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January 20 2013 1 20 /01 /January /2013 06:41

Like many of you, I suspect, I have over this past holiday period experienced a turmoil of emotions. The massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Connecticut, the killing of firefighters at Webster, the horrible rape-murders in India, the murder of health workers in Pakistan, not only silence concern about other matters, but challenge our ability to come to any kind of terms with what particular human beings can continue to justify. There is a time to cry, and to grieve, and to feel anguish, but it is still hard to accept that for so many people in our world it is already too late to retrieve any hope and determination that our humanity can heal us. How can we go on? But we do, as we must.

 

In my own attempts to find a meaningful direction for action in response to those dreadful events, I found that I couldn't even find reassurance for myself, let alone anyone else. Perhaps it is still too early to try. What we can do, though, is celebrate the quiet heroism of those whose very being reminds us of the potential fellowship available to us. Now and again, the significance of the horrors we have unknowingly colluded in producing is outweighed by our intuition that we are capable of creating a future that depends more on aspiration and fellowship than on fear. Malala is not alone. There is not only a bit of her in all of us, but a bit of us in everyone else. All of us matter. That is what we need to hold in our minds and in our hearts.

 

John.

 


 

 

 

 


 


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December 30 2012 1 30 /12 /December /2012 03:25

This needed saying; it could scarcely be better said. Please read it!

 

http://nilanjanaroy.com/2012/12/29/for-anonymous/

 

We've still got a long way to go . . .

 

John

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December 8 2012 7 08 /12 /December /2012 21:30

In quite a few of my earlier posts I have touched on our ability to disregard our responsibility towards one another. In the last couple of days the relevance of such a message has been epitomized by the reports from London (via the BBC) of the contribution to the tragic death of Jacintha Saldanha by the actions of an Australian broadcasting company. That company both authorized and exploited the hoax telephone call to the hospital in London where the Duchess of Cambridge was being treated for complications in the early stages of her pregnancy, and where Jacintha Saldanha was the unfortunate duty nurse who was deceived by the hoaxers into transferring their call to the nurse who revealed the medical details of the duchess's condition.

 

I doubt that we will ever fully know the back-story to this event. If we did, it might well enable us to understand the way in which so many interlocking and perhaps even fortuitous events contributed to the eventual terrible outcome. In the absence of that information it seems even more important for us to be alert to the possible consequences of actions, that, while apparently trivial or insignificant in themselves, nevertheless were the product of retreats from awareness of our reponsibility to behave humanely towards one another.

 

I'm afraid I see this whole episode as dramatizing the situation which humankind is still apparently reluctant to face. Built in escape clauses seem to be an apparent given of our current gobal sensibility. Jacintha's personal emotional agony is in microcosm what is faced by many millions in a many million different forms, and all resulting from almost willful ignorance and self-exculpation. We've got to do better than this.

 

John.

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November 28 2012 4 28 /11 /November /2012 20:23

Today, November 28th., there is on 3quarksdaily a very interesting article by Jay Tolson, commenting on a recent book by Jim Holt (Why Does The World Exist), also available directly from:


http://theamericanscholar.org/questions-of-being/

 

Apart from the immediate importance of an article such as this, and, indeed, the appearance of Jim Holt's book itself, I found myself yet again confronted with the confusing underlying assumptions made by an author that make an adequate engagement with the issues identified by that author almost impossibly difficult.

 

In fairness, both Tolson's article, and Holt's book, attempt to confront a fundamental philsophical problem, which, succinctly, simply amounts to how adequately to ask the fundamental question "What is the meaning of everything?"

 

As readers of MSOU will already know, my own perspective on this is that the manner in which we ask the question already inhibits the possibilities we can entertain as potentially available answers. The specific inhibition is of any answer that excludes the possibility of there being no initiating purposeful agent. Both Holt and Tolson are apparently intent on transcending this inhibition, but Tolson's arguments, at least in this article, make it difficult for him to make a persuasive case.

 

A major part of Tolson's difficulty (and perhaps Holt's also) is that the concept of meaning is almost inextricably entangled with the association of purpose with an agent. Meaningfulness is almost necessarily associated with intent, and that requires an agent. Writing at the time that he did, it is not surprising that Baruch Spinoza's view (considered by both Holt and Tolson) assigned that intent to Nature itself, as an immanent God. Evidently, Einstein himself felt this was a sufficiently valid hypothesis to permit the use of the word "God" as the prime mover. This has the (unfortunate) advantage that it can always produce pro-and-con responses in our global psyche, and thus make a viable resolution of our polarities of opinion all but impossible.

 

In his article, Tolson comments favourably on a concept of a "causa sui" purpose for Nature itself that depends on a hypothesis of "Good" as the prime organising directional "intent" of the processes of existence. This is, admittedly, tentatively, and indeed ambivalently offered, but apparently without awareness that such a concept itself contains the immanence of polarity (i.e., "Good" presumes––apparently––the possibility of "evil" too . . .)

 

Perhaps the ultimate issue for us is whether we can truly accept that we ourselves are the potential agents of our survival or destruction, and not the personified Gods or Devils of our conceptualizations of motivational forces.

 

I, more than once, have had conversations with a wildlife biologist of my acquaintance, who declared with a kind of wry and self-deprecating wisdom, "I think the Universe will proceed on its way perfectly well without us."

 

Responses? Do read Tolson's article. Both he and Jim Holt are at least giving their all to the issue . . . as should we all . . . (Re-reading two or three of the most recent posts before this one might also be useful, particularly "Revisiting Chapter Ten".)

 

Cheers,

 

John.

 

 


 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 


 


 


 

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November 16 2012 6 16 /11 /November /2012 23:32

A couple of posts ago I referred briefly to Auguste Comte and led you to expect that I would return to discuss what he saw as the third phase of humankind's journey towards understanding of itself.

 

Those of you who followed my advice to refer to Wikipedia and to the Stanford on-line Encyclopedia for a better understanding of the full extent of Comte's efforts to supplant the earlier modes of explanation he identified as the religious and the metaphysical will also by now be acquainted with the intellectual turmoil that apparently resulted from his envisagement of humanism as the inevitable replacement for those earlier unsatisfactory modes. He evidently accorded to his hypothesis about humanism the virtual status of a religion. Disaster! The intellectual community was clearly not ready for a hypothesis that accorded to humanism a god-like status which rendered it worthy of worship. The reasons for Comte's having done so I personally find very moving. It's also difficult not to be caught up in a sympathetic understanding of Comte's excitement about the possibilities for the future of humankind that are implicit in his new conceptualization.

 

Never mind! Comte not only foresaw the possibilities for understanding in what was to become the new science of sociology. He was also largely responsible for conceiving of altruism as a major factor in human relating; indeed, the significant development of humanistic modes of thinking which emerged in consequence of his own endeavours have undoubtedly enriched humanity. What kind of necessary precurser he was to Bauman and to Emmanuel Lévinas it is hard to say, but it does seem that humankind may be on the verge of a more balanced view of Comte's significance, since, as Norbert Elias himself showed, hegemonic accommodations do not contain instructions for the wholesale survival of humankind.

 

A most hopeful development that I feel is connected to Comte's overall significance is very apparent in the discussion referenced below, which deals in part with the interaction of religious and hegemonic tendencies in our present organizations of society. It can be found at

   
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hqj_ROq16qk&feature=player_embedded

 

That its overall symbolic significance may be even more important is evidenced, I think, by the title that Tu Weiming now holds at the University of Peking. It is "Lifetime Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies." (An Institute of which he is the founding dean.)

 

It is almost impossible to summarize succinctly the extent of Professor Tu's activities and, indeed, the overall significance of them, but it is possible to see them as energizing a trend towards a reconciliation of apparently dissociative and associative efforts in the world arena.

 

Professor Weiming's habitus comprises both "Eastern" and "Western" elements. He is a child both of the Enlightenment and of Confucian exegesis, and he is acutely aware of the push and pull of both––as, indeed is his participant in the discussion referenced above, the sociologist Robert N. Bellah.

 

I don't think I can yet do justice to the overall concerns of both Tu and Bellah, nor to the enormity of the task they both confront, but it is the task that faces the whole of humankind, and they are clearly confronting it without the polarizing delusions that seem almost inexorably to characterize the present world political scene. We could do a lot worse than to consider carefully the substance of their discussion and its implications . . .

 

John.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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November 5 2012 2 05 /11 /November /2012 19:29

The title of this post is simply another way of impressing on all of us that our very survival as a species will depend on the degree to which we can contrive truly to see ourselves as if from the outside. It also depends on how far we can allow ourselves to experience the reality of others as if from within.

 

I was again made very specifically aware of this today, November 5th, by reading the excellent article by Charles C. Mann posted on 3quarksdaily today (originally appearing in the Orion Magazine, and available either from them at:

 

http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7146

 

or from 3quarksdaily, November 05, 2012.)

 

Basically, Dr. Mann's article is a similar kind of "wake-up" call as that penned by Rachel Carson so many years ago, but this one is primarily concerned with the possibility of the survival of our human species. It perhaps needs best to be read in conjunction with Lynn Margulis's Symbiotic Planet, particularly if any given reader's concern is related to the validity of the science referred to in the article.

 

It should also, perhaps, send readers scurrying to the preview of catastrophic human disaster envisaged by Gwynne Dyer in his book Climate Wars.

 

More important, however, from my point of view, is that Mann's article, while alerting us to the danger of our early extinction, has virtually nothing to say about the manner in which we may be able to contrive our survival. Unfortunately, and as many readers of the article have already commented, Mann's final paragraphs amount to little more than pious hope that, somehow or other, "things" will get better. Indeed, his overall summary simply seems to epitomize the very selective disregard of our responsibility towards one another that I have frequently remarked upon in previous posts.

 

Never mind! He is indeed alerting us to the scientific evidence. It's up to the rest of us to supplement that evidence with a greater commitment to understanding our shared responsibility for the ways in which we ourselves contribute to the determination of our future. (The previous post is relevant . . .)

 

John.

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November 4 2012 1 04 /11 /November /2012 20:52

 

It is quite likely that very few readers of this blog will have read Making Sense of Us in its entirety, so I am once more faced with the dilemma that I identified in several of my earlier, and indeed recent posts. How can I adequately connect with readers who are unfamiliar with the book's conclusion, spelled out very succinctly in the book's final chapter?

 

This post is an attempt at answering that question; I was, in fact alerted to its possible answer when tracking down the quote from Ernst Cassirer that forms a substantial element in the content of the post titled "The Human Condition . . .continued". Although that quotation is indisputably from Cassirer's Essay on Man, in my seaching for the exact reference I rediscovered the importance attached to it by Charles W. Hendel in his Preface and Introduction to Ernst Cassirer's Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in the edition published by Yale University Press in 1955.

 

Charles W.Hendel's reference occurs in a section in which he was commenting upon the ethical implications of Cassirer's approach, and this immediately reminded me of my own reference to the ethical implications of the conclusion I reached in Chapter Ten of my own book. For those of you unfamiliar with that chapter, the following quotation may enable you to connect at least tentatively with its ethical significance:

 

We are part of the evolutionary process of the universe. In us is expressed, possibly for the first time, a new element in that process. That new element is an awareness of the universe and of ourselves, and a critical ability to examine our own worth as contributors to, or detractors from, the evolutionary process itself. Our individual minds, and our common cooperative mind, represent that aspect of Nature that can contemplate, examine, and take stock of itself. We don't simply live out our hour upon the stage. Quite the contrary. We are involved in the writing of the continuous drama of life. Our possibilities for contributing to the progress of that drama are beyond our current ability to determine, although some part of them may be envisaged. What we do to and with ourselves and our world has a potentially critical significance for the future course of Nature, of whose self-observing mind, we must avow, we are at the moment possibly only the very slender beginning . . . Our obligation, then, is to use our understanding to optimize our contribution to the potential for cooperation amongst ourselves, to transcend simple exclusive preoccupation with self, and to foster creativity in any form that bids fair to contribute to evolutionary progress. A significant contribution to that progress is within the power of each of us individually, and all of us in concert. This is a moral commitment. It does not require for its fulfillment a specific envisagement of an ultimate consummation, a final "end."

 

On the contrary, it makes our process our purpose.        [MSOU p. 163]


In the light of this, you will scarcely be surprised that I was encouraged to find that Charles W. Hendel ends his long, and excellent, Introduction to The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with a very similar statement, emphasizing that the entirety of Cassirer's book constitutes "a summons to an ethical task".  [The emphasis is mine.]

 

Neither Cassirer nor I are originators of such an obligation as I have identified above. Notably, Zygmunt Bauman takes a similar stance (beautifully, in The Art of Life), and Comte, Hegel, Weber, and Durkheim similarly, although with varieties of emphasis and qualification. It is particularly unfortunate, I believe, that Comte came to believe such an ethical obligation should necessarily be identified as a religious one, since that choice inevitably led to a widespread rejection of his overall attempt at a universal scheme of understanding. I must confess, however, that I can feel something like the excitement that he himself must have felt, although it should be amply apparent by now to readers of this blog that his position is not one that I would be willing to share. For the moment, though, I'd like to re-iterate my belief that Norbert Elias's concept of the "We-I balance", as well as Bauman's frequent references to the work of Emmanuel Lévinas contain significant implications for our joint human resolution of the crises currently facing us.

 

As I also mentioned in the "Human Condition . . . continued" post, however, much more needs to be said, both about Comte's overall scheme, and the factors that led to his espousal of it.  Plenty more to discuss! In the meantime, may I again urge casual readers to acquire, and read, my own book?!!

 

John.

 


 


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November 4 2012 1 04 /11 /November /2012 18:20

Some time ago I commented very briefly on the form of presentation confronting the readers of this blog. Like many others, this site puts the most recent posting at the top of the cumulative list of postings. Since many of the posts refer to earlier posts,, and indeed depend on an acquaintanceship with them, this makes following the logical progression of the thinking they contain extremely difficult. It's as if one were to encounter a book written with its concluding chapter first, and the preface and introduction at the end. I honestly don't know what to do about this; I'm afraid that, at least for the next little while, readers will have to discover their own preferred order, or skip about according to the clues provided by each post's title. I'll also try to construct each post as a stand-alone piece. Any suggestions will be gratefully received!

 

John.

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October 21 2012 1 21 /10 /October /2012 03:57

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the hesitations and procrastinations that seem inevitably to precede any particular posting that I hazard to publish. In that respect this particular post is no different, but it explains more fully than I have so far managed, I think,the reasons for my caution. Those reasons are themselves indicators of the enormity of the challenges facing us as necessary companions in the enterprise of making sense of our lives.


I should perhaps have phrased that differently, as, for example, in "making sense of our existence." That difference in wording itself indicates the nature of our difficulty: "making sense of our lives" is likely to emphasize for each of us our own emotional, cognitive, and attitudinal tasks; "making sense of our existence" emphasizes rather our common engagement in determining a destiny to which each of us can undoubtedly contribute, but to the determination of which it is unlikely that we are willing, except occasionally, to give our immediate attention. As that cartoon character remarked so characteristically and pointedly, "Life is just one darned thing after another!" There are always "more immediate" things to attend to than our trajectory as a species.

 

In the writing of Making Sense of Us, I was at first only marginally aware of how, inexorably, my investigation of how we come to make the kinds of sense we do make was taking both me and my readers into a confrontation with what I suppose I need to call the question of our ultimate meaning. In fact, the "conclusion" I reached in my final chapter was, I suspect, almost as surprising for my readers as it was for me.

 

Possibly you can understand now something more of the reasons for my hesitations. Upon reaching the end of my book, I not only realized I was at virtually another beginning point, but that, in writing about the further implications of my last chapter, I would be presuming something of the present readers of this blog that was not only unrealistic, but unfair. Those of you who have read the book will (I think!) feel that, in arriving at the dénouement, you had earned the right to participate in further exploring the implications of its conclusion, since you and I had shared an essentially similar journey. This is not to imply, however, that we had all arrived at the same place. The metaphors of journeys, arrivals, and so on can only take us so far(!)––and not always in a useful direction . . .

 

That last chapter, and indeed the book as a whole, nevertheless raised questions that cry out to be addressed. Those questions were implied in the various quotes from Norbert Elias I cited in recent posts, and made clearer, I hope, in my subsequent attempts to give them a more prominent place in our general awareness. This post is my effort to engage more directly in answering them. 

 

In his monumental 3 volumes of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer expressed both the hope and the belief that understanding the manner in which symbolic forms themselves both contribute to and distract from our likelihood of making better sense would enable us to free ourselves from the constraints of our purely physical existence. He expressed it succinctly in his An Essay on Man, published in English by Yale University Press in 1944:

 

Human Culture taken as a whole may be described as the process of man's [sic] progressive self-liberation.

 

(I believe that, if he were writing today, Cassirer would himself have remarked upon his use of the gender-specific pronoun as historical evidence of the validity of the point he was making!)

 

Cassirer's comment is particularly relevant to my present purpose. Norbert Elias, Zygmunt Bauman, and indeed all those writing today about the manner in which human beings can and do attempt to make sense of our own existence, are writing in the variously coloured light of our known history as a species, but also, specifically in the last hundred and fifty years or so, with the very different perspectives now available to us as a result of the symbolic efforts of those thinkers we now define as sociologists.

 

Sociology, recognized as such, is still relatively new to us, and I believe we are still in the stage of groping to realize its full potential. It's nevertheless important to note (as indeed Cassirer did in a comment at the very beginning of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms) that any formulation contains within itself the power to restrict our thinking, as well as to open it up. Auguste Comte, now generally recognized as a prime initiator of the new science, himself attempted an analysis of the ways in which explanatory thinking can inhibit the progressive self-liberation of which Cassirer was subsequently to speak. Comte saw humankind as having progressed through two previous stages to a potential third stage which was, at the time he wrote, not fully realized. For a full explanation of the categories he discerned, I should perhaps simply refer you to the relevant entries in Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For my purposes here, however, I will speak of them in only the most general of terms, given that I reject Comte's hypothesis that they represent a progressive process. I see them as not only ever-present in human sensibility, but as constantly swirling and intertwining in a manner that itself expresses something very significant about the way our We-I relationship with ourselves and everything else is in constant flux. Each Comtean "phase" is characterized by a different fundamental attribution of who or what is responsible for an overall "purpose." Comte believed that humankind had pretty much transcended the tendency to go for large-scale attribution of purpose to God, or god-like forces; just as it also was on the verge of transcending the attribution of purpose to hypostatized entities (as discussed below.) . . . I'll defer discussion of the character of his third hypothesized phase until a later post (It would at the moment pose more difficulty than I am yet ready to confront.) 

 

The critical factor, I believe, as I've mentioned specifically in recent posts, and more generally in earlier ones, is what we fundamentally believe about both our own power to influence events in the short term (and thus to feel meaningful as effective human beings) and also our effectiveness as agents in the long term (that is, as meaningful in the context of the universe itself).

 

It is in this light that I feel strongly critical of any formulation that denigrates our power as human beings to affect our future history. I'm afraid that in this respect sociology has itself contributed to our sense of potential powerlessness, in that its formulations have frequently taken the form that Comte characterized as "metaphysical" . . . that is, as attributing to "personified reifications" the power to bend us to their own purposes. (Some readers may recall that I have an aversion to using the word "meme", as it now seems increasingly fashionable to do, since our defining simple ideas as such endows them with the character of having will and intent, much as Richard Dawkins did previously with "selfish genes".) Sociologists' contribution to this state of affairs is apparent in the way in which large postulated "entities" such as "capitalism", "communism", "consumerism", "class", "the market", "government", and so on are treated as if it is they that ineluctably determine and limit our freedom of action. Rather usefully, Zygmunt Bauman has himself commented on the phenomenon, in his comparative discussion of the contrast between the ideas of Nietzsche and Emmanuel Lévinas in The Art of Life. (A lovely book, incidentally, published by Polity in 2008  . . ISBN 978-0-7456-4326-7 in pb.)

 

The tendency to think in such a "metaphysical" way (a potentially very misleading term for it, I think) is also unfortunately encouraged by Norbert Elias's proposing that the controlling by nations of expressions of violence within their populations depends on the hegemony of the state, rather than the ability of their subjects to foster harmonious relationships amongst themselves. Possibly this is indeed a necessary phase in the evolution of civilization, but as a hypothesis it leaves completely untouched the issue (identified in the last section of The Society of Individuals) of what it will take for humankind to come to terms with itself. Surely there is something beyond the kind of assumptions about our own responsibilities and potential that were taken as givens by Thomas Hobbes?

 

More to come!

 

John.

 


 


 


 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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September 22 2012 7 22 /09 /September /2012 19:55

Since publishing my last post, I've been discovering the enormous value of articles published in the two recent (and inaugural) issues of Human Figurations, the on-line periodical recently initiated by the people at the Norbert Elias Foundation. Specifically, I'll be following up on ideas suggested by my reading of Godfried van Benthem van der Bergh's article "Norbert Elias and the human condition" in Volume 1, Issue 2, July 2012. I'm afraid I've not yet been able to figure out how to give you a direct link to the article, but it can be accessed by going to the Norbert Elias Foundation website, clicking on to the highlighted Human Figurations, going to "Browse" on the resulting screen, and selecting "Volume 1, Issue 2" for the table of contents.

 

It will be helpful for you to know, too, that the following comments are an extrapolation from the eighth paragraph of my last post, "I, and We, and Us, and Everything." (Let it not be said that I don't confront the largest issues!)

 

In his article, van Benthem van der Bergh discusses in detail, and at some length, Norbert Elias's proposition about the role of hegemony (or, rather, the quest for it) in the evolution of human societies. I cannot do justice here to all the issues raised in the article––most of it is devoted to  a discussion of the author's comparison of his own and Elias's view about the likelihood of humankind's survival in the presence of the likely proliferation of nuclear weapon capability in more nations––but I can identify, I believe, the underlying, unadmitted and unrecognized metaphysical concern. It is, in fact, the one I make very brief reference to in the above-mentioned important eighth paragraph of my previous post . . .

 

It's probably most useful to express that concern in the form of a question––the one that indeed underlies the logic of every human endeavor––"How can I/we assure myself/ourselves of my/our relevance to existence itself?" Godfried's article suggests to me that the almost universal urge for one's own hegemony in relation to others is simply a displacement of the question, a formulation of it that allows for the promise of a satisfactory answer. "I/We may not be able to be clear about my/our place in the universe, but I/we can be assured that my/our dominance over others asserts my/our relevance and effectiveness as actor, that is, as having meaning."

 

How's that for an answer to unacknowledged existential angst? How about not displacing the question, but confronting it? The last chapter of MSOU attempts to do just that.

 

Cheers . . .

 

John.

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