exceptions, so there doesn’t seem to be much real wiggle room for an ethical Kantian.

Kant said “without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality.” I haven’t found that to be the case at all, myself. Injustice is discouraging, but moral rectitude is strong in those who affirm it on any  grounds. That goes for theists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, naturalists, and atheists. Morality is multi-cultural and resolute.

The concept of a world-historical individual is bracing, even if you’re not Napoleon (or Hegel). Who wouldn’t want to  contribute to the material unfolding of philosophy’s and life’s final goal? But is there such a thing?

Spirit” is bigger than any of us. But so is time, so is history, so is generational succession in general. “The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves…” Is it a coincidence that Dewey began as a Hegelian? And is it a big surprise that such a cosmic optimist would eventually fall to earth with the retrospective “Owl of Minerva“? (Marx disagreed, saying the point is to change.)

Old Hegel was pessimistic when pessimism wasn’t cool, but Schopenhauer [squashed] came along just in time to become the romantic pessimists’ rock star. Kant’s thing-in-itself became his voracious Will. He seemed to enjoy it. Jennifer Hecht says he got off the funniest statement in the history of doubt, saying of believers:

For if we could guarantee them their dogma of immortality in some other way, the lively ardor for their gods would at once cool; and… if continued existence after death could be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods… they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality, and be hot for atheism.

Kierkegaard, the first Existentialist, said live passionately and leap before you think.

Feuerbach‘s pun was serious: “Man ist was Man isst“? Much depends on dinner.

And, again, Marx turned Hegel upside-down: the clash of ideas is a sideshow, compared to the clash of classes.

Kant, Hegel, Marx…

November 9, 2010
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable.”*
No, he wasn’t. Not at all. But  that’s still the first thought that ever pops into my head when I hear his name, thanks to the Bruces.* (The second involves my old Kantian professor from grad school, whose Brooklyn accent made semi-shocking his story of “how I met my wife.” But never mind.)
Kant was actually the most soberly stable and fastidious of men. They “set their watches by him as he went on his daily walk” in 18th-century Konigsberg, Prussia. That’s probably the thing about him I like most. He well knew the truth of William James’s  later observation that steady habits are our greatest productive ally. Kant was as productive as he was un-flashy.
“Awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” and his romantic dalliance with Rousseau and  Leibniz by David Hume’s dash of cold water skepticism, he assigned appearance and reality to the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, respectively. He didn’t mean that phenomena are unreal or unknowable, just that we know them through the categorical spectacles of our projective understanding. We don’t know them “in themselves,” the “ding-an-sich” is a non-starter.
But Kant knew what he knew. The stars are awesome, and so is a dutiful conscience (“the moral law within”). Fealty to the latter led him to his “Categorical Imperative” and its “silly” obsession with inflexibly rational consistency.
Kant. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.
Hegel said “the real is the rational & the rational is real,” implying a tightly-interlocked jigsaw of spirit, nature, and mind unfolding progressively over time. The zeitgeists of successive eras reflect “the march of reason.”
The end-point of all that marching: the “Absolute,” when nature finally comes to know itself through the self-consciousness of rational agents like, well, like Hegel himself. Seems a bit self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Schopenhauer (“Hegel is a stupid and clumsy charlatan”) and Kierkegaard definitely thought so. They objected to his turgid, convoluted style as well as his project of reducing all to Reason.
Kierkegaard was contemptuous of Hegel’s rational ambitions, doubting there was any place in his grand system of  objective reality for living individuals. Was his “leap of faith” a fatal leap from the bridge of reason, “rational suicide”? Or is it just another way of affirming the will to believe?
“The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

But Feuerbach thought he was on to something. Some thing: material, social, economic reality. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.
Schopenhauer, like most post-Kantian Germans, couldn’t resist saying too much about the “thing-in-itself.” For him it was blind, striving, implacable, insatiable will (aka desire, attachment, ambition) which must be renounced and denied. “Sounds like Buddhism to me,” too, but without HHDL’s lightening chuckle.

“You are what you eat,” said Feuerbach. Marx construed “eat” broadly,  in

material and economic terms, and agreed with Hegel that human progress unfolds historically and dialectically. But our ideas (“consciousness”) must catch up to social reality, not the other way around. When they finally do, he predicted, we’ll throw off our chains, abolish private property,  and for the first time really know Eden.
Utopian? So far.
[more realityGermans (mostly)…  Kant to Marxsourpuss…]
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Exams are graded, essays are not. Thanks for not asking. More report presentations this afternoon.

Kant to Marx

March 22, 2010

Immanuel Kant, jostled out of his Leibnizian dreamscape by David Hume’s wake-up call, but equally  frightened by the latter’s skepticism, proposed to limit knowledge to make room for faith, distinguishing experience from things beyond experience, the “things in themselves” we can never know because we know them only by applying our human concepts to the raw stuff of life.

Here’s a handy mnemonic: Kant says we constitute (kant-stitute) the world as we know it, and so should feel fine about knowledge. And here is Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. We do not in any sense have to infer or prove its existence, we’re the  suppliers of its very warp and woof. We ourselves, as “transcendental ego.” But this is a “thinking thing” much more spread out and amorphous and no less problematic than the “res cogitans” of Descartes.

But, it gives rise to a moral philosophy  that– if it succeeds– puts a bandage on that Humean pricked finger, in the form of Kant’s “categorical imperative.” Because we all have the same faculty of reason within us, Kant was convinced that we [should] all reach the same conclusions regarding morality. You should always be able to universalize any rational rule (“maxim”), and if you can’t: don’t do it. (That’s imperative.)

Here’s the “making way for faith” part: without faith, our experiences of injustice are bound to discourage us away from morality. We need to believe that, ultimately, moral behavior converges with happiness. Ergo: God, immortality, and an eternal afterlife. This can’t (kant) be experienced on the phenomenal plane (where we empirical egos live) , but is on the Kantian view a rational postulate nonetheless.

Kant was also interested in the concept of the aesthetic “sublime,” when the starry skies and other large natural phenomena put us in mind of an infinity our imaginations still boggle at.  We gain a further sense of our dignity as rational beings in this way, while at the same time experiencing our relative insignificance in the natural scheme of things. For Kant, this too points to the possibility of a rational faith. To me it points to itself: the wonder of nature, and us a part of it all. Nothing “insignificant” about it.

Hegel. In a squashed nutshell: history matters, opposites can be rationally, “synthetically” reconciled in the great perpetual dialectical processes of time and “geist” (spirit).  Michael Prowse: “What Hegel does better than most philosophers is explain how individuals are linked together and why it is important to commit oneself to the pursuit of the general or common good.” We are all in this together.

At the far end of his own dialectical journey, Hegel got owly and cryptic. “The owl of Minerva flies only at twilight,” he solemnly pronounced, apparently taking back some of  his earlier confidence in the power of philosophy (and a philosophy of history) to make history happen.

But, if there is a point to human history, you could do worse than to agree with Friend Hegel (as one of my old profs called him) that it is the realization of human freedom. But now the interesting debate begins: how much of freedom is strictly an individual concern? How much concerns the public interest, the common good, the weal of the collective?

That’s where Marx will come in, soon. (btw: there really is a Hegel Society. Don’t know if they meet for drinks like we did…)

Then comes Schopenhauer, aka ScroogeSourpussHis antipathy toward Hegel was profound. What Schopenhauer most despised in Hegel was his optimism, his sense that humanity was improving. And though he followed Kant in emphasizing the importance of human volition, he departed from Kant by denying the rationality of the will. Will is ultimately without purpose. An  animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cucle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all of this? Use your imagination, Artur! (We’ll see, with Alain de Botton’s chapter, that actually he did. He found refuge from a world he claimed was otherwise unredeemable, in art.)

Kierkegaard.  Existence is not just “being there” but living passionately. Good. But to my taste his emphasais on “subjective truth” is not so good, as a thesis about truth (as opposed to a commitment to seeking your passion).  His skewering of Hegel for ignoring “the existing, ethical individual” is often entertainining and funny, though.  The 19th century rationalists took themselves pretty seriously. Kierkegaard told ’em to take a “leap of faith.”

Feuerbach. Unlike many other Germans of his day, this one was a down-to-earth materialist who punned that “Man ist was Man isst.” You are what you eat. Practically speaking, the dialectical upshot of this view combined with Hegel’s yielded the new Marxian synthesis.

Karl Marx turned to converting Hegel’s dialectic of ideas into a theory about the power of economics. In place of Hegel’s World Spirit were the forces of production. In place of ideas in confrontation were competing socioeconomic classes. The goal of a classless society sounds good.  It doesn’t seem near. Would Marx have consoled himself with a beautiful lounge suite?

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.


October 2, 2009
“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.”

“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.” Thus spake Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a man of many antipathies and little affection for the world.

young SchopYoung Schopenhauer became a hero to the youthful “romantics” of his time who were so committed to feeling (as opposed to reason), championing “the whole person” against pure and abstract reason, emphasizing the importance of the irrational and thus foreshadowing Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “the melancholy Dane”. Nietzsche (1844-1900), not a contemporary or party pal, was briefly smitten with him. He was one of Wittgenstein‘s (1889-1951) favorite philosophers.

He fell in love but “had no wish to formalize the arrangement”– a classic case of reluctance to commit. Alain de Botton calls him “Dr. Love,” but “his refusal to marry his mistress and mother of his child at a time when this would deeply damage her social and economic status is hardly the behavior of a loving spirit.” It’s not a stretch, though, to imagine his metaphysics being very different if his early interpersonal encounters had gone differently.

Schopenhauer admired his countryman Goethe for turning so many of the pains of love into knowledge. But Goethe‘s weltanschauung was very different: “If you wish to draw pleasure out of life you must attach value to the world.”

Schopenhauer did attach some value to some parts of the world, such as his succession of dogs. He also (reports de Botton) loved Venetian salami, theatre, the opera, the concert hall, novels, philosophy, poetry, and at least one or two women.

So: why didn’t he have a more positive experience of life? Or did he, after all, enjoy living– and complaining about it? Would he have had a better life if he had learned to be more optimistic, more grateful, and less critical? Or is he one of those people whose temperament thrives, somehow, under conditions of self-imposed adversity?

Schopenhauer on love. “The conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life… we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.” And we would not be sexually or romantically attracted to another person if we weren’t under the domination of that inexorable, insatiable Will… “Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent…”

In other words, nature’s willful agenda is all about biology and procreativity. Nothing more. What’s love got to do with it? Not much, it’s all just so much romantic window-dressing concealing the inexorable, impersonal, driving will of the universe and its progeny to self-replicate, ad nauseum. As Arthur saw it, this is a function that finds us on all fours with all the beasts of creation.  Our sentimental soft-core re-framing of sex in the language of love and affection does nothing to blunt its hard-core reality:  “An animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all this?” (Passion for Wisdom) Simply, says A.S., the continuation of the race. Period.

The spectacle of it all may be entertaining, for those who like to watch as well as participate. But it’s not ennobling or elevating or ultimately happy-making, just because we write songs and poems and Hallmark cards and dirty books about it. It’s merely, as Isabella Rossellini says, Green Porno. But what makes mechanistic sex between snails and whales and worms (et al) titillating here is the presence of Isabella in a cheesy snail/whale/worm costume. The human presence, specifically the participation in such acts of a consciousness we can relate to, raises the stakes and changes the game. Schopenhauer seems not to have appreciated that, reducing love, romance, and affection to impersonal fecundity. Sad. Stupid.

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier.”

So: those of us who think our marriages and the subsequent births of our children were transcendently-joyous events are just deluded.

The World as Will and Idea (1819) contended that the sole essential reality in the universe is the will, and all visible and tangible phenomena are merely subjective representations of that ‘will which is the only thing-in-itself’ that actually exists. ( Squashed Ph’ers)

Like the Buddhists, he recommended asceticism and the blunting of desire. Like Nietzsche, he thought art and aesthetic

nietz head

experience were redemptive. “The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands…no longer one man suffering  alone, he is part of the vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love in the agonizing drive to propagate the species” and just maybe, in the process, find love and meaning and purpose.

schop dogHe may have been a grinch, a sourpuss, a misanthrope, and a misogynist, but as W.C. Fields said: no one who loves children or animals is all bad. Schopenhauer loved dogs and loathed the restriction of their freedom by man.

“You would think that a philosopher who named his pet poodle “Atman” would have the ability to see the Self in all beings; yet Arthur Schopenhauer’s love of wisdom did not seem to extend to a general love of humanity. In fact whenever the poodle misbehaved Schopenhauer would refer to it as “You Human”. -R.Udovicich, The Poodle Named Atman

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radially contrasting projects.” This from a life-long, childless bachelor.  He literally did not know whereof he spoke.

“An inborn error: the notion that we exist in order to be happy… the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer.” And yet… Schopenhauer finally transcends pessimism, at least on paper. By assigning the absurdities of existence to an implacable, impersonal force of will, he comes to look less at his own individual lot than at that of humanity as a whole. He conducts himself more as a knower than as a sufferer.

But of course we can’t really know that the world is nothing but will. That’s Schopenhauer’s peculiar interpretation and perspective. In an odd way, though, it reconciled him to a life he claimed to find intolerable – and seems even to have made it worth living, from that perspective.

If I could sit down with old Arthur I’d like to share a poem with him. Sometimesby David Budbill, begins:

Sometimes when day after day we have cloudless blue skies,

warm temperatures, colorful trees and brilliant sun, when

it seems like all this will go on forever…

And continues:

when I am so happy I am afraid I might explode or disappear

or somehow be taken away from all this,

at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love

with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly

I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, the agony

and dying. I think about all those people being tortured, right now,

in my name.

And concludes:

But I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with

the world and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life because,

I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be

taken from me, and therefore I’ve got to say, right now,

what I feel and know and see, I’ve got to say, right now,

how beautiful and sweet this world can be.

Arthur would probably hate it. He’d love hating it, and he’d love writing big dense fat books about how much he hated it.

“Sweet,” indeed.


September 21, 2009

god willliam blake

The Ancient of Days, aka God

William Blake, 1794

(–“What do you mean, William Blake?”

–“I mean William Blake!”)

Chapter Three is the God chapter, but of course this topic– like the last one, the Meaning of Life– is just too sprawling for a single chapter, book, or course. It may be too big for a human lifetime.

For those drawn to it not merely as an interesting object of study but as the sacred source and center of life itself, we need to catch our breaths before we begin. And let us remind ourselves: not everyone thinks about God (or “God,” “Allah,” “Yahweh,” “Jehovah,” “Bhagwan,” “Ahura Mazda,” et al) the same way you or I do.  Humans have nominated many alleged supreme supernatural beings through the centuries. They have advanced many claims and fewer arguments  in the names thereof. Non-believers have ignored, studied, disputed, and sometimes ridiculed those claims.

Philosophers have attempted to identify, examine, and critique those arguments (or argument place-holders), as they should: it’s in the job description. Pious non-philosophers have often protested this activity.

The next caution for us all: we are not obliged to respect a view just because those who espouse it call it their religion. We are not obliged to bite our tongues and refrain from saying that we find a particular religious view unworthy of respect. I’ll say it right now: I do not respect the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. OK, you say, but that’s not a serious religion.  Further up the mainstream, then: I do not respect Scientology. Its founder is on record as saying that if you want to get rich, start your own religion. He was a charlatan, and the tenets of his faith as I have examined them are just laughable.

Yes, laughable in my opinion. But in philosophical conversation we don’t just swap opinions. If the subject comes up in the classroom, or the agora, or in an online exchange hosted by a conscientious and self-respecting philosophy blogger, reasons will need to be provided if the exchange is to bear fruit. And if any of the defenders of any of those religions comes up with a good case for God, I’ll try to be among the first to say so.

I’m not just picking on L.Ron Hubbard.  I could swim further up the mainstream, discovering more cause for derisive laughter. I have, I will. So have others. But one must be sensitive to time and place and circumstance.

And in fact, there are considerations of social civility, politeness, and prudence that make full disclosure of anyone’s view of someone else’s creed  inappropriate in many social settings, and that I don’t deny. But in the classroom, in books and other printed matter, in the streets and on the Internet, I’m particularly wary about laying down strict ground rules or prohibitions that would have the effect of stifling anyone’s first amendment rights or, as the American philosopher Charles Peirce said, “blocking the road of inquiry.”

And so I just advise: distinguish belief from believer, and accord everyone– classmates included– presumptive respect as human beings.  Remember the ad hominem fallacy, among others, and don’t attack others’ character or impugn their motives. Ask for their reasons. Offer your own. Let them speak, one at a time, and speak in turn when they’ve finished.

But all, heed: “that’s just how I was raised,” or “that’s what we believe in my faith,” are not good philosophical reasons. You can’t win or even begin an argument with such statements. Presumably those who raised you and taught your Sunday School had reasons. Specify them, and defend them rationally, if you’re going to bring them into the conversation at all.

I count close friends among the representatives of most major religions and faith traditions. We agree to disagree on matters of spirituality and religion. They understand that my rejection of their faith is not personal.

Another very important distinction, in a free and secular society: church and state. Not sharing a friend’s faith, not respecting a neighbor’s religion, not having a recognized religion or believing in God yourself at all, are well within your constitutionally protected rights as a citizen of the American republic.  They do not make you unpatriotic. They might not make you popular; but studying Socrates brought us to a pithy rejoinder on that point: so what?

But after saying all this, it remains to acknowledge: some will be made uncomfortable by the fact that we’re discussing this topic at all, in the public space of a university classroom. (Others are made uncomfortable by the discussion’s being online; but of course they can re-direct their browsers.) To that I say, again: philosophy exists for the very purpose of making all who enter its ambit uncomfortable. Discomfort is a positive sign of thinking-going-on. Now, if you’d rather not think at all, I don’t suppose there’s much else I can say that will change your mind.

The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan (aka Matthew Harrison Brady, in “Inherit the Wind”), told his legal nemesis Clarence Darrow at Dayton, Tennessee in 1926: “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow replied: “Do you think about things you do “think” about?” I know what he was asking, but there really wasn’t anywhere for that conversation to go.

Still, there’s one form of faith we must all evince, all who’ve consented to participate in this class:  faith in philosophical reason to ameliorate your discomfort, one way or another. Even an irrationalist like Kierkegaard must invoke reasons for rejecting reasons. Why the passionate “leap of faith”? No reason at all? Surely not.

Enough preliminaries, for now. Let’s begin by thinking about the survey in our text. “How Do [You] Think About Religion?” Which boxes did you check under “I believe what I do about religion because __,” “When I go to a religious service I feel __”? What does “spirituality” mean to you? What’s your view of organized religion in general?

William James is quoted in this chapter, sounding very much like the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, exploring  his feeling that the universe is not a mere It to us but a Thou.

James said many other interesting things about what he called “the varieties of religious experience.” He  sympathized with others’ beliefs, because he thought they all reflected a universal human impulse for life. “Not God, but more life,” said James, is the most natural human impulse , the ultimate source of religious variety, and the real point of religion.  And he was very open to alternative approaches. The religious, for him, meant anything that brought home for people the reality of whatever they considered “divine.”

And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”

James would probably understand where Karen Armstrong is coming from in her new book, The Case for God. But he’d probably rather discuss Robert Wright’s: The Evolution of God.

James filled out a “God & religion” questionnaire himself once:

Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.'” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”

Some have read in these responses a Jamesian tilt toward supernaturalism, but I am more inclined to view them as a nod of sympathetic recognition and moral support, an instance of neutral distancing and what’s been called James’s belief in (others’) believing. In any case, his use of the term salvation in the present context is neutral with respect to any supernatural implications. It means something like “deliverance from evil,” where ‘evil’ is not taken necessarily to imply a malevolent supernatural agency at work in the world, and where it is hoped and supposed that natural human powers are equal to the task of resisting it successfully, not always but often, at least in the long run.

As for the “problem of evil”: it was a problem, to James. “I cannot bring myself, as so many seem able to do, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over,” James wrote to his brother as a young man in 1870. “It’s as real as the good, and if it is denied, good must be denied too. It must be hated and resisted while there’s breath in our bodies.” And sixteen years later: “There is no full consolation. Evil is evil and pain is pain.” James biographer R. B. Perry: “He was too sensitive to ignore evil, too moral to tolerate it, and too ardent to accept it as inevitable. Optimism was as impossible for him as pessimism. No philosophy could possibly suit him that did not candidly recognize the dubious fortunes of mankind, and encourage him as a moral individual to buckle on his armor and go forth to battle.”

And yet, he also believed wholeheartedly in “moral holidays.” Holidays are celebratory times, and James never forgets the celebratory elements of experience, most especially the moments of “transcendence.” They are the saving elements that “make life worth living.”

jimmy_buffettBut that’s another story, another song. If you’re interested, check out chapter four in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: the Porpoise Driven Lifethe chapter called “License to Chill.” (BTW: Jimmy Buffett’s full name is James William Buffett.) Suffice here to say: Buffett’s God, and James’s, would want you to enjoy your life. Fall Break is coming; but have a little fun today too. And find some “evil” to resist while you’re at it. That’s a divine agenda.

“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.” -William James.

“Well it’s only up to you, no one else can tell you to Go out and have some fun… And take a Holiday. You need a Holiday…” -Jimmy Buffett

human impulse80 and the ultimate source of religious variety.
And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of
life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as
the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be
(probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian
scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously
evolutionary mode of thought.”