Friday, November 17, 2006

all that from a book review?

A few bits jotted down from a book review by Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy of religion at Asbury Seminary, in the 6/21 2006 edition of The Asbury Journal:

Quoting Kevin Vanhoozer's essay "Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture and Hermeneutics" he writes, "Biblical interpretation is the soul of theology. Truth is the ultimate accolade that we accord an interpretation. Christian theology therefore succeeds or fails in direct proportion to its ability to render true interpretations of the word of God written" (106).[1] Wells then goes on to say,

Of course much contemporary hermeneutical theory denies that there are any such privileged interpretations that can be recognized as true ones, or doubts if we could ever determine what they are. . . . Vanhoozer takes seriously the evangelical doctrine of biblical inerrancy but rejects what he calls a "cheap inerrancy" that would use the doctrine to sidestep legitimate issues of interpretation. (106)

Moving on, Walls discusses an essay entitled "The Rule of Love and the Testimony of the Spirit in Contemporary Biblical Hermeneutics" by Mark Wallace. He writes:

Wallace's attempt to make sense of scripture has led him to the conviction that "discerning the theological truth of the Bible is largely a constructive rather than a descriptive enterprise." The thesis that he defends is "that biblical truth is the ethical performance of what the Spirit's interior testimony is prompting the reader to do in the light of her encounter with scriptural texts." As a practical example of his method of interpretation, he offers as a case study an examination of the "pressing" issues of the ordination of homosexual persons and the blessing of the union of homosexual couples. He suggests that if we take the "Spirit-inspired ideal of love and hospitality toward others as the hermeneutical lodestar" that should guide us in our encounters with scripture, then we will be inclined to accept practicing homosexuals as ministers and bless their unions. (109)

When he gets to Alan Padgett, Wells says

[Padgett] sees "the act of interpretation primarily (not entirely) as the discovery of something that is there in the text rather than the creation of something new." . . . Beginning with the broad notion that truth is "the mediated disclosure of being," Christ is the truth because he is the incarnation of God's very being, and the Bible is true because it mediates Christ to use through its texts. (110)

In the conclusion of his review, Wells takes to task the supposed humility of postmoderns who desire to remain so tentative about truth claims. He asks if this is really humility.

In his Introduction to Christianity, the newly elected Pope observed that "it is nothing short of a fundamental certainty" for contemporary people that we cannot know God himself, which contemporary people somehow understand as "humility in the presence of the infinite." The irony here is not merely in the inversion of what we can take as certain, but also in the ground of humility. Whereas classical Christianity would say humility is required precisely because of what we know about God and ourselves through revelation, [2] humility now is understood as a concession that we cannot really know anything about God. (112)

And I like what he says later on:

As Plantinga points out, the Cartesian standard for certainty and knowledge is an unrealistic one, and many people have made the unfortunate mistake of throwing out claims to knowledge and certainty because they cannot meet this standard. (Ibid.)

Though disjointed, and despite Dr. Walls’ overt suspicion of postmodernism, I find these assorted thoughts helpful bricks in the construction of my own understanding of the pervasive, hermeneutical tradition whose skeleton gives shape and orders the motion of that thing called "a Christian worldview," which is in itself the product of a Christian mind. I believe that Plantinga was right. As my friend John G. would say, "it is about knowledge versus certainty." Christians have knowledge, but we don't have Cartesian certainty. For, if the rumors be true, no one does. The human world is thoroughly hermeneutical--interpretation all the way down as Caputo says--for the scientist as much as for theologian.

Nevertheless, some hermeneutics are better than others. The quote from Padgett gets at this, as is my own renewed appreciation of the fundamental aspect of the logos doctrine.[3] The disjunction between hermeneutical systems is absolutely pervasive--that's where that quote about humility comes from. I'm discovering this same sort of thing in other place, where the obvious meaning of a word turns to be something very different when seen in the context of the Judeo-Christian hermeneutical system.[4] This is true for words like self control, faith, love, hope. Hermeneutical systems, then, can be radically different in meaning though syntactically quite similiar. I can hardly believe how pervasive and thorough-going these differences can be. I feel I'm swinging over an infinite abysss when I glimpse the cultural collusions and the social impotence of the churches. I scarcely know if it is possible any longer to really live anything like the Christian life. Maybe the only thing you can do is ask for God's mercy as you marinate and unwittingly participate in the golden-calf-collusion of the world systems? Maybe we just have to wait for a better age, when it can be possible again? Maybe some future Ambrose, Augustine, Benedict, or Luther will arise who can not only glimpse the real critique a properly understood Christian hermeneutic makes upon the world, but can hold it strongly and clearly enough to demarcate it plainly in word and life so that the example, then, can be better emulated. I included the bit from Mark Wallace. When you begin to see the arrived changes at the slightest demarcations in hermeneutical method, the differences are often astounding, and well-explain why, in my own ECUSA denomination, for example, members of the same tradition come out on such different ends. I think there is some truth in Wallace, but I believe that you cherry pick your "Spirit's interior testimony," without a rigorous historical-critical discipline which attempts as much as humanly possible to respect the author's original intent, however off we may, in fact, be (and I think in most cases we don't go too wide of the mark.)[5] At a recent conference, one of the speakers, Fred Dallmayr of the University of Notre Dame, defined postmodernism in a very helpful way. He said, "Postmodernism means that particularity is being taken seriously again and that no particularity should be allowed to become a generality." I like postmodernism because it takes the legs out from under scientific arrogance, and it reflects to a great degree my experience as a creature seeking understanding. I don't, however, follow it to the end so that no particularity can be a generality. I think one did and is: Jesus the logos. But it isn't that we grasp this incarnated-now-glorified Messiah-God as we would grasp a syllogism. Our grasp is a hermeneutical grasp, and even that is enabled and perhaps even directed by the illuminative, regenerating power of the Spirit working through the medium of canonical Scripture and sacrament, primarily, and ecclesial ministration, secondarily.[6] I've gone on long enough. These are notes are for my own benefit, anyway. I have much further to go, and perhaps have forgotten some important point.

[1] Church historian Rowan Greer in his essay in Early Biblical Interpretation has claimed that the debate about how scripture is to be interpreted, especially how the OT is to be read, definitively shaped the more famous debates about Jesus, the Trinity, and Salvation.

[2] Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones. "If the gospel is foundational, out of it will naturally flow an art that does not deny its foundation but assumes it. If it is a given, we do not need to be reminded of its existence at every point. If our lives are centered in God's reality, we can risk working out from that center in new directions. And if the work of art truly reflects like experience, then it is itself a small facet of the truth of which Christ is author and co-municator. That is the benison of the sacramental view of life: our realization that all of creation rightly belongs in the house of faith. Put another way: the Logos, which first called the universe into being now embraces and defines it, assigning it meaning and value at every level. As C. S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Yet with all the phenomena of the universe to write about, we are not free agents. Because we are residents in the house of faith, we are accountable and must shape our gift responsibly to perceive and penetrate to the heart of the matters we address and reveal their true shape and significance to the human community."

[3] Marke this well and take it for a sure conclusion. when god commaundeth us in the lawe to do any thinge he commaundeth not therefore that we are able to do yt but to bryng us un to the knowledge of oureselves that we might se what we are and in what miserable state we are in and knowe our lack that thereby we shuld torne to god and to knowlege our wretchednes un to hym and to desyre him that of his mercy he wold make us that he biddeth us be…” ~ W. Tyndale, from his treatise on the Lord's Prayer

[4] Hannah Arendt grasped this problem of same word different, and perhaps hostile, outcome. Here's a quote I picked up: Arendt's phrasemaking and popularization of notions such as "totalitarianism" developed because she "wanted thoughts and words adequate to the new world and able to dissolve clichés, reject thoughtlessly received ideas, break down hackneyed analyses, expose lies and bureaucratic double talk, help people withdraw from their addiction to propagandistic images."

[5] Peter Machinist. Foreword to Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos trans. K. William Whitney Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), xviii. "[Hermann Gunkel, as other scholars of his late-nineteenth-century German age, believed that] to understand the meaning of a text, its language and motifs, is to understand first where they come from. it is not enough, indeed, it is misleading, to focus simply on the individual text alone, as thought it were a completely independent, free creation of its author. The text must rather be seen as one link in a complex chain of tradition; and interpretation, therefore, must try to discover how its author worked within the tradition, what conditions in his community he was responding to, and why he adapted the tradition as he did in order to produce the text that he did."

[6] Ellen F. Davis. "Introduction" from The Art of Reading Scripture ed. Ellen Davis and Richard Hays. (Eerdmans 2003). "The capacity for fruitful theological wondering resides chiefly in the imagination. Theologian Garrett Green has argued persuasively that in many instances the biblical term "heart" refers to what we call imagination. This notion wonderfully illuminates the use of that word in the eucharistic liturgy: "Lift up your hearts"--lift up your imaginations, open them toward God. Yet an aroused imagination is not in itself a holy state, for the "heart" can be healthy or perverted. Perhaps it is in tacit recognition of this fact that Anglican eucharistic worship begins with the Collect for Purity:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name, through Christ our Lord.

The Collect for Purity introduces the Ministry of the Word. Thus we ask that when the appointed lections are read, we may be changed in order to hear them with healthy "hearts." Yet at the same time, the church understands that through the action of the Holy Spirit, "the word of the Lord" may itself be an agent of cleansing for our imaginations. Therefore, the subsequent reading of Scripture is part of God's gracious answer to the Collect for Purity." I note also a bit from an advertisement for the conference "After Ricoeur" held Oct. 20-21, 2006 at Oklahoma U: "One of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) was the author of numerous works addressing the vast spectrum of human experience. His works addressed such topics as myth, language, cognition, religion, ethics, politics, law, and literature, to name only a few. These diverse subjects informed his study of the human experience, which includes the dimension of suffering in addition to action. Ricoeur came to believe that the human experience is laden with multiple layers of meaning and thus the task of understanding and organizing our world is comparable to a text. We shape its meaning through interpretation and, in so doing, discover the significance of the text as well as the meaning of our own lives."

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

the big idea

The Big Idea is Christian freedom, which is the proper living out of the eschatological life and the proper dismissal of all that is not so. Pragmatic, certainly, but requiring a proper knowledge of freedom as we find it now, and in this context—and certainly not excluding the body. It is the freedom for one's neighbor and from one's religion.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Benedict XVI praises logos

Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12, 2006 lecture at a meeting with representatives of the sciences at Regensburg University said three interesting things. First, he makes the argument that the “profound harmony” of Jewish and Greek elements summed up in John’s doctrine of the logos is a good thing. Christian thinking (based on the LXX and expressed in the Greek language) did not side with Hellenism in general but with the best portions of it. The Jewish shema-confession of a monotheistic, transcendent, creator-God cuts away the idolatry from Greek metaphysics in a manner reminiscent of Socrates’s iconoclasm. John’s logos, which is “reason” at its fundamentum, “reason” which ties together God’s transcendence, God’s revelation (Deus dixit), and humanity’s ability to understand, represents a “mutual enrichment.” It is the basis by which Benedict can say,

The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason, there exists a real analogy in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV).

This in hand, Pope Benedict takes to task those who have desired to strip out every Hellenistic element from Christian theology, which includes (though gently) the Reformers, Duns Scotus (who receives no applause), and Adolf von Harnack (who receives even less). Discretion should be exercised, he says, because, with John and the Church Fathers, “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.” So that “not to act 'with logos' is contrary to God’s nature."

Second, then, this logos-harmony defrocks any confession of a capricious God. Dun Scotus’s voluntarism, where our knowledge of God is simply what he wishes us to know (voluntas ordinata), and beyond that he is free to be or do whatever he wants, is simply not reasonable. Such a god does not act reasonably, and so he cannot be the seat of logos itself. And here Benedict does something interesting. He links Scotus’s theology with the Islamic understanding of Allah codified by eastern theologians such as Ibn Hazn who “went as far as to state that God is not bound by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” Benedict uncovers, then, a subtle apologetic in the gospel link between the revealing, tabernacling logos of John 1.1 and the creating and creative Word of Genesis 1.3. And, if you follow it out, there is an argument here for why Christianity, and even Christian fundamentalism, should not be treated or feared in the same way as faith’s which derive from unreasonable foundations. For Christians, reasonable action is godly action. Christian theology does not threaten the dialogue necessary to a free society of mutually respect and responsible political action. No, such dialogue is part-and-parcel of its deepest theological confession.

Third and finally, Benedict XVI uncovers an element in our modern, scientific notion of knowledge that I’d never thought of before. Scientific reason, he says, has a platonic core. Scientific reason assumes something about the material world that is immaterial, namely, “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently.” The core simply goes without saying, perhaps pointing to the success of the technologies which it has produced, or the boon to human life and livelihood which have followed. It is true, human beings and cultures have thrived underneath this assumption, and so much so that “the West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality.” The West doesn’t want to ask why our capacities to understand and the ability to understand correspond so well together. Frankly, I’d never thought of this assumption as a latent Platonism, though I’d well-enough identified it as “the modern victory of Aristotle.” Now, the best portions of postmodernity do ask this question. They do seek and discover epistemological room to include much larger portions of human knowing than simply the empirical. But, as above, some kind of nihilistic extreme is avoided in Christian thought because it is unreasonable in the context of the logos.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Please reframe

Two sources of the malaise of modernity remain: the runaway ubiquity of instrumental reason and the potential for soft depostism as a result of political fragmentation. And though Charles Taylor spends the remaining two chapters of his book on them, I only want to touch on a few main points. Perhaps my own reading betrays a too-tight grip on anthropocentricism, but I haven’t found this material as interesting. On the other hand, if one approaches it from the Schaefferian question, “How should we then live?” I can see this could impact interest and retention in a positive way.

Instrumental Reason

Instrumental reason is market thinking applied everywhere. This point was well made in Bergman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (see the series on this blog, ending “Baudelaire is Melting”), and it is difficult to make more of it than it is.

Whether we leave our society to “invisible hand” mechanisms like the market, or try to manage it collectively, we are forced to operate to some degree according to the demands of modern rationality, whether or not it suits our own moral outlook. The only alternative seems to be a kind of inner exile, a self-marginalization. Instrumental rationality seems to be able to lay its demands on us coming and going. (97 emphasis mine)

No matter what religious or ideological background you come from, you are swept up in market thinking. Instrumental reason puts its barcode on you. Instrumental reason knows no Thou, there is only statistical evaluation on graphs of demand and supply.
Modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.
The temptation is to simply give up and give in—even where our own moral outlook is involved (and the very real tragedy of this is why I emphasized that material in the above quotation). But it doesn’t have to be this way. “We have real choice here,” writes Taylor, “even if we tend to be blind to the options open to us” (98).

Taylor’s method, as we saw in his investigation of the arguments surrounding the ideal of authenticity, is to critique the players in the argument. These he calls the “boomers” and the “knockers,” and it is his contention that both sides flatten almost conspiratorially the depth of the issue debated in an attempt to win the argument. That is why he says “we face a continuing struggle to realize higher and fuller modes of authenticity against the resistance of the flatter and shallower forms” (94). “Against them,” he continues,

we need to do a work of retrieval, in order to get a fruitful struggle going in our culture and society. . . . We don’t want to exaggerate our degrees of freedom. But they are not zero. And that means that coming to understand the moral sources of our civilization can make a difference, in so far as it can contribute to a new common understanding. We are not, indeed, locked in. (96, 100-101)

Taylor believes that we can dig down into the moral and ideological sources that got us where we are and bring those out again for purposes of critique. And, turning to technology, he sees a few of those sources that deserve such treatment, not least the ideal of self-determining freedom (discussed in previous blogs on this topic) and, my favorite, the disengaged model of the human subject—the binary anthropology of Descartes’ sublime Meditations. Taylor's rebuttal makes me proud, shooting back with ammunition Heidegger built in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” (He also references Albert Borgman (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) of which he says, “Borgman seems to echo Nietzche’s picture of the 'last men' when he argues that the original liberating promise of technology can degenerate into ‘the procurement of frivolous comfort.' ”) Allow me to quote Taylor at length:

What we are looking for here is an alternative enframing of technology. Instead of seeing it purely in the context of an enterprise of ever-increasing control, of an ever-receding frontier of resistant nature, perhaps animated by a sense of power and freedom, we have to come to understand it as well in the moral frame of the ethic of practical benevolence [re: technology as a means for making people’s lives better], which is also one of the sources in our culture from which instrumental reason has acquired its salient importance for us. [Francis Bacon] But we have to place this benevolence in turn in the framework of a proper understanding of human agency, not in relation to the disembodied ghost of disengaged reason, inhabiting an objectified machine. We have to relate technology as well to the very ideal of disengaged reason, but now as an ideal, rather than as a distorted picture of the human essence. Technology in the service of an ethic of benevolence towards real flesh and blood people; technological, calculative thinking as a rare and admirable achievement of a being who lives in the medium of a quite different kind of thinking: to live instrumental reason from out of these frameworks would be to live our technology very differently. The issue I am putting here in terms of alternative modes of enframing is sometimes posed in terms of control: does our technology run away with us, or do we control it, put it to our purposes? But the problem with this formulation should be obvious. It remains entirely within the frame of domination, and doesn’t allow for a quite different placing of technology in our lives. Getting on top of technology implies taking an instrumental stance to it, as we through it do everything else. It doesn’t open the possibility of placing technology within a non-instrumental stance, as we see, for instance, an ethic of care, or a cultivation of our capacity for pure thought. (106-07, 133n55)

Soft Despotism

As above, market mechanisms are part of the apparatus necessary to enjoy the benefits of living in a modern, industrial society. The market and the bureaucratic state are givens, and this is largely the reason for modernity's culture of continuous struggle and change. Our situation is masticated by the massive and competing force exerted by nation states, multi-national corporations, bureaucratic agencies, and political agendas, micro and macro. Between these, individuals struggle for personal and political authenticity--for family, tribe, and culture--against the eroding tide of atomism and discrete (if not selfish) individualism. This struggle is why we moderns face constantly the threat of soft despotism due to chronic social and political fragmentation; “when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, as less and less bound to the fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances” (112). Taylor's solution is to struggle harder. (It suggests, too, since "struggle" in Arabic is “jihad,” that 9/11 may have been as much a sign of modernity's real arrival in the Middle East as it was a product of growing Islamic fundamentalism.)

What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and relation to the cosmos. (120)

Previous entries in this series are:
The split between manner and matter.

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

you have to set aside a block of time

A good many doctrines and disciplines are governed by an underlying approach to time. The nature of God, the economy of salvation, eschatology, the exegesis of scripture, anthropology, every bit and so much more are influenced fundamentally by the answer they give to the question of time. How, for example, does one responsibly wrestle with the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son without talking of time? Or how can one talk about creation, space and time, when, at the smallest scale, size and duration mean exactly the same thing?[1] Yes, I am fascinated by this borderland between physics, philosophy, and theology (biblical or otherwise), and own several books on the subject. Unfortunately, none have been suitably digested. Their arguments are just too tedious and complicated, which is why only one blog post "Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity" even raises the issue. So thank God for Scientific American!

In a special edition entitled "A Matter of Time," the editors at Scientific American have produced over a dozen articles which explore time's many dimensions: from quantum physics to the technical and historical refinement of clocks. There is even an article ("Remembering When") which details the structures of the brain that collate our experiences into a single life of remembered events.

What emerges in this issue is a growing consensus among physicists and philosophers that time is a dimension laid out already in its entirety just like space. This consensus is called block time (also the B-theory of time, and tenseless time).
A century ago British philosopher John McTaggart sought to draw a clear distinction between the description of the world in terms of events happening, which he called the A series, and the description in terms of dates correlated with states of the world, the B series.
Instead of landscape, think “timescape.” You can talk about a volume of time in the same way you talk about a volume of space. Indeed, according to Lee Smolin's article "Atoms of Space and Time,"[2] space and time are constructed of infinitesimally small and discrete pieces analogous to the way water is composed of individual atoms. And time is distorted just as space is distorted, bending and flexing, contracting and expanding as matter and energy pass through it. Still, there is no flow, no movement from past to future, in block time, and certainly no special, temporal point called "now."

The theoretical basis of block time comes from Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. This theory ”denies any absolute, universal significance to the present moment. Two events that occur at the same moment if observed from one reference frame may occur at different moments if viewed from another.”[3] Objectivity dissolves into the perspective of each and every viewer. “Such mismatches make a mockery of any attempt to confer special status on the present moment, for whose "now" does that moment refer to?"[4] Einstein called this the relativity of simultaneity, and it comes out of a founding principle of relativity called general covariance.

All general covariance says is that the laws of physics are the same for all observers.

Two observers will perceive spacetime to have two different shapes, corresponding to their views of who is moving and what forces are acting. Each shape is a smoothly warped version of the other, in the way that a coffee cup is a reshaped doughnut. General covariance says that the difference cannot be meaningful. Therefore, any two such shapes are physically equivalent.[5]

Translated, this means that though time seems to change or flow, the overall shape of time itself does not, ergo block time. More important, it means that the flow from past to future which seems so natural to us is, in actuality, a completely subjective phenomenon. We observe the passage of time. It is phenomenological.

This is, of course, quite hard to understand when measured against everyday experience. We grow older, as do our children, and, hopefully, we grow wiser, too. The sun moves in the sky. Fruit left in the bowl rots. Our elders die. Given the ubiquity of such evidence, how can we understand the change we see around us? How can we question this ever-flowing conduit of “what was” to “what will be?” And what are the ramifications of doing so? Is a denial of time, a denial of the meaning we give and take from history and memory? Can hope survive without time? The questions pile up like seconds on a clock, and, according to Paul Davies, author and theoretical physicist at Macquarie University's Australian Center for Astrobiology in Sydney, “Modern science has barely begun to consider the question of how we perceive the passage of time."[6]

Still, we must begin somewhere, and Scientific American begins with geography. Instead of measuring time as a continuous flow from one state or one position to the next, we could just as easily describe each change as a discrete point or stage. A vase shatters on the floor. We habitually focus on its physical motion, observing its descent from table to floor as a passage through time. But we could just as easily describe the various states of the vase without a reference to time. Here is the vase when it is a meter from the floor. Here it is only a few hundred centimeters. Lets have another example. Take a bunch of cards of a type and number we would normally call a deck. Each card is a slice of a larger block of time, which is the deck. Now this relationship, the deck, does not exist by necessity just because one card follows another. It is more accurate to describe each card independently. The deck is made by their adjacency, not by any sort of relationship they have to each other.

So, then, how do we account for change? As above, our normal way of going about things is incorrigibly tensed. By this I mean that we inhabit a "tensed" notion of time, a description which refers to grammatical tense--past, present, and future, which are themselves derived from our experience of time. And because of this, we treat the past and the future quite differently. Though we can observe the past, it is not available to us. We cannot expect it, or live into it. Only the future is available to us like that. We, and everything around us, goes into the future (at least from our point of view), and this unidirectional pointing of everything we call "the arrow of time." But is this wrong? Does block time mean we should erase this arrow from our thinking? No, it doesn’t

According to physicists, to embrace block time is not to deny the reality of the arrow of time. The arrow of time is real; there really is a unidirectional sequence of cards. "To deny that time flows is not to claim that the designations "past" and "future" are without physical basis. Events in the world undeniably form a unidirectional sequence."[7]. That is why we do not experience the past. Time's block isn't uniform. The deck of cards--the geography of block time--is not symmetrical. It is asymmetrical. The arrow points in one and only one direction, but seeing the future doesn’t make it necessary that we are moving into the future. "Past" and "Future" should describe something more like geography than motion. "Time's asymmetry is a property of states of the world, not a property of time as such."[8] This means that you can talk about change but not flow. Think, for example, of one of those giant, stone heads on Easter Island. Erected who knows how long ago, they stare forever in a single direction in which they will never go. Quoting again from Brian Davies:

We do not really observe the passage of time. What we actually observe is that later states of the world differ from earlier states that we still remember. The fact that we remember the past, rather than the future, is an observation not of the passage of time but of the asymmetry of time. Nothing other than a conscious observer registers the flow of time.[9]

Physicists and philosophers of science are working to uncover explanations for our perception of time’s flow, and they have uncovered some contributors to the illusion. None the least of these is entropy.

The second law of thermodynamics, the rule that describes entropy, "plays a key role in imprinting on the world a conspicuous asymmetry between past and future directions along the time axis." Indeed, entropy bears directly on "the information content of a system. for this reason, the formation of memory is a unidirectional process--new memories add information and raise the entropy of the brain."[10] This of course assumes a pattern to disorder. “The basic idea is that there are more ways for a system to be disordered than to be ordered. If the system is fairly ordered now, it will probably be more disordered a moment from now.”[11] But why is this so? No one knows. Perhaps the big bang provides the low value of entropy needed to begin an ever-increasing cycle, but if that is the case, then the second law depends not on architectonic laws but on a historical event. A steady-state universe cannot explain entropy.

The brain, too, is a contributor. Kids are fond of spinning, whirling around and around, arms stretched out, until they are hopelessly dizzy. I used to do this for hours while I waited for my parents in our church's common-room basement. Laughing and stumbling, I would lurch about until the world continued to spin even when I stopped. Now I knew that the world wasn't really spinning. It only looked that way, a trick of the inner ear. "Perhaps," says Davies, "temporal flux is similar."[12] Perhaps the perception of time’s flow is just a habit, to be described as David Hume did causation in his Enquiry?

If all of this holds true, the acceptance of block time would require some radical rethinking of a good many religious positions. That is certainly more work than I can do here. Some of the most serious questions asked above remained unanswered. For, as Gary Stix writes, "Recalling where we fit in the order of things determines who we are. So ultimately, it doesn't mater whether time, in cosmological terms, retains an underlying physical truth."[13] Still, referring back to the aforementioned blogpost about the debate between Wood and Padgett, acceptance of a block theory of time means that Wood’s theory of God’s relative timelessness, in which God both transcends time and is temporal in some sense, can work as long as God’s timeliness is understood as an insertion from without into discrete points rather than as a catching up of the divine substance into an irresistible and entropic flow. Wood claims, by the way, that his view is simply a restatement of Boethius--a point worthy of further investigation. And I wonder, too, if this doesn't resurrect the old arguments around occasionalism.

And then, finally, a caveat. As best I can tell, though block time does represent a consensus, it does not approach the status of law. The problem is that block time presupposes the correctness of turning the general theory of relativity into quantum theory, a procedure called canonical quantization. “The procedure worked brilliantly when applied to the theory of electromagnetism,” writes Musser, “but in the case of relativity, it produces an equation—the Wheller-DeWitt equation—without a time variable. Taken literally, the equation indicates that the universe should be frozen in time, never changing.”[14]

Musser goes on to describe how a single question works with canonical quantization to produce absolutely disparate effects. If one believes that space-time exists independently of stars and galaxies—that it is whether or not matter is present—then one is a substantivalist. Or if one believes that space-time is merely a description of how material objects are related, one is a relationist. In the former case, general relativity becomes indeterministic, describing a world which contains a certain amount of randomness. In the latter, the theory becomes deterministic.[15] It is a dilemma which leads physicists to very different understandings of quantum gravity, and suggests that the jury is still far from unanimous when it comes to block time.

1. Paul Davies, “That Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 8. "The distinction between space and time underpins the key notion of causality, stopping cause and effect from being hopelessly jumbled. On the other hand, many physicists believe that on the very smallest scale of size and duration, space and time might lose their seperate identities."
2. Lee Smolin, “Atoms of Space and Time,” Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 82-92.
3. Davies, 7.
4. Ibid.
5. George Musser, "A Hole At The Heart Of Physics," Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 12.
6. Davies, ll.
7. Ibid., 8.
8. Ibid., 9.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., 11.
11. Musser, 13.
12. Davies, 11.
13. Gary Stix, "Real Time," Scientific American 16.1 (2006): 5.
14. Musser, 12.
15. Ibid., 13.

Suggested Bibliography
Angrilli, Alessandro, Paolo Cherubini, et. al., “The Influence of Affective Factors on Time Perception,” Perception and Psychophysics 59 no. 6 (Aug. 1997): 972-982.
Davies, Paul. The Physics of Time Asymmetry. University of California Press, 1974.
—. About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Dennet, Daniel C. and Marcel Kinsbourne. “Time and the Observer: The Where and When of Consciousness in the Brain,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15 no 2. (1992): 183-247.
Gardner, Martin. “Can Time Go Backward?” Scientific American 216 no. 1 (Jan. 1967): 98-108.
Gleick, James. Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Vintage Books, 1999.
Grondin, Simon. “From Physical Time to the First and Second Moments of Psychological Time,” Psychological Bulletin 127 no. 1 (Jan. 2001): 22-44.
Johnson, Alan, Shin’ya Nishida, “Time Perception: Brain Time or Event Time?” Current Biology 11 no. 11 (2001): R427-R430.
Landes, David S. Revolution in Time. Rev ed. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Levine, Robert V. A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist. Basic Books, 1998.
Lippincott, Kristen, ed. The Story of Time. Merrell Holberton, 1999.
McCready, Stuart, ed. The Discovery of Time. Sourcebooks, 2001.
McTaggart, John Ellis. “The Unreality of Time,” Mind 17 (1908): 456-473.
Smart, J. J. C. “Times as Becoming,” in Time and Cause. ed. Peter van Inwagen. Reader Publishing, 1980.
Thorne, Kip S. Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. W. W. Norton, 1994.
Webb, J. “Are the Laws of Nature Changing with Time?” Physics World 16 pt. 4 (April 2003): 33-38.
Whitrow, G. J. What is Time? Thams & Hudson, 1972.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The split between manner and matter

We understand so that we can freely and responsibly make a choice between resistance or embrace. So far, Charles Taylor has built a case for an ethic hidden under the solipsist individualism created by modernity, the ethic or ideal of authenticity. Now, in the last few chapters of The Malaise of Modernity he wants to discover a place from which such authenticity can engage in political debate in the face of soft despotism and the temptation of instrumental reason.

On a larger canvas, one has to remember that Taylor’s arguments find their place in the turn to the subject. Taylor plots a process he calls “subjectivation” where the subject moves to the center of things “once settled by some external reality—traditional law, say, or nature.” Choice takes center stage and asks us to think for ourselves rather than perform for authorities. “Modern freedom and autonomy centres us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity” (81).

But, he says, let’s not forget an important distinction: that between matter or content and manner or method. It is a very important distinction, and especially as the assumption is always made that simply because you can rebel against all external voices you should. Stated in another way, just because you yourself find meaning doesn’t mean you have to find that meaning in yourself. “Authenticity is clearly self-referential: this has to be my orientation. But this doesn’t mean that on another level the content must be self-referential: that my goals must express or fulfill my desires or aspirations, as against something that stands beyond these.” (82) One only recalls Taylor’s argument to realize that he espouses causes much larger than the borders of the self. Authenticity is with us; self-reference is encoded in the Western self, but our ends, our matter, need not correspond to our manner.

To illustrate the difference between the matter of self-referentiality and its manner, Taylor goes back to art. At one time, he says, artists had a language made up of “publicly available reference points that, say, poets and painters [could] draw on” (83). People had an imaginative and symbolic universe in common, a public stock of images and meanings, a cosmic syntax upon which artists could draw. “But for a couple of centuries now we have been living in a world in which these points of reference no longer hold for us” (Ibid.). This has been replaced by privately created languages of articulated sensibility; “the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable . . . language rooted in the personal sensibility of the poet, and understood only by those whose sensibility resonates like the poet’s” (84, 87). [For poets, Taylor turns to Rilke, Wordsworth, and Shelly.]

Now the reason this is important is phenomenological. With the loss of a common, public domain of imaginative reference points went a common projection of reality. The “objective” has become a statistical line whereby each imagination’s reality is taken to be some of the truth, but not all, and these projections assembled into a vision which approximates the truth (if there is any “the truth” at all.) Indeed

the very idea that one such order should be embraced to the exclusion of all the others—a demand that is virtually inescapable in the traditional context—ceases to have any force. It is only too clear how another sensibility, another context of images, might give us a quite different take, even on what we might nevertheless see as a similar vision of reality. (87)

But note my sarcasm: “if there is any “the truth” at all.” Taylor strongly disagrees with this rash judgment. “It by no means follows,” he says, “that there has to be a subjectivation of matter [where what is painted, poem’d, sung, or prosed is but the pure psychology of the artist, knowable and experienced only by herself].” Taylor reminds me that, “The effort of some of the best of modern poets has been precisely to articulate something beyond the self. . . . The inescapable rooting of poetic language in personal sensibility doesn’t have to mean that the poet no longer explores an order beyond the self” (88-89). His point is well taken. There is no reason why we can’t “call on individual intuitions to map a public domain of references” (87). The classical order—that public domain of imagination—could itself have been such an attempt; a collective, but temporary, trial at understanding the universe in which human beings of that time found themselves. People changed, and so that model had to be discarded. Yet, their cosmos is the same for us, the same all-encompassing universe “for which no adequate terms exist and whose meaning has to be sought” (86). Don’t mistake the seeking for what is sought; nor confuse even an interesting journey with any sort of arrival.

Such confusion slips into an instrumental reason which emphasizes our claims to the deficit of all others, an error which, Taylor argues, should not be.

Just because we no longer believe in the doctrines of the Great Chain of Being, we don’t need to see ourselves as set in a universe that we can consider simply as a source of raw materials for our projects [contra instrumental reason]. We may still need to see ourselves as part of a larger order that can make claims on us. (89)

Going back to his anthropology of relatedness, Taylor asks his hearer to realize that “nature and our world make a claim on us.” We are creatures immersed in a universe of interrelated demands, but hearing those claims upon us, being related to a world of not-I, of Other, is not easy. We must resist solipsism. We must resist instrumental reason. We must explore our world by means of artistic languages of personal resonance. The ideal of authenticity, and its corresponding ethic, the recovery of our own sentiment de l’existence connects us intimately to our world. That’s why a failure to see this, a failure to separate manner from matter, is a tragedy of ethics and a flattening of our very selves.

Final thought. Taylor deals quite a bit in this chapter with Romanticism, and I wish I had more time to investigate the underlying project and purpose of the Romantics. “It was perhaps no accident that in the Romantic period the self-feeling and the feeling of belonging to nature were linked.” In his notes he cites Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968) and Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism (New York: Norton, 1984) of which he says the second chapter contains an excellent discussion of the Romantic aspirations to a natural symbolism. He also quotes lines 307-11 of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. It is an addition to his argument to reproduce lines 401-414:

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature--purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Previous entries in this series are:
Taylor on Art and History .

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

blue longing or yellow laziness?

I was shocked to find, in my daily reading of My Way of Life, Thomas Aquinas (albeit paraphrased) saying:

"As far as public revelation is concerned—that is, the revelation which God has entrusted to His Church to be proposed to all men for their belief—the age of prophecy ceased at the time and with the work of Christ and His Apostles. But God still sends private revelations to men as signs of His continuing love and care for them.” (431)

Put as simply as I can think of: Nein! Not that I go along with the analytics who say that that statement alone is true which can be empirically falsifiable, but I believe that human beings are too prone to phantasie for the responsible use of any private revelations. This topic is raised quite effectively in “The Code Breakers” an article by Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs in this month’s First Things (165 (Aug/Sept. 2006): 14-7) in which Jacobs is all about the attraction and absurdity of “code breaking,” meaning the discovery of secret knowledge about the future, past, or present. He writes:

There’s a wonderful passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace where one of the main characters, Pierre Bezukhov, discovers that if you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet, the words L’Empereur Napoleon add up to 666—the number of the Antichrist. Then Pierre, because he imagines himself as Napoleon’s great antagonist, starts trying to write his own name in such a way that it also adds up to 666 and finds that he cannot, even after he changes the spelling in several different ways. But finally, he decides not only to alter his name’s spelling but also to indicate his nationality, and finally to abandon correct French usage: “L’russe Bsuhof,” astonishingly, yields 666. “This discovery excited him,” Tolstoy notes with the straightest of faces. “How, or by what means, he was connected with the great event foretold in the Apocalypse he did not know, but he did not doubt the connection for a moment.” (14)

If you begin by supposing something to be true that there is simply no reason even to suspect is true and then look for any evidence that might be construed as supportive of that supposal while resolutely ignoring any evidence that might be construed as refuting that supposal [“code breakers have an interest in eliding them and in rushing quickly past inconveniently slippery information”]—well, then, you’re quite likely to find yourself in the position of Pierre Bezukhov, amazed by how a scarily intricate story holds together.

Mathematicians—striving, often unsuccessfully, to remain calm-voiced and to soothe the frenzied thumping of their temples—reply than an elementary knowledge of probability will reveal that such correspondences aren’t surprising at all. Logicians reply that not only have these code breakers cooked the books by manipulating the data but they have also overlooked hundreds of far more likely correspondences. Skilled literary critics reply that if you define a character or a thing or an event in a story vaguely enough, it can become a symbol of almost anything. (15)

All dismissals aside, I was caught up by some of the reasons why Jacobs thinks code breakers do what they do. They do it to be special, seeing what others do not. They do it for the rush. They do it “to become part of what C. S. Lewis called an Inner Ring—the Ring whose goose-bumps-inducing catchphrase is always ‘We few’.” And they do it in order to discover meaning, whether to fix oneself into place within a comfortable matrix of private meaning or to find one’s actions writ into “a vast world historical event, into pure meaning.”

Of course, Jacob's analysis reflects some of the discussion that has been going on here with Charles Taylor's book, and especially Taylor's investigation of the loss of the sacred and the quest for authenticity. Taylor is an optimist to the code-breaker's pessimism; and confident where they have only self-doubt.

“We can never return to the days before these self-centered modes could tempt and solicit people.” He says confidently, where "the days" are days before individual identity was always daily up for grabs.

“Like all forms of individualism and freedom, authenticity opens an age of responsibilization, if I can use this term. By the very fact that this culture develops, people are made more self-responsible. Authenticity points us towards a more self-responsible form of life. It allows us to live (potentially) a fuller and more differentiated life, because more fully appropriated as our own . . . a richer mode of existence. It is in the nature of this kind of increase of freedom that people can sink lower, as well as rise higher. Nothing will ever ensure a systematic and irreversible move to the heights." (The Malaise of Modernity 74, 77)

Still, despite his confidence, Taylor is also honest. Taking up the yoke of one’s own authentic becoming is no picnic. Aspiring to the ideal and the ethic of authenticity is a good thing, but it does require a great deal of effort. Modernity’s gift—the individual—is a gift given the way the world gives, with strings attached: the heavy burden of being, of feeling held out over the Abyss (das Nicht). It is easy to see why some may wish to escape![2]

Phantasie offers an easier out, and one that at least feels richer than the other way of authentic becoming. “The sense of suddenly being plugged into a vast world-historical event, into pure meaning, remains enormously appealing—especially when it’s a meaning others cannot see” (Jacobs 15; emphasis mine).[3]

Jacobs calls such romantic escapsism laziness.

"I think these fanciful tales appeal to what I can only call our plain laziness. The interpretation of literary texts is actually hard work. You have to know a great deal about the history of a culture and about the various forms and genres and techniques of literary writing to have a shot at really figuring out a major work of literary art.

Likewise, the understanding of paintings—especially paintings made centuries ago by people who thought very differently than we think, who lived in a very different social world, whose ideas of what paintings represent and how they represent it are often quite alien to what we take for granted—is achievable only after years, even decades, of scrupulous attentiveness to work after work after work. And the deepest wisdom about the productions of culture will always acknowledge the possibility of error, will always see that subtle alterations in how we think of this detail or that theme can result in quite dramatically different pictures of the work as a whole.” (16-17)

But I think I see something more than just laziness behind it. Something offered by Jacobs himself.

It should be remembered that Alan Jacobs is the author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis. He is familiar, then, with Lewis’s doctrine of Joy (Sehnsucht) and the blue flower (Blaue Blume, a central symbol of Romanticism “it stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable” [Wikipedia]) Jacobs explains:

“[Lewis] is thinking of Novalis - the pen name of the German Romantic writer Friedrich von Hardenberg, who died in 1801 at the age of twenty-nine. The protagonist of Novalis's unfinished allegorical novel Heinrich Von Ofterdingen becomes obsessed by a vision of a blue flower, which he first encounters in a stranger's tales and then in dreams:

There is no greed in my heart; but I yearn to get a glimpse of the blue flower [aber die blaue Blume sehn' ich mich zu erblicken]. It is perpetually in my mind, and I can write or think of nothing else . . .Often I feel so rapturously happy; and only when I do not have the flower clearly before my mind's eye does a deep inner turmoil seize me. This cannot and will not be understood by anyone. I would think I were mad if I did not see and think so clearly. Indeed since then everything is much clearer to me.

He "yearns" or "longs" (sehn) for the flower - and yet nothing that he can grasp seems so desirable as that longing itself. This is the paradox of Sehnsucht: that though it could in one sense be described as a negative experience, in that it focuses on something one cannot possess and cannot reach, it is nevertheless intensely seductive. One cannot say it is exactly pleasurable - there is a kind of ache, of unattainable longing—and yet, as Lewis puts it, the quality of the experience "is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction." (40; copied nearly in whole from a now-lost blogpost entitled "The Blue Flower of Joy and Yearning.")

Perhaps there is a value behind code breaking. Instead of dismissing the phantasists as lazy, I wonder whether or not they aren't staging a protest for something else. Modernity requires one to quest for authenticity, and doesn't this quest assume emotional as well as political dimensions? And so I say that Jacobs' lazy code breaking, like Taylor’s narcissistic anthropocentrism, is but a deviant form of a greater value, which Lewis called joy.[4]

[1] I have discussed this phenomenon in other posts, examining it according to Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s popular understanding of myth; as well as its cultic religiosity, including its affinity for modern forms of Spinozism, so-called spirituality, and even investigating it as a form of divination, of which I see modern neo-paganism as the community gathered around the pursuit of this kind of experience, either for personal development or to have or be subject to power, whether this be sadistic, masochistic, or something more benign.

[2] Emile Cioran’s work explores the existential difficulty of living with the burden of an un-meaning’d self untethered in a sea of absolute freedom. I also like sculptor Samuel Nigro’s more direct description of this same experience.

[3] Evangelicals are particularly (and popularly) enamored with this in a way analogous to the neo-pagans. I have discussed this in a post entitled, “You Are Removing God From the Everyday!”

[4] I scratched at the eschatological possibilities in a discussion of an abstract by Freddie Rodem, and especially the categories anxiety and nostalgia as potential responses to the eschatological situation.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

a quick meditation on free will

The pervasiveness of "freedom of choice"--who can see its many influences and arrangements? Who can follow it as far down as it goes and sketch its fundamentum? It is the manure which multiplies our every assumption. It flows under the bark of our very selves; tear at us, and we bleed it like resin. And yet, which of us is his own creator? Who of us willed themselves into being? Who chose her native language, or the history, the morays and folkways, of his fatherland? We believe we have chosen, only to look back later in life and see that our choices were largely dictated by the demands of history, culture, and family expectation. This panic to be original, the moral demand of the authentic--what of it? We don't realize that underneath any free choice (according to our usual definition) there must be a universe of pure chance. All is meaningless in such a world, but we at least know how to be meaningless (and how to lie about it.) Theology disagrees. It suggests a different trope: God first. First God and then us. God's action, our reaction. God's promise, our faithful response. And don't think that in our response we actually see and quantify every edge of God's action. Chances are, we'll spend our whole lives sorting it out, only to come to an admission of happy futility, of resignation, and the freedom that comes with childlike trust at the very end.

On the other hand, we can't very well abandon all effort and become bubbles, floating along on the surface of the warm back of pure providence. Whereas unsupported action, the pursuit of the authentic and original self, most popularly manifested by existentialism, is in error, so is its opposite: limp passivity that goes by the name of "the surrendered life", "abiding", and that rude colloquiallism: Let Go and Let God. Where the one, like the atheist, shuts God from history, the other, like the platonist, denies history of God. All the natural and, indeed, supernatural gifts God has given to human beings for the purpose of getting on with things go unused "until God tells me." But don't you already have it, then? Now get on with it! Creation is affirmed by God, even as God supports creation; neither should be forgotten by the other, and especially by human beings, whose second Adam himself was born of flesh, born of a woman and, with the creed, "crucified under Pontius Pilate."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Taylor on Art and History

Art and History are on Charles Taylor's mind. History primarily to explain in more systemic detail why individualism appeared and has continued to strengthen its ideological base, ultimately encouraging deviant narcissism. Art because of the close relationship between artistic creation and self discovery. Taylor is interested in explaining why the ideal of authenticity is always sliding into one or the other of its "deviant" forms (narcissim, or, Taylor's new and better adjective: anthropocentrism); modernity by definition atomizes society. I'm not as interested in replicating the bones of his debate as pulling this quote on on the historical development behind the ideal itself, and examining the correlation between authenticity and the aesthetic.

Individualist ideas developed in the thought and sensibility, particularly of educated Europeans, during the seventeenth century. These seem to have facilitated the growth of new political forms that challenged the ancient hierarchies, and of new modes of economic life, which gave greater place to the market and to entrepreneurial enterprise" (58). . . . From its very inception, this kind of society has involved mobility, at first of peasants off the land and to cities, and then across oceans and continents to new countries, and finally, today, from city to city following employment opportunities. Mobility is in a sense forced on us. Old ties are broken down. At some time, city dwelling is transformed by the immense concentrations of population of the modern metropolis. By its very nature, this involves much more impersonal and causal contact, in place of the more intense, face-to-face relations in earlier times" (59). . . . Our technocratic, bureaucratic society gives more and more importance to instrumental reason. This cannot but fortify atomism, because it induces us to see our communities, like so much else, in an instrumental perspective. But it also breeds anthropocentrism, in making us take an instrumental stance to all facets of our life and surroundings: to the past, to nature, as well as to our social arrangements. (Ibid.)

Poesis and the Artists as the Paradigmatic Modern

The ethic of authenticity demands of its devotees the cultivation of self-expression as a means to self discovery and definition. "The notion that each one of us has an original way of being human entails that each of us has to discover what it means to be ourselves." Now, before this culture arose, when individuals and things found their places within an established status quo, art was imitation, mimesis. But now, when we must discover ourselves through expression, our art, too, is poesis, making, and the artist becomes the paradigmatic human being.

Simultaneously, self-definition requires a break with morality. "The very idea of originality [being authentic], and the associated notion that the enemy of authenticity can be social conformity, forces on us the idea that authenticity will have to struggle against some externally imposed rules. . . there is a notional difference between truth to self and those of intersubjective justice. . . . Authenticity involves originality, it demands a revolt against convention" (63).

Recalling his earlier treatment of the ideal of self-determining freedom, we see here again the need for a freedom to be against and to be for. "Authenticity is itself an idea of freedom; it involves my finding the design of my life myself, against the demands of external conformity" (67-68). Of course, this can easily tip into the deviant. Taylor thinks this is exactly what has happened in postmodernism. Following a doorway drawn in the wall of bourgeois social morays by "Marinetti and the Futurists, Antoine Artaud and his Theatre of Cruelty, and Georges Bataille" (66), Taylor finds:

"The Nietzschean critique of all "Values" as created cannot but exalt and entrench anthropocentrism. In the end, it leaves the agent, even with all his or her doubts about the category of the "self," with a sense of untrammelled power and freedom before a world that imposes no standards, ready to enjoy "free play," [Derrida] or to indulge in an aesthetics of the self [Foucault]" (60-61).

At any rate, Taylor is quite clear that developments in art and the development of authenticity run on parallel tracks. The eighteenth century, he says, in the turn to the subject ceased to define art and beauty "in terms of the reality or its manner of depiction." Instead defining them by "the kinds of feeling they arouse in us, a feeling of its own special kind, different from the moral and other kinds of pleasure" (64). The line goes through Shaftesbury and Hutcheson and finds its forumula in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement. Beauty--like authenticity--is its own fulfillment and its own goal. The gravity has shifted. "Self-truth and self-wholeness are seen more and more not as means to be moral, as independently defined, but as something valuable for their own sake." Quoting Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Tayor describes a wholeness communicated by the enjoyment of beauty made from the union between self-wholeness and the aesthetic, the experience of which is higher "because it engages us totally in a way that morality cannot" (65). Such ecstasis becomes for Schiller the highest form of telos, "its own form of goodness and satisfaction" (Ibid.).

The Matrix of Authenticity

So we find that Taylor's understanding of the ideal or ethic of authenticity is "full of tension . . . living in an ideal that is not fully comprehended and which properly understood would challenge many of its practices" (56). And he is quite helpful in this chapter to provide a dialectical schema of authenticity, so that authenticity

  • (A) involves

    • (i) creation and construction

    • (ii) discovery

    • (iii) opposition to the rules of society & (potentially) morality

  • (B) requires

    • (i) openness to horizons of significance (for otherwise the creation loses the background that can save it from insignificance)

    • (ii) a self-definition in dialogue (with that which is Other)

Deviance is discovered where A is embraced and B ignored or vice versa. I find this schema helpful, because, in the end, Taylor is trying to give his hearer insight into how to fight for authenticity. He sees this ideal and ethic as a real good, as something that enriches human life--and yet which requires responsible administration in order to keep it from sliding off into one deviant form or another. I think, for example, of this same kind of process at work in the law/gospel dynamic of Martin Luther and in subsequent reformed theology, where hypervigilance need be kept against either a hardening scholasticism or a lusty, self-indulgent embrace of the heresy of the free spirit.

Previous entries in this series are:
Sorting Some of this Out.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sorting some of this out

There is a need to restate the problem, or at least one of the problems, which Charles Taylor is dealing with in The Malaise of Modernity.

His primary bogey so far has been the cultural slide into soft relativism, a personal and political narcissism which erodes all motivation for personal and political involvement and leads potentially to soft despotism. Why, if self-fulfillment is my goal, should I stay in long term relationships after they have ceased to be fun? Why should I learn the art of political involvement, the give and take of promotion and compromise? Why shouldn't the circle of responsibility be drawn skin-tight around my own changing desires and choices? Aren't I pursuing the authentic life? Isn't the best life that in which I come to realize and maximize myself?

The religious and the secular can make different but parallel arguments. For the secular, I offer Baruch Spinoza: "To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life." And here is Carl Jung, "Fidelity to the law of your own being is an act of high courage flung in the face of life." Is there any need to raise the specter of Emerson: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," "what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men," or Thoreau or Whitman? Here’s John Stuart Mill:

If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode” (Three Essays. Oxford University Press, 1975), 83.)

The religious have their own anecdotes as well. A prioress at a Benedictine convent describes her philosophy of life this way, "I try to live my life in such a way that when I die and my Maker asks, 'Did you live the life I gave you?' I can honestly answer yes." Add to this the usual reading of Jesus's parable of the talents.

Wherever you go in the West, the impulse to excavate and assume a larger self, or to release or augment the self and its experiences by means of commerce, is all pervasive--and this is as true in religious literature as secular. We are all caught up in it, e pluribus unum.

But it doesn't have to be this way. The slide into soft relativism by those who value individualism needn't occur. Taylor says that soft relativism is simply the product of a shallow understanding, and he argues for a better one: the ethic or ideal of authenticity.

A major pillar of his argument rests in the importance of a background of intelligibility which he calls "horizons of significance." The argument, see, is between what is valued. Soft relativism values anything it perceives as contributing to self realization, but its basis for argument is in the power of choice. Choice, personal or cultural, bestows value. It is a commercial statement, forever subject to fetishism according to the invisible hand of--we aren't quite sure, are we? I suppose we may have discovered the Powers themselves. At any rate, I want to see explicitly how his argument for these horizons of significance goes, because, again, it is part of the backbone of his argument.

(1) Authenticity requires definition over-and-against, it requires contextual field of differences that matter

"However one feels about it," he writes, "the making and sustaining of our identity, in the absence of a heroic effort to break out of ordinary existence, remains dialogical throughout our lives." (35) Taylor asserts that the creation of identity does not occur in monologue, but in dialogue, in agreement or struggle. Difference is a big part of this. "Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others." (36) But what are real and meaningful differences, and what are not? Is being taller a better goal than, say, carrying on a tribal tradition? How do we know.

We know, says Taylor, because every option comes to us against a background (horizon) of significance. Taylor is pretty pragmatic here, he doesn't say how this horizon came to be, simply that it is, and that it is determined largely by what is sacred. He also says we can't just ignore this horizon.

Soft relativists want to do just that. They argue that choice is what makes an option significant. Again reflecting an instrumental, or commercial, free-market sensibility, choice is the arbiter of all horizons; whether a choice is arrived on the basis of reason or feeling doesn't matter. Any other horizon is dismissed.

The problem with this is that choice alone is cheap. If gold grew on every tree, it would lose its value. That's what choice does. By removing any common horizon and making significance absolutely subjective, everything and every option or possibility becomes as easily obtained and easily discarded as any other. If the goal was to become more authentic by choice, then every option can get one nowhere.

Indeed, by exalting choice, soft relativists undermine their own position. "Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence." (38) There is no longer a way of telling what is more or less good. The value of an option has to come from without, independent of my will, and that applies even to the value of choice: "Self-choice as an ideal makes sense only because some issues (I have also called the options, potentials, variables, etc.) are more significant than others." (Ibid.)

The choices required for authenticity require options that have real substance against a horizon of significance.

"The ideal of self-choice supposes that there are other issues of significance beyond self-choice. . . . It requires a horizon of issues of importance which help define the respects in which self-making is significant. The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. [Therefore, unlike soft relativism,] authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands" (39-41).

(2) Authenticity requires a way of recognizing differences without flattening them

The above argument means that simply making the choice to value others, simply asserting that a multicultural society is a good thing, does not proscribe value. The ability for those statements to have meaning requires that some common horizon be found for differences which make them valuable. "Mere difference can't itself be the ground of equal value." (51) "There must be some substantitive agreement on value, or else the formal principle of equality will be empty and a sham." Taylor turns to politics.

A political definition will not do it. Definitions of themselves exclude some differences even as they draw a wall of commonality around other differences. This is nothing but choice put in the hands of the polis, and the argument goes the same way as it did for individual choice as a ground for meaning. So what horizon of value does make sense?

Taylor doesn't answer the question definitively. Rather, he encourages his reader to begin to find "commonalities of value," and labels the most crucial of these "sharing a participatory political life." It is a necessary point on the way. Taylor has certainly gone further than narcissism, but it isn't enough in my opinion. What a commonality of value is, Taylor doesn't say. His result is shallow. Offering a political becoming--finding the answer in the process--though culturally a winner, is, in my mind, unsatisfactory.

Taylor's plea not to notice that man behind the curtain suggests a way for theology to provide a better answer. There is more to Taylor than soft relativism, but he does not arrive at a true and satisfactory Truth which would, by its very assertion, provide a touchstone, a north star, a schema of meaning in relation to all other suggested values. Interesting, too, that Taylor suggests a fundamental anthropology during his argument, writing, "There is a picture here of what human beings are like." He may not be sure what this anthropology is--perhaps it is a topic that will come up later in his book--but it is certain that the matrix formed between the relationship of God and humankind is a horizon of value that theology has long understood.

Previous entries in this series are:
The Need for Recognition.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Need for Recognition

With the introduction of modernity, well-understood hierarchies of honor collapsed. Where the pecking order of society had been fixed, with differences properly arranged among the classes and functions of human life, now all were equalized. This was sure to effect the discovery and development of personal identity.

The loss of the honor system made identity a commodity. Personal identity had been fixed by society. "What the person recognized as important was to a great extent determined by his or her place in society and whatever roles or activities attached to this." (47) With the emergence of the changes that have been tracked so far in this book, with the emergence of a new ideal of authenticity, individuals were required to discover their own "original way of being" which "cannot be socially derived but must be inwardly generated." (Herder) One witnesses, therefore, the creation of a new and important human need: recognition.

In the previous chapter, Taylor noted that identity is discovered not in monologue but in dialog. This means that others are not only important, they are necessary! "The development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new and crucial importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others." (emphasis mine) Recognition is brick-and-mortar in the house of self-identity.

Now when the established matrix of recognition, the social order, collapsed, the supply and demand of recognition needed systemic renegotiation. There was no longer any social guarantee of supply. Failure or loss were real possibilities. This effected social life on both a micro- and macro-scale.

Given the importance of dialogical relationships, it is no surprise that "the culture of authenticity" makes love relationships the "key loci of self-discovery and self-confirmation." Love relationships are the "crucibles of inwardly generated identity." There is a cultural emphasis, too, on the importance of ordinary life, "the life of production and the family, of work and love."

The importance of dialogical relationships--and especially the essential nature of recognition--effected the social plane as well. A politics of equal recognition is the order of the day. Indeed, the refusal to provide equal recognition "can inflect damage on those who are denied it," according to a widespread modern view.

The projecting of an inferior or demeaning image on another can equally distort and oppress, to the extent that it is interiorized. Not only contemporary feminism but also race relations and discussions of multiculturalism are undergirded by the premise that denied recognition can be a form of oppression" (49-50).

What matters now is fairness. Equal recognition is a political given, demanding "the equal status of cultures and genders." Everyone should have an equal playing field upon which to develop their identity.

"Everyone should have the right and capacity to be themselves. This is what underlies soft relativism as a moral principle: no one has a right to criticize another's values. This inclines those imbued with this culture toward conceptions of procedural justice: the limit on anyone's self-fulfillment must be the safeguarding of an equal chance at this fulfillment for others" (45).

Here's where the critics come in. They say that the individualism which makes love relationships primary and make equality a political must are no good on either count. Narcissistic individualism, they say, makes love relationships only as good as self-fulfillment requires, tossed aside when they are no longer useful. And, they continue, this soft relativism weakens the fortitude necessary for political action in a democratic state. Soft relativism removes all difference. Everyone is absolutely equal, and so judgments of value are impossible and political debate absurd. So does the ideal of authenticity require this? Taylor says no.

His is a careful argument. On one hand, you have to have equality, but the reality is that a political community is made of men and women from various religions, races, and cultures. The differences have to be acknowledged, while at the same resisting favoritism. Each way of being needs a way of being equally valued. How do we do this?

What is needed is a bridge between equality and difference, some property, common or complementary, which is valued along a larger horizon than simple choice (referring to the argument made in the previous chapter.)

"To come together on a mutual recognition of difference--that is, of the equal value of different identities--requires that we share more than a belief in this principle; we have to share some standard of value on which the identities concerned check out as equal. There must be some substantive agreement on value, or else the formal principle of equality will be empty and a sham. We won't really share an understanding of equality unless we share something more. Recognizing difference, like self-choosing, requires a horizon of significance, in this case a shared one. [Thus] developing and nursing the commonalities of value between us become important, and one of the crucial ways we do this is sharing a participatory political life" (52).

And what about personal relationships? Does a desire for authenticity make our relationships just a means to self-fulfillment? Well, not if identity is properly understood. To develop personal identity is a life-long process, and so the recognizing give-and-take of my dialogical relationships will need to track this process. Identity-forming relationships, by definition, can't be any less tentative than personal identity itself. Indeed, "if my self-exploration takes the form of such serial and in principle temporary relationships, then it is not my identity that I am exploring, but some modality of enjoyment." (53) Instrumental relationships aren't a good support for personal identity. "The notion that one can pursue one's fulfillment in this way seems illusory, in somewhat the same way as the idea that one can choose oneself without recognizing a horizon of significance beyond choice." (Ibid.)

To be honest, I'm not sure I understand exactly where he is going with his arguments about authentic political relationships requiring a larger horizon of value. Taylor calls this a denial of procedural justice and the liberalism of neutrality and an embrace of a politics of identity-recognition. Perhaps when I'm done, this will make more sense.

Previous entries in this series are:
Two together—two apart.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Two together—two apart

Narcissistic modes of contemporary culture which desire self-fulfillment without regard to social obligation are self-defeating. They undermine the conditions necessary for realizing authenticity itself. That is the thesis Charles Taylor has before him as he begins his argument in chapter five: The Need for Recognition. But before an analysis, a few concepts require clarification.

First, I have noticed (and perhaps it has occurred earlier in this book) that Taylor always treats the individual as a participant in two interlocking social spheres. The first and most intimate sphere is the sphere of direct association, each person in relation to their spouse, children, friends, coworkers, etc. The second sphere is meta-social. It is society at large—and especially political citizenship. Taylor always treats both together, consistently demonstrating how a particular argument or state of affairs effects each one.

The second point of clarification is individualism. According to Taylor’s first chapter, individualism is one of the three nodes around which the malaise of modernity rotates. On one hand there are the cultural idolizers who cry “freedom!” and on the other the cultural despisers, who point at narcissism and an absolute subjectivity of self-fulfillment. This ideal Taylor is arguing for, the ideal (or ethic) of authenticity “is a facet of modern individualism.” But I note that Taylor takes up a line from de Tocqueville on page 125, note 17:

Individualism has in fact been used in two quite different senses. In one it is a moral ideal, one facet of which I have been discussing. In another, it is an amoral phenomenon, something like what we mean by egoism. The rise of individualism in this sense is usually a phenomenon of breakdown, where the loss of a traditional horizon leaves mere anomie in its wake, and everybody fends for themselves—e.g., in some demoralized, crime-ridden slums formed by newly urbanized peasants . . . It is, of course, catastrophic to confuse these two kinds of individualism, which have utterly different causes and consequences. Which is why Tocqueville carefully distinguishes “individualism” from “egoism.”

Taylor, of course, believes that the naysayers of individualism, Bloom for example, are doing just that. A mainstay of The Milieu of Modernity is a running argument for self-centered individualism as a faux form of authenticity. Bloom and the naysayers criticize such individualism because (among other things) it brings every human relation under the gavel of instrumental reason, and ultimately erodes effective political participation (mirroring the second and third points made in chapter one.) Taylor agrees, but not without saying, “there is another definition of individualism!” To understand this individualism properly; to understand its ethic of authenticity, is to see that every assertion of individuality is also a statement about the social order. “The individualism of anomie has no social ethic attached to it; but individualism as a moral principle or ideal must offer some view on how the individual should live with others.” And there are the two interlocking rings of social relationships that I talked about above. Now, on to the chapter itself!

Previous entries in this series are:
Gotta have those transcendent horizons.

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