What’s Actual?

download-2The metaphysical status of pure actuality is interesting to me. Before me, I regard the physical as the actual. That’s an easy intuition to hold onto. Butter is one of only a few ingredients right now capable of being a bonding agent in baking. It’s unfolding in experience; I see the cupcakes rise in the oven. I take them out. I cut into one of them, and see the ingredients becoming whole. Now, those of you who read me know of my commitments to phenomenology and the ongoing experienced phenomena know that I do not divide nature and reality into what’s subjective and what’s objective. Like Whitehead and James, there’s no bifurcation of nature. Following this phenomenological commitment, pure actuality refers to both what’s going on in each of the act-side and object-side.

Even if we are phenomenologists, it’s easy to identify the actual with simply the nonreductive content that’s immanent in the field of pure experience. In phenomenology, we might even reify the nonreductive as what is only capable of being actual in the same way that we wrongly associate the actual with the physical.

Pure actuality is what is experienced in immediate flux. One could easily be a neutral monist to what is considered actual.

The more difficult thought is to think that what’s actual does not track the potentiality of growth and the overwhelming openness of both conscious acts and the objective side. A pragmatic phenomenology would sustain a vision to the growth and becoming of how ideas and habits guide our limited, but by no means exhaustive, experience of nonreductive contents. Just as much as every snowflake (as seen in the picture) is so unique, the possible configuration of how reality becomes is unique into every event that arises, and also of the position of experiencer in relation to that event. The very ground of phenomena isn’t settled; it’s in the process of becoming. We experience experiencing. Every experienced phenomena is an experiencing. What’s actual now is, then, only possible because all actualities are possible (or so I am thinking). Simply because something is not appearing, or something is not taken as physical doesn’t imply that actualities don’t exist independently of their instantiation in the field of experience. In fact, we might posit that all actualities exist universally until their instantiation in the growth and process of reality itself.

The strange thing is that there’s no knockdown argument for this speculation as there is for any metaphysical description. The sole criterion is how we experience the world and if that description coheres with those facts of experience.

All actualities are universally possible.

All possibilities we know are actualized.

Simply because we know some actualities doesn’t mean that other configurations of reality are not possible and could not like a tree limb grow towards what’s possible in a way yet to be experienced.




Epistemic Inconsistency and Lying About Santa

santa lieIf we accept the goal of epistemology, then we’re concerned with finding the conditions that describe when we should accept some beliefs over others. We look for principles of justification. In this way, epistemology is normative and descriptive; it gives us a thick analysis of beliefs.

One principle I think useful is called Ockham’s razor. Ockham’s razor stipulates that we should not posit entities in explanation needlessly. When the simpler explanation is possible, we should go with the simpler one over the more complicated one. During medieval times, there was a debate about whether or not the planets were pushed by angels or if God is so powerful, he could create planets that moved under their own power. Ockham’s razor would stipulate we should accept the latter over the former.

Now think about Christmas. On Facebook, I am waking up to family and friends all claiming that Santa came, yet some of these people are also philosophers and scientists with whom I would think find Ockham’s razor useful—if not true. These philosophers and scientists are placing gifts under the tree and then telling their children that Santa came.

For these philosophers and scientists, there’s a bit of inconsistency between the roles of parent and philosopher-scientist. If they ultimately thought that their children should be forming true beliefs about the world based on evidence, then philosophy/science-parents should teach their children about Ockham’s razor. When they do, children are faced with two competing interpretations of Christmas morning. Either Santa brought those gifts or parents bought them and placed them there. Accordingly, we know what we should believe since as adults we’re all in on the joke.

There’s a real problem in the United States with a lack of scientific knowledge informing policy and opinion. A National Science Foundation survey in 2014 found that of those 2200 Americans surveyed, 1 in 4 believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. More than that, we all participate in the collective lie about Santa. There’s no real benefit to lying to our kids other than the jealously we all have about their innocence. At that point, we might as well tell them that Frodo is real, being a Jedi is possible, and that their cousin is Kryptonian. These lies would at least be entertaining, yet what makes this type of lying wrong (and lying about Santa) is that these lies violate Ockham’s razor. I am not on rapport with reality if I think that Santa is real or that being a Jedi is possible. In effect, philosophy-science parents this morning are in tension and contradiction with what they find valuable (if they accept Ockham’s razor) on some practical or epistemological grounds and parenting.

Next, consider the ethics of lying. Is it right to lie collectively to children about non-entities that don’t exist? Without straying too much into religion, I will only focus on Santa’s existence. Generally, lying is at least prima facie wrong. As a deontological principle, the thought is we betray the rationality and autonomy of another when we lie to them. Under a consequentialist ethic, lying is more complicated because we could justify some white lies because no damage really results from them, and lying about Santa tends to fall in this category. Yet what if the harm is in not teaching children the truth about the world?

Consider again the NSF survey from above. Some Americans believe the Earth is flat, or any number of weirdly false claims about the world. They are false because those beliefs are not in rapport with what’s real, and one way to describe what’s real reliably is through teaching our children what’s scientifically accurate and in accordance with Ockham’s razor. It’s immoral then to lie about Santa Claus.

My Review of The Last Jedi (Spoilers Everywhere)

download-1Concerning The Last Jedi, I will spell out a few disappointments before giving my own philosophical take and embrace of the original trilogy. There are several initial disappointments.

First, I am disappointed with Snoke. We know nothing about this villain, and we were slightly invested in him from Episode 7: The Force Awakens. The internet was filled with speculation about his identity, how he survived and his relationship to the Sith and the Dark Side, and the Emperor.

Initially, the Emperor set up the Empire with a Dark Side theocracy at its center. Without the Force, it would collapse, and this was a theme Timothy Zahn explored in the Heir to the Empire Trilogy (1991) and other expanded universe sources picked up, e.g., Dark Empire (1997) graphic novels. From what I have seen of the First Order, the idea remains the same. Force-users hold the reins of power, and the First Order and the Empire are instantiations of the Dark Side where those reins of power become more than just metaphors.

Second, the Star Wars universe has developed technologies that have some rationale for their existence in the fictional setting. Weapons hurl energy bolts against other ships and we see turrets, turbolaser batteries, missiles and the like. When Vice Admiral Holdo rams the ship into the fleet, I do not think this is technologically feasible in this fictional setting. This tactic renders the very idea of modified freighters or capital ships with large weapons useless. Why build such ships and fleets if you are just going to ram capital ships slags of metal into fleet formations?

Third, when Holdo smashes the enemy fleet, the First Order had enough ships to encompass the fleeing ships three-dimensionally on the aft, port, and starboard formations. Much like the mistake of the fleet in Starship Troopers (1997) who clustered their ships around the planet to be beaten up by insectoid races hurling asteroids, the First Order failed fleet tactics 101.

Fourth, Finn is not very developed, and probably represents the most creative origin for a Star Wars character ever despite the writers lack of developing him. He is a stormtrooper brainwashed from birth who grows a conscience, and he obeys that moral conscience to flee from the insipid evil of the First Order. There’s some speculation that he grew a conscience in tune with the Force in some way. Notice Ren’s attention to him in the opening sequence, and we see him take up a lightsaber against Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. In both films, Finn winds up trying to flee from battles he cannot runaway from (a possible analogy to millennial feelings about being born and thrust into the legacies of austerity and neoliberalism). In the heat of conflict, he finds his moral resolve, but only when his friends are in danger. His only practical function seems to be to know layout of Star Destroyers, Imperial bases, and has an extensive knowledge of tactics. However, this is not a very impressive reason for him to be kept around. His character has untapped potential and should be developed further than he is.

Luke’s character rejects everything that came before. He grew wise to the hubris of the Jedi at the height of their power. Luke is critical of the Jedi allowing Darth Sidious to grow in power right in front of them. Luke is rejecting the orthodoxy of tradition. Such tradition breeds hubris and mortal certitude. Yoda seems to agree, and in rejecting tradition, Luke’s refusal to teach Rey looks like the right call. She already has power enough to renew in orthropraxy what Luke rejects in orthodoxy. Yoda reminds Luke, our students succeed and exceed the charges of their masters. That’s the curse of all masters. When Luke is confronted by Yoda’s Force-ghost, he’s already on his way to burn sacred texts and teachings of the Jedi. Yoda calls down lightning to drive Luke’s point home, but also in refusing Rey, the Force and something like the Jedi will survive. Yoda and Luke fade away in The Force Awakens to inaugurate new adventures. images-1

In Buddhism, sometimes monks will burn sacred texts in front of their students. It’s very easy for the young and devoted to attach themselves to the possession of a sacred teaching rather than focusing on the right conduct such teachings should bring about in those that study them. In this way, both Luke and Yoda recover a pragmatic and existential orientation to what it means to be spiritual, religious, and in this case, Jedi, and they see this renewal of purpose to the Jedi in Rey. Rey also seems to embody a more complementary idea of the Force than what seemed a separation between good and evil from before.

Rey is the cosmic balance to Ren’s raw power. Snoke reveals that he thought Luke was Ren’s equal in power, and here the Force seems to have chosen a nobody-Jakku-born spacerat to bear that responsibility. Rey and Kylo overthrow Snoke and in their cooperation, Rey pleads with Kylo not to go in the direction of the First Order. He asks her to join them, and she pleads with him to stop. Their interaction embodies the ebb and flow of a complementary universe rather than the earlier dogmatic black and white, light and dark absolutism of the hero’s journey me and those older than me grew up with. In some ways, this might resemble a millennial retelling of the Star Wars mythos from a younger generation that seems to reject organized religion for both science or spirituality. For me, this retelling of the Force is more Tao than the rigid orthodoxy of an inherited Judeo-Christian (Jedi vs. Sith) dogmatism (I’ve talked about this before over at Philpercs).

Like the Tao, Rey seems to be fluid with respect to the Light and the Dark. When she goes into the Dark Side hole on Ahch-To, she is looking for answers about her parents. In her vision, her image is reflected back in a nearly endless mirror until she sees her own reflection staring back at her. One possible interpretation could be that she has no parents, and that she may well be a clone—a copy of a copy of a copy.* Of course, this only holds if we maintain a very literal interpretation the nearly endless mirror scene. The Dark Side cave warned Luke about his possible folly. Another interpretation might be to figure out what the Dark Side warning is. Perhaps, she expends so much energy on her parents that she loses sight of herself—a more likely interpretation, I think.

The Last Jedi succeeds more than it fails, however. First, I like the more nuanced understanding of the Force. Today’s youth is more cynical, more appreciative of context, and the directors are capitalizing on these more contemporary (and sensible) attitudes. As a moral theorist, contextual details matter more than adherence to rigid uncompromising moral principles that oversimplify moral understanding and nuance. At least, this describes my theoretical commitments regarding morality. In Episode 7 and 8, the morality of the Force is not as dogmatic as in the original trilogy. In the original trilogy, Star Wars suffers from what Terry Gilliam said of fantasy in an interview several years ago. “Fantasy isn’t just a jolly escape. It’s an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It’s where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes.” In fantasy, good and evil can acquire more poignant and manifest roles in everyday life.

The fact that fantastic fiction can oversimplify conflicting extremes is a reason why I do not accept Dan Fincke’s interpretion of The Last Jedi over at Patheos. He’s sees Nietzsche’s critique of dualistic morality in The Last Jedi everywhere (where in this essay it should be understood perhaps as embracing a more virtue-oriented approach to Jedis, or understanding the transition away from deontological rigidity to a more Taoistic metaphysics undergirding the Force). While I am sympathetic, Fincke ignores the metaphysical truth of the conflicting extremes in the original trilogy and the role that fantasy embodied rather than imposing our own philosophical views and finding confirmation of them in the original trilogy. We should understand the contrast provided by both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi and the ultimate philosophical departure concerning those conflicting extremes. We are moving away from those extremes, or at the very least as a culture we are seeing uncompromising rigidity and tradition in a negative light, especially regarding the Trumpist era of politics.

The Last Jedi speaks directly to Millennials about the uncompromising rigidity of tradition when Rose interferes with the Finn’s impending heroic sacrifice. Finn is about to take the speeder directly into battering ram cannon on the planet Crait. Rose flies right into his speeder preventing that sacrifice. Nearly dying, she looks up to Finn. She says that what makes us different is our ability not just destroy what’s in front of us, but what we find worthy to love. At this moment, the multicultural Disney ABC franchise is speaking to our contemporary climate, and I am glad they went there. So much hate has funneled out of the White House that citing the difference between love and hate is a necessary message. The earlier franchise romanticized violence in the oversimplifying extreme of calling for its necessity, and perhaps the love/hate distinction is this generation’s conflicting extreme.

Finally, we should talk a little bit about Luke Skywalker. If I were writing a roleplaying supplement, I’d make a new Force power and call it “Astral Projective Illusion,” and require Affect Mind and Projective Telepathy as its prerequisites. Luke projects himself across the galaxy, and everyone can see him. He’s not an illusion as much as we might think of a soft light hologram like we encounter in the X-men’s Danger Room. Poe Dameron, Leia, Hux, and Ren all see him. The illusion buys time for the rest of the resistance to escape, and Rey levitates rocks with the Force. Everyone witnesses her power and Luke’s power. The Force, then, is known and celebrated in the tale of Luke’s sacrifice again. Luke becomes the very legend Luke didn’t want himself to be.

Luke sees the Jedi complicit in the rise of the Dark Side Force Users. In fact, he stands over Kylo Ren momentarily thinking he should strike him down. This scene is told in three different tales borrowing from the narrative strategy of the Kurosawa’s Rashômon. In this Japanese samurai film, the same tale is told from three fluid perspectives, and this living fluidity of the encounter that turns Kylo and causes Luke to doubt himself eventually is a powerful tool. In Rian Johnson’s cinematic Star Wars tale, The Last Jedi is still a postmodern eclectic collage of cinematic influences.

*I owe this insight to the science fiction fantasy writer Casey Matthews.


Scheler and Vulnerability

imagesThe insight I find remarkably refreshing in Scheler is that values are given in intentional feeling. There’s no good (such as knowledge or friendship), person, or deed that’s not given-as-felt. Each good, person, or deed is encountered in terms of its value quality precisely because Scheler discovered the phenomenological reality of values resided in correlated feeling acts.

The implication of this view is that all felt aspects of experience and what can be experienced (all intended objects) are shot through with value. Like a drop of ink in water, the feeling acts always correspond to value qualities. For me, it also explains the content of what intuitions target. Moral intuitions track the feeling acts and intuitive content of them. They are given immediately.

Accordingly, there’s a hierarchy of varying degrees of givenness of feeling acts and values. The more endurable values are permanent, less transient. The more endurable values are intrinsically whole and less divisible. From these two working assumptions, Scheler posits that the highest feeling are spiritual feelings and the highest value is the dignity of persons given in religious holy values. That’s the contentious realm of Scheler’s more controversial claim. The really ethical implies an adherence to religious values. In this post, I do have a suggestion to rethink that hierarchy such that the religious and holy domain of values and feeling may not be the highest. Instead, they are just cultural regions in which values of vulnerability manifest the most. Let me explain.

Consider in Christianity that the Gospels contain an entire social ethic that addresses the marginalized, the poor, the unclean (as opposed to the Pharisees code of cleanliness). In Buddhism, our more natural and enlightened state is one in which we are spontaneously responsive to the suffering of others. What’s phenomenologically salient is that the absolute dignity of persons are given as wholly valuable, unique, but also vulnerable. Morality tracks self-other relationships and the various ways in which persons appear valuable simultaneously appear as vulnerable.

Religions, on their own, are attempts to address the existential realities of our suffering. They address what I call the aesthetics of suffering. With this in mind, the entire orthropraxy of religion consists of recognizing the vulnerability of the other, not just its singular unique transcendence found in the face-to-face encounter. Instead, Levinasian transcendence is undergirded by vulnerability, and while not all vulnerability can be eradicated (such as our mortality or suffering bodily disease), human action can contribute to or lessen institutional and intrapersonal vulnerability. We can realize more love into the world and foster conditions that can arrest willing exploitation and objectification of others that contributes to transgressing the other.

Of course, I will not get into the role religion has had both positive and negative effects on transgressing vulnerability and its history. My only intention in this post is to explain how we might reconcile what Scheler and Levinas find redeemable in religious phenomenological talk, and highlight (at the very least) what Scheler might be doing with putting personalist values within the sphere of the Holy. In a functional sense, it makes sense that religions are the place most responsive to the absolute dignity of persons. However, like most things, human beings are very good at exploiting vulnerability and “ruining a good thing.” There are plenty of instances in which religion is used as a way to gain advantage and power over others and sometimes it can be a sincere attempt to address the suffering of others.

From Husserl to James as Phenomenological Exemplar

wizard 9When I first started to read William James phenomenologically, I had felt as if I had discovered a strategy to reconcile the many deep tensions in James’s thought and this reading of James explains my departure from Husserl. I had come to Southern Illinois University to study Husserl with Anthony Steinbock, and in Steinbock’s phenomenology, I found also a set of concerns I had long attended to in my own private philosophizing the desire for transcendence in understanding God and values. As I attended his phenomenological research groups at his new center, seminars, and invited lectures, I discovered what Steinbock had already known. In Scheler’s phenomenology, both these concerns became one, and around this time Steinbock authored Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience.

I have never liked this book. First, it seems as if Steinbock ignores the very ontology of objects of religious phenomenology for the want of pure description. For that reason, he’s open to nominalistic objections as to what he is doing. Second, his caricature of ethics in that book regards ethical reflection as domain-specific, more applied than theoretical, and third, his descriptions of religious feeling were always too quick. He dances around St. Teresa of Avila and her work to even give her a fair reading—let alone the other mystics. He does that because his point is to drive home how mysticism is all rooted in a type of intentionality much different than horizontal intentionality. He uncritically seemed to adopt Scheler’s framework without again asking the question about the metaphysical status of concepts in that framework—which was the subject of my continuing reflections on the metaphysics of value. God and value were just given in ways that other phenomena are not, which sneaks in the supernaturalism of value into a spatial metaphor and then closes off the need to engage in any need for more proof for those concepts and their existence—let alone the biases of seeing the Divine only as the Abrahamic religions report. In effect, Steinbock tried to do too much with too little.

Regardless of the defects of Steinbock’s analysis, I found Scheler because of that work, and how the absolute givenness of the Holy was the absolute dignity of persons. Religion became a cultural mode of possibility for understanding how values were experienced, but it remains largely unaddressed in Scheler’s work (and what I found in Steinbock at the time in 2009) It set up more questions than answers and isolated some more tensions in my thought. Steinbock also once again uncritically adopted a Schelerian framework in his Moral Emotions: Reclaiming Evidence of the Heart (2014) as it adopted Scheler’s affective intentionality and value-rankings without explicit attention to the ontological indeterminacy of values nor a decent ontology of persona and agency. Again, the tension surfaced again between uncritically assuming the existence of what Steinbock described versus the need to explore and further refine the ontology of moral experience from what we wished it included. This is the tension between the everyday and unconcealed, the banal natural attitude and the givenness turned supernatural. In effect, Steinbock is religious with phenomenology, and this corrupted how I was both first taught phenomenology and to which I would then find solace in James’s thought. For James, however, this tension is out in the open in the very promise of his thought.

To this day, the largest tension in me is the religious and the natural, the mystical and the scientific and how these distinctions entwine with value within experience. For James, all of these possibilities can be given in experience (an unnerving point to the more familiar analytic work on James in people like Richard Gale), yet unlike Steinbock,, James is honest about the limits of experience. If something is given-as-Holy, then that’s reason to regard it as given-as-Holy. However, one does not uncritically assume that is evidence enough. Steinbock takes intuitive givenness as the need not to go further in ontological exploration. For this reason alone, we should see James a correction to phenomenology and to Husserlian and Steinbockian phenomenology in particular. The natural and the scientific are possibilities we can choose to relate and even experiment to see if the choice of a given possibility, a possible belief to navigate the world as a future rule or habit will be useful and facilitate our interactions with the world and others. In this reconciliation, I posit that the person is a set of dynamic intentional relations and to explore how the possible objects of intentionality will facilitate experience in the various intersubjective ways we relate to the world: socially, politically, morally, mystically, and scientifically.

Jamesian thought (and in this case radical empiricism) put the relationally concrete back into the transcendental subject I had adopted for the longest time. However, this move also opened up doors to how much of phenomenology do I give up when I open the pragmatic shutters. Is the transcendental subject now a methodologically sound posit? What elements of a person are rightly in flux, and what parts are not in that much flux and relatively-stable over time? Are there are any features of James’s theory of self that are assumed to be a transcendental precondition of pragmatic processing of experience?

For the most part, I see both Jamesian pragmatism and Schelerian rooted phenomenology as mutually reinforcing. Both possess a vocabulary of habits or functionalizing essences that activate in experiencing x, and it’s this process of experiencing various essences where one can make a fruitful synthesis between the two. Let me explain (or at least attempt to explain…blog posts are ways to explore thoughts).

Pragmatic phenomenology pays attention to how an object is given within the socio-political and socio-historical circumstance of praxis such givenness will illuminate. In this first move, what’s given is not a static phenomenon, but more like an event. In other words, pragmatism restores a bit of activity to the inertia of phenomenology. Since phenomenology is pure description of the act-object intentional relationship of consciousness, once description is over, the aim of phenomenology is over. On these grounds, then, pragmatism returns the inertia of description to matters of praxis and confirms in a cheeky-way why Peirce may have been more right about phenomenology-as-firstness. The phenomenon is not just given to us as passive intentional subjects (which I think is my problem with phenomenology on a general level) but an event in which the whole field of a person is given in terms of the possibilities realized through action. Concepts arise from this action (or interaction), and phenomenological description is attending to how the subject comes aware of how the concepts become constituted in praxis, not how they are solely given.

It’s for this reason many phenomenologists can become enamored only with how a phenomena is intended in consciousness, but never extricate philosophical wonder to see that as just one overall sliver of experience. For me, James’s repudiation of rationalism comes very close to reasons we shouldn’t be Husserlian phenomenologists (and also marks the reasons why we can only be mystics, but never adopting of one creed over another), though honestly that’s only in spirit but not a fair reading of his varying degrees of static and genetic phenomenology (a point I owe to Tony’s scholarship). Moreover, is this not the Heideggerian/Merleau-Pontyian correction to Husserlian transcendental phenomenology? Shouldn’t we get outside consciousness to embody and enjoin the concrete modalities of action to givenness itself? Phenomenology in an attempt not to isolate itself from concreteness sometimes removes us farther away from that concreteness than the straightforward honesty of Jamesian radical empiricism.

A Possible Defense of Neutral Monism?

downloadNeutral monism is a philosophical position that William James came to defend after he adopted skepticism concerning any rationalistic metaphysics and the ability to engage in metaphysics. Neutral monism contends that reality is constituted by one type of primal stuff, but that we cannot draw ontological distinctions about what this stuff is—whether it is material or immaterial. The thought-object we have in our minds is experientially the same as the physical object, and because we cannot tell otherwise, because we don’t have access to the true way things are, all we have are our experience of particulars.

In this way, neutral monism is a position that only surfaces when we exhaust other options through Jamesian pragmatism’s critique of metaphysics. Thus, there are two parts:

(1) The Inaccessibility Thesis: S has no privileged access to the way reality ultimately is, but can only know the particulars x, y, and z in experience.

(2) Pragmatic Treatment of Metaphysical Ideas: S can only treat metaphysical ideas as rules of action about x, y, and z.

I think James held (1) and (2) together, and for him they are mutually supporting. I won’t defend that thesis here about James.

In my interpretation, however, (2) is a consequence of (1). Since reason and/or intuition cannot access the way reality ultimately is, reason and/or intuition is only a construction of the way ultimately reality is. S is left operating in limits and must then settle for testing metaphysical ideas pragmatically. S can have knowledge of God, but only because of the consequence those ideas allow for (this is how one should make sense of James’s Will-to-Believe Argument). It then makes sense to adopt a less dogmatic approach and consider the openness of experience to parallel that of a growing, organic and becoming cosmos. The coextensiveness of experience and the cosmos is how each other becomes in light of the other. At its heart, this is the same as neutral monism. Both a metaphysics of thought generates idealism, which may have some benefit to it however much James was suspicious of what we could call absolute idealism James criticized in A Pluralistic Universe. However, there’s no knockdown argument for why someone might be idealist as much as one might be a materialist; these are two forms of monism.

A metaphysics of objects will convince us that all things should be measured by the physical; it will eventually be reductive and explain x, y, or z in virtue of some aspect of the physical sciences. According to James, we can’t tease the physical and the thought-content apart, so why try! We cannot know what is, but we can employ our ideas to interpret the contents of experience. Moreover, this also means that we don’t give up on trying to make sense of reality and its dynamism. Our inability to tease the sciences and thought apart pragmatically means that science can be reconciled to our subjective experience of the same phenomenon. Thought-objects and objective characteristics can be of the same thing. Neutral monism, then, promotes a unity of the sciences. This unity also gives us a possible speculative solution to the alleged separation between mind and world, which we can accept on pragmatic grounds. 

The moral imperative is, thus, that our beliefs being rules of action can adopt pragmatic positions because of (1) leading to (2). Belief in God or the Tao are equally up for grabs because of the conceivable effects these ideas generate, but not because there’s some type of principled evidence that can achieve universal consensus between others about which we ought to prefer. The belief in the Divine—no matter its object and conceivable effect—is a genuine option on the table for all of us. This also makes metaphysical ideas rooted in the habits they generate for our practical differences. If one constructs a philosophical system of concepts to account for the metaphysical reality of values, then the only rule of such a construction is what it does for experience. The habits it generates. A solid metaphysical basis for values inculcates the habit that there are moral principles that if they were to be adopted, then it would benefit everybody. Hence, metaphysics of our most basic concepts are adopted because of their pragmatic benefit—this and nothing more.

All in all, there’s no knockdown argument to defend neutral monism, which is the very part of departure that inaugurates this idea. I cannot experience anything other than particulars, and because I have no privileged access to reality, I am forced to pragmatically adopt the inability to draw distinctions that would refute materialistic monism or idealistic monism. My inability to draw distinctions decisively, then, means that we can have interpretations instead of decisively-proven metaphysical systems. To say that one does not have privileged access is not the same as saying I don’t have access to the way these ideas will manifest in experience. There are threads and connections I can make between the discrete particulars of experience. Let’s take a case in point of how one might tie several discrete particulars of experience. I may have a religious experience, and feel the existential compulsion of higher ordered values in my own affectivity. I may interpret these values as either Buddhist, Taoist, or Christian. I may think of religious experience and the call of the hour to honor the Holy in any number of ways (even if it means being inter-religious), but I cannot decide between them apart from their conceivable effect these particulars generate in my experience and in that of others. What I can say is that persons often experience the Holy as the highest feeling that highlights what is highly valued. In this way, James came to the conclusion of radical empiricism only through the limits of what supported neutral monism in (1) and (2).

Upholding Creative Standards!

4x5 originalAt first, what appears below was a humorous response to Liam Kofi Bright’s post over at Sooty Empiric, which received some helpful and sympathetic hints from Eric Schliesser. Then, the post got away from me in the very same way that philosophy is therapy for my soul, but maybe not yours.

Here is a possibility I recommend for consideration: we ought to hold ourselves to stricter creative standards than we often do, in our philosophical research manuscripts or public forum presentations. They should be more literary, more creative, more artistic perhaps, and vastly more engaged with culturally relevant themes (what I would call pragmatic and existential concerns). Before getting into what I mean by this, why I think it, and why I am saying it, now, it is worth saying a couple things immediately. First, I haven’t always followed this ideal, but indeed for the purpose of this post, I am trying to capture what I take to be the best creative practices that can generate good and decent philosophy.

Second, this post does not pretend to be metaphilosophically neutral. Indeed, I am after what I take to be the best practices in conventional-Continental-philosophy and am not impartial. I judge it to be superior to analytic philosophy because of its power to illuminate the contours of lived-experience. I advocate that we that we all in our own work implement these changes, and aid others in doing so. Let me be explicit: what I think is we should strive for voluntary self-change in this. I do not believe in using gatekeeping mechanisms to enforce the following. Sincere adoption and internalization of the norms that govern philosophy can only be effectively brought about if it is unforced, and rekindle the intellectual imagination in which art and philosophy swim. I’ll give you two examples of what I have in mind.

First, there are a great many places where it seems to me that people ought weaken their dedication to logocentric presentation of philosophy, and not abstract from lived-experience as much as they do. This focus on argument and the intellectual abstraction created and fostered by dominant philosophical forces oftentimes substitute an abstraction for how we truly experience the world. Dewey called this the philosophic fallacy, and while I have no particular tradition in mind (as this flaw is a cross-traditions fallacy), it abounds anytime an –ism becomes more important than paying attention to where that –ism applies concretely. Put more succinctly, many philosophers in the tradition of Western thought have identified relatively stable structures of experience and given them pride of place over those that are more concrete and dynamic. What seems to be the case is that there are plenty of philosophers obsessed with truncated arguments and debates inside analytic philosophy that regard the conceptual landscape of their own debates as what philosophy should be doing rather than articulating the pragmatic concrete effect of what it is they are truly doing (or not doing as it may have no concrete effect on our collective experience of the world—the navel gazing and armchair irrelevancy of philosophers overall). In these efforts, there’s something like what Dewey described about previous metaphysicians who reified concepts from experience in his Experience and Nature (1925) and privileged those beyond all others to the point that we still read philosophy in the shadow of these concepts.

This touches upon a second point: I think much could be achieved by adhering to standards of writing philosophers commonly dismiss, but in my opinion, we should actually be creative when we present our ideas. Take for instance the nuanced focus on what I take to be a family resemblance property of analytic philosophical writing: the tracing out of a thesis in various arguments, moves, and counter-moves. Some are so convinced that this is the only way philosophy can be done that the very young graduate students are often met at the nearby Starbucks outside the APA denouncing Continental without having read any of it.

In Continental philosophy, the story seems to be trying to focus on the interpretive milieu and how an idea arises and can impact the current cultural lifeworld (if it is entirely relevant to lived-experience). When we acknowledge the historicity of an idea, we can often gain a sense into the underpinning philosophical narratives of how these ideas emerge in time, and we can glean if our contribution to understanding has come before us rather than boldly claiming its originality. The limits of language and history become relevant to what we can say. When the ideas illuminate our practices, however, we find that stories are possible. Ideas illuminate aspects of our experience. Sartre wrote Nausea as a way to articulate the depths of our existential anguish, and perhaps, when we read this novel, we find another (and arguably better) way of attempting to bring philosophy to the level of people most concerned with the ideas we are in the business of addressing, solving, speculating about, and proposing.

However, I am not beyond thinking that philosophy shouldn’t be in other creative works. Philosophical ideas emerge in lived-experience, and photography, the image, and especially videos and plays are the embodiment of ideas and lived-experience. Sartre wrote many reviews as he was simultaneously a philosopher and a critic, engaged with theatre and visual arts. For him, art was a way of coping with existential reality of imprisonment. I, too, find writing creative works ways to experiment and have received some advice about how I shouldn’t publish a novella. What’s more science fiction is a fantastic example of speculating what the concrete effect and consequence an idea would have if we were habituated to that practice. In this way science fiction can embody the pragmatic spirit all philosophy should have!

Needless to say, the profession would have a hard time if a philosopher wrote research articles, books, and then in addition submitted a creative works portfolio of exhibitions, aesthetic critiques in the popular press, and an artistic installation. Most promotional reviews of a colleague abide by fairly convention standards (oftentimes privileging epistemology and metaphysics over other forms of philosophical inquiry), but as we are seeing many departments are under pressure to close. Philosophers write to only other philosophers, and we keep digging deeper into obscurity (who reads dissertations or research articles on metaethics, Wittgenstein, or Kripke for fun and the same holds for those concerned with redeeming Heidegger from himself after publishing the Black Notebooks or Badiou’s latest writing). Adding some creative energy to our writing would certainly help possibly arresting ourselves and maybe even legitimize the type of public engagement philosophy was meant to have—that is if we recall Epictetus’ words that philosophy is therapy for the soul.

Unfortunately, I do not see that the therapeutic function of philosophy something many in the analytic world think philosophy should have (applied ethicists, I think, are the rare exception to this rule). Maybe some allowance for this idea holds in people’s teaching, but not in the concerns they think and are taught worthy to research. The problem is that once a way of doing things has been around a while that way of doing things becomes habit. Like William James, I hold we can overcome these habits and ways of doing things if we have good reason to change them (yet again philosophy must be concerned with the existential and pragmatic matters of life to accept that conception of philosophy itself). For a long time, many in the analytic world have become so enamored with identifying philosophizing and its expression in writing with some reification they think underlies scientific writing. We write short journal articles.* We publish them, and only read what’s very recent.**

Needless to say, I think our writing should still focus on arguments, but I am committed to the fact that we need not just focus solely on arguments. If there’s an insight to be gleaned, philosophy should see itself not as a continuation and extension of the sciences—philosophy as handmaiden to the queen of science herself in Kant’s language. Instead, we should think boldly about the power to write. Being artistic is one way we can do that just as much as the norms of solid argumentation. I’d like to end on two points of ten made in a list of writing recommendations Nietzsche sent to Lou Andreas-Salome in August 1882 about writing:

  1. Style ought to prove that one believes an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.
  2. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.

* In the Continental world, we write exegetical papers that probably are better transformed into monograph chapters.

** It’s in these circles that we find some analytic historians of philosophy complaining to their own about the dearth of historical work in analytic departments.

Dearth/Death of Philosophy Blogging

Sometimes I feel like nobody is out there. Blogging is a shot in the dark, an empty vessel adrift a sea of many people who could come to the shore. These people could offer ropes to pull the boat in. They could explore it and take a look around. The fact that people don’t is striking to me (because, like any academic, it’s impossible for me to imagine that you couldn’t find philosophy fascinating). The internet has become an echo chamber for one’s thoughts, including my own.

Perhaps, blogging was only fun when it concerned one’s dissertation, or possible speculations grad students make into the night. There was a time when Heidegger, Scheler, and Husserl were new to me. I had to tell the world about why I thought Heidegger’s avoidance of values in a fundamental ontology was a mistake and defend the prospect of a moral phenomenology against Walter Sinnot Armstrong. . I still remember reading an essay by Daniel Dahlstrom on Heidegger and Scheler and feeling stunned that someone could read both philosophers so closely.  At that point I was envious of the knowledge it took to write that essay.

Not many people read the philosophers I’ve devoted so much time to. My interests in philosophy are not that well represented from process-thinkers (admittedly even Scheler and James are and not just thinkers like Whitehead) to pragmatism, Boston personalism, and back to phenomenology. I even wrote a chapter employing Scheler to correct Ross’s intuitionism, which I think is the most impressive thing I have ever written as it concerns a way that phenomenology and metaethics intersect. Nobody hardly notices this piece, yet it stands as the one piece I am most proud of since it reflected the choice to get an analytic MA and a Continental Ph.D.

This is not to say that I’m way off the deep end and have no mainline interests. I’ve been attracted to debates in applied ethics about drones in war, health care policy, and genetic enhancement not to mention more applied issues about gender, sexuality, and race that pervade what we might call social and political philosophy.

I am, as it were, at a loss as to find conversational partners. Conferences seem like the best way to exercise one’s energy nowadays. At least there, everyone has gone with the explicit purpose of trying to make one’s paper better and perhaps help you with yours. Again, however, this is a hit or miss. I have bad experiences at the APA, but wonderful experiences from groups like the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. Working papers conferences have been a blessing; the Pittsburgh Area Philosophy Conference Continental group has been a place to share my thoughts and revise for publication. Also, I have published papers that came out of Midsouth Philosophy Conference held in Memphis.

As I grow older and have four sections with 124 students, I now know what others were talking about. During my Ph.D., a professor remarked, “Ed you’ve never worked this hard.” It’s true. It’s hard to be productive at a teaching intensive position, and blogs were a way to share our creativity with the world. I’m wondering if I should continue with this one.

My favorite blog for years was New APPS, but sadly that blog has fallen away like a shell discarded for a creature to big to fit inside. Nobody but Gordon Hull contributes. Philpercs became that way too after Jon Cogburn left. Now, there are two or three who post at moderate intervals. Leiter’s blog is more a professional gossip blog, and it’s clear that even Justin is monetizing Daily Nous. These are not good blogs to share one’s ideas concerning developing a conception of pragmatic phenomenology, or why Dewey is not wrong about democracy against so many Continental-leaning leftists who rob the pragmatic center of its starting power before it begins.

My students do not blog anymore either. If they write at all, they are creative works or only write as much as they need in order to survive the classroom. There is little exception, but this reflects a growing trend in the university where the liberal arts feel like they are continually dying and being reborn as career training. That’s the subject of another post, or should I even write it?

The Rules and Norms of Public Philosophy

download-2The challenges of public philosophy are many:

1) It might not be viewed as serious philosophy to the point that one wastes energy on what will not reward the tenure-track bound or review of one’s research for promotion in any sense;

2) The chance for public ridicule increases with the increased attention to one’s writings and if you are employed in a place that doesn’t necessarily value the type of negative attention (nor the academic freedom for public philosophy), then one might not as well do it;

3) Public philosophy does seem rather one-sided (more liberal and left-leaning in keeping with the tilt of the academy), and could easily be reduced to the more destructive forces of the larger culture war where people on the internet are not interested in rational argumentation, but bent on destroying one another. Instead, it’s rather easy to remain innocuous and write on some problem in metaethics or engage in debates about the accuracy of William James’s writings. I easily recognize that some of my most passionate questions are at bottom pedantic (though I feel that they have pragmatic value in the end).

With these challenges, I would like to talk about the last one, the third challenge. Public philosophy will be taken up in the larger culture war, absorbed by its forces largely because all parties are interested in finding agreement with intellectual authority for their views. Catholic moralists and cultural Marxists can find any number of sympathizers and PhDs ready to rally to their respective causes, but when we play by the games of the internet, participants in those discourses are more interested in destroying people that disagree with them. Think on any number of recent disinvites from Conservative authors and media pundits brought to campuses to give a speech or a lecture. Our academic culture and more popular culture cannot bear to disagree. We are living in time where intellectual tribalism matters more than the substance of the ideas offered by those tribes. The art of both argument and disagreement are lost on us, and those of us who regularly teach critical thinking often think that the rules of good arguments should carry the day more than tribalism.

At Cleveland State University, student A asked me what book they should read to get a sense of what intellectual conservatives desired. I recommended Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to student A. I also lamented that not too many intellectual conservatives were left around. Student B, however, refused to even contemplate Conservative ideas and scolded me for normalizing conservatism by even offering a recommendation to A. For B, all conservatives were fascists, which is a problem in itself. For this student, conservatism was like the bogeyman, so terrorized by personal forces in his own life, this student could not tease apart the vulgar expressions of conservatism from its more elevated philosophical form.75812

Before public philosophy can be done, all participants need to agree to basic ground rules. I can think of none better than the rules of logic, the principle of charity, what I call the principle of hermeneutic charity. Since the rules of logic and the principle of charity are well known for argument reconstruction, I’d like to focus on the last one by contrasting it with the principle of charity.

The principle of charity holds that we should criticize the best version of an opponent’s stance and think of the reasons they offer for that position as rational. However, if this is all one did, then the argumentative reconstructions will lose out on the relevant facts of history. The principle of charity extends only to your opponent’s argument, and not the historicity of the argument itself. This is the common complaint that disconnects arguments from the applied contexts from which they emerge. By contrast, the principle of hermeneutic charity holds that we should criticize the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance and be aware of the historical factors surrounding the reasons they offer for the position. Accordingly, the principle of hermeneutic charity does not construe advocacy of a position as being determined solely by historical forces. What it does advocate is that all philosophical positions are offered within the horizon of history, and that is an inescapable element of dialogue itself. We should never pretend that an argument is an ahistoric piece of reasoning that stands the test of time since such absolutism runs the danger of feeding more intellectual tribalism.

In criticizing the best interpretation of an opponent’s stance involves several tasks. First, we must read our opponent to the point that we are not lost on the historical factors informing our reconstruction of her arguments. Second, in noting these historical factors, we come to learn both the argument’s reconstruction and the position of the arguer are unfolding in history. When we can be both modest about the contexts of these arguments and allow for a space to engage in rational exchange of these ideas, the hope is that we can fend off the more vulgar and base instincts of ourselves.

Given that we can adopt these norms and provide public space for dialogue between various public interests, our toleration for disagreement must increase and our democratic commitment to pluralism must simultaneously increase—that is a problem for public philosophy. And also for philosophy more generally…

I will note some caution and reluctance. When I was younger, I read about the history of the Dominicans and the Franciscans in the 13th century in Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children. From this study, I have always been aware of the dangerous arena of ideas. Ideas are/can be dangerous. They are parts of experience that can rattle others, and without norms and rules for reasoning, we’re lost already. Moreover, the norms and rules of logic, good reasoning, and the avoidance of fallacies must be actively renewed and sustained. Without renewal to each generation, the easier tendency to suppress dialogue and the exchange of ideas is all too easy a path to choose. For this reason, philosophy must be valued and enacted correctly for the larger public as a model of elevated discourse. The life of the mind must be praised and valued intrinsically for these reasons alone.

Thinking through Themes in Zen and Pragmatic Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a philosophy of the subject experiencing. In this way, the subject is always in relation. The primary mode of relating and experiencing is because of intentional consciousness, and phenomenological description attempts descriptions of intentional consciousness. Functionally defined, consciousness is a consciousness-of.

With such a heavy tilt towards consciousness, Husserl overlooked the body, and it’s easy for phenomenologists often to forget the body. Merleau-Ponty picked up on the occlusion of the body and the favoring of consciousness. In his phenomenological descriptions, he discloses the relation of the body as its own form of embodied intentionality. Bodily intentionality expresses the pre-noetic features of the body that go unnoticed if we were to strictly limit phenomenology to consciousness.

With so much focus on consciousness and the body, the world is presencing itself. I say presencing since there’s no real adequate term in our current Anglophone philosophy to express the excessive relationality of all particular beings and thing-events. A thing-event includes all particular objects and manifest events in which particular beings are in relation to each other. A thing-event is understood by phenomenologists as particular objects of consciousness, one-side of the intentional relationship that’s never understood adequately. In phenomenology, these objects of consciousness only have meaning-for-us since they are understood and described in relation to intentional consciousness.

Apart from consciousness relating to objects, there’s no conception of particular objects relating to other particular objects or thing-events, yet what if it was characteristic of thing-events to present and give themselves in constant flux and relation to other particular objects and thing-events? In that totality of thing-events, the person is one such dynamic reality unfolding in relationship. Other particular beings, then, should also be understood as a loose coming together of many thing-events. While in constant flux, relatively-stable configurations of thing-events become persons for a short-lived time, and even in these relatively-stable configurations, the subject experiencing in phenomenology is but one snapshot of the overall dynamism echoed in the very presencing world.

Scheler in agreement with Plato regarded the striving and becoming of beings to reaching higher values. For Scheler, love is this very becoming, and persons are that which realize the divine in action. We participate, then, in the unfolding love of the universe. In acting upon love, persons emanate the divine, and this panentheism in which love and the divine’s goals can only be achieved by human persons. Persons are collaborators and co-creators alongside God in Scheler, and it’s at this point, however, I wonder if Scheler truly remained a Christian-based thinker. In opting for a panentheistic conception, the distinction between creator and created collapses, and what remains in Scheler’s thought is a process-based metaphysics in which Christianity is a metaphor for the loving-directed becoming of the cosmos. In other words, Scheler might claim that the presencing of the world is a type of love that cuts down all the way.

Scheler, however, is still trapped in phenomenology. There are real essences that are discerned by phenomenology, and it seems like his early thought is not as much in process as his later metaphysics. By contrast, a Zen-influenced process view might not see the universe in the very rigidly-hierarchical-yet-partly-dynamic way Scheler came to view the universe. Becoming does not take place in a hierarchy. The rigidity falls away. In Zen, there are no hierarchies.

Hierarchies are a product of discriminating judgment, ego, and a reifying of the abstraction from which the hierarchy will be formed (e.g., the Platonized God of Augustine). This is not to say that there are not middle truths that A) admit all existents are in flux and b) within that flux for a short while there are relatively stable but still dynamic entities (e.g., persons). If anything pragmatic phenomenology only has access to these middle truths that work both within the stream of consciousness and the stream of the universe and deal within the fact that our concepts reflect the causes and conditions of dynamism and/or are also revisionary. Because our concepts can always be revised depending on how they enliven our ability to be, the concepts can never be reified, and a trajectory of synthesis is possible both within Zen and pragmatic phenomenology.

Since I have only begun to provide the contours of pragmatic phenomenology in my work, I have little to say how this future synthesis will work. For now, the question to be asked is: Should the five skhandas also include (or do include) Scheler’s affective intentionality and are the subsequent value-rankings and the love movement in reaching higher feeling acts somehow expressed in a Zen view? There are many possibilities here. We’ll have to see.