Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Conscience & Conviction

The Jury, a Norman Rockwell painting, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post published February 14, 1959.
This is one of several Rockwell paintings that can serve more or less as a civics lesson (cf. the 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With; from 1963, Southern Justice; and New Kids in the Neighborhood from 1967). I was thinking about it again because it’s the cover jacket art for Kimberley Brownlee’s important new book, Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford University Press, 2012). Brownlee wrote the entry on “civil disobedience” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). In the Introduction, she explains why she chose this painting for the cover of her book:
“It captures a charged scene of a jury of 11 men and one woman who are long into their deliberations. We do not know the facts of the case or what verdict they are debating. All we know is that the woman sits in a rickety chair with her back straight and her arms folded while 10 of the men stand or sit around her, leaning over her in united opposition. One man dozes to the side. In this smoke-filled, wood-paneled room echoing of a men’s club where jackets have been shed and tempers are running high, she is entirely alone. She is exposed. And, she might be wrong about what she thinks of the case. She seems to be aware of this since she is listening intently to the men around her. But, she is also unflinching. In her folded arms, straight back, and attentive expression lie the kernels of the conception of conscientious conviction that I defend in these pages.”
The following (sans notes) is from a “teacher’s guide” “developed to accompany the exhibition Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., from July 2, 2010 through January 2, 2011. The show explores the connections between Norman Rockwell’s iconic images of American life and the movies.”
“At the time Rockwell painted The Jury, eighteen states still imposed restrictions on women’s jury service. Jury trials, individual holdouts, and women’s roles were highlighted in television and film in the late 1950s. Greer Garson starred in an episode of the popular series Telephone Time that aired in September 1957, in which Garson’s character campaigns for women to be selected as jurors in a murder trial. Without women, the killer would go free because all available male jurors were either his friends or too fearful to vote for conviction. The most revealing connection between Rockwell’s painting and contemporary popular culture lies in the parallels it shares with the movie 12 Angry Men (1957). In the film, Henry Fonda stars as the holdout on a jury that, except for his dissenting vote, will impose the death sentence on a young Hispanic man charged with killing his father. Each of the other jurors votes to convict—some for personal reasons, some out of prejudice against nonwhite Americans, some because they simply wanted to escape the heat of the jury room and go to a baseball game. One by one, as the Fonda character poses reasonable questions about the value of the evidence presented, the other jurors acquiesce to his arguments. The final ballot results in a unanimous verdict of not guilty. As in 12 Angry Men, the jury deliberation portrayed on Rockwell’s canvas has been lengthy. Cigarette butts and crumpled ballots litter the floor of the smoke-filled room, but the holdout remains unswayed, despite the psychological pressure imposed by her fellow jurors.” 

Additional reading: A nice complement (owing to its historical focus) to Brownlees book is Lewis Perry’s Civil Disobedience: An American Tradition (Yale University Press, 2013). 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Prosoche in the Daily Life of a Salonnière in the French Enlightenment

With the Enlightenment, the very way conversation was thought about changed; it no longer dealt only with the aesthetic preoccupations of a privileged elite but now addressed the basic problems of the new culture. The spoken word had to serve truth rather than merely provide entertainment. In eighteenth-century debate, writes Jean-Paul Sermain, ‘conversation was conceived as a group activity to further the advance of reason by offering an open and attentive method of inquiry into the best subjects and as solid reassurance of social cohesion, so as to strengthen concern for the public good.’ The great intellectual salons of the era—from the Marquise de Lambert’s to Mme Necker’s, by way of those of Mme de Tencin, Helvétius, the Baron d’Holbach, and Julie de Lespinasse—can be seen as so many possible variations of this unique, ambitious project.

The new responsibilities invested in conversation went hand in hand with the evolution of the idea of politesse, which alone made it possible for the esprit de société to be fully realized. Whether it was false or sincere, generous or egotistical, politesse had, at least in principle, introduced into a society founded on ‘rank’ a criterion of distinction and an assessment of merit that were independent of the established hierarchy. People could thus take part in worldly exchange on an equal footing, and as long as the discourse was regulated and solidarity was guaranteed, no other authority was required. When at the dawn of the eighteenth century politesse became the hallmark of the nation and was no longer the distinguishing mark of a gentleman, its pedagogic and moral aims became an integral part of civilization and progress. [....]

Having started life as an idealistic challenge, conversation had gradually developed a system of communication that, by entrusting itself exclusively to the respect for manners, made it possible for society to provide itself with its own forum, what David Gordon calls a ‘free audience “behind closed doors,”’ where it could express its own opinions. So private conversation made up for the lack of representative conversation, opening itself out to egalitarian dialogue and the confrontation of ideas. [....] For the philosophes who assimilated its code of behavior and subscribed to it fully, the art of conversation aimed not merely at promoting the Enlightenment and its popularity, but constituted the very dynamics of intellectual thought.”— Benedetta Craveri (trans. Teresa Waugh), The Age of Conversation (The New York Review of Books, 2005): 357-358

A contemporary philosopher who has endeavored to accord religious praxis far more attention than it has received in philosophical and other circles is John Cottingham. The first chapter of his book, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is appropriately titled, “Religion and spirituality: from praxis to belief.” As he states in the Preface,

“There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief, a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of reality.”[1]

Perhaps the most compelling reason to address the praxis dimension of spirituality comes from the fact, according to Cottingham, “that it is in the very nature of religious understanding that it characteristically stems from practical involvement rather than from intellectual analysis” (a fact reinforced by—in the standard case—early socialization into a religious community). Cottingham’s argument for granting primacy or priority to religious “praxis” begins with a brief discussion of Pierre Hadot’s work on the role of spiritual exercises in the ancient Greek world (discussed of course by Nussbaum as well in her volume on Hellenistic ethics) and thus the “practical dimension of the spiritual” in the sense later found in St. Ignatius Loyola’s sixteenth-century Ejercicios espirituales (Cottingham outlines the relation of ‘spirituality’ to religion in a way that warrants the wider application of the former to encompass such Stoic ‘exercises.’). As Cottingham says, with Ignatius, “we are dealing with a practical manual—a training manual—and the structured timings, the organized programme of readings, contemplation, meditation, prayer, and reflection, interspersed with the daily rhythms of eating and sleeping, are absolutely central, indeed they are the essence of the thing.” As Hadot and Nussbaum would remind us, more than a few Stoic treatises were titled “On Exercises,”

“and the central notion of askesis found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern [or pejorative] sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living’ [hence the revealing subtitle of John M. Cooper’s recent book, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus]. Fundamental to such programmes was learning the technique of prosoche—attention, a continuous vigilance and presence of the mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques) [in Buddhism, attentiveness is one facet of the meditative practice of ‘mindfulness’].[2] Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the ordering of the passions—what has been called the therapy of desire.”[3]

Among other things, Cottingham has a wonderful discussion of Pascal in this regard as well, allowing us to place the latter’s famous “wager argument” in proper perspective:

“In the first place, though his wager discussion is often called the ‘pragmatic argument,’ he is emphatically not offering an argument for the existence of God (…he regards the question of divine existence as outside the realm of rationally accessible knowledge). In the second place, and very importantly, he is not offering an argument designed to produce immediate assent or faith in the claims of religion; in this sense, the image of placing a bet, an instantaneous act of putting down the chips, is misleading. Rather, he envisages faith as the destination—one to be reached by means of a long road of religious praxis; considerations about happiness are simply introduced as a motive for embarking on that journey.”[4]

I hope this suffices to entice the reader to consider Cottingham’s brief on behalf of the primary importance of spiritual praxis, one that does not, as with fideism, ignore, downplay, or even wholly displace the cognitive dimension of religion, but attempts rather to simply remove it from its pride of place in the philosophical study of religion. Perhaps ironically, while Cottingham’s analysis takes place largely within the context of Christian traditions in which “believers” have accorded creedal beliefs a comparatively strong historical role (e.g., the Nicene Creed, atonement doctrines, etc.), his argument is even more pertinent to an examination of “spiritual” traditions from “the East:” Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example.

The spiritual significance of prosoche (attention) is likewise seen in the work of the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch, who is thought to have borrowed it from Simone Weil, although Murdoch was more Platonist than Christian. Murdoch believed that all of our states of consciousness and action presuppose cognitive and affective discrimination and that any such discrimination is subject to moral appraisal, as evidenced here in a passage from her book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992):

“The moral life is not intermittent or specialised, it is not a peculiar separate area of our existence. [….] Life is made up of details. We compartmentalise it for reasons of convenience, dividing the aesthetic from the moral, the public from the private, work from pleasure. [….] Yet we are all always deploying and directing  our energy, refining or  blunting it, purifying or corrupting it, and it is always easier to do a thing a second time. ‘Sensibility’ is a word which may be in place here. [….] Happenings in the consciousness so vague as to be almost non-existent can have moral ‘colour.’ All sorts of momentary sensibilities to other people, too shadowy to come under the heading of manners of communication, are still parts of moral activity. [….] [M]uch of our self-awareness is other-awareness, and in this area we exercise ourselves as moral beings in our use of many various skills as we direct our modes of attention.”[5]

I came across the subject of “attention” once again in this moral-psychological and spiritual sense in a surprising context: when reading afresh about the Republic of Letters and its salons during the (French) Enlightenment. Suzanne Necker (Suzanne Curchod, b. 1737 – 6 May 1794) was one of the remarkable salonnières of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters. Dena Goodman writes that Madame Necker’s

“seriousness, and that of the salon whose discourse she shaped is revealed most clearly in the concern she displayed in all things for paying attention. The word attention dominates the five-volumes of her journals published after her death by her husband. One must pay attention, she reminded herself repeatedly, not get distracted. Her purpose in life was not to distract men from their serious business but rather to discipline herself and her guests so that that business might be carried out. Her concern was to concentrate her own attention and to focus that of the philosophes (her guests); her intent was to be a serious contributor to the social and intellectual project of Enlightenment through the shaping of its discourse in her salon.”[6]

Goodman selects a handful of examples “drawn from the many instances in which attention occurs in Necker’s journals: 1) “Attention allows one to find new ideas in the most common things: one cannot read aloud well without fixing one’s attention; in a word, distraction kills, negates all the intellectual faculties. 2) One gets used to inattention in letting one’s mind wander when one is alone. 3) As soon as the attention of men gathered together is distracted for a single moment, one cannot fix it again. 4) The great secret of conversation is continual attention. 5) Virtue, health, talent, happiness, are the fruits of patience and attention.”[7]

As Goodman points out, the notion of “attention” was not foreign to Enlightenment thought, being central to Condillac’s epistemology, serving as well as an epistemic virtue for Diderot. The economist and philosophe, André Morellet, “identified attention as the first principle of conversation.” For Necker, “attention” was the centerpiece of what we might christen a secular spiritual praxis or askesis that decisively shaped her “art of living” in general and her governance of the salon in particular. Nonetheless, this secular spiritual praxis should be viewed in the light of an upbringing by a father who was Calvinist minister, as well as her faith in and commitment to both Catholic France and Enlightenment Paris.

According to Goodman, the “ideal woman” of this time and place “was characterized by a lack of ego which enabled her to direct her attention to coordinating the egos of the men around her.” Perhaps needless to say, the fact that these men required this sort of vigorous group coordination and conversational governance, in other words, enforcement of the rules of polite conversation, speaks volumes about their egos and a corresponding lack of the requisite self-discipline needed to properly engage in the type of sophisticated intellectual conversation that salons brought to prominence in the Republic of Letters during the French Enlightenment. It also speaks, at least indirectly, to the “agonistic” character of French pedagogical theory and practice. In the words of Goodman (drawing on the work of Walter Ong): “Since the days of Peter Abelard in the twelfth century, French schools had been steeped in the language of battle.” And this was not peculiar to France: “The primary form the agon took in education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat.”[8] The salons, in effect, and under the gentle yet firm guidance of Necker and other salonnières, had to counter the deleterious effects of French education on male elites with their steadfast yet subtle enforcement of the informal social norms of polite conversation.

One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect  that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing or persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.—La Rochefoucauld, Maximes (1665)

[1] John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005): x. For a similar conception of this notion of “spirituality,” see John Haldane’s article, “On the very idea of spiritual values,” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 53-71.
[2] In Buddhism, there are meditation practices for the cultivation of mindfulness (P. sati; S. smti), and thus attentiveness, systematically directed both inward (on one’s own body, mental objects and states) and outward (on objects or phenomena analytically distinct from oneself). As a polysemous term, its fundamental meaning could be described as the ability to focus or concentrate on a chosen object (mental or physical) without forgetfulness or distraction. As Michael Carrithers explains, such mindfulness (and ‘self-possession’) requires “the ability to witness here and now with full lucidity the inner and outer states of oneself (and, by extension, the analogous experiences of others),” the “foundations” of such mindfulness being “dispassionate, immediate, and clear perceptions of the meditator’s own body, feelings, states of mind, and mental contents.” Such scholars of early Buddhist texts as K.N. Jayatilleke and his student, David J. Kalupahana, would probably find much in Condillac’s radical empiricism reminiscent of and congenial to their interpretation of early Buddhist epistemology (excluding the six types of ‘higher knowledges’ or supranormal powers: chalabhiññā).
[3] Cottingham., 4-5.
[4] Ibid., 7.
[5] Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992): 495.
[6] Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994): 79-80. See too Goodman’s essay, “Necker’s Mélanges: Gender, Writing, and Publicity,” in Elizabeth C. Goldsmith and Dena Goodman, eds., Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995): 210-223.
[7] Ibid., 80.
[8] Ibid., 92. Such training that was anything but conducive to what is rightly termed intellectual humility (an elusive epistemic virtue regardless). Please see the discussion of this epistemic virtue in Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2007): 236-256. In addition to the effects of the “militancy of learning” or the centrality of agonia in education that affected this male ego, we should not forget, with Goodman, the general (and related) personal and social anxiety or insecurity over rank, privilege, honor, and reputation that likewise infected personal relations with tension, aggression or violence (e.g., the duel), especially in those situations where interpersonal encounters involving individuals of different status, rank, or class were not formalized or highly scripted in a manner internalized by the respective parties (increasing the possibility of misunderstanding and thus the risk of insult, which need not have been intentional).

References & Further Reading: 
  • Blum, Carol. Diderot: The Virtue of a Philosopher. New York: Viking Press, 1974. 
  • Carrithers, Michael. Buddha: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 
  • Cooper, John M. Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 
  • Cottingham, John. The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 
  • Craveri, Benedetta (trans. Teresa Waugh). The Age of Conversation. New York: The New York Review of Books, 2005. 
  • Goldgar, Anne. Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. 
  • Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. 
  • Gordon, Daniel. Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociality in French Thought, 1670-1789. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 
  • Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.  
  • Habermas, Jürgen (trans. Thomas Berger with Frederick Lawrence). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989 (in German, 1962). 
  • Hadot, Pierre (ed., Arnold I. Davidson). Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995. 
  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 
  • Im Hof, Ulrich (trans. William E. Yuill). The Enlightenment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 
  • Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 
  • Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992. 
  • Nussbaum, Martha. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 
  • Ong, Walter. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981. 
  • Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 
  • Rinbochay, Lati and Denma Lochö Rinbochay (trans. Leah Zahler and Jeffrey Hopkins). Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, revised ed., 1997. 
  • Roberts, Robert C. and W. Jay Wood. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 
  • Roche, Daniel (trans. Arthur Goldhammer). France in the Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. 
  • Snyder, Stephen and Tina Rasmussen. Practicing the Jhānas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2009. 
  • Thera, Nyanaponika. The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1965.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Words of law

With apologies to The Mamas and the Papas:

Words of law, so soft and tender,
Won't win a court's heart any more.
Cite the canons, then you must send law
Somewhere where it’s never been before.
Latin phrases and solemn faces
Won't get you where you want to go. No!
Words of law, soft and tender,
Won't win it …

You ought to know by now (you ought to know by now).
You ought to know (you ought to know);
You ought to know by now — you ought to know by now.
Words of law, soft and tender,
Won't win it any more.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tea Party Politics versus the Collective Intelligence & Rule of the Many: The (elusive) Virtues of Democratic Reason

Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon. [….] [I]t will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-Tea Party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—Tea Party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.— Theda Skocpol

In a liberal democratic polity, “[m]uch of what goes on in actual social and political bargaining…concern[s] the negotiation and renegotiation of beliefs.”[1] In a legislative assembly, we find bargaining alongside another form of communication or “speech act,” arguing. Both arguing and bargaining as speech acts occur in the context of the collective decision-making of legislative bodies that typically conclude with the act of voting (and ‘vote trading,’ as a form of bargaining, may be part of this aggregation of preferences). Robert Goodin notes that disputes over beliefs are occasionally resolved through persuasion, but more often they’re “resolved” through negotiation. In such cases, the parties retain belief in the truth of their respective beliefs, but seeing the need to “get on with it” (e.g., governing; doing something rather nothing; having some predictable and tangible effect on a problem rather than effectively ignoring it, and so forth), are willing to work toward decisions that allow them to retain their beliefs but act “as if” other propositions may be true (for the time being at least or until such time as they may prove otherwise). The propositions agreed to through such bargaining or negotiation are therefore treated “as if true” for the purposes at hand, so as to come to a resolution, arrive at a decision, determine this or that course of coordinated action. When the give-and-take of bargaining is successful, according to Goodin, it ends in an agreement, an agreement on “what we will do, and why.” As to arguing, those representing the Tea Party in the legislature believe such arguments should only end in consensus: in final agreement on their political views. Short of consensus, arguments are merely rhetorical formulations designed for mass media consumption, hence the voting of legislator is of little value (say, to identify the enemy) unless there’s assurance it will end in consensual agreement on their platform (or some component part thereof).

More could be said (and Goodin has much more to say) about such bargaining, but it suffices to demonstrate how Tea Party activists and politicians are conspicuous in their stubbornness with regard to acting as if they’ll succeed only through argument that ends in persuading or convincing those who disagree with them in the (absolute) truth of their political “agenda.” This helps explain their recalcitrant refusal to negotiate, which is couched in the rhetoric of political “principle” so as to appear to be taking the high road above the dark and dire world of conventional politics, the former possessing putative revolutionary resonance in the politics of the Founding Fathers and an ostensibly “popular originalist” reading of the Constitution. The ritual invocation of principle reflects rather a collective self-righteousness and an unwarranted confidence in the absolute veracity of their beliefs, in other words, an unwillingness to concede that it’s possible they may be mistaken or wrong, in addition to reckless disregard of the likely harmful socio-economic and political consequences of such arrogant confidence. It further reflects their belief that “no-governance” is a perfectly acceptable political outcome (a satisfactory default position as it were), a viable alternative to some-governance, real-world effects on people’s lives be damned. In turn, this unduly restricts (or insulates or diminishes) the scope and content of otherwise “public reasons” insofar as parties are assumed to (or should) be arguing and bargaining over reasons, values, and interests among a public (or publics). Why? Because it effectively ignores the fact that such political deliberation necessarily entails arguing and bargaining in recognition of differential perceptions of the most compelling public reasons about what is in the public interest, about what constitutes the common good. It is in that case, that the need to come to a political resolution among the parties, to act in one way or another, perforce must allow for a decision to be reached that may and usually does fall considerably short of anything close to the rational persuasion or conversion of one party by another party of the (absolute) truth of its agenda.

What makes for politics here, with regard to the common good at least, is a zero-sum game, and for the Tea Party itself, a winner-take-all game. For Tea Party members, second- or third-best scenarios do not exist: what is not at the top of their preference ranking is by definition at the bottom. Agreeing to joint action is not a sufficient reason to engage in give-and-take bargaining, to reach compromises of some sort, for to let another party—in the end, and this time ‘round at least—prevail, is out of the question, for that is to relativize absolute truth, to compromise on patriotic principle. Reasoning together in the legislature as a whole, on this account, can never improve the prospects for “just” legislation:

“I may think politically as the partisan of a particular conception of justice competing uncompromisingly with its rivals. But I cannot think responsibly about institutions if my thinking is dominated completely by my substantive political convictions. To think about institutions and politics, I must be willing at least part of the time to view even my own convictions about justice—however true or important I take them to be—as merely one set of convictions among others in society, and to address in a relatively neutral way the question of what we as a society are to do about the fact that people like me disagree with others in society about matters on which we need a common view. That is the logic of legislation. It is not an easy logic to live with, for it entails that much of the time one will be party to—or, at the very least, one’s name will be associated with—the sharing and implementation of a view about justice that is not one’s own.”[2]

The collective endeavors served by meeting the responsibilities intrinsic to democratic representation cannot trump the essentially libertarian agenda for Tea Party Republicans, for they must act merely, hence solely, as populist (i.e., direct and unreflective) representatives of a (neoliberal and extremist right-wing) political agenda, thus neither in the first instance or incidentally as guardians or trustees of a common good arrived at though (indirect and reflective) democratic processes of representation and deliberation that, in part, at least, must resort to bargaining and negotiation so as to responsibly govern in a liberal democratic fashion. In other words, Tea Party members let their commitment to largely libertarian and neo-conservative politics and values run roughshod over a possibly deeper or simply prior commitment to democratic decision-making and the institutional bodies designed to give voice to the sovereignty of “the people.” Tea Party members do not believe in the wisdom of “the people” as democratically constituted by legislative assemblies (one reason we refer so often to and well understand the meaning of ‘Tea Party obstructionism’). Put differently, they do not believe that “[t]he people acting as a body are capable of making better decisions by pooling their knowledge, experience, and insight, than any subset of the people acting as a body and pooling the knowledge, experience, and insight of the members of the subset.”[3] In short, the Tea Party “subset” of “the people” believes it has a monopoly on knowledge, experience, and insight. To subject this knowledge, experience, and insight to the terms and conditions of negotiation and bargaining is to break up its ideological monopoly on what makes for justice, to abandon its factional vision of the Good, to soil its patriotic convictions. Their politics is at odds with what Rawls identified as a defining feature of a democratic political culture, namely, a “diversity of conflicting and irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines.” Tea Party members can never concede that those not persuaded by or convinced of its political platform may nonetheless be capable of articulating the “wisdom of the multitude” in an Aristotelian sense, that those who disagree with them may turn out to be the better judges “not only of matters of fact, not only of social utility, but also and most importantly of matters of value, matters of principle and the nature of the good life….”[4]

For the Tea Party, the legislative product of political argument and bargaining—and thus anything short of incarnating belief in the truth of its political agenda—must be characterized, ironically, as the “tyranny of the majority.” The Tea Party is not committed to pluralist politics, to granting the likelihood let alone the virtues of persisting political disagreements, what Waldron argues “must be regarded…as one of the elementary conditions of modern politics,” such disagreement being part and parcel of the Humean-like (i.e., conducted within the constraints of scarcity and limited altruism) “circumstances of politics.” Tea Party aficionados can never concede that “our common basis for action in matters of justice has to be forged in the heat of our disagreements.”[5] Only legislative enactment of Tea Party principles and political goals would warrant their possibly speaking of the “dignity of legislation,” there being nothing whatsoever virtuous or accomplished in the mere “achievement of concerted, cooperative, coordinated or collective action” as such, whatever the circumstances of modern life.

Deliberative democratic politics, on this view, is valuable only to the extent we persuade or convert others to the truth of our political program: only their preferences are potentially subject to deliberative transformation, for ours has the sanctity of correct conviction, a salvific or messianic monopoly on truth. On this view, there can be no “epistemic” case for democracy, for there is no such thing as “democratic reason” if that is premised upon a sufficient degree of cognitive diversity and achieved through processes of deliberation (including arguing and bargaining) and majority rule, for democratic reason is “conditional on the existence of a social and cultural context.” The Tea Party seeks to overcome or transcend or subsume that context within its political “subset,” that is, it is dispositionally hostile to any social milieu that “nurtures and protects, among other differences, cognitive differences.”[6] The Tea Party enables us to see the vices of an illiberal or authoritarian democratic politics that seek, in the end, to “foster conformism of views and stifle dissent” (its dissent is nonetheless of strategic and contingent value). In doing so, its partisans cavalierly risk the distortion of “both deliberation and majority rule into dangerous mechanisms for collective unreason, depriving themselves in particular of the possibility to come up with efficient solutions to collective problems, accurate information aggregation, and reliable predictions.”[7]

[1] Robert E. Goodin, Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003): 75. Cf.: “The upshot of bargaining over beliefs is…not any change in people’s beliefs. Nor is it simply an ‘agreement to disagree.’ The upshot of bargaining over beliefs is instead that bargainers settle on some course of action, together with some rationale as to how it is supposed to work to produce the desired results. In the course of that, they agree to treat certain beliefs ‘as if they were true.’ But they definitely do so in the subjunctive case—in the tentative and hypothetical way in which propositions being tested are treated in scientific experiments.” Goodin: 86-87.
[2] Jeremy Waldron, The Dignity of Legislation (Cambridge University Press, 1999): 91.
[3] Ibid., 94.
[4] Ibid., 105-106.
[5] Ibid., 155.
[6] Hélène Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton University Press, 2013).
[7] Ibid., 234.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Toward the Recovery & Renewal of Philosophy

Individual understanding isthe primary aim of the activity thinking about life. Though you can indeed learn from those more experienced and wiser than yourself, you won’t count as learning at all if you can’t take on board what you hear from them. Understanding here ismanifest in what you can say only in the sense that your words are among your deeds. There must be some relationship between thinking well about life and living well, and the goal of the first is typically the second.
Here, then, is a parallel between thinking about life and thinking philosophically: the primary aim of each activity is individual understanding. [….] There is a sense in which a contemplative attitude is to be aimed at both in thinking about life and thinking philosophically, and a guiding principle of both activities is, or ought to be, to look to the bigger picture. [….]
The relevance of philosophy to real life, and to the ancient philosophical questionHow should I live?’, has more than one aspect; butone way in which philosophy is relevant to life would seem to be that thinking well about life and thinking well philosophically require similar traits of mind and character. Philosophy is not just something done by professional philosophers: any remotely reflective person philosophizes from time to time. And it is good for a society or a culture if the habit of philosophizing is generally valued.—Roger Teichmann in Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings (2011)
*           *           *
“’There is no time for playing around,’ says Seneca, attacking philosophers who devote their careers to logical puzzles. ‘…You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?”—Seneca (Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, 48.8) quoted in Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)
“Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”—John Dewey (1917)
“… [Plato] speaks of a descending as well as an ascending dialectic and he speaks of a return to the cave.”—Iris Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” (1967)
“Philosophy involves us in the critical analysis of our beliefs, and of the presuppositions of our beliefs, and it’s a very striking fact that most people neither like doing this nor like having it done to them. If the assumptions on which their beliefs rest are questioned it makes them feel insecure, and they put up a strong resistance to it.”—Iris Murdoch in conversation with Bryan Magee (1978)
“… [It is no accident] that more and more philosophers are now being drawn into debates about environmental policy or medical ethics, judicial practice or nuclear politics. Some of them contribute to those debates happily: others look back at 300 years of professional tradition, and ask whether oral, particular, local, and timely issues are really their concern. They fear that engaging in ‘applied’ philosophy may prostitute their talents, and distract them from the technical questions of academic philosophy proper. Yet, one might argue, these practical debates are, by now, not ‘applied’ philosophy but philosophy itself. More precisely they are now (as Wittgenstein put it) the ‘legitimate heirs’ of the purely theoretical enterprise that used to be called philosophy; and, by pursuing them, we break down the 300-year old barriers between ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ and reenter the technical core of philosophy from a fresh and more productive direction.”—Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (1990)
“What, however, about philosophy? Here the subject-matter is the maps or structures by which thought works, and—as would probably be agreed today—thought is not something separate from life. Yet, from the first beginnings among the Greeks, there have always been some parts of philosophy which were fiercely technical. Is it possible both to handle these properly and do justice to the full richness of the questions as they arise in the life around us? Can anyone speak both as a fully instructed professional and as a whole human being? [….] For a long time, the English-speaking philosophical tradition mostly nailed its colours defiantly to the post of wholeness and life. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Mill all emphatically meant their writings to be widely read and to affect people’s lives. Even Bertrand Russell still often did so. But William James and John Dewey were among the last influential figures to follow this track whole-heartedly. In the twentieth-century, philosophy has largely gone with the rest of the academic world in accepting thorough specialization.”—Mary Midgley, Utopias, Dolphins and Computers (1996)
“A good many academic philosophers, for much of our own century, have strenuously resisted the idea that philosophy can help us with how to live. And while others, particularly in more recent times, have addressed questions about happiness and well-being, for the most part they have shrunk from offering more direct guidance on these matters to their fellow citizens. This generalization, like most, is subject to notable exceptions, but it remains true that the bulk of work on philosophical ethics is now addressed to those within the specialist confines of the academy. As far as the educated public is concerned, philosophy may, in the growing field of applied ethics, be perceived as making an increasingly important contribution on matters of public policy (problems concerned with such issues as the distribution of resources, the justification of punishment, the morality of abortion, and so forth); but few probably now expect much help from philosophers in the task of trying to live fulfilled lives. If they are miserable, or find their lives in a mess, they much more likely to turn to psychotherapy than to philosophy for guidance. [….] The aspiration of philosophical reason to lay down a blueprint for how we should live tends to run aground when trying to deal with that side of our human nature which is largely opaque to the deliverances of reason—that affective side which has to do with the origins and operation of the emotions or passions. It is here that the contributions of psychoanalytic theory play a vital role. Though largely ignored by most specialists in moral philosophy, the concept of the unconscious turns out to have profound implications for the traditional task of ethics to seek out the conditions for human fulfillment.—John Cottingham, Philosophy and the Good Life (1998)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Imagination & Power

“The structures of power have an astonishing stability. In the large range of constructive imagining of options we turn again and again to archetypal patterns, to the Charismatic Leader, the of the Band of the Brotherhood Committee, to the Pure Young Hero, to the Good-Bad Earth Mother. Why are our imaginations of power structures so fixed? It is because we learn from experience; and our most formative experiences of power, and of power relations, are those we have during our prolonged and wholly dependent infancy. While this prolonged infancy makes empathy and psychological complexity possible, it exacts a cost. We are formed not only by what we have learned from experience, but by the ways we learn. [emphasis added] As long as we are in a complex and often highly benign compliance to those who nurtured and sustained us as infants, we associate security and well-being with dependence on power figures. It is to those beginnings that our imaginations return when we are discomforted, depleted, in need. Even though we eventually chafed at the restrictions of our nurturing figures, even though, if we were lucky, we developed sympathy and autonomy, we still have as part of our expectations our early experiences of childhood where reality meant dependency, being Subject to a Boss. If that relation was a benign one, we are all the more subject to gravitate to reconstructing it when we are troubled; but if it was a malign relation, then we are all the more incapacitated. For then a malign power relation is what we expect of the world. It is what defined normality. And of course if it was malign, then we are crippled in our abilities to envisage alternative structures.”—Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, from her essay, “Imagination and Power, Social Sciences Information 22 (New Delhi, 1983): 801-816, reprinted in Mind in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of Mind (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988): 330-345.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Highlander Folk School: A Civil Rights Movement Halfway House

My post on the Highlander Folk School is found at Religious Left Law. 

Can non-human agents using computer language exemplify "knowing about the world?"

[....] “But the general question of whether non-human agents using the Wolfram Language, or any other computer language, ‘know about the world’ in some suitable sense, that one still stands.”

My response:

I understand knowledge, with Raymond Tallis, as fundamentally a mode of explicitness, of explicit-making consciousness. To elaborate a bit: after Grice, and in the words of Raymond Tallis, “linguistic meaning in the real world does not reside in the behavior of the symbols or expressions of which languages are composed—they are not located in ‘the system of symbols’ or its component terms—but in people who use languages to mean things, and the worlds they live in. This is because the specification of linguistic meanings requires that they are meant (by someone). What is more, in order that I should be able to determine what you mean, I have to intuit what you mean to mean.” This involves, as Searle shows, getting a listener to recognize my intention to communicate just those things I intended to say in the act of communication. One cannot ignore the speaking subject: “Our utterances are invested with, and exploit, an ‘implicature’ in virtue of which we can always imply more than we say. Verbal meaning, in short, resides in acts performed by human being who draw upon their knowledge of the world and make presuppositions about the knowledge possessed by their interlocutors.”

If one believes, as I do and again with Tallis (among others), and yet again after Grice (or Searle for that matter) that “[m]eaning cannot be separated from the psyche of the one who emits meaning, or from the psyche of the one who receives it,” and that our concept of knowledge is intimately tied to the various forms of memory (e.g., factual, experiential, and objectual), to emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and imagination, “the general question of whether non-human agents using the Wolfram Language, or any other computer language, ‘know about the world’ in some suitable sense” lacks any standing whatsoever. The question makes sense only if one thinks of meaning (which is, as Tallis says, ‘a quintessential feature of human consciousness’) “in purely linguistic terms and language being primarily a system of symbols.” One, it seems, has to have a (or something like a) “computational theory of mind” to imagine a computer language might exemplify having knowledge about the world (the relevant ‘knowledge’ here can only be metaphorical or secondary and derivative, parasitic in meaning on the knowledge possessed by those who program the computers, etc.). In short, knowledge requires “an enworlded self.” More explicitly:

“Knowledge begins with the sense of there being something beyond how things appear to us: it begins with the concept of an object that is other than the self who entertains the notion of an object. Implicit in the idea of the object is the intuition of the subject contrasted with the object; more precisely, the Existential Intuition ‘That I am this….’ [the nature and origin of which are discussed in Tallis’s 2004 volume, I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being] Object knowledge [even Kleinian ‘internal objects’!] is also permeated [as ‘Wittgensteinians’ remind us] by a sense of publicness—of a shared world—that is not available to asocial sentience or asocial neural activities [or an electronic device that performs high-speed arithmetical and logical operations].”

Intentionality is a feature of perceptions, of propositional attitudes such as beliefs and desires, and of utterances such as assertions. This necessarily implicates consciousness, consciousness of something…. Computers are without minds, the most conspicuous feature of which is consciousness. And consciousness cannot be reduced to material or biological or neurological properties: in other words, materialism cannot account for the “indexicality of human consciousness” in the sense of being “here” and “now” as Tallis says, similar to the Da-sein Heidegger identifies as the essence of the human being (Tallis provides compelling arguments against attempts to neurologize ‘here’ and indexicality in general). Computers by definition can’t have first-person experience: a “narrative center of gravity” requires the higher-order activity of a self…. 

See “The Chinese Room all over again? by Catarina Dutilh Novaes at the New APPS blog. 
Update: Professor Dutilh Novaes has replied to my comment as follows: 
 “But to stipulate that intentionality must be exclusively to humans from the start is to beg the question on precisely what is at stake, i.e. can non-human agents instantiate phenomena that are relevantly similar to human cognition? That's one of the points eloquently made by M. Boden in the paper I linked to above.” 
My response: 
Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I fail to see where Boden “eloquently makes that point.” A computer can only instantiate phenomena that are relevantly similar to human cognition to the extent that it is human beings who program computers, and “similar” is then only used rather loosely if not figuratively: For instance, we sometimes hear it said that computers “follow rules,” but computers
“cannot correctly be described as following rules any more than planets can correctly be described as complying with laws. The orbital motion of the planets is described by the Keplerian laws, but the planets do not comply with the laws. Computers were not built to ‘engage in rule-governed manipulation of symbols,’ they were built to produce results that will coincide with rule-governed, correct manipulation of symbols. For computers can no more follow a rule than a mechanical calculator can. A machine can execute operations that accord with a rule, provided all the causal links built into it function as designed and assuming that the design ensures the regularity in accordance with the chosen rule or rules. But for something to constitute following a rule, the mere production of a regularity in accordance with a rule, is not sufficient. A being can be said to be following a rule only in the context of a complex practice involving actual and potential activities of justifying, noticing mistakes and correcting them by reference to the rule, criticizing deviations from the rule, and if called upon, explaining an action as being in accordance with the rule and teaching others what counts as following a rule. The determination of an act as being  correct, in accordance with the rule, is not a causal determination but a logical one. Otherwise we should have to surrender to what results our computers produce.” (Bennett and Hacker) 
The use of language that suggests, for instance, that computers instantiate phenomena “relevantly similar to human cognition” is fairly harmless until it is taken literally, leading us to suppose that it is a fact, or simply possible, that “computers really think, better and faster than we do, that they truly remember, and, unlike us, never forget, that they interpret [or understand] what we type in, and sometimes misinterpret [or misunderstand] it, taking what we wrote to mean something other than we meant. Then the [computer] engineers’ [or scientists’] otherwise harmless style of speech ceases to be an amusing shorthand and becomes a potentially pernicious conceptual confusion,” as is, I think, the case here.   
Dennett would have us speaking of Deep Blue as “playing” chess, just like Kasparov, but the computer only “’plays’ chess in the sense that the microwave ‘cooks’ soup, though the programming is vastly more complicated.” (Daniel Robinson) What’s “stipulative” is the “intentional stance,” fashioned, in part, so as to make it appear plausible that machines (among other things) are, like us, “intelligent systems.” In Robinson’s words, “[c]onsider the broad, various, cultural, and dispositional factors that need to be recruited in order to qualify an activity as ‘play,’ and then array these against whatever ‘process’ gets Deep Blue to have the Bishop move to QP3.” And then, relatedly and further, we might ask, “If Spassky and Kasparov are doubtful as to whether computers are ‘playing’ chess, is it not Dennett who must rethink the matter?” 
It’s on the order of a category mistake to think intentionality applies to non-human agents (although it applies in some degree to at least some non-human animals), Dennett’s “intentional stance” and nonsense about the fictional character of folk psychology notwithstanding: the ascription of psychological attributes is not about an interpretative stance, heuristic overlays or theoretical posits (it’s not surprising that Boden uncritically cites Dennett on this score). One does not merely adopt an “intentional stance” in the use of psychological predicates.* But my point concerns consciousness (intentionality being one feature or property of consciousness) in the first instance and not intentionality, at least insofar as some mental phenomena are not obviously intentional in any conventional sense (e.g., moods or sensations). In any case, it would be more precise to say, after Bennett and Hacker, that what is intentional is “the psychological attribute that has an intentional object.” Therefore,
“[o]ne cannot intelligibly ascribe ‘intentionality’ to molecules, cells, parts of the brain, thermostats or computers. Not only is it a subclass of psychological attributes that are the appropriate bearers of intentionality and not animals or things, but, further, only animals, and fairly sophisticated animals at that, and not parts of animals, let alone molecules, thermostats or computers, are the subjects of such attributes. …[I]t makes no sense to ascribe belief, fear, hope, suspicion, etc. to molecules, [contra Searle] the brain or its parts, thermostats or computers.” 
* For the full critique of Dennett on this score, see the first appendix to M. R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). I agree with Tallis who writes, “It is difficult to know why this argument has been taken seriously.” See too the debate in Maxwell Bennett, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, and John Searle (with Daniel Robinson), Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language (2007).
Further Reading: 
  • Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 
  • Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 
  • Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008. 
  • Gillett, Grant. The Mind and Its Discontents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 
  • Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989. 
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 
  • Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. 
  • Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999. 
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000. 
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. 
  • Hutto, Daniel D., ed. Narrative and Folk Psychology. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009. 
  • Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 
  • Robinson, Daniel N. Consciousness and Mental Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. 
  • Searle, John R. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 
  • Searle, John R. The Rediscovery of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed. 
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, England: Acumen, 2011.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Śaṅkara: Philosopher or Theologian?

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Jonathan Edelmann argues in his post, “Philosophy and Theology—let’s be clearer,” that we should think of the great Advaita Vedāntin, Śakara, as a theologian, rather than a philosopher (my response follows):
“[I want] to raise an issue that has bothered me since the very first time I read Śakara in a second year undergraduate Sanskrit course at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and about which I wrote an article for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
I think Indologists, philosophers and theologians who examine Indian texts, and religious studies scholars could more carefully distinguish philosophy from theology, even if the two are not mutually exclusive and have considerable overlap. This is especially true in a ‘Hindu’ context (I acknowledge the difficulty of that word). The differences between philosophy and theology are generally well known and respected in the larger worlds of Christian theology and Western philosophy, yet such distinctions are less frequently known and respected among those who work on Indian texts.
In brief, philosophy uses anumāna and tarka alone in the course of argumentation, whereas theology engages and interprets śabda-pramāa (conceived of as a revealed source of knowledge) in the course of argumentation.
Philosophers like Udayana, Gageśa or the early Yogasūtra commentator Vyāsa, use anumāna and tarka as the primary methods for establishing their point. Śabda, conceived as an unauthored or a divinely authored śāstra, is quoted only after a position was argued for by means of anumāna or tarka, if at all. Scripture may motivate their reasoning, but it does not form the basis of their reasoning. On the other hand theologians like Śakara, Rāmānuja, Kumārilabhaṭṭa, etc. see their roles as interpreting a revealed śāstra. Anumāna and tarka serve the purpose of illuminating a fault-free śāstra’s meaning, and using śabda to establish an interpretation of śabda is considered reasonable.
Whereas philosophy proceeds rationally, theology does so exegetically. In the West too (for at least 500 years), the word philosopher refers to people who use reason to think about epistemology, metaphysics, etc. and not to people who see their primary roles as that of a scriptural exegete. The words theology and theologian were reserved for that. These two very different approaches to the use of reason are often conflated by scholars work on Indian texts, and at great cost.
A disregard for the difference can mislead. While pursuing a BA in (Western) Philosophy I took Sanskrit as well. Śakara had been discussed as one of the most important Hindu philosophers. I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what philosophers did, having taken specialized courses on Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Quine. When I started reading Śakara, however, it clearly was not philosophy and he was clearly not a philosopher. If Śakara was a philosopher, he was unlike every philosopher I had studied. The text we read was, I believe, from his Bhadārayaka Upaniad Bhāya. Śakara was trying to illuminate the meaning of the root text in light of his Advaitavāda. None of the philosophers I read spent any time carefully interpreting Biblical texts. It wasn’t until later when I read that Śakara was a theologian – a scholar who accepts apaurueya-śabda as pramāa – that his project began to make sense.
If we don’t adequately distinguish the philosophers from the theologians we run the risk of confusing newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
My response (I tried to post this as a comment at the Indian Philosophy Blog but was unsuccessful):
I don’t think it’s accurate to call Śakara a “theologian,” at least insofar as (nirgua) Brahman is not “God” in the theistic sense of the Abrahamic traditions. And why need our understanding of philosophy remain utterly dependent on the notion of philosophy as it developed in the West? Why cannot we modify our conception to embrace those like Śakara and Rāmānuja, or Confucius, or Daoists (collectively, as represented for instance in the Daodejing, or individuals like Zhuangzi) as religious or spiritual philosophers, much in the manner that Plato might strike one as a spiritual philosopher (at the very least, his ‘metaphysics’ is rather different than the contemporary articulations of same). The significance of the distinction between theology and philosophy follows largely the modern professionalization of these intellectual enterprises and thus is not always essential to figures of Eastern provenance or even in the pre-modern West: is not the “therapy of desire” (after Nussbaum) of the Hellenistic philosophers closer to the soteriological and spiritual (emancipatory, therapeutic, developmental) aims of religious worldviews than the avowed subject matter of most contemporary professional philosophers? When eudaimonistic concerns and questions of human fulfillment provide the primary orientation of ancient Greek philosophers (after John M. Cooper), this strikes one as closer to the motivations of religious philosophers and theologians than what motivates the wide array of specialized topics found in “analytic” and “continental” traditions of philosophy (and to a lesser degree and in a different sense in the latter). In these cases we find ample reason to soften any hard and fast distinctions between “philosophy” and “theology.” The “spiritual exercises” of these philosophers resemble religious ascetic practices and is utterly foreign to contemporary professional philosophy. The relief of suffering, the change of heart, or transformation of one’s overall mental attitude or psyche is closer to religion and spiritual praxis than philosophy proper, yet we christen these remarkable thinkers—from Epictetus to Gaius Musonius Rufus among the Stoics for example—philosophers.
Consider too, Islamic philosophy: it certainly has a religious or spiritual framework or accepts premises pivotal to classical Islamicate culture. Islamic philosophers, with varying degrees of success, endeavored to reconcile Greek philosophy with traditional Islamic sciences. Ibn Rushd (Averroës), for example, distinguished between philosophy and theology (kalam) yet saw these as compatible and different routes to the same truth(s). He viewed philosophy as beyond the reach of the common man and thus the prerogative of an epistemic elite in possession of that rare combination of virtue and wisdom. And then we have Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a theologian who argued against the views of the Islamic philosophers yet defended Aristotelian logic for such purposes. Indeed, and further, Oliver Leaman states that “his arguments against philosophy are themselves philosophical.” While it is true that kalam and falsafa developed, as they did in the West generally, fairly independent of each other, periods of fertile conflict and constructive engagement might find value in looking beyond the distinctions between philosophy and theology. For instance, Mu῾tazilah, the first truly doctrinal school of theology in Islam, is invariably defined as based on reason and rational thought!
In the case of Śakara, and with Ram-Prasad, we could grant the primary role religious motivation plays in his writings while analyzing the sophisticated philosophizing which permits us to see how this monastic philosopher “place[d] Advaita on the map of Indian thought” and how, in fact, “philosophical inquiry plays a role in Advaita from the beginning.” The “urge” or motivation to do philosophy may not be among the sorts found among contemporary professional philosophers, but it is no less philosophy for all that. We may need to be acquainted with the “soteriological imperative of Advaita” in terms, say of cosmogony or metaphysics, so as to make sense of the philosophical arguments, but they’re no less philosophical arguments for being wedded to soteriological or emancipatory ends. I therefore find no compelling reason to label Śakara a “theologian” as opposed to a philosopher: sometimes it helps to understand his preoccupation with spiritual aims, but this need not crowd out or trump our characterization of him (for several purposes) as a philosopher. The fact that you learned Śakara was not a philosopher on the model of your training in Western philosophy speaks rather to the contingent and somewhat arbitrary circumscription of what “counts” as philosophy according to that tradition. An encounter with a wider world might prompt us to widen our criteria for what counts as philosophy, might compel us to embrace a more generous conception of philosophy, one that does justice to the range, depth, and creative contributions to “philosophy” from outside the canonical tradition of the West, a tradition that in any case itself does not always neatly demarcate the lines between philosophy and theology. I think it’s well worth the provisional risk of confusion among “newcomers to the subject who already know about Western intellectual history.”
A couple of other points: While it is true of course that Śakara accepts apaurueya-śabda, that is only one of six of its accepted pramāas, it’s no less revealing that this religious worldview recognizes the traditional system of validating means of knowing or “knowledge-episodes.” The Advaita view on anirvacanīyakhyāti makes a philosophical argument that the “object-form” in cases of sensory illusion demonstrates a realm of objects neither existent nor non-existent, at least as a consequence of Brahman-awareness (the metaphysical ‘non-realism’ that is distinct from idealism on the one hand, and realism on the other, but appears to partake of epistemic insights from—or makes concessions to—both sides of this philosophical divide, although I agree with Matilal that the theory ‘in fact tends more toward realism than phenomenalism or idealism’). Whatever the aim, we have here a philosophical position that, in the words of Ram Prasad, “may be characterised as being realist from an idealist point of view, idealist from a realist point of view, and skeptical about both points of view.” Philosophically speaking, this is a novel philosophical argument involving both epistemology and metaphysics: what is gained in viewing this simply and solely as a piece of theology? So, while it is true that philosophical arguments are essential to, in the end, the philosophical goal of validating or proving the liberating role of apaurueya-śabda, it is for that very reason that Ram-Prasad can “bracket” what he calls the soteriology, believing Advaita philosophy to be therefore of “intrinsic” philosophical interest. So too with Śakara’s use of the dream-analogy: intriguing philosophical arguments are crafted, albeit in keeping with the legitimacy of apaurueya-śabda with regard to Advaita exegesis of the Upaniṣadic doctrine of liberation.
Let’s approach the claimed importance of the need to keep in mind this philosophy/theology distinction in Indian worldviews from another direction, one outside Indian philosophy. I suspect a close examination of the thought of Kierkegaard (or Pascal for that matter) would provide us with yet another example of why we need not police the borders between philosophy and theology, for in his case in particular it is often hard if not impossible (even if not always intentional on Kierkegaard’s part) to disentangle the two modes of thinking and believing (not to mention the consequences for how one lives one’s life), leaving us with religious insight useful to philosophy and philosophical arguments availing to the defense of (at least a certain kind of) religious life. It might also be helpful to think about these issues in terms of the cognitivity of religion (and one need not assume the primacy of belief in religion to appreciate the following): fideistically inclined views of neo-Wittgensteinians like D.Z. Phillips or Peter Winch extend and develop Wittgenstein’s negative views on the place of evidence in religion (the latter having argued that religious belief in some important sense is neither rational nor irrational): they are philosophers using philosophical arguments in support (if only by implication or indirectly) of their religious views. Strictly speaking, they’re not doing theology, indeed, insofar as theology gives wide berth to rationality as essential to religious belief, their enterprise is wholly at odds with theology, but one might argue that it is no less “religiously” motivated.
Other philosophical approaches emphasize the value of the cognitive or epistemic dimension of religious faith and belief, indeed, stress what is rightly called “religious knowledge.” These philosophers, like Plantinga or Hick (and earlier Aquinas), enlist philosophy on behalf of religion, yet we call them “philosophers of religion,” not theologians. Perhaps we should likewise call Śaṅkara a philosopher of religion! James Kellenberger argues for a third perspective in a manner not unlike that above wherein a way was found beyond realism and idealism (or, say, could be found ‘beyond,’ perhaps by way of Hegelian sublation, rationalism and empiricism): this third perspective places “evidentiary” emphasis on what Kellenberger describes as “realization-discoveries” (‘embodied in the reflections of certain though not all mystics, in the sensibilities of the authors of various devotional works, and pre-eminently in the Psalms’) that are neither irrational or non-rational on the one hand, nor rational along the lines of the “enquiry-model” of rationality found among well-known contemporary philosophers of (usually Christian) religion. Kellenberger proffers the category of “discovery” as a way of looking differently at the issues of religious rationality and evidence. Again, we have a fairly sophisticated philosophical approach (availing itself of analytic philosophical methods) to questions of the discovery of the reality or presence of God or a relationship to the divine that amount (in the end if you will) to a philosophical defense of soteriological aims. Yet we do not insist that this be classified as theology, despite its clear theological-like motivation. The remaining relevant difference with a Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja in this regard appears to me to fall under the heading of a circumstantial ad hominem, invoking in other words, their religious motivations and commitments as sufficient reason to exclude them from the class of philosophers when in fact they not infrequently resort to philosophical methods and make philosophical arguments like the best of philosophers, East and West.
Incidentally, and after S.A. Lloyd’s remarkable studies of Hobbes’s moral and political thought, I’m reminded of how Hobbes spent a considerable amount of effort to “rationalize [Christian] religion” rather than to attack it as fiction or undermine belief in it. In Lloyd’s words, “He speaks throughout Leviathan as if he thought they [i.e., the basic doctrines of Judeo-Christian tradition] were true, and Aubrey provides us with evidence that he was a Christian believer.” Hobbes appeared to appreciate the fact that religion has been and could be a mechanism for social order (in other words, it is not necessarily subversive of order, even if it was in the time of Hobbes). He also knew the prevailing worldview among his reading public, which was overwhelmingly Christian, so he had good rhetorical reasons to rationalize their beliefs in the context of his larger argument. And yet Hobbes proceeds in effect to argue for authoritarianism in religion rather than tolerance, which suggests in the first instance at least a theological rather than philosophical motivation. Hobbes in fact spends the bulk of the second half of Leviathan concerned with the details of Christianity, for he “thought scriptural exegesis [was] crucial to his project” (Lloyd writes that it was ‘necessary’ to Hobbes’s task). In addition,
“Hobbes consistently presents the Laws of Nature, which he equates with ‘the true moral philosophy,’ as articulating those of God’s requirements most certain to all of us who have not enjoyed the benefit of a direct revelation from God Himself. The pronouncements of revealed religion we take on hearsay evidence [one form of testimony] or mere authority from those who claim that God spoke to them immediately; but God’s natural law is discoverable by each of us immediately through a mere exercise of our natural reason, allowing us to assure ourselves of its claim on our obedience. By attempting to claim God’s imprimatur on the conclusions of moral philosophy, Hobbes seeks to consolidate normative support for the principles of social stability uncovered by political philosophy. Political philosophy then completes the task of reconciliation by showing that Scripture, properly interpreted, confirms the conclusions of moral philosophy.”
Indeed, Hobbes writes that the Laws of Nature can be captured by the Golden Rule formulation, “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.” (This is a ‘negative’ formulation of the Golden Rule, which goes back to Rabbi Hillel in the Judaic tradition, and is sometimes called a ‘Silver Rule’ to contrast it by way of Jesus’ formulation in the Gospels, which is found alongside the ‘double commandment of love’ with regard to God and neighbor.) Much more could be said here (e.g., what Lloyd terms Hobbes’s ‘reciprocity theorem’ does not capture the Golden Rule inasmuch as the latter goes beyond strict reciprocity) but it should suffice to make the point that I can’t recall anyone suggesting that the Leviathan might be considered a work of theology or that we might entertain the thought of Hobbes as a theologian or even both a philosopher and a theologian.