Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Trouble with Kant

Kant is the greatest modern philosopher because he perceived the far consequences of the premises of modern thought earlier than others, and to an extent that many today still do not appreciate. He is the indispensable philosopher to understand the meaning of philosophy since it began to take its cue from Descartes and Hume.

But that doesn't mean that we must believe that Kant was right. The conclusions follow only if both the logic and the premises are true; Kant is correct in his logic but his premises are not true. In other words,  if Kant is wrong, he was wrong right at the beginning. And his beginning was the assumptions constitutive of modern thought.

It is difficult for us raised in the modern world to get the distance necessary to be genuinely critical of modern thought. The assumptions of modern thought have become the very air we breathe; for us they are simply taken for granted. This is why Kierkegaard is so indispensable. Kierkegaard understood that modern thought must be attacked at its root; and since it is modern first principles that are the problem, those principles must be addressed front and center. Kierkegaard has a wonderful way of getting behind the defenses of his reader and bringing him to a reconsideration of first principles, before the reader knows what is happening and can set up psychological self-defenses:

If it were true - as conceited shrewdness, proud of not being deceived, thinks - that one should believe nothing which he cannot see by means of his physical eyes, then first and foremost one ought to give up believing in love. If one did this and did it out of fear of being deceived, would not one then be deceived? Indeed, one can be deceived in many ways; one can be deceived in believing what is untrue, but on the other hand, one is also deceived in not believing what is true; one can be deceived by appearances, but one can also be deceived by the superficiality of shrewdness, by the flattering conceit which is absolutely certain that it cannot be deceived. Which deception is more dangerous? Whose recovery is more doubtful, that of him who does not see or of him who sees and still does not see? Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake? (From the start of Ch.1 of Works of Love, Harper Torchbooks, 1962).

This passage always comes to mind when I think what is wrong with Kant. For a fundamental modern principle is that doubt is self-justifying: If something can be doubted, then it should be doubted. Kant's transcendental aesthetic gets rolling when he points out that time and space are not something we encounter in experience, but are the conditions of experience itself. So we can only safely conclude that space and time are parameters of our consciousness, not necessarily of reality itself. From this start Kant brilliantly, thoroughly and ruthlessly draws out the logical consequences in his "transcendental philosophy."

But looking at the transcendental aesthetic with Kierkegaard in mind, and granting Kant's point about the conditions of experience, we can still ask Kierkegaard's question about deception: Time and space may be conditions of our experience, but they may nonetheless also be conditions of reality itself. We can go wrong thinking time and space are qualifications of reality if they are only qualifications of our consciousness, but we can also go wrong thinking time and space are not qualifications of reality if in fact they really are. Deception is possible either way. The modern philosopher is simply wrong in thinking his self-justifying doubt is a bulletproof way to avoid deception. And if we do not accept the modern premise that doubt is self-justifying, then we may ask: Why should we grant Kant's conclusions from the transcendental aesthetic? What reason do we have for doubting the reality of time and space beyond the bare possibility of deception?

There doesn't seem to be any such reason, and I suspect there can't possibly be one. Any reason would have to be an argument from experience, which would necessarily take experience for granted, and the argument concerns the conditions of experience itself.

To be continued in a forthcoming post.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Kant and Christianity

Dinesh D'Souza's presentation of Kant in What's So Great About Christianity, which I've discussed here and here, winds up with a statement of why Kant is so important to his discussion of religion:

No one who understands the central doctrines of any of the world's leading religions should have any difficulty understanding Kant, because his philosophical vision is congruent with the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It is a shared doctrine of these religions that the empirical world we humans inhabit is not the only world there is. Ours is a world of appearances only, a transient world that is dependent on a higher, timeless reality. That reality is of a completely different order from anything that we know, it constitutes the only permanent reality there is, and it sustains our world and presents it to our senses. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, this is where reason stops: it cannot on its own investigate or comprehend that domain. But one day, it is promised, when our earthly journey is over, we will know the higher realm and see things as they really are.

This passage is a good illustration of why Kant is an unfortunate choice for a Christian philosopher. While other religions may offer hope of escape into a higher realm, the specifically Christian hope is resurrection and everlasting life in this world. Why would Christ suffer and die on a Cross only to be resurrected into a world of mere appearance? No, the Christian cannot hold that this world is a transient world of mere appearance on pain of making nonsense of the Gospel.

The Christian world is not a divided world of appearance vs reality, or transient worlds vs permanent worlds. God created man, body and soul, in form a rational animal. A rational animal is not a soul trapped in a body ala Plato, or a rational principle discovering it lives in a world of illusion ala Kant, but a unity of body and soul created specially for the purpose of knowing. When man dies, he really dies: It isn't birth into a higher realm, but a genuine loss of being. The separated soul survives, and God can and does infuse it directly with knowledge; but the soul by nature desires to exist in unity with the body of which it is the form. When man in his fullness is resurrected, once again does the soul know in its natural mode - through the senses. And what it knows is reality, not a shadowplay constructed by God to fool all but the cleverest philosophers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More on D'Souza on Kant

I wrote about Dinesh D'Souza's take on Kant the other day here. D'Souza goes on to claim that Kant is in the mainstream of Western thought:

Though this conclusion that our reason is confined within the borders of our experience, and that reality in itself is permanently screened off from us by our own sensory limitations, may seem to some to be a very outlandish idea; in fact it is at the very center of Western philosophy. In perhaps the most famous metaphor in Western thought, Plato likened human beings to people living in a cave, shut out from the light of the sun, seeing only shadows and mistaking them for reality. Plato regarded our perceptions as mere images of a deeper and higher reality, the so-called Platonic forms, that he located somewhere outside the realm of human experience. And Plato's teacher, Socrates, regarded himself as the wisest man in Athens because he alone knew how little he knew. For all his breathtaking originality, Kant is squarely in the mainstream of Western thought.

D'Souza describes the beginning of Plato's allegory of the cave, but leaves out the second half. In Plato's story, one of the men chained in the cave is released and is able to make his way outside the cave, experience the sun, and see reality as it is. This process is, of course, the allegory of philosophy. The ordinary man is trapped within the conventional understanding of things (that is, common opinion); the philosopher is the man who, through philosophy, is able to transcend convention and understand reality as it is. If we are to interpret Plato's cave in terms of Kant, then we need to remove any hope that the man in chains is able to escape. Instead of philosophy arising when the man escapes his chains, it occurs when the possibility of his predicament occurs to him. He begins to distrust his naive deductions from his phenomenal experience and invents the critical philosophy. While he can never escape his chains, he has gained the only liberation possible to him: An understanding of his position and release from his prior false beliefs. He can never know reality as it is, but no longer does he labor under illusion.

The liberation Kant provides is superficially similar to that of Socrates, but they are radically different. Socrates's ignorance is subjective; he knows that he knows nothing, but he does not pretend to know that no one else knows anything, and even less, that no else can know anything. The Socratic conclusion is a beginning to philosophy; realizing that all his prior opinions were poorly founded, the Socratic philosopher is spurred to search for true wisdom. The Kantian conclusion is an end to philosophy, classically understood. The philosopher realizes that his prison is his own nature and is inescapable; he universalizes this conclusion to the point that no one else can or ever will know anything (about reality as it is, of course). The philosopher's task from thenceforward is not to search for true knowledge of reality (since he has concluded it is impossible), but to help his fellow men by bringing them to what truth is available to us: The truth provided by the critical philosophy that exposes the Socratic quest for the fool's errand it is.

Monday, February 20, 2012

D'Souza on Kant

Dinesh D'Souza in his defense of Christianity, What's So Great About Christianity, uses Kant as his foundational philosopher. Whether this is ultimately a wise choice is something I may discuss in a later post. Here I would like to explore a common and fundamental misunderstanding of Kant that D'Souza reveals. D'Souza begins his brief summary of Kant with this paragraph:

Kant begins with a simple premise: all human knowledge is based on experience. We gain access to reality through our five senses. This sensory input is then processed through our brains and central nervous systems. Think about it: every thought, even the wildest products of our imagination, are exclusively based on things that we have seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. If we imagine and draw creatures from outer space, we can give them four eyes and ten legs, but ultimately we have no way to conceive or portray them except in terms of our human experience. It is an empirical fact that our fives senses are our only lenses for perceiving reality.

D'Souza is writing a popular book and some license must be given for loose expression. But the first sentence is not loosely phrased, it is simply false. Kant does not just hold that we have knowledge that is not based on experience; the point is essentially what differentiates him from prior philosophers like Hume. Kant's problem with Hume was that Hume's pure empiricism undermined human knowledge, specifically knowledge that could be acquired through the then newly developed empirical sciences. Kant's project in the Critique of Pure Reason was to explore what reason could know independent of experience and therefore prior to it. This a priori use of reason results in genuine knowledge; among the things it can come to know are the conditions of empirical experience, and from that what distinguishes legitimate empirical knowledge (for Kant, basically modern science) from pseudo-knowledge (for Kant, most of what constitutes classical metaphysics.) This was Kant's plan to rescue science from destruction by Humean empiricism.

But this misunderstanding, although present, isn't the principal one I have in mind in this post. That misunderstanding is found in the fact that, although D'Souza emphasizes (in other passages) just how revolutionary and deep are the implications of Kant, D'Souza himself fails to take Kant fully seriously. D'Souza is right when he points out that the implication of Kant is the distinction between the noumenal (reality in itself) and the phenomenal (reality as it comes to us through the senses). We have no way of "stepping outside" our senses and finding a place from which to compare our perception of reality with reality itself; all we know (empirically) is reality as it is conditioned and filtered by our senses. D'Souza's example of a tape recorder is apt:

Consider a tape recorder. A tape recorder, being the kind of instrument it is, can capture only one mode or aspect of reality: sound. Tape recorders, in this sense, can "hear" but they cannot see or touch or smell. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are beyond the reach of a tape recorder. The same, Kant says, is true of human beings. We can apprehend reality only through our five senses.

Now consider what a tape recorder could empirically discover in trying to understand its own nature. It's only empirical sense is sound. So the the only thing the tape recorder can do is listen to itself. If it could, it might put itself in a soundproof room and turn itself on (how I don't know, but that's immaterial). It might record a few button clicks, and then the soft whirring of the electric motor that rotates the reels. That's it, and it's not much. It might attempt an empirical theory of its own nature based purely on sound, but we can see that any such theory would be hopelessly inadequate to the nature of the tape recorder that can be known through all five of our senses. So it's not just knowledge of the outside world that is subject to the empirical conditioning of the recorder's single sense; it is empirical knowledge of its own nature as well. The tape recorder, if it managed to find an audio version of the Critique of Pure Reason, might understand all this through an application of pure reason.

The same line of thinking, of course, applies to us. Empirical knowledge of our own human nature is just as subject to Kantian limitations as knowledge of anything else. So when D'Souza writes sentences like "We gain access to reality through our five senses. This sensory input is then processed through our brains and central nervous systems" he is not taking Kant seriously enough. "Brains" and "central nervous systems" are empirical constructs; they are phenomenal, not noumenal. Taking Kant seriously means acknowledging that our phenomenally known human nature may be inconceivably different from human nature as it is in itself; just as the tape recorder's understanding of its own nature purely on the basis of sound can't compare with the nature of the tape recorder as it actually is. Kant is careful not to talk about brains, nervous systems or other organs in the Critque of Pure Reason. Human nature in that work, and for Kant in general, is an unknowable X. We can know that human nature, whatever it is, must involve a rational principle (since the fact that we are intelligent beings is known simply from the act of thought itself), but anything beyond that is a matter of phenomenal empiricism.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love is in the Brain?

Steven Novella has a post here offering the usual reductionist view of love. What fascinates me about reductionism is that, so often, it is clear that the reductionist, far from answering the philosophical questions posed by his stance, has not yet arrived at the point of asking them. I imagine reductionists as something like the builders of the Maginot Line, laboring for years building a massive, technically impressive structure, impregnable from direct assault, who never asked themselves the question whether someone could simply drive around it.

But philosophy, like the Germans, lies in wait to ask the most pointed questions. The philosophical questions posed by reductionism are always lurking, ready to pop up, and in most reductionist accounts you can see them peeking from behind the curtain, the reductionist passing by in innocence. In this case, after a standard reductionist account and in case the reader is feeling a little uninspired by all the leveling down, Novella finishes with this:

Understanding the biology of love, rather, can be empowering.  Sometimes we make decisions that are not in our best interest because we are in the grip of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals of which we are not consciously aware. Thinking that those feelings are due to some magical design of the universe or something akin to fate, or to forces outside of your control, are convenient justifications for giving in to feelings that may be leading you to bad decisions. It’s helpful to understand that evolution does not need you to be happy, just prolific. You, however, may prefer to be happy, and therefore may wish to make more reasoned decisions.

Now evolutionary reductionism proposes itself as a total explanation of human nature. That's just what reductionism means - everything about human nature is reducible to explanation within the category of evolution. This doesn't mean that everything about human nature has an explanation directly in terms of selective advantage, of course; there are neutral traits that neither benefit nor inhibit us that are passed on, vestigial organs, etc. But these latter possibilities are themselves all contained within the broader category of evolution as an explanation. So if evolution only needs me to be prolific, what is the foundation for me "preferring" to be happy? Whatever in my nature is the source of that preference must also be conditioned by evolution. It's not a question of "me" opposing "evolution", because there is no "me" apart from evolution. It can't be anything more than an evolutionarily conditioned preference to happiness versus an evolutionarily conditioned need to be prolific. It's evolution vs. evolution, and we know how evolution decides things: By differential reproduction.

The first sentence of the paragraph gives the reader a sense of liberation with the word "empowering." But just what is someone empowered to do with an understanding of the biology of love, or any other knowledge for that matter? The most educated biologist is no more capable of escaping evolutionary conditioning than was the most primitive caveman or the meanest dog. He's no more capable of overcoming the nature evolution gave him after he learned anything than he was before. Evolution - under the reductionist view, mind you - simply doesn't grant any platform from which a liberation might be launched. The sense of "empowerment" you are feeling is just another expression of your evolutionary nature, an expression no more nor less evolutionary than the reproductive urges over which you allegedly triumph. Neither one nor the other can claim to be either more or less evolutionary than the other; if our nature is not 100% evolutionary, if there is some aspect of it that is not subject to evolutionary conditioning; well, then reductionism is in ruins.

One of the philosophical questions posed by reductionism is: If everything is reduced to some one thing, how may any distinctions be made at all? If our nature is entirely reduced to "evolution", then "evolution" is useless in distinguishing one aspect of it from another. There is no distinguishing 5 and 3.14159 insofar as they are both "mathematical"; both are as much mathematical as the other. And if we are at all in the "grip" of neurotransmitters and evolutionary signals, the grip has a hold on the entirety of our being, not merely the occasionally inconvenient romantic desire. Blog posting about the grip is just as much in the grip as the lust the blog post is about.

The only way to distinguish things in a thoroughly reductionist account is to do it... magically. There is nothing "magical" about a design in a universe for a philosophy that has room for a Creator. But there surely is something magical about "empowering" yourself, and breaking the "grip of neurotransmitters, in a philosophy that reduces everything to neurotransmitters and the power of evolution.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's A Wonderful Life and Conservatism

Generally I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but with events going the way they are, political philosophy is a lot on my mind these days. Blogging is a way for me to sort out my thoughts, as I've found trying to write them in a coherent form is a surefire way to expose holes and inconsistencies. I considered starting another blog to keep the political off here, but it became clear that the political and the philosophical isn't really separable for me (as, in retrospect, I never should have expected it to be.) So when I think I have something worthwhile on politics to offer, I'll post it here.

I've posted before on It's A Wonderful Life regarding George Bailey's relationship to Kiekegaard's stages of existence. Here I would like to discuss the film as a deeply conservative movie. (Not everything I write here is original; but the ideas have been in the back of my head for so long that I can't remember where they all came from).

It's A Wonderful Life is conservative, of course, in the obvious sense that it celebrates the centrality of family and religion in life (or, at least, prayer). It is God who ultimately saves George Bailey, working through Clarence the angel and in answer to the prayers of George's family. But my primary reason for thinking the film conservative does not involve family and religion, or any particular set of "values", but the character of the dramatic battle between George and villain Henry F. Potter.

Potter is the richest man in town, the owner of the largest bank as well as much of the property in town. He is a real estate developer who enjoys sticking it to the little guy; he leverages his near monopoly in finance to drive hard bargains with lower middle class folks trying to find a place to live. Potter is the archetypical villainous "one percenter" imagined by the contemporary Occupy movement. The one institution standing in Potter's way of total domination of the town is the Bailey Building and Loan, started by George Bailey's father and taken over reluctantly by George on his father's passing. George, about to leave town to seek his fortune, is pressed into service by the Building and Loan's Board of Directors as the only man capable of running it and withstanding Potter's plan to crush it, and with it any hope ordinary folks have of escaping Potter's financial domination.

What makes the drama of the conflict conservative is that George opposes Potter's villainy not by appealing to government, but by opposing him with a competing private institution. He uses the opportunities liberty provides him to provide an alternative to Potter for the "little guy." This makes all the difference in the world as far as the conservative is concerned. George's relationship to the little guy is different from that of both Potter and what it would have been had George tried to help the little guy through expansive government. Potter has no respect for the ordinary man, whom he dismisses as "garlic eaters"; in perhaps the most stirring scene of the movie, George dresses him down for this attitude:

George wants the Building and Loan to continue so that "people will have some place to come without having to crawl to Potter." Notice he doesn't say people should be prevented from going to Potter, or that Potter should be forced by law to change his practices (although Potter has no problem acting unethically to secure his position - e.g. by not returning $5000 that Uncle Billy inadvertently left in his office - there is no indication in the film that he acts unlawfully.) George isn't about dictating to the ordinary man what is good for him, or dictating to Potter how he must change, notwithstanding George giving Potter a piece of his mind. George's respect for the ordinary man is shown by his desire to give the ordinary man a choice, and his faith that the ordinary man can take care of himself if only given the opportunity to do so. George then proves himself a conservative hero by not only advocating for the Building and Loan, but putting his own personal plans on hold when the Board dragoons him into running the institution.

Were George to go the liberal-big-government route (i.e. by running for office and advocating increasing banking regulation, an accompanying bureaucracy, and taxes to pay for it), his relationship with the ordinary man would end up being essentially no different than that of Potter. He would end up dictating what the ordinary man will do rather than empowering the ordinary man to pursue his own betterment as he sees fit. The problem with Potter was that there was no escape from him; the same problem would exist with the hypothetical Banking Bureau with George Bailey at the top.

Why should this be a problem with someone like George Bailey running it? After all, George is genuinely "for" the little guy. For one thing, it isn't clear in the film that everyone in town supports George Bailey. Potter stays in business, after all, so there must be people getting mortgages from him. And there is a crucial moment in the film, during the Crash of 1929, when a run on the Building and Loan seems about to get started. George, in typical fashion, puts his personal plans on hold (in this case, his honeymoon) to deal with the situation. He pleads with the depositors gathered in the building to only withdraw a limited amount sufficient to tide them over for awhile. The first man at the window refuses and withdraws his entire balance despite George's exhortations. Now we might think this man is selfish, but do we really know his circumstances? He might have very good reasons for needing the entire balance; and in the end, it is his money to do with what he will. George's frustration is palpable, but he gives the man his money and, fortunately, the people later in the line listen to his counsel and only withdraw a small amount. Were George not the man he is, he might dream of being the head of the Banking Bureau, when he could simply order everyone's accounts frozen. But George has far more respect for ordinary people than this; he understands that individual circumstances are different and that there is no "right answer" for everyone that can be dictated from on high. A bureaucracy inevitably treats people "like cattle" just as much as Potter does.

There is also the possibility that George Bailey doesn't remain George Bailey. He could be corrupted; in the film, he nearly is. Potter offers him a job with a huge salary increase that George finds tempting. As I pointed out in my earlier post, Potter has keen psychological insight and plays on the knowledge that both he and George have that, in many ways, George is a better man than are the people for whom he is sacrificing his future. He tempts George to adopt the same contempt for the ordinary man that he has. George barely but successfully avoids the temptation; my point here is, suppose George were successfully corrupted. In that case, it would be bad enough were he the head of the Building and Loan. It would be far worse were he the head of the Banking Bureau. The conservative insight here is that there are no "right people." There is no one with the wisdom and virtue to be trusted with centralized power. And even if there were such a person, once the power is centralized, it won't be long before someone less altruistic grabs it; and once he's got it, there is no getting it away from him short of a revolution. George Washington understood this in refusing to become the King of America.

And that is the eventuality that will likely occur. Henry Potter is the most powerful man in Bedford Falls. Were a Banking Bureau established, should we doubt that he would use all his power in a campaign to capture it? And once he's got control of the Banking Bureau, then the people of Bedford Falls are truly doomed, for Potter could use its power through audits, regulations and general bureaucratic fog, to prevent any rivals like the Bailey Building and Loan from even getting started. Any legal space that was previously available to free citizens would be squeezed out. This is the reason, contrary to liberal mythology, that big business actually favors government regulation rather than opposes it. Big corporations have the money and muscle to influence government bureaucracies in their favor; the increased regulations are just overhead for them but represent barriers for any potential rivals. It isn't big business vs government, but big business and big government versus the rest of us. And the only answer is conservative heroes like George Bailey.

Interestingly, the comments on the YouTube clip I linked to above seem to miss the point about George Bailey. Some of the commenters see him as a kind of forerunner to the Occupy movement since he takes on a banker. But George shows in contrast just what conservatives find lacking in the Occupy movement. The Occupiers literally sit around in a park demanding that someone else (specifically government) make their lives better. George Bailey doesn't sit around and complain, but overcomes the evil banker by becoming a banker himself.

Ironically, it seems to me a modern George Bailey-type conservative hero is Joe Kennedy, RFK's son. He's not a hero with respect to his years in Congress, where he was standard issue Democrat, but in his starting and continuing to run the private non-profit company Citizen's Energy, dedicated to providing low-cost energy to the poor. One often hears complaints of price-gouging by oil companies. If that is so, why not start your own oil company and sell at a cheaper price? You should be able to drive them out of business. That is the conservative answer and I admire Kennedy for his efforts in this regard. Instead of complaining about oilmen from Washington, he became an oilman to do it right. (One of the recurrent complaints against Kennedy is that he has a deal with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for cheap oil, so his cheap oil comes at the price of supporting a ruthless tyranny. That may be so, and I make no argument for or against Citizen's Energy, but one mark of a conservative hero is that he is willing to make the difficult tradeoffs that real solutions demand. A politician ducks these choices and the responsibility they entail - when has Obama ever accepted responsibility for anything? - but the conservative hero is willing to take these decisions on board and face the consequences.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Church and Fallibility

Imagine someone hearing of Christ and his claims to be the Son of God, and goes to listen to him. Later, a friend asks him what he thinks, and he says:

"Well, I am convinced he is truly the Son of God, but I can only accept 99% of what he ways. 1% of it I find morally repugnant."

This is essentially what people are saying when they say "I'm Catholic but I think the Church is wrong about X." The Catholic Church holds itself to be authorized by Christ Himself to speak with His voice, guided by the Holy Spirit. If you think it can be mistaken on a matter of faith and morals, then it means you either think God can be mistaken about such things, or that the Catholic Church doesn't really speak with His voice. Either way, your difference with the Church's understanding of itself is not trivial but fundamental. It doesn't matter whether you disagree with 1%, 10% or 100% of the teaching; the logic follows no matter the percentage.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Do it Yourself Philosophy

David Brooks wrote an excellent column on what amounts to "do it yourself" philosophy. The money quote is:
For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview. 
It probably wasn't even a good idea for Nietzsche, who ended up in the madhouse. And I would go further than Brooks: No one has the genius to come up with a worldview purely of his own invention. In fact, it could be argued that philosophy truly began when one man - Socrates - gave up trying to construct his own worldview and decided to adopt one from someone wiser than himself.  So he went around to all those "supposed to be wise", searching for the true man of wisdom from whom he could learn. It turned out, of course, that none could withstand Socrates' cross-examination, and he came to the conclusion that no one was wise, but he at least had the advantage of not thinking himself wise when he was not. Thus did Socrates establish the communal, cultural and traditional nature of philosophy: The wise man doesn't attempt to master wisdom from scratch; he inserts himself into the ongoing cultural project of philosophy. Philosophy is a dialog, not a monologue.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Steyn, Chesterton and Monsters

Mark Steyn may be my favorite contemporary pundit, not least because I find him so "Chestertonian." Like Chesterton, he writes in an original, humorous style (not in the style of Chesterton, of course, because then he would not be original!) that clearly comes naturally to him. Also like Chesterton, he never makes a joke (or in Chesterton's case, proposes a paradox) merely for the sake of effect. And, most significantly, the lightness of his style conceals a depth of philosophical insight that is easily overlooked. Chesterton and Steyn both believe that it is culture that is most significant, and are penetrating in tracing economic or political problems back to their cultural roots. Get the culture right, and the politics and economics will take care of themselves; get the culture wrong, and the politics and economics will eventually degenerate whatever policy decisions are made. (Chesterton and Steyn are joined by JPII in this assessment)

I don't know if Steyn has ever read Chesterton; he's never referenced him to my knowledge and GKC does not appear on Steyn's list of influences. Yet occasionally Steyn seems more than merely Chestertonian; he makes a point that was earlier explicitly made by Chesterton. This happened at least once on the in-depth BookTV interview that was aired on CSPAN2 this past weekend. Steyn mentioned in passing Sesame Street and the "de-monsterization" of early childhood. Sesame Street is full of monsters but the monsters turn out to be funny and friendly or, at worst, grouchy. There are no monsters that give any hint of terror. But the world actually is replete with monsters, if by monsters we mean dangerous realities that we must respect and of which we should be "afraid, very afraid" in the old movie cliche. Presenting the appearance of danger, then undermining that appearance by revealing the monster to always be in the end harmless, is to teach a very unfortunate lesson. It is to teach that there are no genuine evils out there in the world, and that evil is always superficial.

GKC somewhere (I have not been able to dig up the quote) makes a similar point. There is no point to removing monsters from childhood stories, GKC says, because children are already aware of monsters - and that is a good thing. They are afraid of the undefined presence in the closet or under the bed before they have been told any stories. What the stories do is put a name and a shape to the menace, and show that even though the monster is genuinely evil, terrifying and apparently unstoppable, there are yet forces in the world that are good, strong, brave and dedicated to protecting the child. The stories only achieve their cathartic effect if they answer to the genuine terror the child feels; the terror in the story must be as real as the terror the child feels when he is alone in the dark, for only then can he say, yes that is the monster I dread. The child wants to see that terror faced; and a good story will leave him with both the healthy fear of the monstrous and the hope that comes from knowing that there are forces of good just as powerful, and that are on his side.

I'm not sure GKC ever anticipated the modern trend of not merely avoiding the monstrous, but of positively undermining the symbolic meaning of the monstrous. The modern idea is not to educate the young child to face the reality of the dangerous and evil, but to numb his sensibility to it by consistently undermining its symbolic manifestations. I hope GKC would be as appalled as I am by things like the Shrek series of films, which takes the ogre, a traditional symbol of dumb, brute evil, and turns him into a misunderstood outcast suffering from low self-esteem. My unrequited hope watching that film was that some real ogres from the traditional tales would show up and kick Shrek's ass on general principles.

Our natural reaction to the monstrous is to be repelled by it; as much as contemporary sensibilities don't like this, it is a healthy reaction. The monstrous is, in the strict sense, that which exists in defiance of the natural order; Frankenstein's monster is a monster because he was generated in an artificial rather than natural means, by cobbling together pieces of bodies followed by reanimation through electric shock. Now the contemporary view is correct in the sense that not everything that appears monstrous is in fact a monster (that is, evil and dangerous).  Some things that appear monstrous (e.g. the Elephant Man) are actually things that are good and deserve our kindness and compassion. And it is also true that some monsters do not appear monstrous at all, as in the apparently normal family man who is actually a serial killer (e.g. the Green River Killer). But these points may be called "advanced lessons" that can be learned only once the basic reality of the monstrous is learned; and by learned I mean conditioned into one's being so that it becomes a natural reaction. The fundamental lesson of the monster is that there are realities that are evil and dangerous and about which one must be constantly on guard; the great mistake with respect to a monster is not recognizing him before it is too late. This truth is told in devastating manner in the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein film, when a little girl befriends the monster and picks flowers with him; she meets her end in a manner not shown on camera and all the more horrifying for that.

Steyn, like Chesterton, prefers the old, robust traditional tales to modern fluff. Steyn, in fact, mentioned on BookTV that he is planning to publish an anthology of his favorite traditional tales. I look forward to it, and I hope GKC sleeps a little easier knowing someone is carrying the torch.