I’ve listened to about twenty minutes of this video lecture, and it’s really good. Wayne Martin of the University of Essex gave a wonderful talk about phenomenology and its key themes. The lecture is given to people with whom no prior knowledge is necessary about phenomenology. It’s part of a series called “Philosophy Crash Courses.”
Today, I heard an interview of Chelsen Vicari, Evangelical Director of the Institute of Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious think-tank. She is author of the soon to be released Distortion: How the Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Destroying the Faith.
Her comments were not surprising, and the interview was standard fare for a show on Moody Radio. I sometimes mistake it for NPR between two rock stations on my drive home with the “seek” button. What happened surprised me. Ms. Vicari accused the Christian Left and the Emergent church of not understanding the Bible for what it says. She simplified knowing God’s word, but left untouched what must be true for such a simple reading of religious scripture to be true (that is, if you fall for that sort of thing). In that moment, she is committed implicitly to the following: (1) Reality is as the Bible says and persists in being that way, (2) The way in which such truth is known is revelation, (3) Revelation is without error, though knowable ,and particular values that those values perdure for all time. (4) Revelations come from God beyond history and are not contingent. (5): (1), (2), (3) and (4) generate the perceived simplicity of God’s word and with that simplicity, the Bible’s authority is equally established. In essence, such claims are accepted, but they are just a form of naive Platonism.
(By the way, I actually think Platonism’s influence on Christianity from Augustine’s reading of Plotinus is a positive development unlike today in which many, if not all, mainline Protestant seminaries avoid teaching philosophy courses. That’s another post for another time, and naive Platonism is not to be confused with its more sophisticated cousin Platonism.)
The challenge of religion is that it leaves many of these concepts implicit. Christianity, like every religion must endorse a metaphysical picture of the world and an epistemological view of how its tenets become known (almost always the epistemology could be recast as a form of intuitionism, even Buddhism). These concepts hang in the background of religion; they lie on the periphery of what is believed, and they never get addressed philosophically. In recent years, however, a host of theologians have been inspired by postmodern thought to rethink Christianity. Therefore, the only real merit to challenging the Emergent Church must be on the philosophical grounds that underlie their disagreement with what is done in the name of Christianity on the part of Conservatives. This higher philosophical level dimension is doubtfully present in her book (even some of the works of Brian McLaren often smooth over the philosophical difficulties), but I could be wrong about Vicari’s book. It’s not published until September 2nd.
What Vicari fails to see, or articulate in the interview is that like Luther dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, so too are people rethinking the position of what contemporary Christianity has become. At least in the interview, she conveniently ignores the historic origin and challenges that different forms of cultural life have converged to merge with Christianity. The rise of capitalism in the late 17th century and Christianity have mutually reinforced each other such that only a clearly articulated geneaology exemplified in either Foucauldian or Nietzschean style can article how these threads continue in their own American way. There is a unique thread about how Christianity become embedded with capitalism.
Apart from that historical ignorance in the interview, the Christian Left takes Christ very seriously. Christ’s focus on the poor with such verses as Luke 18: 25 reveal a grassroots inclusive social ethic that seeks to liberate the immanent suffering of people, not reinforce more suffering with a lack of redistribution. Christ saw opulent wealth as an obstacle to be overcome. Wealth sets up boundaries between people in the here and now. Unlike conservative Christianity’s understanding of a kingdom as a future state yet to be achieved (depending upon the eschatology underlying the particular denomination in question), Christ’s Kingdom is immanent for the Christian left. It’s in the here and now at this very moment, and the kingdom of God is brought about by our coordinated efforts to love unreservedly or not at all. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches to the gentiles, to those considered unclean, and Jesus is radically inclusive of all forms of otherness at his time. If this insight of radical inclusiveness of otherness appropriately translates into contemporary American life, then Christians should love unreservedly those with whom society may despise. Such love means a radical acceptance and openness towards our LGBT brothers and sisters, the poor, children from other countries seeking our help at the border. It does not matter. In this way, Christ is a model for the here and now, or so this story goes. Christ’s love, agapic love, is transformative; it overcomes all forms of oppressive structures. That’s ideal of Christ’s love applies to all forms of social, political, and economic way of life. That’s a hard pill to swallow for Conservative Christians.
There is a new blog called Critique and it integrates the philosopher as a participant in the unfolding dynamic of cultural life. I like it a lot, though I only liked one essay so far. I liked this essay for its simplicity. Luke Russell writes a very decent and publicly accessible entry about evil. Share your thoughts below about what you think about the essay.
When I was an undergraduate, I read everything Hannah Arendt wrote. And in Eichmann in Jertusalem: A Report in the Banality of Evil, Arendt seemed to link the dearth of someone’s ability to judge from the point of view from another with the concretion of evil. Evil was a lack of a Kantian “enlarged community,” a lack of either those willing to judge or incapable of judging. In many ways, I assume that she meant both types since both types are very common (banal).
In ethics, the language of immorality can be heightened verbally, given weight and emphasis by calling the immoral action or person “evil.” However, as so often happens, most ethicists remain (ought to remain?) humble in their ethical pronouncements about what actions and/or persons are evil. Judgments about what is evil carry with them a level of certainty that intellectual humility in ethics causes us to avoid.
I’ll be presenting at the Pittsburgh Continental Philosophy Conference, and the conference program was finalized today. I’m really excited about the second day. The conference will be held at Duquesne University, September 26th and 27th.
I’m writing on Caputo for my book, and trying to develop these ideas. The abstract reads as follows, just in case you’re interested 😉
A Phenomenological Refutation of Caputo’s Critique of Obligation and Ethics
By J. Edward Hackett, Ph.D.
In this paper, I explicate Caputo’s critique of obligation and ethics. Then, I apply Max Scheler’s phenomenology of value to Caputo’s critique. When I do, an amazing insight occurs. With Scheler’s phenomenology, I can explain why Caputo’s critique of obligation and ethics makes sense though some interpretation must be made since Caputo is intentionally ambiguous both about what he means by “obligation” and “ethics.” Hence, I interpret Caputo’s claims to be about the universality and codifiability of moral claims through the use of decision-procedures common to the systematic moral philosophies in act utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. In these two instances, Scheler can agree with Caputo, but not for the reason Caputo defends through deconstructionism. Instead, Scheler argues that reason is impotent, which finds agreement in Caputo. Both universality of obligation and the codifiability of moral claims are underwritten by claims of practical reason in terms of utilitarianism and Kantian deontology. However, the experiential claims for Caputo’s skepticism are unfounded. The claim of obligation, its very allure and demandingness is not even based on reason, but on intentional feeling.
I do not know if the distinction working-on and working-in are as separate as the author insists. Practically. I’d like to think many of my concerns in Continental philosophy are motivated out of something beyond and in tradition. I am concerned about normativity and themes in ethics—something both the Analytic and Continental tradition both make claims about—but take up these questions by working on Scheler by working in Continental philosophy.
Also, it may be a little unfair to the phenomenologist if she doesn’t know about Badiou. One doesn’t need to know all areas within Continental philosophy since the category itself was imposed from the outside by others that knew nothing about the concerns of those within Continental philosophy. Continental philosophy is an umbrella term and logically there are some schools within Continental philosophy that are not logically consistent with other parts. In my experience, a phenomenologist will certainly know about Merleau-Ponty, even if they did specialize on Husserl. It’s when we demand competency in the entire thing from specialists in Continental philosophy that it gets a little unfair. But the label was unfair to begin with.
Many philosophers – and I think this is more the case as we survey younger and younger generations of philosophers – wish we could simply move past the so-called analytic-continental divide, and tend to view the whole division as a byproduct of misunderstanding, or even of a the politico-cultural situation of philosophers of a previous generation. Frankly, we disdain the division, and vacillate between wishing the distinction no longer existed and acting as though it in fact no longer did: that is, we pretend to be ‘over it’.
That this is a pretense, however, is shown up in the structures governing the advancement of work that purports to promote dialogue between, or work across, these traditions.
The model followed in nearly all such attempts – and paradigmatically, in the structuring of pluralistic or continental-friendly departments – is that of attempting to achieve numerical proportionality between those working ‘on’ analytic…
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There is a lovely blog called AusomeAwestin, and for the purposes of this post, I will address the author as Awestin. I cannot tell to whom the blog belongs, but nobody just writes on Mark Timmons in metaethics without at the very least being either a graduate student or established scholar of ethics and metaethics. From what I can tell of the self-admitted survey, we have similar metaethical positions minus the untenability of virtue ethics, which is largely what I will be discussing today. At one time, I loved W. D. Ross, thought that moral properties were nonnatural, and thought that values should be described as moral properties. I am very sympathetic to these positions. Moreover, since I am doing House of Cards and Philosophy, I wanted to make a few brief comments about one particular post that struck my fancy. This would have never happened if they did not like a blog post of mine, so I am returning the favor.
Consider Awestin’s blog post here. Let me summarize the argument as I understand it.
Following Gilbert Harman, Awestin embraces the critique of virtue ethics based on Harman’s objection to moral realism, and the implicit premise unstated here is that virtues of a person are moral properties in a realist sense. Obviously from his Nature of Morality, Harman distinguishes between scientific observations and moral observations. Like scientific observtions, moral observations should be explained by the normative theory I accept. Obsservations are evidence for theories. So the analogy holds to scientifc observation should directly support the theory I adopt about physical objects and perception just as much as moral observations should support the moral theories I adopt. Clearly, Frank Underwood could be a very good candidated for being a bad person.
But wait, as Awestin believes, the observation that Frank is a bad person does not support the moral theory of virtue ethics. “In order to meet Harman’s objection completely, the fact that Underwood is morally bad must explain why the actions he commits are morally wrong. ” At best, the moral observations are reports about sociological and psychological facts about how Frank behaves and the relevant assessments that belong to our cultural milieu. We are limited only to moral observations. Put more boldly by Awestin, “no supervenience relations between non-moral facts and moral facts of the sort required by moral realists need be posited to explain my observation, only non-moral psychological and sociological facts, thus casting doubt on moral realism, and with it, virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics cannot account for the supervenience of moral facts onto the nonmoral psychological facts about persons. I want to ignore Sturgeon’s response to Harman, as Awestin thinks that the virtue ethicist falls at the feet of Harman from the get go, though other forms of moral realism are implicitly safe from this critique apart from virtue ethics (though to be fair we are never told why, but also I am forgiving for blog post philosophizing just the same).
Since virtue ethics describes persons and not actions and states of affairs, virtue ethicists must be committed to attributing moral properties to persons. If a person can be good or bad, then we are forced to regard moral properties as belonging to persons when moral properties make more sense when applied to actions and state of affairs. Harman and Awestin think moral properties about persons would “entail subjectivism of moral facts due to the supervenience relations between moral facts and non-moral facts being too closely linked to individual persons.”
There are several responses to all of this I would like to maintain, but most notably, I wonder why we must think of values as properties at all. The reason we think of properties falls at the feet as to how the term properties entered moral philosophy historically and its entrance carries with an entire history of metaphysical baggage that problem-based analytic philosophy is unwilling to think through. Like many other metaphysical terms, the use of “moral properties” commits us to the baggage that constitutes them. They are regarded as mind-independent, somehow motivating, and only properly thought to belong to actions and states of affairs–which is easy to explain historically. We first thought of properties as part of objects, and actions and state of affairs are closer to objects than persons are. Yet, the strange thing is that values are realized through persons as that which brings value into being. Property-talk about values reifies them naturally when the metaphysics of values is truly somewhere between mind-independence and mind-dependence. The former and the latter presuppose a strict split between subject and objects, and for reasons to long I cannot defend this here. Needless to say, values are not properties as much as they are correlates of emotion that condition how various phenomena are given to us.
Second, Awestin seems to think that action-guidance is a goal of moral theory itself. However, virtue ethics provides a way to talk about how persons ought to realize themselves as a deeply flourishing human being. When we only think about actions and states of affairs, we sever the connection between the type of people we ought to be since living out a life of virtue and connects philosophizing back with the concrete world of experience rather than severing ethics from the concrete life due to the fanciful abstractions of analytic moral theory. Only by conceptualizing human life through how we are deciding to be can ethics make any headway and connect up with how we ought to live. Therefore, the goal of ethics is not to tease out our prima facie moral intuitions about actions and state of affairs and somehow to establish a reflective equilibrium between my intuitions and principles, but to offer us a way to conceive of human life, the choices we make, and to offer us a way to talk about realizing a complete life.
Let’s go back to Frank Underwood. Connected to popular culture, Underwood epitomizes the hyperbolic fear that politicians could be that bad.He is a type of vicious person. He swindles, deceives, and murders people. He is the type of human being we should never be, and it’s not just the actions that are wrong. That’s only part of it. He is realizing a normative type of life that one should never lead. That’s it. End of story. If you advocate a form of moral realism that severs ethics from the type of person someone is becoming, it’s not that virtue ethics is full of shit, but the abstractions that have convinced you otherwise about ethics.
I wonder if the scholar has vanished and I do not think that is a good thing.
I do not mean scholarship, but the class of people sufficient in means and time to devote their entire life to study. In many ways, I aspire to that life, but adjunct teaching between several universities has not yielded much time that other full-time professors have. I’m lucky to have gotten done this year what I could. And the pressures of contemporary academic life push teaching on the full-time academic more so than in previous times. In addition, we teach more people of varying degree in intelligence and willingness to work. As such, there are many forces undermining the ideal of the scholar.
Perhaps, a contemporary example is in order. To publish my writings, I had to work on them in my own time, often intruding upon my marriage and other non-academic duties life throws at you. Since I do not have kids and doing philosophy on the weekends or even when I get home from commuting between two-part time positions at local universities, I have had little personal time to devote to the things of life other full-time people take for granted.
And here’s the clincher: with full-time positions disappearing and being replaced by contingent adjunct faculty, the real crisis of the humanities is not their already established irrelevance, but the fact that the very life of the scholar that would show the relevance of the humanities is a lost way of life nobody could recognize at all. The scholar is vanishing before us.
The strange irony is that we are all given a taste of scholarly satisfaction. All of us may have been excited by our dissertations, the pure intellectual satisfaction of drawing connections at a time when we may have been funded just to research it and write it. That may be the last time any of us had a taste of what it meant to be a scholar.