Saturday, June 26, 2010

Philosophy, Results, Kierkegaard and Socrates

In his recent article in the Fortnightly Review, Philosophy as a personal journey., Anthony O'Hear reflects on the meaning for philosophy that it has been unable to produce "results" with respect to its most fundamental questions:

But, and here is a second worry, given that, notoriously, most of the big disputes in philosophy remain unresolved – and have been unresolved since the time of the ancient Greeks who first raised them in systematic form – what can we actually learn from philosophy?

It is in light of the failure of philosophy to produce results that O'Hear develops his interpretation of philosophy as a personal journey. This is his last paragraph:

Of course, some of the people who write and practice philosophy in these ways will see their tightly focused work as contributing to a larger vision, but it seems to me that the overall direction is false to the true nature of the subject. And although we can all agree that our endeavours are directed to the truth, and guided by reasons and arguments that bear on the truth of what each of us believes, we each have to face the fact that we will not achieve complete rational convergence on premisses, because it is not there to be achieved. Nor will we come to a set of truths which will be so evident that they will command the assent of all who embark on the journey and pursue it in a rational and reasonable manner, aiming as best they can to seek the truth. It is just this picture which our earlier considerations on the nature and history of philosophical disagreement seem to undermine. In the beginning and at the end, philosophy is a personal journey, crucial to the examined life Socrates thought so integral to human flourishing.

I am afraid that, as edifying as I find O'Hear's article, I cannot agree with this paragraph. In fact, I think the paragraph clearly contradicts itself. On the one hand, O'Hear tells us that we cannot arrive at a set of truths that will command the assent of the rational and the reasonable. On the other hand, he proposes just this truth as one that every reasonable man should accept as the basis of philosophy. In other words, the proposal that "philosophy cannot arrive at a set of truths that will command the assent of the reasonable" is itself a purported reasonable truth that the proposal denies.

O'Hear's proposal is of the type that formed the original basis of Enlightenment philosophy, and was exposed by Kierkegaard (and, through him, Socrates) as failing to respect the true nature of subjectivity. Enlightenment philosophers concluded, like O'Hear, that the long history of philosophy proved the futility of the classical philosophical approach. Rather than continuing the fruitless dialog, they imagined various ways to found philosophy anew, from the rationalism of Descartes to the empiricism of Hume. But what all the Enlightenment philosophers failed to recognize is that if knowledge as it had been traditionally conceived was not possible, then their knowledge of the futility of philosophy was also not possible. Remember, it was their alleged conclusion to the futility of philosophy that justified their breaking with tradition and creating a new foundation to philosophy. Their knowledge of the futility of philosophy was therefore both logically and temporally prior to the "new" knowledge they arrived at through their new methods. To take a specific case, Descartes in the beginning of the Discourse on Method discusses his reasons for abandoning classical philosophy and inventing the Method; reasons that, naturally, refer to the futility of philosophy. But as soon as the Method of universal doubt is proposed, then Descartes' doubt of classical philosophy should also be subject to doubt. But it never is; like O'Hear, the futility of philosophy is the one non-futile result that Descartes knows in the old-fashioned way.

Socrates has not been improved on in his understanding of ignorance. If I am ignorant - and surely I am if philosophy is futile - then I am ignorant. Whether anyone else is ignorant, or whether everyone throughout history was necessarily ignorant (as Englightenment-inspired philosophers suppose), must be one of the things of which I am ignorant. This is the authentic Socratic way in which subjectivity enters philosophy and true philosophy is born; and it is the way philosophy is born in all philosophers following the Socratic tradition. When Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, he doesn't mean only or even primarily that the historical origin of philosophy happened when certain men of leisure began to wonder. He means that philosophy is only alive to the extent that it is born in wonder in each individual soul. It is one thing to speculate about the nature or reality of final causes as an abstract problem that has no necessary relation to my life; quite another to recognize that the question of final causes, if truly asked, must primarily involve the question of the final cause of my own being. If I have a final cause, which means a purpose that informs my existence whether I recognize it or not, then this cause judges every moment of my existence - including the moments when I speculate about final causes.

This, I believe, is the primary lesson of Plato's Crito. Socrates is in prison and is told by Criton that all the arrangements have been made for Socrates to escape prison and repair to another city, where he would be welcomed and could continue to philosophize. The guards are sympathetic and the populace generally recognizes the injustice of his conviction. But Socrates will have none of it. He recognizes the truth of his subjectivity with respect to the laws of Athens. It doesn't matter whether, in an abstract sense, the jury decided his case correctly. Justice for Socrates means that he must respect the decision of the jury whatever it is. Were he to avail himself of the opportunity to escape, and continue to "philosophize" in another city, his philosophy would be reduced to a language game, and himself to a comic figure, spending his time in apparently serious conversations about justice, when he has made it clear that whatever he thinks about justice, it doesn't include justice for Socrates.

In what sense, then, can philosophy have "results"? Not in the sense that it can produce answers that must be recognized by any rational person, if by "rational" we mean the existentially indifferent "objective" reason characteristic of modernity. But it can produce answers that are true for everyone and for all time, if we acknowledge that those answers will be recognized only by those who have first absorbed the subjective truth necessary to philosophize; or, in Kierkegaard's words, if they have become subjective thinkers.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dirk Pitt is Fictional, and so are Grand Conspiracies

If there is one thing that the oil disaster in Gulf has demonstrated, it's that there is no real life character corresponding to Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt. If you don't know, Dirk Pitt is Cussler's recurring hero, a sort of combination of James Bond and Jacques Cousteau. Pitt works for the fictional NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) of the Federal Government, and regularly finds himself involved whenever any underwater derring-do is called for. Well, the Gulf disaster is just the sort of crisis Pitt and his trusty sidekick Al Giordino would solve in thrilling fashion, just barely escaping with their lives and Pitt (never Al) landing the requisite hot babe. Unfortunately for us and the Gulf coast, this disaster has shown there is no one like Pitt on the vast Government reservation.

It also shows the silliness of conspiracy theories like the 9/11 "truth" movement - the idea that G.W. Bush somehow orchestrated the 9/11 attacks without leaving a trace of evidence. If the government can't stop an oil leak in a couple of months, how could it possibly pull off a massive conspiracy like 9/11? They just aren't that good.

Conservatism in a Nutshell

From the Front Porch Republic:

To “conserve,” however, is a fairly simple thing. While “liberals” and “progressives” keep changing what lovely things they see in the future, “conserving” means knowing what’s important and trying to save it.

Included in that definition is the reason why philosophy as classically conceived is necessary to conservatism (as opposed to the sort of scientistic materialism/determinism that is popular at the Secular Right.) Conservatism is only possible if we know what is important, but the secularist typically denies that such transcendent knowledge is possible. The classical conservative fights to preserve his family, his nation, his system of justice and the rule of law because he knows such things are worth preserving, not merely because he is subject to certain genetically determined "affinities" with respect to them.

What the secularist denies is the possibility of the education of the sentiments. Yes, we have tender feelings towards those we know and are like us, and we may feel nothing at all towards strangers. But, through reason and revelation, we may know the truth about justice and judge our sentiments according to it. We may cross to the other side of the road when we see the man lying in a ditch, but cannot we learn something from the Samaritan who stops to assist him? And is what we learn from him worth preserving, and worth establishing in a basis of education for future generations? Even if we feel nothing for the man in the ditch now, we may educate our sentiments to feel shame when we ignore him. And we may educate our children to the same. This is the essence of conservatism.

The secularist, denying the possibility of the transcendent knowledge of justice, denies the possibility of this sort of education. And without such education, we are left following whatever "affinities" nature, or nature's manipulators, happens to endow us with. This is not the freedom the secularist hoped for when he abandoned classical philosophy and religion, but slavery.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Goldberg on Determinism, and Derb's Conservatism

Jonah Goldberg has an excellent post over at the Corner that deftly eviscerates John Derbyshire's genetic determinism. It makes me wonder in what sense Derbyshire is a conservative. In fact, I wonder if Derbyshire is not actually a post-modernist in conservative drag.

Take this article at Taki's magazine linked to from the corner. At first blush, it looks like a strong statement of the "rational right" position on Israel. But look a little closer at Derb's reasons for supporting Israel. He writes of our attachments rippling "out in overlapping chains of diminishing concentric circles: family, extended family, town, state, religion, ethny, nation." The Israelis are closer to us in these concentric rings than say, the Congo, because we share a tradition with them as well as beliefs in things like democracy and the rule of law. Israel is organized on principles that Derb "agrees with", and is "inhabited by people I could leave at ease with."

Derb is such a gifted and smooth writer that it is easy to overlook the precision with which he writes. But it's what Derb has successfully avoided saying that is significant. He hasn't said that the traditions and principles that we share with Israel are objectively true; or reflect a transcendent order that judges not only the USA and Israel, but all nations, including Israel's Arab enemies. No, his point is entirely subjective, and is made in terms of our experienced affinities, severed from any rational foundation (a foundation that, given Derb's genetic determinism, I suspect he does not think exists.) There is a crucial difference between supporting Israel because we "agree" on certain principles that have no further significance than our agreement, and supporting Israel because we recognize that transcendent principles of justice and duty demand that we do.

Really, Derb's support of Israel is post-modern in character. Academic post-modernists "see through" all traditions, deny any rationally knowable transcendent order, and so undermine any reason we might have to prefer our own civilization to another (or even to barbarism.) But if we no longer have reasons, we still have affinities. If there is no reason to prefer one culture to another, then my pre-rational inclinations are elevated to decisive significance. We should support Israel because the Israelis are sort of like us and therefore we have tender feelings for them (or more tender than we do, say, for the Congo.) Derb has simply taken the post-modernist position more seriously than the post-modernists, without the sentimentality.

But it is in no sense "conservative", if by that term we include the notion that there is some good worth preserving; a good that endures across time, space and opinion... in other words, a transcendent good, which is just what the post-modernist denies. The post-modernist can't be a conservative because he allows nothing that might be conserved.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Into the Wild and Worthwhile Risk

The Story of Chris McCandless(Into the Wild) , on which I've posted a number of times, continues to fascinate me. I think what holds me is the search for what was missing in his story. McCandless was a young man of obvious virtue and passion, yet his life ended in seemingly pointless tragedy in an abandoned bus in the wilderness of Alaska. How did he end up there?

I found a clue tonight reading an old copy of Peter Benchley's The Deep. (I've always liked the film version and decided to read the book, which is a quick read and turned out to be better than I expected. One of the better adventure stories I've read in some time, in fact.) At one point, the salty old diver Treece (played by Robert Shaw in the film) offers some advice to the younger David Sanders, who killed a shark with a knife underwater after he thought the shark was about to attack his wife. It turns out that this was a foolish move, because the shark was not really a threat and Sander's attack only attracted many more sharks, forcing the divers to surface. Treece engages in some perceptive analysis:

"It's natural enough, Treece said. "A lot people want to prove something to themselves, and when they do something they think's impressive, then they're impressed themselves. The mistake is, what you do isn't the same as what you are. You like to do things just to see if you can. Right?"
Though there was no reproach in Treece's voice Sanders was embarrassed. "Sometimes, I guess..."
"What I'm getting at..." Treece paused. "The feeling's a lot richer when you do something right, when you know something has to be done and you know what you're doing, and then you do something hairy. Life's full of chances to hurt yourself or someone else." Treece took a drink. "In the next few days, you'll have more chances to hurt yourself than most men get in a lifetime. It's learning things and doing things right that make it worthwhile, make a man easy with himself. When I was young, nobody could tell me anything. I knew it all. It took a lot of mistakes to teach me that I didn't know goose shit from tapioca... That's the only hitch in learning: it's humbling... Anyway, that's a long way around saying that it's crazy to do things just to prove you can do 'em. The more you learn, the more you'll find yourself doing things you never thought you could do in a million years."

Treece is teaching nothing other than Aristotle's distinction between the truly courageous and the merely reckless. The difference is that courage is conditioned by the virtue of prudence, whereas the reckless are dangerous actions not ordered to right reason. Treece puts it succinctly: True courage is only displayed in actions that are dangerous but must be done and, further, done in the knowledge that you know what you are doing.

But to know something must be done implicitly implies a knowledge of the good, i.e. an end that is desirable in itself. The man who displays virtue in the pursuit of the good has acted nobly. But the noble is just one of those ancient concepts that modern thought has "debunked", only to discover that, debunked or not, it is necessary. It is necessary to order passionate souls like Chris McCandless into constructive paths. This is where the contemporary university failed Chris McCandless so comprehensively. His university education should have educated his soul into a true appreciation of the good and the noble; instead, it "educated" him into the modern conceit that there isn't any true good or nobility that can we really can know. In effect, he was educated into anti-prudence. Yet the passion in his soul didn't go away merely because its object was denied; it was only given a prophylactic. So the rest of his tragic life was spent in the pursuit of extreme adventures that would, somehow, allow him to "break through" to the other side, whatever that might be. But when the denial of prudence itself becomes mistaken for a virtue, then the pursuit of pointless dangers becomes a substitute for the noble.

This accounts for the curious combination of thorough technical preparation in the service of foolish ends that characterized McCandless's adventures. He didn't die in the bus from lack of preparation; he extensively researched Alaskan flora and fauna, knew what he could eat and couldn't eat (almost - it appears he died from eating the wrong seeds), and survived for some time on his own. In fact, he would have succeeded (at what? - that's the problem) but for one slip up. But his prudence was truncated; it extended to the preparation and conduct of his adventures, but had nothing to say about their ends. This is the difference between a life that might have ended nobly and heroically, but instead ended foolishly and tragically. I see Chris's tragic end as a consequence of the peculiarly modern suffocation of the soul.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Is the "priest shortage" a blessing?

I sometimes wonder if the so-called "priest shortage" in the American Church is not a blessing. We have a presumptuous attitude to the Eucharist in this country: Everyone takes Communion and hardly anyone goes to Confession. But then it is a very dangerous thing to eat of the Body and Blood of the Lord unworthily: See 1 Corinthians 11:23-27. Perhaps the declining number of priests is God's merciful way of helping us avoid such a serious sin...

That, by the way, reveals something about the nature of the priest shortage. There is no shortage of priests when I (not frequently enough) go to Confession. Usually there is no line and, sometimes, the priest is startled to see someone show up. So as far as the Sacrament of Confession goes, there is no shortage. In fact, we've got more priests than we need. Now we should not be taking the other Sacraments like Marriage or the Eucharist unless we are first taking the Sacrament of Confession. So, really, there is no shortage for those Sacraments either, for only as many Catholics going to Confession should be going to Eucharist. Again, I wonder if the "priest shortage" is God's way of guiding us into a right approach to the Sacraments, his way of putting an end to the abuse of the Sacraments.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mark Steyn misses the boat

It's not like the great Mark Steyn to miss the obvious. But he does just that in his book America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It. On page 143, he discusses the famous "Christmas Truce" that spontaneously occurred on the Western Front in 1914:

One of the most enduring vignettes of the Great War comes from its first Christmas: December 1914. The Germans and British, separated by a few yards of mud on the western front, put up banners to wish each other season's greetings, sang "Silent Night" in the dark in both languages, and eventually scrambled up from their opposing trenches to play a Christmas Day football match in No Man's Land and share some German beer and English plum jam. After this Yuletide interlude, they went back to killing each other.

The many films, books, and plays inspired by that No Man's Land truce all take for granted the story's central truth: that our common humanity transcends the temporary hell of war. When the politicians and generals have done with us, those who are left will live in peace, playing footie (i.e. soccer), singing songs, as they did for a moment in the midst of carnage.

Steyn mentions the carols and the day, but misses their obvious significance. The truce didn't happen because of common humanity, but common religion. If the truce happened merely because of common humanity, then it might have occurred on any day... but it happened on Christmas Day. And they might have sung any old songs, but they sung Christmas carols.

If "common humanity" had anything to do with fostering peace, then men would not make war in the first place. Common humanity, in fact, is the primary cause - maybe the only true cause - of war, c.f. Cain and Abel.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

God, Faith and Limited Government

Faith is necessary to believe in limited government. For limited government means that, for significant elements of our common life together, no one is in charge. How do we know that disaster will not ensue? This is where faith comes in.

One of the traditional notions we have lost is the doctrine of Providence. Belief in Providence is the belief that, even though it appears that no one is in charge, Someone really is. Disaster will not ensue. Since we are assured through our faith in God that disaster will not ensue, or, at least, that disaster will never be quite so bad as it appears, we may safely create zones of freedom in which no one is (apparently) in charge.

When the common belief in Providence is lost the world becomes a much scarier place. Now potential catastrophes reveal themselves as possible and even probable eventualities - from global warming to collisions with asteroids. Freedom that was once the expression of a mysterious Providence working itself out through history becomes a blind stumbling in the dark that will encounter catastrophe eventually - "if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit."

It's not just the fear of catastrophic anomalies like a killer asteroid that reflects the loss of belief in Providence. It is also the belief in slow, creeping doom of the kind expressed in John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism. Derbyshire is both a (secular) conservative believer in limited government and convinced, for a variety of reasons, that our present civilization is doomed. His response is essentially Epicurean: He advises seeking "private contentment in the present as the earth-pile rises." In other words, accept your fate and enjoy yourself while you can.

It is only scholarly, detached types like Derbyshire who will be satisfied with such a counsel of despair. People will look for hope. There are two alternatives: One is to recognize that the problems Derbyshire details in his book are not all intractable. In fact, many of them, like our failure to control our southern border, are susceptible to straightforward solution. An authoritarian government could solve the problem directly. But our republican system has not yet developed the will to act decisively with respect to immigration; and it may not do so before it is too late. An obvious alternative is to sacrifice certain republican principles to do what it takes to forestall our doom. In fact, we are not doomed; we are only doomed if we maintain the commitment to limited government even in the face of predictable, but avoidable, catastrophe. We can put someone in charge to deal with the problems before it is too late. Thus Derbyshire's conservative doom is, in the end, not really different from left-wing scaremongering of the type seen in global-warming hysteria. The difference is that the left-wingers take the obvious next step that Derbyshire doesn't: If society in its freedom cannot avoid putting so much CO2 in the atmosphere that it puts civilization in danger (the left-wing case), or cannot deal with immigration or the terrorist threat (the right-wing doom case), then freedom must be curtailed to the extent necessary to ensure the survival of civilization (the left-wing solution that is nonetheless implicit in Derbyshire's right-wing doom.)

The other alternative is to recover the traditional doctrine of Providence; and find hope in the faith that Someone is already in charge, and even if things don't look rosy, as long as we remain confident in faith no disaster that we cannot survive will occur. We can support freedom because we are not "doomed"; we are only doomed in the eyes of a blinkered, worldly viewpoint that cannot live in the mystery of a Will greater than its own.

It is the doctrine of Providence that is necessary to limited government.