Tuesday, April 22, 2014

DeFunis, Defunct

William O. Douglas
Justice William O. Douglas, author of a pivotal dissent in DeFunis v. Odegaard.

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold Michigan's ban on race-conscious admissions in state universities in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, No. 12-682 (U.S. April 22, 2014), may well conclude the high court's 41-year record of grappling with this issue. After Schuette and October Term 2012's decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345 (U.S. June 24, 2013), it is hard to imagine what more the Court can say. Public universities may consider race in admissions, but only upon satisfying the narrow tailoring requirements of strict scrutiny. And if a state wishes to ban the practice by referendum or some other exercise in popular politics, it may. Race-consciousness in university admissions is neither compelled nor per se illegal. This time, it really is all over but the shouting.

In this light, I am dusting off a 15-year-old article of mine, DeFunis, Defunct, 16 Const. Commentary 91 (1999) (available for download at http://bit.ly/DeFunisDefunct). Schuette and Fisher end a jurisprudential cycle that began with DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312 (1974), the Supreme Court's initial decision to accept a case presenting the question of race-conscious university admissions. The occasion merits three cheers for DeFunis — and a moment of silence upon its passing. Call it three ovations and a funeral.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

“Act naturally!” “Say what?”

 Grand View of Rivers and Mountains, Ma Yuan, Ming dynasty

On an existential level, when we recognize the extent to which our lives are molded by social constructs, we become able to free ourselves from a type of emotional entanglement that disturbs our tranquility. The social ambitions that motivate us—money, wealth, power, privilege—lose their grip, become less influential. Other possibilities for a flourishing life may emerge, not determined by manipulative actions and its attendant desires. With the diminishing of the hold of desires and conceptual constructs, one’s mode of engagement with the world will be more accommodating, allowing events to happen without attachment to outcome. Thus the loosening of artifice goes hand in hand with the cultivation of a sort of indifference toward worldly success and failure.—Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (2014)

“Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.”—La Rochefoucauld

Indeed. This is an illustration of a mental and behavioral fallacy that Jon Elster, after the late psychologist Leslie Farber, termed “willing what cannot be willed,” that is, a mental state or state of affairs in the world—like spontaneity or sleep, courage or faith—that cannot be the direct product of willing but is rather a by-product or spillover (thus indirect) effect of other mental states or actions. And yet, invoking an exemplar from the Daoist tradition and after Chris Fraser,[1] I want to show how it might be possible, in some sense, to “will” such a state, in other words, how one might have a “desire” or an intentional project to “act naturally” and yet not be involved in that species of pragmatic contradiction that assures failure in the attempt to act spontaneously or naturally as described so vividly by Elster under the heading of “willing what cannot be willed.”[2] Such personal willing entails an assertive ego and anxious self-consciousness with regard to one’s immediate behavior that makes mincemeat of any attempt to “be natural” or spontaneous. 
In Daoism, we discover how it might be possible to have a desire to act naturally or engage in an “intentional project” to “be natural” (in the Daoist sense), relying here on the notion of wu-wei (lit., non-action). Livia Kohn’s entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism provides us with a succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the world.”[3] The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how most of us, most of the time, “naturally” or habitually behave or are predisposed to act, but is intended in the sense that to “act naturally” in the world is to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent sense) of the Dao. Less obliquely, it is to emulate the “way of the natural world,” properly understood. Thus wu-wei is not, literally, non-action or not-doing, but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and uncommon kind of action, what Huston Smith calls “creative quietude,” meaning one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies the Dao or acts in harmony with the manifestations of Dao in the world. Such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a heart-mind (xin) experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic oneness or identity with “all-there-is.” It is the characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren), the behavior of the ideal ruler and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis (or ‘spiritual exercises’ in the Stoic sense) and mystical states of consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind (like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the natural world and tian (‘heaven’) while instantiating the Dao.
Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts (at least in the Confucian tradition), and meditative praxis are necessary yet not sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Joel Kupperman’s sense, as it requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e., reason and the emotions).[4] Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature, a nature in accord with the natural world, and capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing the Dao. The aim of meditation is to attain an “empty” or clear or polished heart-mind such that one’s ego is sublimated or absent, that one’s will is no longer purely personal but individuated through grounding in Dao, which fills the void, as it were, of the empty mind, making it possible for one to act naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly, gracefully, in harmony with the natural and heavenly worlds and (so to speak) thus with Dao itself, the ultimate, impersonal ground of (individuated) willing: “The personal does not exist for him—isn’t this how he can perfect what is most personal?” (Laozi/Daodejing: 7.3)
More mundanely, we might fill out this notion of “acting naturally” as a by-product or spillover effect from an intentional project in a temporally extended sense, in which the ego and personal will is sublimated or transcended, with an illustration of what is involved in the mastering of any skill, craft, or art, be it surfing or playing the piano. A necessary condition of such mastery is clearly strenuous effort, hard work, perseverance, and so forth, all of which engage the will and ego and what we call propositional knowledge, “knowing that...” After Gilbert Ryle, such knowledge is distinguished from non-propositional knowledge or “knowing how…,” which is typically exemplified in action, in which case we at the same time demonstrate the former kind and prior possession of “knowing.” And so it could be said that the former—knowing that—is typically a necessary yet not sufficient condition of the latter—knowing how—but possession of the former is often best exemplified by the latter through our behavior, in the form of actions that are conspicuous for their demonstration of ease, of gracefulness, of spontaneity, of a kind of naturalness, and cannot be fully captured in propositional language: like the master surfer riding a wave or the improvisations of the virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum.[5] As Steve Coutinho explains, “It is not that we cease to plan, think, and control, or attempt to leave no footprints whatsoever. The only way we could do that would be to disentangle ourselves from the natural world altogether, and to do that we would have to cease to exist. Rather, we optimally minimize our intention to control according to artificially inculcated desires and instead seek to fulfill our wants and needs with the least interference possible. In this way, we watch how nature flourishes and find a symbiotic place in its pattern, enabling both of us to flourish to our natural potential. [….] It is not that [we] do not categorize things or conceptualize the world at all, but [our] understanding is not determined by customary systems of significance. The concepts through which deem things (wei) to be so are no longer thought of as simply what those things are (wei).”[6]
This newfound non-attachment to or freedom from our previous desires and habitual ways of carving up the world into concepts and categories that effectively predetermine our means of “seeing,” thinking, and acting, means there is no longer “only one way to understand the world,” we are able to “see things in a new way,” one in which the world no longer possesses an apparent ontological independence along the lines we previously assumed: “Phenomenologically, we have the capacity to respond to the phenomena of experience with a level of subtlety that remains indeterminate with regard to specific concepts.”[7]
[1] Chris Fraser, “On Wu-Wei as a Unifying Metaphor,” Review of Effortless Action, by Edward Slingerland, Philosophy East & West 57.1 (2007): 97–106.
[2] See Elster’s Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 43-66.
[3] Livia Kohn, “wuwei,” Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., The Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. II (New York: Routledge, 2008): 1067. Notice the definition refers to not imposing one’s intentions on the world, suggesting the possibility that an “intentional project” in the extended temporal sense outlined by Fraser in his review of Slingerland (above), to wit: “If acquisition of an effortless state is understood synchronically, this is indeed paradoxical: one cannot be effortless while simultaneously exerting effort. But as long as the process of achieving the effortless state is understood diachronically, no paradox arises. We can and frequently do acquire the ability to act effortlessly, as when we master skills or regain a physical ability through rehabilitation after injury. Acquisition begins with deliberate exertion, but eventually we internalize the skill and develop the ability to act automatically and sometimes effortlessly.” And yet, a paradox perhaps remains: “On the other hand, if we take wu-wei to refer to the absence of intentional action, as I suggest, then the conceptual structure of intentionality may indeed render the directive to achieve wu-wei paradoxical, even construed diachronically. To cite just one of several potential paradoxes, on some accounts of intentionality, an agent cannot intentionally cause herself to perform actions that are wholly non-intentional, because intentions (unlike effort) remain in effect over time, even when not consciously held in mind, and their scope covers all the subsidiary actions that contribute to their fulfillment. For example, this morning I set to work on this review spontaneously, without consciously forming an intention to do so. Nevertheless, my activity was intentional, because it is part of a project I am performing intentionally. At some level of description, any voluntary movement an agent performs is intentional, merely by virtue of being an action rather than a reflex.” For our purposes, what is important is the possibility that the original intentional project is capable of becoming  “subconscious” or even “unconscious” in Elster’s sense, meaning one attains a state of “relating directly to the world without relating also to the relating,” which he proceeds to characterize as an exquisite piece of moral psychology, “an argument to the effect that the good things in life are spoiled by self-consciousness about them.” For further discussion with regard to the (mystical) state “empty consciousness” (wherein there is absence of either an external or internal object) which is nonetheless a state of awareness, please see my paper, “Daoism: a rational reconstruction of some key terms.”
[4] In his chapter on “Confucius and the Problem of Naturalness,” Kupperman distinguishes among a number of meanings of “naturalness,” and it’s only the Daoist account that interests us here: “Philosophical Daoism was not a monolithic movement, and even within a single work (e.g., the Zhuangzi) a reader can find shifting areas of emphasis. Nevertheless Daoist conceptions of naturalness do have characteristic foci. I may briefly and simply summarize these as being spontaneity in behavior, simplicity in social life, and harmony with the fundamental tendencies of the universe” [here one would need to minimally understand the dao of ‘the ten thousand things’ and tian, as well as the related roles indicated by the concepts of qi and yin/yang in the manifestations of Dao].  Daoist naturalness certainly is not [as with Confucius and in the salons of the Republic of Letters in the French Enlightenment] naturalness within ‘the restraints of decorum,’ which the Daoists considered ridiculous and artificial. The naturalness of the Daoists also did not involve giving general vent to feelings [as in ‘anything goes’ or ‘let it all hang out’]. The Daoists were not wild men: indeed, they believed that certain common feelings such as anxiety should be as much as possible eliminated rather than expressed.” See: Joel J. Kupperman, Learning from Asian Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1999): 26-35 and 79-94.
[5] See the post (and comment thread), “showing versus telling in language, by Mark Lance at the New APPS blog.
[6] Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014): 74.
[7] Ibid., 100-101.

References & Further Reading:
  • Ames, Roger T., ed. Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Ames, Roger T. and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing, “Making This Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
  • Cook, Scott, ed. Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourse on the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003.
  • Coutinho, Steve. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mark and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Forman, Robert K.C. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Fraser, Chris. “On Wu-wei as a Unifying Metaphor,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 57, No. 1 (January 2007): 97-106.
  • Gellman, Jerome. “Mysticism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2005/entries/mysticism/  
  • Hansen, Chad, “Daoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/daoism/    
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J., trans. (with commentary). The Daodejing of Laozi. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2002.
  • Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • Kjellberg, Paul, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.
  • Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism: Philosophy and Soteriology in the Taoist Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Kohn, Livia. Monastic Life in Medieval Taoism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective.Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003.
  • Kohn, Livia. Cosmos and Community: The Ethical Dimension of Daoism. Cambridge, MA: Three Pines Press, 2004.
  • Kohn, Livia, ed. The Taoist Experience: An Anthology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Kohn, Livia, ed. Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Kupperman, Joel J. Learning from Asian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 
  • LaFargue, Michael. The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.
  • Little, Stephen (with Shawn Eichman). Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago, IL and Berkeley, CA: The Art Institute of Chicago with the University of California Press, 2000.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Mou, Bo, ed. Two Roads to Wisdom? Chinese and Analytic Philosophical Traditions. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001.
  • Mou, Bo, ed. Comparative Approaches to Chinese Philosophy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.
  • Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 Vols. New York: Routledge, 2008.
  • Rosemont, Henry, Jr. Rationality and Religious Experience: The Continuing Relevance of the World’s Spiritual Traditions. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001.
  • Roth, Harold D. Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  • Shankman, Steven and Stephen W. Durant, eds. Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking Through Comparison. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Slingerland, Edward. Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Stanley, Jason and Timothy Williamson. “Knowing How,” Journal of Philosophy, 98.8 (2001): 1-40.
  • Wagner, Rudolf G. A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing: Wang Bi’s Commentary on the Laozi with Critical Text and Translation. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003b.
  • Waley, Arthur, tr. The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Tê Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1934.
  • Watson, Burton, tr. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
  • Wong, David. “Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2005/entries/comparphil-chiwes/ 
  • Ziporyn, Brook, tr. Zhuangzi: The Essential Texts. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008.

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.