Ode to Richard Martin, Ph.D.

036d42d3-d105-4a9e-82c1-bcd386bceafbI tried to get this published in the Butler Eagle, the newspaper that announced his death and obituary here. Instead, I have published those thoughts about the man I knew for a short time in my formative youth on this blog.

Dear Reader,

I wanted to take a minute and tell people about Dr. Richard Martin, a political science professor at Slippery Rock University who affected my life greatly from 1999-2003 and who died two weeks ago. My decision to become a professional philosopher was greatly impacted by the single intellectual tour de force in the political science department—Dr. Martin. I took every course that Dr. Martin taught from the classical, modern, and contemporary political theory sequence, and his Vietnam, and Holocaust and Genocide classes were among the best classes I have ever had in the political science department. Because of his course sequence, I added political science as my second major to my philosophy degree. From time to time, I would be frustrated with the realities of graduate school and academic life. He would quickly respond and steer me back to where I needed to be.

Dr. Martin confronted the great evils of human beings, and told us that we must understand evil in light of the 20th century’s legacy of totalitarian terror. As a scholar on Hannah Arendt and Holocaust and Genocide studies, he would often point to her analysis of human action in the Human Condition (1958) and the condition of state-sponsored terror and violence in her highly acclaimed Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). In Arendt’s Human Condition, Dr. Martin would remind us of the fact that human beings can start anew and steer a course by restoring the conditions under which true action as starting a new beginning could emerge. For Arendt and Martin, this restoration focused on preserving the conditions in which justice and freedom could manifest in concrete space of public appearance.

Totalitarian regimes attempt to dissolve the public realm, conceal it, and push it aside where the political and the public disclosure of speech and deed cannot come to fruition. If people cannot act and disclose themselves in speech and deed, then the political realm is lost. More than that, a lack of ability to disclosure ourselves publicly also meant that we are living in a world in which human beings can become forgotten, often by the sheer terror employed by totalitarian regimes that attempted even to dissolve the natural bonds of friendship and family. Dr. Martin was the faculty representative to Amnesty International on campus, believing that all persons should never be forgotten. States that abuse human rights already act as if they have forgotten the dignity of their victims and Dr. Martin believed that all persons should be respected due to human rights.

One might think that such a direct confrontation with the legacy of genocide and terror would produce in one a tragedian spirit, a curmudgeon and pessimism that might weigh heavily on any heart. On the surface, this seemed true, but those that got to know Dr. Martin quickly learned that he wanted us, his political science students, to understand how these legacies shaped the landscape of political possibility. Much like a Zen monk who can laugh in the face of tragic suffering, he invited us alongside him to confront the intellectual legacies of these evils. He wanted his political science students to understand the structural underpinnings of those same evils. Attending Kent State during the shootings, he never forgot everyone’s name and would remind us in the example of his activism that even the United States is capable of backsliding on its promise of a “more perfect union.”

In his work and teaching, he contemplated the Holocaust and was especially known on campus for bringing in scholars and survivors of the Holocaust in a yearly Spring lecture series. He took us to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and took students to concentrations camps when teaching internationally. Because of this belief in understanding and directly engaging the radical evils of the 20th century, Dr. Martin expected us to confront it with him with an unnatural grace and an intellectual courage that seems all too absent in a world made comfortable by avoiding the uncomfortable and inhumane. He was patient and caring, always available to talk, and I cannot tell you how open he was with his time. His office hours were spent with us sitting on his couch and discussing the great texts of political theory.

Dr. Martin knew the texts of political theory in and out, and his lectures made these texts come to life. He may be an example of the last of generation of erudite professors who taught his seminars with uncanny precision and attention to the texts. In other classes, he believed in the power of reading biographies, the complement of intellectual history, political science case studies, and the study of philosophy. I saw him time and time again give paternal advice that wound up being true as his students went to DC for Congressional and policy-related internships, entered ROTC, entered the academy, and got into law school. He never shied away from telling us what he thought, and this brutal honesty reflected the charitable intellectual spirit present in how he related to his students, me included. He told me once, “Ed, you’re a philosopher, not a political theorist.” He was right, and he will be sorely missed, especially considering today’s political climate could use someone who could reflect the current events in the wisdom of the past. I can only hope to aspire to be as learned and knowledgeable as my friend and mentor, Dr. Richard Martin who taught a scrawny undergraduate from New Castle the best and worst about humanity.

Rest in Peace Richard,

J. Edward Hackett, Ph.D.
SRU Class of 2003, BA Political Science and Philosophy

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Reality as Process: A List of Propositions

All process philosophies, it seems, without exception include several propositions. I list these as follows, and in my own way suggest themes that are developing in my attention to William James, Edgar Sheffield Brightman, and Max Scheler:

1. The problem of immediate experience is a way into understanding reality as active and processive, and not only characterizing our own experiences. More succinctly put, the problem of immediate experience is a way to understand the problem of reality since it is in the part through which we characterize the whole.

2. Metaphysics starts with the immediacy of experience, and is limited by experience. For this reason, speculative metaphysics is a construction and interpretation of the most general elements of reality that we may experience and starts with the positing that all metaphysical claims are about relations. There is no single atomic unity in life or the cosmos that is not constituted by a field of relations on its own.

3. Given that the problem of immediate experience is our entrance into the speculation of totalities, a vocabulary drawn from experience and its temporal flow privilege becoming over static being. In this way, the true dynamism of reality is rendered in any conceptual scheme we propose. All concepts and understandings are within the temporal flow of time and space, and the tendency of human thought to reify aspects of our relations has been the mistake since Plato. Overturning this dangerous tendency is the goal of the process philosopher. Reifications of speculation and passing them off as the only dogmatic truth breeds a tribalism and inhospitality that damages our ability to live alongside each other peacefully. In this way, process philosophy is always a way into peace, a reminder of the necessity of a shared cosmopolitanism which I take to be the only solution going forward in the United States. All forms of problem-solving must start, therefore, with the other in mind.

4. Relative-stability is never absolute-stability. There is no pure stasis, no immutable essence, except the description of the varying degrees of relative stability. Relative stability is the quasi-permanence of a structure relative to the human experience and inference about its structure we take from metaphysical and scientific descriptions. For instance, a river may cut and alter the landscape. To us, it is relatively-stable since such changes do not drastically change our experience in our lifetime. There will be changes, however, to entire ecosystems given that the event of its structure is in constant relation to geophysical changes that take place for us in the inferences of geologic time. Materiality thus expresses varying degrees of stability in which change manifests. Some relations are more easily recognized in terms of the varying degrees of process and change inherent in what is being described.

5. Relatively-stable entities are made up and causally in relation to the entire multiverse.

6. By multiverse, I mean the many different qualitative ways and richness in how our relations may be experienced (and thus interpreted). I do not mean separate physical dimensions and universes as expressed in popular fiction. The many different ways in which the same irreducible content may be interpreted generates a pluralism on its own.

7. There is no absolute pluralism in which reality is completely incommensurable. Complete incommensurability is undermined by the manner in which our shared human experience tends (but does not have to) focus on present existential needs. What makes existentialism somewhat true is the shared attention to what we all have a selective interest in focusing the fields of our attention on, and thus generating cultural ways of coping with those same existential needs. The philosophical differences are the various manners in which various systems – whether religious ways of life like Christianity, Buddhism etc. and philosophical ways of being, say Stoicism, or more secular and creative ways like artistic exploration map onto our lived-experience. Given that these systems speak to some without causing harm to others, then there is a degree of pluralism. In fact, we do not have access to reality in a static form to privilege any of these forms of life. We can only pragmatically assess them in terms of how they generate consequences and thus ethics, not metaphysics, is what limits the incommensurability we often find between the various orthopraxies generated in culture and within religion.

8. Built into human experience are the various forms of life. Forms of life generate particular applications of universal moral principles that are discovered by the rational form of human experience, which we may call the form of human life. The form of human life is the phenomenologically constitutive feature of all human experiences that is reflected at the level of moral consciousness inside time. Many people confuse forms of life and the application and the moral principles that describe, at bottom, the form of human life. In a way, morality is more closely known than forms of life, which are not the same. Morality is the form of human life, and cannot every be exhaustively prescriptive. Instead, morality is, at best, a regulative set of principles that are primitively basic to the form of human life, detectable by phenomenological intuition of our shared affective experience and then reflected upon in terms of its coherence. Morality is an expression of human intrapersonal relations, common lived realities of our shared embodiedness, and the vulnerability we all share in relation to each other. The form of human life is the absolute containing set of all other forms of life that inhabit the form of human life. Forms of life refer, then, to the socio-political and economic arrangements that delivers the necessities of civilization and all conceptual tensions and ruptures the principles of the form of human life generate in terms of how we organize the very materiality of our societies.

9. Given the limitations of experience and the tendency to reify aspects of experience, which may also change, we must be open to the possibility that the universe may change in some fashion beyond our ken to know. For this reason, we must be open to the proposition that just because something is not actual does not mean that the actuality is never possible. All possibilities are, therefore, actual, even if not actualized. In this way, contained at the kernel of the universe is an organicity unearthed by Whitehead. The universe is James’s stream, the Heraclitean river which may cut this way or that, and our humility in acknowledging this fact is a metaphysical recognition in the vast cosmological streams ability to flow differently than we might suspect.

Philosophizing about Game of Thrones

Terry Gilliam once remarked the purpose of fantasy was to set stories in absolute extreme. These extremes most often reflect some concrete aspect of ourselves, whether in society at large or in us. wizard_by_adam_brown_d3iiyfb-350tIn fantasy, you can contemplate any absurd metaphysical idea because the premise of fantasy is to suspend disbelief entirely. The only question is: What are you asked to suspend disbelief in? That’s what I have been wondering with Game of Thrones lately. Unlike science fiction, you do not need to justify technologies or abilities. With fantasy, you’re granted a carte blanche with the imagination from the get-go.

From the outside looking in, it looks as if there are many will-to-powers vying for domination in a Hobbesian universe of self-interested agents. I read the first book and thought it was Hobbesian, so I put it down during my MA. I saw the first episode and never watched it again. Misogyny, incest, and gratuitous scenes aplenty made it the old HBO show Rome but with a fantasy setting. GoT was part of that standard set by Peter Jackson, too. You do as much literal translation from the books onto the screens as you can.

Now, it may seem I am hating on your lovely Geek consumption. But this is a serious question I am posing to philosophers (and to philosophically inclined-friends about Geek culture). Why do you find GoT so gripping and what do you think the HBO writers and/or Martin are asking you to suspend disbelief in? I also question this as someone who is now publishing my first fantasy stories of my own, writing some others, and with whom the crafting of fantasy stories in classic tabletop RPG stories has been happening since I was 14. I am in no way questioning the legitimacy of your love, but wondering if I am alone in observing its Hobbesian and groundless overtones.

It could be that I am a romantic. You made it this far in a facebook post, so I will close with a thought. In Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and even in something as kitschy as Dragonlance, there’s a magical system of reality, some unseen Force, or way the world is that joins characters, plot, and the whole of that fictional universe. These are devices introduced to set the limit of what the characters can do. From a writing perspective, you almost always build up a system of reality to govern the fictional aspects of your world, not just the powers or magic employed by the characters. Instead, you also look to the universe, what its structure is, and you decide things like do we have infinity stones in it or not or do spells come from power stored up in spell stones? Was magick given to mortals by the Gods? You build a world from the ground up.

In Book 1, Martin didn’t seem to do that with reality or an overall magick system. He instead justified a cynical view of human beings predicated on the absence of morality and anything transcendent in the human experience. In effect, Martin’s universe is nihilistic, and the nihilism of the universe might also reflect at the very least you find that nihilism entertaining. This is not to say you are nihilist, but there’s something about it at the very least that keeps you watching, a productive nihilism found consumable in the advanced stages of late stage capitalism, or just an anti-realist embrace that there’s no morality but only varying degrees of social relations mediated by power in specific contexts. I wonder what that does to someone. Maybe you ‘re not bothered by the lack of morality.

By contrast, I am obviously a romantic with fantasy writing. This may well track my Continental awkwardness of embracing forms of what analytic philosophers would call versions of moral realism. My fantasy world of Apeiron is filled with Taoist themes (Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy is still an all time favorite), ideas of interdependency, and people who think they can understand the whole. There’s an excessive oversimplifcation between light and dark, good and evil. I’m given to these pretenses as well in fantasy writing since it is a pure fantasy that metaphysics prior to James could ever be achieved in the way those metaphysicians desired. Fantasy writing is a way to retrieve what we lost with Nietzsche, Kant, James, and Heidegger–the ability to lay claim to a conception of metaphysics that could access reality as it was in itself. Metaphysics is a poetics or theopoetics of the D20.

Paul Taylor’s Hermeneutic Violence to King’s Personalism

imagesIn this post, I want to talk about Paul Taylor’s treatment of Martin Luther King’s political philosophy. Taylor will read King through Stanley Cavell’s proposed Emersonian perfectionism rather than the personalism he attempts to displace away from King. In this post, I talk about the hoops Taylor struggles with the personalist aspects of King.

To be fair, reading King and translating King’s philosophical thought in his sermons through his intellectual background is a daunting task. The daunting task comes from King’s rhetoric changed depending upon who he was addressing and what resources he employed with those audiences. Taylor’s struggles are a matter of translating what concepts may appear useful in King’s political philosophy away from the religiously-centered King to a more useful King for less religious and secularly-minded people. However, this translational work in King also does hermeneutic violence to the true personalist King Taylor wants to lay claim to. Thus, there’s a problem about interpretation and just exactly how one should interpret King’s writings in the first place.

When we attempt to read a philosopher differently and still call our philosophy by the eponym of the target of our thinking, we should read that philosopher through what I have called the principle of hermeneutic charity. We should seek to reconstruct King’s thoughts in the philosophical vocabulary he employed rather than displacing the philosopher’s thought away from the agency of the thinker and his or her employed vocabulary. In this way, we do less hermeneutic violence in interpreting King by being intellectually honest about the theological contexts that shaped King’s thought. Specifically, we would never find an Emersonian perfectionist reading adequate because the damage done to King in Taylor’s reading is proposing the importance of moral character development without thinking about the central place of love in King. However, agapic love comes with heavy Christian and personalist strings attached.

This transgression would not be a problem if Taylor did not struggle so much with the religiously-minded King with such drastic textual gestures. Taylor is fully aware that many consider King through a personalist lens otherwise he wouldn’t struggle so much with his neglect of King as a personalist. In “Moral Perfectionism” Taylor should have simply said that he was extracting a Kingian-inspired account of Emersonian perfectionism rather than insist he is simply “teasing out political-theoretic import of [King’s shift from personalism] to social action.” And he continues, “I want to understand how this shift bears on the work of democratic living, and how in doing so, it positions King as someone through whom and with whom our political thinkers might continue to reflect and converse.”[1] In this essay, I argue that Taylor cannot tease apart the personalism from the shift to political philosophy via secular political philosophy. To do so weirdly colonizes King’s thought away from the historical impetus to something else entirely.

In this way, Taylor’s struggle with King is a projection of what I think might be Taylor’s own problems with religion. At the very least, he wants to redeem a King that doesn’t exist for philosophical positions that would find King a conversational partner in political theory. I find this move problematic since I do not know why political theory is necessarily secular as if the work of political theology is itself not part of political theory. Next, I am not too sure if political theory is also just a designation for Anglophone analytic political philosophy and why policing the boundaries between ethical theory and religious ethicists is even needed. What’s clear is that Taylor is trying to redeem some aspect of King’s political philosophy while displacing the personalistic theist King aside for a Kingian political philosophy and King that frankly does not exist at all. This tension is revealed below because of how much time Taylor spends on the attempt to justify ignoring King’s own self-description as a personalist for something more comfortable. This move says something more about the state of contemporary philosophy’s intolerance for both intellectual history and the legitimacy of religion as providing the backdrop to understanding King.

Taylor’s proposed goal is to preserve some elements of King’s personalism and pivot to political theory,

Making the turn to political theory sets the stage for the reading I propose to give. King is widely regarded as a personalist, and in fact regarded himself in this way. Personalism—or, as he sometimes put it, personal idealism—constituted his “basic philosophical position.” I would like my reading to do justice to King’s personalist commitments, while distilling from his mix of metaphysical, theological, and ethical commitments     a more straightforward approach to political life.[2]

In other words, the straightforward approach will be one that attempts to deny King’s own philosophical vocabulary and historical horizon in which King’s own ideas are mediated for an atrocious abstraction that is not the real King at all, but a fabrication guilty of hermeneutic violence done to King. What I find puzzling is that someone can read King contrary to what King claimed as his own “basic philosophical position.” What’s more, Taylor doesn’t even find the personalist King wanting since that would have been a much more honest engagement with the horizon of King’s own self-understanding. Instead as Taylor insists, “I have never quite known what to do with personalism, in part, because of the tendency of its adherents, including King, to define it in terms that are utterly unhelpful outside theological contexts.”[3] How does one know if it is useful or unuseful if one never engages it in the first place? Next, the theological context is the philosophical context just as it was for the very personalists that foreshadowed King’s arrival to Boston University. Border Parker Bowne and Edgar Sheffield Brightman were both Methodist ministers that wrote and taught philosophy. Why deny this basic fact of King’s writings as well (a point we will talk about much later in this essay from which this post is borrowed)? Taylor never gives an adequate response. He simply goes on ignoring the personalist King while stressing about the fact that he is ignoring the personalist King.

Taylor proposes to ignore the personalist King at all costs by “appealing to ethical and political traditions I know” and he continues, “I present this as a confession because it is surely a limitation of my own training, and perhaps an indication of the narrowness of my ethical vision.”[4] If that’s all it took to engage in a reading of a philosopher than why not read King through Dogen’s Shobogenzo or Nietzschean nihilism? Why claim to be doing conceptual translational work from theology to a more secular political philosophy if you don’t understand what type of framework you are translating from? At the very least, Derrida would be more honest in his creative playfulness and deconstructionist readings because Derrida never denied his creative efforts as if they were a presentation of the original author. Deconstructionists are honest about their philosophical claims regarding textual interpretation and language. For them, there is no access to the original interpretation of the author in deconstructionist thinking.

Barring the fact that neither Taylor nor I are deconstructionists, Taylor is worse than Derrida passing off how scholars are trained as the very limit of whether or not someone should do the type of historical and developmental approach to understanding King’s writings. Clearly, he’s aware of his own neglect of King’s personalism, and he continues anyway much like the first-year surgeon in Gray’s Anatomy that must continue to prove himself despite knowing full well that he does not have the prerequisite knowledge to continue onward. At this point, Taylor’s own intellectual biography becomes a source of confession and struggle. Two paragraphs later, he continues in the same way as he did above. He writes,

It might be better if I were trained more broadly, and if more of the people who share my training were fluent across epistemic and institutional borders I’m marking now. But many of us are not, which means that my confession of incomprehension is a placeholder for a wider institutional failure of translation, or a marker of my membership in an intellectual community that needs this translation [of personalism into more secularized political theory].[5]

In this passage, Taylor’s confession is a limit one finds typically in Anglophone analytic philosophy. He disburdens himself from the very obligation to read more widely while also believing himself to be doing translational work of the personalist King for a secular audience. If someone realizes they aren’t trained more broadly or that there are institutional failures more widely considered, then pick up a personalist text and do the hermeneutic work necessary to understand King in his context and in the horizon of ideas that shaped his thinking! Why pass off intellectual biography and laziness as a virtue and give yourself permission to engage King while knowing fully well that you are operating with this shortcoming in mind? More than that, why not seek to read perfectionism through the personalist King at all?

Still, it’s not as if Taylor doesn’t try to preserve some semblance of King’s personalist commitments, even if his understanding of those claims falls way short of the mark. He lists three basic commitments of the personalist tradition. “This tradition (1) insists on the dignity of individuals, (2) puts individuals at the center of sociopolitical life, and (3) understands individuals not just as abstract centers of value but also as distinct personalities in need of self-directed actualization.”[6] These claims are seen by Taylor as kind of moral perfectionism, and thus he does not preserve any of these claims in their personalist lens. He jumps completely for his own type of perfectionism; he will come back to interpreting the true King when he anticipates objections to his proposed perfectionism. His anticipations to the objections will also repeatedly make the same gestures he did in the beginning of his essay.

NOTES

[1] Paul Taylor, “Moral Pefectionism” in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King ed. Tommy Shelby and Brand Terry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), p. 39.

[2] Taylor, Moral Perfectionism, p. 37.

[3] Taylor, Moral Perfectionism, p. 37.

[4] Taylor, Moral Perfectionism, p. 38.

[5] Taylor, Moral Perfectionism, p. 38.

[6] Taylor, Moral Perfectionism, p. 39. These three points sound much like Rufus Burrow’s descriptions of personalism. Taylor cites Burrow’s work only once, and it’s not clear if these points are derived from his God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006

A Recent Defense of the Humanities at Brandeis University

Leon Wieseltier defends the humanities at Brandeis University in a commencement speech. I have heard all of these thoughts before, a watered-down version of Heidegger’s critique of technology. In critiquing instrumentalist technocratic reason, Wieseltier came to the following conclusion.  Notice he claims the following on American philosophy:

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning—to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality—modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness—and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.

I have heard this for years as if the pragmatist is guilty of heralding this change–this is a reading coming mostly from the critical theorist circles. As if what pragmatist asks of its community of inquiry is complicit with the denigration of non-instrumental reasoning and propagating the practical is symptomatic.

What Wiseltier fails to realize is that there is more attention to inquiry in James and Dewey than simply seeing it producing the symptom of the practical. Our concepts map onto practical outcomes. If they don’t, then are they useful? In seeking out ideas, however, James, Bowne, Howison all met in Boston between 1878-1882 at the Temple Street rooms for weekly philosophy meetings. Howison and Bowne reacted to Hegelian pantheism and Spencer’s Darwinistic materialism. James did the same. In effect, one cannot say that these philosophers in American philosophy foreshadowed a doom and gloom to that which we find ourselves now. To insist upon that uncritically is to have no idea about the personal lives of American philosophers that were doing more for philosophy and the life of letters than foreshadowing the stupid critique that gets thrust upon them from what sounds like regurgitated anti-pragmatism one finds in the likes of Adorno. I want to be clear that I know nothing of Wiseltier’s personal and theoretical commitments. I am only speaking about where I have heard similar dismissals before, and why Wiseltier’s dismissal is just as bad as those other dismissals.

This is not to say that I disagree with Wiseltier in spirit. I disagree with such a blatant statement of disregard for what the American philosophers set out to do. But such a lens also comes from thinking about the range of philosophy done in Boston in the 1870s up until Brightman’s death in 1953 involving the complex range of personal idealists, pragmatic idealists, American realists, American pragmatists, multiculturalists like Alain Locke, Dubois as America’s first empirically-informed sociologist and policy advocate, and the later process realists like Whitehead. In effect, the life of ideas in American philosophy is so rich that Wiseltier’s commencement speech is a strawman of that complexity. The fact that Americans writ large do not like philosophy, find it valuable, and there is a downplaying of the cultural importance of philosophy are problems much larger than can adequately be addressed in a commencement speech. One shouldn’t help what you’re critiquing by false gestures. Such gestures do not work.

 

Problem of Immediate Experience and Its Kantian Backdrop

In this post, I simply want to delineate what I take to be the problem that most fascinates me, and when I take a step back from the central thinkers in the pragmatist and phenomenological traditions, what we are left with is precisely the problem of immediate experience.

Before outlining the problem, let me offer some brief remarks about the historical situation that conditons all thinking on this issue. The Kantian baggage cannot be shed. As we stand in the midst of Western philosophy, there are two options, both mutually exclusive under one interpretation, before us. This need not be the only option. On the one hand, we can use theoretical speculation from the third-personal viewpoint—most often a form of naturalism—and imagine human beings as just another object in the causal nexus of the universe. From this third personal viewpoint, the problem of immediate experience is solved from without and outside exploring the internal contours of what it means to see human life in a personal way.

From the first-personal viewpoint, as Kant describes, I am aware of myself as an acting being. I can construct rational means to achieve ends. I can give myself reasons for acting. I desire. I love. I hate. I condemn. I resist. In all of this, both the phenomenological traditions and the Jamesian pragmatist offer explicit resources for the first personal sphere to be analyzed. In conceiving myself from the first personal sphere, the personalist acts as if the person is free. From within, it looks very much so. From without, it looks as if we are not free. Which one is true?

This is known as Kant’s Third Antinomy of Pure Reason. For Kant, speculative reason can imagine both problems and vantage points. Moreover, the solution is nowadays almost always neuro-something, neuro-focused, privileging the uncritical acceptance of the third-personal naturalism that filters our theorizing and knowing about personal life from without while being trapped within. However, Husserl’s redemptive fact cannot be ignored. The fact that I think neuroscientific findings apply to my experience X is itself a subjective accomplishment. In fact, all knowledge is an achievement from the subject who learns it, discovers it, researches it, or disconfirms it. The point is endlessly simple.

The first-personal must take primacy. The fact that all knowledge is mediated by a subject who lives through it, experiences it, will experience it, and has experienced it is a transcendental feature of third-personal knowledge. Third-personal knowledge itself is, therefore, not that which engenders, but that which arises out of the constituting subject. This was Husserl’s insight. It was not that Husserl had a hard time with naturalism itself, but the uncritical attitude that all objects of knowledge can explain all aspects of experience while forgetting the constituting role played by intentional consciousness. In effect, we live within immediacy and it is only from abstracting away from immediate experience that we posit the third-personal. While from within, we suffer from the illusion we act as if we are free. This should be reversed. While from without, we suffer from the illusion we are conditioned as if we are unfree, determined in relation to other causal objects.

The problem of immediate experience falls on two fault lines. The first-fault line is more ontological. First, what is the nature of experience? Second, what are the contents of immediate experience? The second fault line is an operative one, much like what Eugene Fink called constitution in Husserl, but which also goes along with the de-centeralizing of epistemology as a primary concern one sees in James and Dewey. The fact that we can provide an ontological interpretation of experience contaminates already the primacy of the modernist story of how epistemology displaces metaphysics (for example how Hume’s theory of knowledge provides reasons for interpreting the world’s ontological categories as demystified) This second concern is: How does experience function? The problem of immediate experience is what philosophy must speak to if philosophy claims to be any of the following: 1) an analysis of lived-experience and the socio-historic elements of personal life, 2) phenomenological description in which I intend phenomena in bodily, affective, temporal or other modes of givenness, 3) the conceivable effects of one’s own ideas, 4) the nature of language in terms of its hermeneutic background and deployment in interpretation, 5) the organism’s relation and transactions with various aspects/affordances of its environment, 6) an intuition and subsequent reflection into the rational nature of the developing coherent whole, and 7) the invention of concepts in a Deleuzian sense.

I have spent numerous hours within 2). Now I find myself gravitating towards 6). What happened in my thinking wherein I find myself tending towards speculative system-building and coherentism. It had to be Whitehead and Brightman. In Whitehead’s first chapter in Process and Reality, Whitehead advocates for a right to speculation that we find in principle experimental in James. Insofar as you treat metaphysical interpretations of reality as hypotheses, one can endorse speculation as a right because there is no principled way to tell which metaphysical system best expresses an analysis of the whole known from the parts you’ve experienced. What’s clear, however, is that any proposed metaphysical system must start with experience. That much seems clear, even if anything beyond that is not.

Verification Processes, Radical Empiricism and Truth Part 3

250px-Raphael_School_of_Athens_MichelangeloIn two previous posts, I have hinted at the thesis of this section, here and here. One reason initially to unite process-language and offer some rudimentary thoughts about truth is that the same tension in James’s inarticulate answer to what verification processes are in Pragmatism is everywhere in his Meaning of Truth as it is in Perry’s assembled Essays in Radical Empiricism. In this section, I will attempt to map out that relation.

Initially, someone may historically object to reading the doctrine of radical empiricism back into Pragmatism to arrive at a clearer conception of what James meant by truth. Within Pragmatism, James had urged his readers to separate out radical empiricism from his pragmatism. Let’s call this the disconnect thesis.

To avoid one misunderstanding at least, let me say that there is no logical connection between pragmatism, as I understand it, and a doctrine which I have recently set forth as ‘radical empiricism.’ The latter stands on its own feet. One may entirely reject it and still be a pragmatist.[1]

Two years later in 1909, James inextricably links pragmatism to radical empiricism. In The Meaning of Truth, radical empiricism is first a postulate, a statement of fact, and a generalized conclusion. Let me reproduce this lengthy passage below. It is the most important passage to delineate what James had in mind in the final view of his metaphysics:

The postulate is that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms draw from experience.

The statement of fact is that the relations between things, conjunctive, as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less than the things themselves.

The generalized conclusion is that therefore the parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves parts of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous transempirical connective support, but possesses in itso won right a concatenated or continuous structure.[2]

Why the tension in James? Why did James temporarily abandon teasing out his views when talking about pragmatism to this particular audience and then embrace once again what he what he suspended in Pragmatism? Assembled by Ralph Barton Perry, James’s Essays in Radical Empiricism come from works written between 1904-1906 while simultaneously working out and eventually publishing his Pragmatism in 1907. Seemingly, James intended that radical empiricism be connected to his pragmatism in the final view. By the time we get to the publication of The Meaning of Truth (1909) and A Pluralistic Universe (1909), James develops his metaphysics of experience at the very tail end of his life after thinking through radical empiricist theme even well before Pragmatism in the mid-1890s when he mentions radical empiricism in the Introduction of Will to Believe and Other Popular Essays in Philosophy (1897).

Second, the historical literature does not extricate pragmatism from James’s radical empiricism. In the original Longman and Green version of Essays in Radical Empiricism, Ralph Barton Perry noted that the statement of radical empiricism as a postulate indicates that pragmatism and radical empiricism “come to the same thing” and are closely allied.[3] John McDermott states in the Introduction to Essays in Radical Empiricism in the Harvard edition, “I would submit my own opinion that acceptance of a radically empirical doctrine of relations is necessary if the pragmatic method is to prevail.”[4] David Lamberth states the pragmatic principle “fits hand in glove with the view advanced in in his radical empiricism.”[5] Charlene Haddock Seigfried agrees and readily applies James’s “pragmatic method as an aspect of his radical empiricism”[6] since “radical empiricism includes both the pragmatic method and the principle of pure experience.”[7] All in all, radical empiricism is the glue that held together, even when James presented his own doctrine of pragmatism. The best inference is that he never abandons radical empiricism, but rather wanted to try and defend pragmatism on its own grounds in Pragmatism without reference to it. In doing so, Pragmatism breaks down, often employing metaphors of process and experience that he never abandons in radical empiricism and ultimately remain unclear when Pragmatism concerns truth. This is why James, I feel, rearticulates the language of radical empiricism back into The Meaning of Truth which he admits is the natural sequel Pragmatism.

Finally, let me reproduce the central passage that ultimately connects truth to which has motivated the thesis regarding this paper:

…let the word ‘truth’ represent a property of the idea, cease to make it something mysteriously connected with the object known, and the path opens far and wide, as I believe, to the discussion of radical empiricism on its merits. The truth of an idea will then mean only its workings, or that in its which by ordinary psychological laws set up those workings; it will mean neither the ideas objects, nor anything salutatory inside the idea, that terms drawn from experience cannot describe.[8]

In the above passage, truth is property of an idea in that property is not understood here as in the age-old way that properties are understood as predicates describing some state of affairs that fix upon some state of affairs independently of both context and the direct experience of the phenomenon in question. Instead, the truth is found in a relation, and only a relation of a particular fact of experience will suffice. More than that, the relation explains how it is that the idea is interpretable and true. The truth does not come from the intelligibility supplied by the idea itself as one might claim under the general heading of rationalism or some type of idealism. In his A Pluralistic Universe, James’s delimits reality to where truth can occur. On this James wrote, “reality [is] where things happen, all temporal reality without exception.”[9] He continues, “I myself find no good warrant for even suspecting the existence of any reality of higher denomination than that distributed and strung-along and flowing sort of reality which we finite beings swim in.”[10] Instead, an idea is synonymous with belief. Beliefs occur only in the relational processes that James attempted to describe in his Pragmatism in the boundaries of the conceivable effect of experience itself. These processes are bound by all versions in which radical empiricism is introduced in James’s writings. The real question that faces us is thus: What are experience and felt relations which radical empiricism consists?

In his “Does Consciousness Exist,” James italicizes his definition of experience. Experience “is a member of diverse processes that can be followed away from it along entirely different lines.”[11] The heart of his conception is a functionally neutral conception. James will deny there is anything like a pure consciousness posited by Kant, but instead insist that consciousness is only functional.[12] Consciousness is thought and content in function only.[13] First, one could follow it to the thought-object, the idea one finds in the examples of rationality in such thinkers as Descartes or the Absolute spirit of Hegel, or one could see not just the thought content, but the actual sensory object in the world that may have given rise to the idea also. For this reason we can say that in the Essays in Radical Empiricism James is wedging his radical empiricism as a philosophy between two extremes. On the one hand, there is the rationalism, and on the other hand, there is the British empiricism that posits a full discontinuity of radically separate and atomic sensations.[14] He introduces his most fully fleshed out conception in “A World of Pure Experience,”

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as “real” as anything in the system.[15]

Radical empiricism is, therefore, introduced as a way to critique our access to a constantly changing reality that we experience through our experiential capacities but also at the same time we do not have access to a static reality as the rationalists have posited since Plato. Instead, we experience relations. This cuts all the way down for James. The diverse processes of experience become “a process in time, whereby innumerable particulars lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them in transitions, which whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content.”[16]

We can denounce any metaphysical fiction like the transcendental apperception of Kant. “That entity is fictitious, while thoughts in the concrete are fully real. But thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are.”[17] Overcoming the difference between thought and thing is a crucial point of attempting to forge ahead with a functional and neutral conception of experience—very similar to the neutrality claims offered by Husserl in describing the intentional relation as the goal of phenomenological analyses and what Whitehead resisted in what he called the “bifurcation of nature.” There is no gap between thought and thing if we are neutral monists about the primal stuff of thought and thing.

To say that experience consists of relations in time, however, invites what most people find skeptical about James’s theory of truth. Doesn’t the fact that we experience only relations bring too much of the “trail of the human serpent” into the beliefs we construct? Not necessarily. Given that all we can know is what is directly experienced and that these experiences contain the basic units of felt relations indicates that the human experience is one of coordination and action, even with the most universal or abstract ideas. They are cut out of the streaming flow of experience. The beliefs we form are “most true which most successfully dip back into the finite stream of feeling and grow most easily confluent…they lead us, successfully or unsuccessfully, back into sensible experience again.”[18] In this way, beliefs are tested as true and false from which they came and return within the limits of experience itself. James is always returning to sensible experience as the termini of meaning, but he is also never leaving the field of immediate flux.

In this field of immediate flux, we encounter particular thats and whats.[19] We do not deduce or apprehend entire abstracta. Instead, all beliefs and ideas come because they arise out of the need within human life in the field of our attention. When it looks as if the concepts point to some immutable and permanent aspect of reality, the concepts are at this point a reification, a distortion. In A Pluralistic Universe, James says far from “being interpreters of reality concepts negate the inwardness of reality altogether.”[20] What happens is that the concepts make it look as if no relation is experienced, and the first-person perspective is all but lost when conceptual reification occurs. Out of these relations, there are only two varieties. “Far back as we go, the flux, both as a whole and in its parts is that of things conjunct [conjunctive relations] and separated [disjunctive relations].”[21] The most specific place James describes conjunctive relations is in his “A World of Pure Experience.”

Conjunctive relations are the manner in which we can add to the quality of our own experience. In listing the types, James seems to think there are gradations of intimacy that make up what conjunctive relations can be. The possible types of conjunctive relations are listed in the most external and lacking intimacy to the most intimate. These species of possible conjunctive relations might fall under the head: self-to-object relations. First, we can be with another. This is the most basic and external relation possible. Second, we can experience time-intervals and simultaneity. Third, James lists space-adjacency. Then, there are relations of activity; these seem to involve tying terms of relation to change, tendency, resistance, and causal order more generally.[22] These are the external elements of experiencing our own cognition in relation to objects in time. The final relations are experienced terms in relation to states of mind. These self-to-self relations consist of “systems of memories, purposes, strivings, fulfillments or disappointments” and “they suffuse each other’s being.”[23] Let me repeat them into the list below for greater clarity. Each of the following relations may express a truthful relation.

Self-to-object relations (1-4)

(1) Relations of withness entailing all external relations

(2) Relations of simultaneity and time-intervals

(3) Relations of spatiality

(4) Relations of activity: change, tendency, resistance, and causation

(5) Self-to-self Relations: all modes of conscious acts including memories, purposes, strivings, fulfillments, disappointments. All of these may co-penetrate with each other.[24]

Disjunctive relations seem to consist of that which breaks up the conjunctive relationship in the previous list. When I turn my attention from one object to another. That is, when I am paying attention to my experience of say a painting, and you turn me away to ask where in Chicago we may be eating. You turn my attention to another field of concern. As James put it, “Taken as it does appear, our universe is to a large extent chaotic. No one single type of connection runs through all the experiences that compose it.”[25] Paintings and concerns about where we will be eating are finite strands of connection. The moments that break up the unity of our field of attention are as equally respected as the episodic character of unities of connections. Some parts of the cosmos hang together while others parts remain separate and have no overall relation.

Moreover, the particular that and whats acquire significance in my field of attention—what James will eventually call percepts. They stand out against a background that my field of attention selects as interesting. “Each partial process, to him who lives through it, defines itself by its origin and goal.”[26] When we notice a percept, when something catches our eye, and when we experience the activity of meaning-making “in this actual world of ours, as it is given, a part of that activity comes with a definite direction; it comes with a desire and a sense of goal.”[27] There’s no real story about why we find some aspects of the immediate flux more significant than other aspects that grip my attention apart from the customs and habits that may underlie my community. Instead, James offers us only that it is phenomenologically given with such a background relief of felt relations. We can speculate that there can be more pragmatic benefit that some aspects enter my selective interest and the more advantageous to future action, the more common these habits will be (such as the belief in a type of logic or mathematics).

Within The Meaning of Truth, we get a better description of the affective intentionality and cognitivism inherent in “The Function of Cognition” James’s account than what we get in the Essays in Radical Empiricism. In that essay, James explains that idea = feeling, and if our beliefs can be used with ideas interchangeably than our first encounter with the world in the act and object felt relationship consists of affectivity more generally. Affectivity enables the precondition for selective interest. For this pre-reflective affectivity, “some feelings are cognitive and some are simple facts having a subjective or…physical existence.”[28] The very meaning and content of feeling is its quality and accordingly the quality we feel is the feeling that concerns our existence. Put more directly, “not only that feeling is cognitive, but that all qualities of feeling so long as there is anything outside of them which they resemble, are feelings of qualities of existence, and perceptions of outward fact.”[29] In this way, James’s affective intentionality resembles Heidegger’s affective attunement (Befindlichkeit) or Scheler’s intentional feeling. The buzzing and booming confusion of our infant minds immediately relates through a feeling that takes its cue and conditions the attentive field to what it regards—later on James will call this our teleological mind. Moreover, James’s term “pure experience” in his Essays in Radical Empiricism is, as he reminds us, “but another name for feeling or sensation,” and from this “immediate flux of life” – or feeling so understood – that “furnishes the material to our late reflection with its conceptual categories.”[30] From the felt relations of our percepts, we develop concepts; it’s never the other way around.

Concepts never come without the affective background from which the existential a priori feeling and interests illuminate in our percepts. What’s more, these are the very mechanisms that illustrate his critique of vicious intellectualism, rationalism, and Hegelian idealistic monisms—these varying philosophical positions all have one thing in common. They substitute a concept for the concrete particular that and whats we relate towards. In substituting a concept, they convince us of speculative coherent systems, leading us away from the concrete world and imagining/positing an access to a rational reality we have no access save the conceivable effects such beliefs generate. One could object that don’t we find triangles and mathematical truths to be an example of the eternal. James answers that these beliefs about triangles and genera are our own choice “to keep them invariant.”[31] We can decree that no other idea we make will have an altering effect. These invariant concepts are our own constructions, produced for the usefulness they lead to. By returning to concrete experience, we know all things by direct acquaintance and then abstract from that flux to form concepts.

We form concepts, in part, because we found out that not only do we experience concrete particulars, but we encounter James’s notion of truth in resistance to idealistic monism of F. H. Bradley in both The Meaning of Truth and the Essays in Radical Empiricism. Since Bradley admits that our intellect is practical, James insists that “immediate experience has to be broken into subjects and qualities, terms and relations to be understood as truth at all.”[32] Truths have to be workable, broken down into manageable chunks. In The Meaning of Truth, truth is seen as a working out our ideas. Given that truth is not a question of accessing the really-real, then, true beliefs are not a matter of copying reality or reaching a point of access we do not possess. Rather, truth is described in exactly the same way that radical empiricism describes conjunctive relations. “Truth we conceive to mean everywhere, not duplication, but addition; not constructing inner copies of already completed realities, but rather the collaborating with realities so as to bring about a clearer result.”[33] In this way, the realities we feel to exist are a matter of adjustment and experiment, and only after going through James’s radical empiricism can we even see that the emphasis of additive reality clearly linking radical empiricism and his notion of truth.

What’s more, this sense of additive reality is everywhere in discussions of truth. For instance, some aspects of reality are generated by the “accumulation of our own intellectual inventions, and the struggle for truth in our progressive dealings with it is always a struggle to work in new nouns and adjectives while altering as little as possible the old.”[34] Notice, James does not think this is exhaustive of all types of knowledge, but in the sense that our subjectivity contributes to the meaning and sense of how we take reality to be and the progressive dealings in the practical aims and habits fostered by truth itself. Truth becomes and is made because of this additive aspect of meaning-making. For this reason, truth is a progressive and additive notion. This is what James Campbell describes as the contributing case of truth.

By contrast, James also accepts the scientific and objective status of mind-independent facts. While his critics may constantly regard James’s notion of truth as he describes notions of values and faith, James’s notion of truth is not just in terms of his contributive cases. Instead, James also accepts what Campbell describes as recording cases of truth. These are cases where we do accept “that reality is ‘independent’ means there is something in every experience that escapes our arbitrary control. If it be a sensible experience, it coerces our attention; if a sequence, we cannot invert it; if we compare two terms we can come to only one result.” Mt. Everest is only so high, and there are only a few tested paths to the summit. Even if our will is strong, an impending storm may block our ascent. If lava has burnt through the road and cut us off from driving on the road, then we cannot cross its path without putting ourselves in danger. These facts escape our arbitrary control. For this reason, “we submit to them, take account of them, whether we like it or not.”[35] We respond to the reality of the present and these truthful facts constitute not only our responses but how others also regard recording cases and contributing cases. In James’s “Humanism of Truth,” then, truth means “a relation of less fixed parts of experience to other relatively more fixed parts,” and truth as this event means nothing more than “a relation of experience as such to anything beyond itself.”[36] By confusing recording cases for contributing cases, James’s critics fail much like how he himself described his contemporary critics thinking that truth and experience function like a “rudderless raft of our experience” drifting “everywhere and nowhere.”[37]

[1] James, Pragmatism, 6.

[2] James, Meaning of Truth, [7] 173. Italics in this citation are mine.

[3] Ralph Barton Perry, Preface to Essays in Radical Empiricism (New York: Longmans and Green, 1912), vi. Perry also outlines the necessity for following that James’s theory of truth relies upon a theory of relations.

[4] John McDermott, “Introduction” in The Collected Works of William James: Essays in Radical Empiricism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), xxxvii. McDermott posits the contours of James’s doctrine of felt relations stemming back to James’s 1884 “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology” (Mind 9 [January 1886], 1-26). I also identified this by comparing James’s felt relationship of bodily states in the James–Lange hypothesis as a way to reintegrate the lived-body in Scheler’s phenomenology which seemed to all but separate religious feelings of absolute dignity from the lived-body in his value-rankings whereas by contrast in James these felt relations unfold in the ongoing dynamics of experience in my “The Jamesian Appeal of Scheler’s Felt Metaphysics” in Comparative and Continental Philosophy vol. 7 (May 2015): 29-43. For this reason, I have found a common spirit in engaging James with his work. Sadly, I never met him before he died, and now I read phenomenology not as a metaphysics of the subject, but as a way to describe the process of felt relations that has come to characterize a more accurate epistemic and metaphysical picture of the human condition.

[5] David Lamberth, William James and the Metaphysics of Pure Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 50.

[6] Charlene Haddock Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 322.

[7] Seigfried, William James’s Radical Reconstruction of Philosophy, 318.

[8] James, The Meaning of Truth, [8] 174.

[9] William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996) 213.

[10] James, A Pluralistic Universe, 213.

[11] William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism ed. Ralph Barton Perry (New York: Longman and Green, 1912), 7.

[12] James, ERE, 2.

[13] James, ERE, 5.

[14] James, ERE, 23.

[15] James, ERE, 22-23.

[16] James, ERE, 33.

[17] James, ERE, 20.

[18] James, ERE, 52.

[19] James, ERE, 39.

[20] James, A Pluralistic Universe, 246.

[21] James, ERE, 49.

[22] Those Peirce scholars who see more objectivity in truth possible with Pierce’s system of ideas generally ignore the phenomenological presence of the self in all possible relations they would extricate and reify as objective truth.

[23] James, ERE, 24.

[24] Given all of these relations, James seems more appropriately a proto-phenomenologist.

[25] James, ERE, 24.

[26] James, ERE, 90.

[27] James, ERE, 85.

[28] James, The Meaning of Truth, [14] 180.

[29] James, The Meaning of Truth, [20] 186.

[30] James, ERE, 49.

[31] James, The Meaning of Truth, [52] 218.

[32] James, ERE, 51.

[33] James, The Meaning of Truth, [41] 207.

[34] James, The Meaning of Truth, [43] 209.

[35] James, The Meaning of Truth, [45] 211.

[36] James, The Meaning of Truth, [46] 212.

[37] James, The Meaning of Truth, [46] 212.

Verification Processes, Radical Empiricism and Truth Part 2

In a previous post, I suggested that process philosophy was a key to understanding James’s conception of truth. This section merely sets out the difference between the static and process view of metaphysics. In that way, it is a lot shorter than the next section to be posted afterwards in part 3. images

Process philosophies consist of a difference in orientation that may best be characterized by Heraclitus’s famous phrase, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Heraclitus’s phrase plays up the dynamic process of the flowing river, and this metaphor suggests an orientation to being. Process philosophy takes a view of being as dynamic, and that the best account of reality in epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics is to take seriously the radical dynamism inherent at the heart of reality. The really-real is in process. “To be actual is to be in process.”[1] In Whitehead’s words, “the actual world is in process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities.”[2]

Western metaphysics has preferred rather to think of reality, individuals, and being as static. The previous image of the Heraclitean river is emblematic since James will address his critics with the image of a rudderless raft when the coherence of his conception of truth could not be any further from the truth. According to the traditional Western conception, the world is filled with individual substances, each distinct in its own right. With such individualized separate entities, mostly through substance ontology, a substance is what it is at any instant in time, an undifferentiated simple following in the steps of Parmenides rather than with Heraclitus. Put in more Jamesian fashion, “Knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made: and made by the relations that unroll in time.”[3] In traditional Western metaphysics, the discrete substances and primary entities do not develop. The unmoved mover is a perfection. God’s essence is immutable. Plato’s Forms are a classical representation of a two-world-in-one theory in which the changing reality of appearances is dismissed for an abstract and immutable essence that undergirds the less important transient appearances.

Given the preference of Western metaphysics to prefer the static for the really-real, philosophers—James among them—must invent new ways of articulating the insight for a more limited view in which individuals are constantly in relation with each other, each varying aspect of our immediate experience unrolling in time. This is also heart of his definition of experience. On this he writes,

…experience as a whole is a process in time, whereby numerically particular terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions, which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content are themselves experiences.[4]

A great deal of understanding truth consists in unpacking this quote about experience from The Meaning of Truth. James is much like the phenomenologists who must invent a new type of process-oriented language of experience to disentangle our philosophical imaginations away from the thinking in his day, which explains the opposition to Hegelian-influenced idealistic monisms and the more common notions that mind and the world exist as if the two are separate. The same lack of imagination with regards to James occurs today amongst analytic critics. Not only should we think otherwise than anyone who would reify a concept to the point of a de facto methodological Platonism, but James asks us to actively insist that experience and reality are interchangeable ways of understanding how we are situated and how we continue to be always in relationship-to. His insistence on these points also follows in his efforts to invent a new concepts and ways of articulating these new concepts by also resisting previous frameworks that draw sharp ontological separations between minds and worlds. In another post, I will start to map out that invention of new concepts to better talk about the ambiguous claims in his

[1] John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 14.

[2] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 22.

[3] James, The Meaning of Truth, [63] 229.

[4] James, The Meaning of Truth, [65] 231.

Refuting Jonah Goldberg on Social Justice

hands-on-globe-42Jonah Goldberg is filled with nonsense. Social justice is not nonsense, any more than morality as a concept is nonsense. This can be easily shown with students in the classroom or at a dinner party. Go around and ask everyone in the room would you want to raise a family in an unjust world? What do you think you’ll get? An absolute “Hell no!” If you go around at the same dinner party and ask what justice is, the question is as difficult as Plato’s dialogues reveal even though all of them will assent to not wanting an unjust world. In this way, we have an inkling not to desire any arrangement that would be unjust even though we may not know what exactly injustice is.

Reducing all concerns about what justice is, how best to achieve it, and with what we ought to do practically to identity politics is a red herring; it ignores the substantive issue, just as Jonah Goldberg did on February 6, 2019 in his article “Social Justice: Power Play by the Oppressed.” It’s a lot easier to talk about the how people proceed in raising the question that would call into the status quo and question whether or not our current structural arrangements are morally wrong in some way. If they are wrong in some way, are the arrangements something that we can change? Are there facts about how we arrange and deliver material goods that should be called into question? What should stay the same? This is the hard work of political philosophy and ethics.

So when Goldberg insists that the term “social justice” lacks “interior logic and definitional rigor,” he concludes that social justice isn’t really anything substantial. At best, it’s a “wish list” and ultimately “what’s really about is power.” He continues, “Its advocates want the power to do what they want, and if they say it’s for social justice, that’s supposed to make it okay.” What Goldberg is insisting then is not the hard work of philosophizing or charitably investigating any person’s particular reasoning, but reducing all intention of improving the world and doing right to a form of legitimating power. In so doing, Goldberg has not invoked a replacement definition. He thinks there are none. There is only getting other people’s stuff!

The moment Goldberg doesn’t think there’s anything like social justice. Unwittingly or not, he abandons the very logic he calls for in his opponents. Moreover, it would seem that Goldberg has followed the same strategies of moral skeptics from the beginning of time. If there is no central definition, no theoretical consensus about something like ‘social justice,’ then there is no objective criterion for justice at all. The argument from disagreement as a strategy often fails because it ignores the logical possibility that there is a fact of the matter to be found. The fact that we have not found such consensus is no real argument against it, but just a bump in the road to figuring it out. Now, I have been reading National Review for years. People here do believe in justice, even if I am almost always in disagreement with what they think just arrangements look like. They might think something like natural property rights are violated in leftist proposals that fall under the heading of “social justice.” Maybe, the point is to seek out what justice is before calling for its end, or red herring the complexity of particular discourses through “identity politics.” To label all attempts at seeking out and questioning how and why we do things as simply about power misses the point. It’s the easier fish to fry, but not the one people are even serving. Let me be more specific.

To understand my critique, I will ask the reader to imagine that there are two types of practical reasons. First, there are identity-interest reasons. These reasons are what Goldberg is objecting to. They are made when various groups offer evaluative claims about their particular situation in the socio-historic and political-economic location. Identity-interest reasons, therefore, express evaluative statements that are contingent. They are dynamic and embedded in contexts that may not even overlap with another group’s identity-interest reasoning.

Second, there are moral reasons. Moral reasons express that we ought to adopt a practice or abolish it. They are pure oughts, and as moral reasons they offer us compelling reasons about what we should or should not do. I also believe that moral reasons once given should be seen as motivating reasons to do or not to do x. Moreover, if everyone adopted moral reasons for doing or not doing a particular practice, then even in aggregate we might improve the world. They are intrinsically valuable and typically appeal to human beings on the most general level.

A red herring occurred when Goldberg passes off the second class of moral reasons as if they can only be identity-interest reasons. That’s the distraction. It’s subtle, but when he admits that all social justice is only about economic reasons, he did not truly understand that a moral reason may have had its origin as an identity-interest reason. However, the discourses and concerns of social justice are, then, about the moral reasons that are offered as critiques in the service of seeking out justice. Moreover, the discourses are often so complicated that critiques are only offered through various lenses of those that sought to evaluate their own position. Many people use their own particular socio-historic location and experience to evaluate the experiences with whom they identify. We all do this, even the conservative readers of National Review who share a particular identity in common (perhaps maybe like-minded Christians for instance). The point is to move past identity-interest reasons only to appeal to the shared rationality of moral reasons.

Goldberg does get a bit amusing later on when he offers a notion of justice disconnected from any context yet it has tinges of harkening back to thinking of social justice through the lens of power to get other people’s stuff and American racial politics. Let me reproduce his conception here:

Traditionally, a person is only supposed to be responsible for the wrongs he or she committed against a specific person. If Person A does something terrible entirely unbeknownst to Person B, it is unjust to hold Person B accountable solely because of the color of his skin. It’s even more grotesque to hold Person B accountable for the things done by Person A if Person A lived 300 years ago.

In this passage, Goldberg dances over the complexity of what justice is. Apparently, justice is about the relations between persons and holding people blameworthy for how they act in relation to other people. We know nothing about the structures in play, and no adequate philosophical conception is on offer. Instead, Goldberg is vague and is only hinting at something like reparations. In this short conception, we can only say that justice is about people in the present and that structural arrangements seem to not enter into any relevance despite the fact that structural elements have been used by human beings in the past to dominate and oppress other people for centuries.

In short, Goldberg has gone through some tremendous leaps to pass off the concerns of many complex claims about social justice as if they are about one central thing by distracting you with the fact these discourses are only about money and power. In truth, these discourses are many, nuanced, and while even if one could show them to start off concerned with material goods and distributive justice, in the end, those reasons can also become moral reasons. In so doing, the hardest part of ethical reflection is, then, to show us what we ought to do practically and what we should not do at all. Therefore, the term “social justice” can mean more than the “magical incantation” Goldberg offers in its place.

Philosophy versus Religion

Philosophy is a way of Being. In its first Greek articulation, Socrates tells us “the unexamined life is not worth living.” From Socrates onward, then, we are told that there’s a freedom to be found in philosophical living. I agree with this overall aim of philosophy, but it also stands in stark contrast to living a religious way of life. There’s a freedom found in the scholar’s life that the monk does not have. The only freedom the monk has is what the church has historically allowed, and the Church has more often than not been associated with intellectual inertia by offering a force of resistance than the freedom to explore the totality of what is. In its most uncritical form, the religious way of life always tends to a form of literal dogmatism of the symbols offered in scripture. There’s a tension. Kierkegaard best expressed this tension in Fear and Trembling between the opposition of the ethical life versus the faithful life. Being religious seems to contrast starkly with reflecting on right and wrong.

So what does it mean to live a philosophical way of life over the religious way of life?

Having a philosophical mindset involves, I think, having certain intellectual habits and dispositions. These intellectual habits and dispositions can be trained over time, and one might find these habits and dispositions in the contemplative mystics of various religions. In this reflection, I include those mystics as a halfway medium, often an exception, to what otherwise looks to be a logical dilemma between the religious and the philosophical–the institutional versus the inner need of the intellectual imagination to share its insights. The liberated mind returns to the depths of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Apollonian light only to be killed by the likes of Meletus and Anytus. Extensive practiced contemplation and the withdrawal into one’s own intellectual imagination caused Arendt to think philosophy merely consisted in the Platonic insistence between the dialogue of “I and myself.” In this way, philosophy is the internal dialogue of the inquisitive mind with itself, exemplified in the vita contemplativa.

Having  been a philosopher for a while, I can only say that philosophy does not betray the wonder that motivates it. By contrast, religion is always naively seeking some closed, fixed, and rigid standard that blinds us to the becoming of the human being and the cosmos. Only a trained intellectual imagination can hold the totality of what is and the given unfoldingness of human becoming at the same time on a conceptual level. For this reason, the philosopher is more in tune with the dynamic processes of totality. Any concrete reflection of religion is only an interpretation, a tainted and distorted glimpse of what is, a dishonest glance over the shoulder that becomes dogma. The philosopher seeks the ground of being. The philosopher doesn’t presuppose it outright, and the philosopher certainly doesn’t fall back on ready-made interpretations of Being as one encounters in the narratives of scripture. The philosopher seeks out the ground, the totality, and the mystery afforded by such reflection. It’s for this reason that the philosopher will always be closer to the mysteries of wonder and the cosmos itself than any religion, Christian or otherwise.

The philosopher will always be the one who interrogates the ground thus proposed. In the best philosophers, there’s a tentativeness to any answered offered in philosophical wonder. The imagination has limits.