Archive for December, 2009

Starting J.I. Packer and W.J. Cash

Posted in Books with tags , , , on 30 December 2009 by William Brafford

I finally finished John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, which at over 1200 pages took a decent chunk of my time in the fall. I’m still trying to sift through my reactions, and I’ll try to write them up when they’re a little more settled. I’m about three-fifths of the way through Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, and I’ll have to leave that for a separate post as well. But I’m starting two other books that look promising.

First, there’s J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. I don’t know if I am part of the ideal audience for this book: just the prologue makes me feel a little guilty for being such an analytical reader. But I even if I don’t get as much devotional mileage out of the book as I should, it will be good to return to my roots, so to speak, as Packer is a representative figure for the kind of intelligent evangelicalism I grew up around.

I got W.J. Cash’s 1941 The Mind of the South for Christmas. The introductory essay seemed pretty great: it warned that Cash’s take is idiosyncratic and perhaps more suited to the Southeastern states than to the Deep South. Cash’s attribution of a guilt complex to slaveowners may have more to do with his own intellectual alienation than the historical feelings of the master class. But I’m anticipating a good read, and I’m daring to hope that the book will open some doors to self-understanding.

PMN Chapter Two – Persons Without Minds

Posted in Books, Notes, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 29 December 2009 by William Brafford

Rorty begins Chapter II with an imaginative account of the Antipodeans, a distant race that is like us in almost every way except that they are more advanced in neurology and they have no notion of the mind. Rorty wonders what would happen if we encountered such a race, and what we would have to say about them if we tried to apply the notions of contemporary philosophy of mind. Clearly, the Antipodeans are a vision of what discourse could be like on Earth once our neurobiology become sufficiently advanced.

The main way that the Antipodeans resist Terran philosophy is that they don’t understand the notion of an incorrigibly knowable entity. While they believe that persons can make incorrigible reports of how things seem to be, they don’t think that this report causally requires some sort of entity or special property. Contemporary dualists, on the other hand, take the opposite stance. (Rorty sides with the Antipodeans.)

Does it count as begging the question for Rorty to simply describe a race of people that have no conception of the mind? How do we know such a race is even possible? It certainly puts his opponents on the defensive, for they have to offer some compelling reason that such a race couldn’t exist. And I think Rorty laid enough ground in the first chapter to call into question the kinds of anti-Antipodean arguments that we might reach for first. And from what I can tell these thought experiments are pretty common in analytic philosophy.

While the first half of the chapter consists of this careful account of how an encounter with the Antipodeans would stymie dualists, the second half shows how Rorty’s position is different from other common anti-dualist positions. He discusses behaviorism, skepticism about other minds, and versions of materialism.

I don’t have a great deal to say about this chapter. While I got some pleasure from winding through the arguments, I can’t say I have much of a stake in them. Had I read more philosophy, I’m sure I would have been better prepared. Over the next few years, I’ll have to get through some of the thinkers Rorty talks about to see whether he really does justice to their positions here. As things are, I am willing to go along with Rorty’s materialism, if only provisionally. I can accept that very little hinges on the ontological status or existence of “raw feels,” etc.

At the tail end of the chapter, Rorty provides a quick summary of the main points he wants the reader to get from the book so far. I don’t have a good reason to take issue with the second and third of these, though, at the risk of being repetitive, I will say again that I really like Plato and haven’t yet been convinced on the problem of universals:

“Unless we are willing to revive Platonic and Aristotelian notions about grasping universals, we shall not think that knowledge of general truths is made possible by some special, metaphysically distinctive, ingredient in human beings.

”Unless we wish to revive the seventeenth century’s somewhat awkward and inconsistent use of the Aristotelian notion of ‘substance’ we shall not make sense of the notion of two ontological realms—the mental and the physical.

“Unless we wish to affirm what I have called Principle (P)—roughly, the claim that a distinctive metaphysical property of ‘presence to consciousness’ grounds some of our noninferential reports of our states—we shall not be able to use the notion of ‘entities whose appearance exhausts their reality’ to bolster the mental-physical distinction.” (125-126)

I want to come back and do some short posts on specific passages in this section — specifically, the bit about inspired theists and uninspired atheists, and the bit about how infants feel pain — but I think this will do for now, as I have to go get ready to drive down to Florida for some guy’s wedding.

Correspondence in Aquinas

Posted in Uncategorized on 24 December 2009 by Brendan

I’ve begun reading Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas (2001) in earnest, and, while I don’t have time (or enough traction on the argument proper) for a thorough post, I thought I might offer a small gem of a paragraph as a down payment. The connection to Rorty was too good to pass up:

Correspondence or adequation for Aquinas is not a matter of mirroring things in the world or passively registering them on an epistemological level, in a way that leaves the things themselves untouched. Rather, adequating is an event which realizes or fulfils the being of things known, just as much as it fulfils truth in the knower’s mind. Correspondence here is a kind of real relation or occult sympathy—a proportion or harmony or convenientia—between being and knowledge, which can be assumed or even intuited, but not surveyed by a measuring gaze (5).

Hail, Gladsome Light!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 23 December 2009 by Brendan

This time of year, the nativity sequences of Matthew and Luke are center stage in Scripture reading—and rightly so, of course—but I must confess that my favorite Gospel opening for Christmas is still the cosmic, wide-angle shot of John 1: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not […] That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (v. 4-5, 9, KJV).

Reading this today brought to mind the Phos Hilaron, the wonderful hymn generally considered the oldest in the Christian tradition, dating back to sometime in the 2nd century, and still in use in Eastern Orthodox, and (in translation) Catholic and Anglican liturgy. My first experience with this hymn was actually as part of a contemporary worship song sung at a non-denominational evangelical church. As Robert Taft wrote in The Liturgy of the Hours East and West, this hymn “is a praise to Christ who is the true light shining the darkness of the world and illuminating […] all men” (Taft, 1986: 38). Its original liturgical setting was at the lighting of candles at matins and vespers (i.e., early morning and evening), though Christmas strikes me as quite an appropriate moment to hail the coming of the world’s true light, which, as John so perfectly saw, arrives amid growing darkness.

I’ve inserted the Greek text below (courtesy of OrthodoxWiki), with a halting translation of my own (cheating in a couple places using the English translation on the same page, but only when I really got stuck):

Φώς ιλαρόν αγίας δόξης αθανάτου Πατρός, ουρανίου, αγίου, μάκαρος, Ιησού Χριστέ, ελθόντες επί την ηλίου δύσιν, ιδόντες φώς εσπερινόν, υμνούμεν Πατέρα, Υιόν και Άγιον Πνεύμα, Θεόν. Άξιόν σε εν πάσι καιροίς, υμνείσθαι φωναίς αισίαις, Υιέ Θεού, ζωήν ο διδούς· Διό ο κόσμος σε δοξάζει.

Gladsome light of the holy glory of the deathless Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ: coming upon the setting sun, beholding evening light, we worship God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right in all times to worship you with voices of praise, Son of God, Giver of Life; therefore the world glorifies you.

*I had a particularly difficult time rendering αισίαις, which is clearly related to the verb αἰνέω, meaning, “I praise,” but seems to be rather a second cousin than a sister. Robert Taft translates it, “auspicious” (Taft, 1986: 38). Any Greek lovers (er, lovers of Greek?) out there who can help me? John? 

Newman and Tradition

Posted in Books, Notes with tags , , , on 22 December 2009 by Brendan

I spent some time earlier in the fall reading through John Henry Newman’s The Development of Christian Doctrine, an immense work written over the course of more than thirty years, during which time Newman crossed the Tiber. This is one of the most important works of theology I have ever read, and surely one of the most quotable (really on a level with Chesterton, though more by sheer force of intellect than by wit). The crucial insight of the work is that orthodox Christianity is a living creature (the corporeal metaphors of 1 Cor. 3 being particularly appropriate here, I suppose), whose development is dialectical, piecemeal, proceeding by opposition and by argument. He argues against what he terms the “Protestant” reading of Christianity, which abandons history for an abstract revelation of timeless truth, asserting instead the inescapably historical situation of the temporal community called by God to be a new humanity among and for the sake of the world. Historical development, for Newman, grounds and secures Christian doctrine, rather than vice versa. For instance, he writes,

It is indeed sometimes said that the stream is clearest near the spring. Whatever use may fairly be made of this image, it does not apply to the history of a philosophy or belief, which on the contrary is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary, and is employed in efforts after freedom which become more vigorous and hopeful as its years increase. Its beginnings are no measure of its capabilities, nor of its scope. At first no one knows what it is, or what it is worth. It remains perhaps for a time quiescent; it tries, as it were, its limbs, and proves the ground under it, and feels its way. From time to time it makes essays which fail, and are in consequence abandoned. It seems in suspense which way to go; it wavers, and at length strikes out in one definite direction. In time it enters upon strange territory; points of controversy alter their bearing; parties rise and around it; dangers and hopes appear in new relations; and old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often (1.7).

It seems to me that the Arian / Athanasian controversy is a good example of this sort of process: the New Testament provides some excellent source material for subordinationist doctrines (John 1 and Philippians 2 are particularly susceptible of this reading), with little clear grounding in the plain sense of the text for which hermeneutic is preferable. Rather, only the supra-biblical (in the qualified sense of “not present in the text”) insight that “Only God can bring us to God,” could finally overcome the existential threat of Arianism. And to assert that the Nicene doctrine was always “hidden” in the text is really no help, for the fact remains that it is a product of fourth century Christians employing a neo-Platonic philosophical grammar and engaging in specific pastoral and didactic controversies: we have no other history to which we might appeal, and so no clear grounds for insisting that other men in other (earlier?) ages could have equally well hit upon what we know today as orthodoxy.

Observations on PMN Chapter 1

Posted in Books, Evaluations, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , , on 20 December 2009 by Brendan

At the end of Chapter 1, Rorty is kind enough to admit being “painfully aware of the lacunae in the story [he has] told” (69). Such an admission will of course be necessary anytime one attempts to sweep 2500 years of philosophical and social history in a spare fifty pages, but in this case several such gaps are worth particular consideration. He identifies four distinct methods of framing dualist theories of human nature, distinguishing “a person and his ghost” (67), which was the prevailing “religious” explanation of “the peasant’s belief in life among the shades” (41) common to primitive societies; “a person and his Aristotelian passive intellect” (67); “res cogitans and res extensa” in a Cartesian sense; and the contemporary, modified Cartesian dualism which posits the immateriality of such “phenomenal” events as pains or other “raw feels” (67).

The common thread unifying these various formulations of the “mind-body” problem, argues Rorty, is the trope of an “Eye of the Mind,” a faculty of personhood which apprehends the immaterial, the abstract, the eternal in a manner analogous to the physical eye’s apprehension of sensate particulars. This trope emerged as the most compelling frame for Western philosophy’s account of man’s distinctive faculty of reason (and, to Rorty’s credit, it is a trope that is certainly still alive and well in everyday discourse, as in the commonplace, “rational insight”). That is, a foundational intuition of Western thought is that when a man thinks of “goodness” or “parallelism” as such, he is doing something qualitatively different than what he does when undertaking such “animal” enterprises as eating or sleeping or feeling pain.

Though he does not directly defend this position until the next chapter, Rorty argues that this distinction depends on a grammatical confusion (reinforced by the contingent selection of ocular imagery for the relevant mental machinery): “The only way to associate the intentional with the immaterial is to identify it with the phenomenal, and the only way to identify the phenomenal with the immaterial is to hypostatize universals and think of them as particulars rather than as abstractions from particulars” (31).

Thus, even once Western thought had jettisoned the metaphysical baggage of Platonic forms or Aristotelian sensing and intellectual souls, the problematic defined at the birth of philosophy continued to elicit arbitrary metaphysical—and so, the reader can sense already, rationally indefensible—distinctions, whether between the immaterial “mind-stuff” (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa) of Descartes, or between phenomenal mental processes and physical states. Rorty’s task in this chapter is purely deconstructive: he compares it to a psychologist’s helping a patient “relive his past” in order to overcome it (33). Modern man must realize his bondage to intellectual categories imposed by purely-contingent metaphors that have secured the boundaries of philosophical discourse; that being done, perhaps new possibilities will await.

However, Rorty does not consider with any rigor the possibility that one of these traditional modes of thought might have superior explanatory power or intelligibility, and this is particularly evident from the indifference with which he regards the dramatic differences between (for instance) a Thomist and Cartesian epistemology. A full elaboration of this curious lacuna in Rorty’s arguments would require another book (or at least a lengthy—and forthcoming—post on Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas), but a few points can be hinted at initially.

The “Aristotelian” (ancient?) conception of “mind-as-reason” was transformed by Descartes into “mind-as-consciousness” (54), and this shifted the focus of philosophy from “God and morality” to “epistemology,” which amount to shift in interest from “practical wisdom” to “certainty” (60-61). The Cartesian self is an isolated atom of purest interiority, known to himself as certain, and casting about for firm foundations upon which to rest his claims about the world. Curiously, Rorty almost immediately asserts, “The Cartesian change from mind-as-reason to mind-as-inner-arena was not the triumph of the prideful individual subject freed from scholastic shackles so much as the triumph of the quest for certainty over the quest for wisdom” (61). This is curious because the quest for certainty is very likely a secondary task required to sustain the individual once he is unmoored from the straitening ties of tradition and transcendence: the priority of epistemology presupposes the primacy of the individual, who requires “rational” foundations for his actions, whether individual or social/political. This historical narration is convincingly set forth in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing, while Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue explains (to quote the title of chapter five) “why the Enlightenment project had to fail” (39).

If MacIntyre is right to argue that post-Cartesian epistemology was a doomed enterprise, that opens up the possibility that earlier strands of the philosophical tradition sketched by Rorty might be more resilient. First, Rorty’s assertion that the very notion of rational insight implies a mind-body dualism is open to almost endless supplementation: for instance, the Plato of the Phaedrus links knowledge of abstract universals with an erotic encounter with particular beauty (this interpretation is also Pickstock’s from AW; whether and how Phaedrus is compatible with other Platonic dialogues (the Phaedo and the Meno strike me as particularly troubling) is a different matter). Further, when the Church Fathers inscribed Platonic categories into Christian theology, they upset the unquestionably real dualist tendencies therein to such a degree that any such remaining tendencies must be characterized as residual, rather than essential.

It is on this point that Rorty seems least thoughtful (or perhaps its nearness to this reader’s heart simply enlarges the offense). He calls the Christianity of St. Paul a “determinedly other-worldly religious cult” (44), presumably to emphasize the Church’s role in exacerbating the arbitrary distinction between the immaterial and the material (though this admittedly is not explicit). Nevertheless, the “difference” that Christianity made in Western thought was overwhelmingly its determined devotion to the particular as the site of universal (this is the metaphysical significance—a term I used reservedly, for fear of transgression—of the Incarnation): thus, the salvation of men is not, as it seems to have been for Plato and Aristotle, the intellectual soul’s contemplation of the good, but rather the restoration of a unified spiritual body to fellowship with God in the “new heavens and new earth,” upon the resurrection of the dead. Thus, though Rorty seems to think that medieval Christian writers took for granted Aristotle’s priority of the “intellectual essence” (44), such a category could only survive in Christian thought as a modified explanatory device of the more fundamental ontological goodness of embodied life, which was essential for true salvation.

So Augustine and Milton Friedman walk into a bar…

Posted in Books with tags , , , , on 19 December 2009 by John

Cavanaugh begins the first chapter of  Being Consumed with the observation that while technically the market has become “free-er”, most people have an inherent feeling that it has truly become more bureaucratic. Instead of rejoicing in the endless opportunities afforded by a free market, most people are cynical about work. He cites the comic strip Dilbert as evidence. Cavanaugh attributes such cynicism to the fact that we can’t give a unified account of the telos of human life. What we’re left with today is the exercise of will against sheer will. It’s completely arbitrary. Cavanaugh then sets forth the goal of chapter one:

What is required is a substantive account of the end of earthly life and creation so that we may enter into particular judgments of what kinds of exchanges are free and what kinds are not.

Cavanaugh then defines the modern conception of a free market using Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman’s criteria for a free exchange are that the transaction is informed and voluntary and freedom is defined as pursuing “what you want without interference from others.” There are two corollaries Cavanaugh draws from Friedman’s assessment. First, in Friedman’s view, freedom is purely negative. Cavanaugh labels it “agnostic” when it comes to the “positive capacities of each person in a transaction.” The second idea is that “a free market has no telos.” Language about ordering desires becomes unintelligible in this purely free conception of the market. Cavanaugh is also critical of free market philosophers for not asking what makes a desire real and not merely artificial. Milton Friedman’s answer is that a real desire is one that people act on. It’s obvious that such a view practically eliminates the distinction between artificial and real wants.

Cavanaugh then brings Augustine into the argument to cast suspicion on Friedman’s definition of freedom. You could say this book is about Catholic social teaching vs. realpolitik, but I think the book comes down to ancient freedom against modern freedom. Being Consumed is a book about why we should prefer antique notions of freedom against the cultural presuppositions we have today. Since William indicated we should have a discussion about the practicality of Catholic social teaching and the like, I pause here to make a brief pass at the issue of feasibility. What Cavanaugh is trying to show is that Friedman’s philosophic conceptions underlying his market system are untenable. I think it’s possible to believe in a market economy, but you can’t elevate choice to this deific level. Of course, speaking of practicality, no one actually lives out Capitalism and Freedom. What Friedman represents is a sort of economic imperialism. All bodies of knowledge become subject to the discipline of economics.  The moral of the story is that economists make bad philosophers.

Cavanaugh recounts Augustine’s conception of freedom as not simply freedom from, but “freedom for.” Desires, accordingly, are not produced purely within the individual, but are rather complex social constructions. Cavanaugh notes that, for Augustine, “there are true desires and false desires and we need a telos to tell the difference between them.” To be left “free to choose” without an outside force (God) shaping your will was a tragedy, not a blessing. Cavanaugh proposes using Augustine’s conception of freedom and desire to evaluate a market transaction. Here is the result:

The point is this: the absence of external force is not sufficient to determine the freedom of any particular exchange. In order to judge whether or not an exchange is free, one must know whether or not the will is moved towards a good end.

I have to pause simply to note the overlap in common law between Augustine’s  view and the bad tendency test (I just finished a Constitutional Law class, that’s what being in College still does to you, the power of peculiar reference.) Anyways, let’s continue:

This requires some kind of substantive – not merely formal – account of the true end, or telos, of the human person. Where there is no objectively desirable ends, and the individual is told to chose his or her own ends, then choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good. When there is a recession, we are told to buy things to get the economy moving; what we buy makes no difference. All desires, good and bed, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume, and we all stand under the one sacred canopy of consumption for its own sake.

A lovely little paragraph. I couldn’t help but think of some Christians who have turned the creation mandate into a consumption mandate with a little linguistic and theological gymnastics. Cavanaugh has a running metaphor through out the book of an “empty shrine.” We buy things to fill that empty shrine, Cavanaugh argues.

Cavanaugh then turns his attention to power and the market. Advertising, with its shift from product centered to buyer centered ads, creates an imbalance of power. Products are now linked to images and emotions they have little to do with. Cavanaugh also notes that advertising has invaded our lives. Everywhere we go, sometimes even unknowingly, we are advertised to. “To pretend, as Milton Friedman does, that the consumer simply stands apart from such pervasive control of information is to engage in fantasy,” he argues.

Cavanaugh’s ends the chapter by summarizing his position: “There is no point in making broad utilitarian claims about the benefits of ‘the free market’ as if we could identify a market as ‘free’ merely by the absence of restraint on naked power.”