Saturday, December 25, 2010

David N. Myers on history vs theology in German-Jewish thought

David N. Myers, The Problem of History in German-Jewish Thought: Observations on a Neglected Tradition (Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Breuer). The Samuel Braun Lecture in the History of the Jews of Prussia. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press. 2001.

While I'm finding Myers' work on the history of alternative Jewish nationalisms (with a focus on cultural Zionism) interesting, I'm finding myself irritated with this essay from the beginning. Myers ponders the opposition between self-authorizing, self-insulating theology and an historicism which undermines it.  Myers aims to show that this tension is not limited to Christianity or to Islam but has a substantial history in Jewish thought. Several instances are cited, for instance Baruch Kurzweil's war on the "Jerusalem School" for its unforgivable tendency "to lower Judaism from its absolute validity to a state of relativism." Moreover,
If the perverse fascination with mysticism went hand in hand with historicism, there was another partner in what Kurzweil considered the unholy trinity of secular modernity: nationalism. Where mysticism sought to subvert the normative tradition, nationalism aimed to "normalize" Judaism by removing its veil of uniqueness. In this regard, it was an ideal partner for historicism. Kurzweil was well aware that, in Europe, nationalism and historicism were close and mutually affirming allies from the early 19th century on. More often than not, historical scholarship had been called upon to tell the story of the nation. Nationalism, for its part, provided not only intellectual inspiration, but also an institutional home for historicism in the form of universities, learned societies, and large collaborative projects.
Myers finds this fascinating.
Making sense of Baruch Kurzweil's contentious battle with Jewish historicism is a fascinating challenge. One can readily point to a number of intersecting explanatory layers: his iconoclastic personality; his personal animosity and inferiority complex toward the Hebrew University (where he sought and failed to gain a professorial appointment); his ambivalence toward Zionism, and
particularly Zionist claims to intellectual or spiritual rejuvenation; his attention to the moral caesura occasioned by the Holocaust; and his uncommonly keen awareness, especially for a non-historian, that historicism was in the throes of crisis in postwar European intellectual culture.
While I too am drawn to solve historical-ideological puzzles, I am far from fascinated at the starting gate. Let's see where Myers takes us. He puts Kurzweil in abeyance while he takes us on a historical journey beginning in the 12th century. Judah Ha-Levi and Maimonides disdained history. But 18th century Enlightenment paved the way for 19th century historicism, which involves a new conception of mundane causality and context. This was bound to cause conflict between Jewish thinkers imbued with historicist prerogatives and traditional transcendentalists. But Myers is not so much interested in the fussy traditionalists as in "Jewish figures who, regardless of their adherence to traditional ritual, were deeply and unapologetically immersed in a secular intellectual world, had absorbed the impact of historicism, and sought to protest against it—from within." One example is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's opposition to Heinrich Graetz. Nietzsche, too, railed against historicism, and he was an influence on Jewish thinkers. Debate raged in Christian theological circles as well. And then there is the neo-Kantian movement. Hermann Cohen found historicism suspect, opposed Zionism, and argued against Emst Troeltsch.

The discussion of various figures continues until we come to a sustained discussion of Franz Rosenzweig, who was convinced he found an escape route from relativism, ultimately taking refuge in religious faith, with a great affinity to Christian theologians. He also chafed against Zionism, fearing the descent into time.
In this [1919] lecture on "The Spirit and Epochs of Jewish History," Rosenzweig declared that the Jewish people refused to succumb to time, indeed, refused to be reduced to a scheme of periodization. On the contrary, the "Jewish spirit breaks the shackles of (historical) epochs" and "walks undisturbed through history."
Myers moves on to Isaac Breuer, who sought to "overcome the emptiness of bourgeois life", but on an entirely different basis than, say, the Frankfurt School. To say the least: "Breuer's premise led him to conclude that the Jews, unlike other peoples, were not subordinate to the normal forces of nature or human will." Yet he believed in teaching history.

How Myers could sustain interest in this drivel is beyond me. Well, there's one obvious basis of interest:
Breuer was a steadfast believer in the existence of a Jewish nation and a fierce opponent of the idea of a secular Jewish state. Throughout his life he waged battle against Zionism, whose impious disregard for Torah rendered it "the most terrible enemy that has ever risen against the Jewish nation."
This does not mean that Breuer wanted to stay out of Palestine.

In his summation, Myers evinces a sense of regret and in some way sympathizes with the impetus to "resist the powerful pull of historicism" even while being irrevocably drawn toward it. But so what? None of this metaphysical folderol yields the slightest understanding of one's historical situation. Whatever Myers thinks is historicism is not historical materialism, which is excluded from consideration, and the resistance to secular historical consciousness is a denial of reality utterly opposed to any scientific, that is intellectually honest and non-delusional, comprehension of history and society. Ultimately, there is going to be a draw-down between Jewish thinkers who do not function within the confines of "Jewish thought", i.e. all the intellectual innovators who really matter, and a retreat into a specifically Jewish metaphysics, however permeated with the influence of Christianity and German philosophy. Myers is lost; he wants to say something, but he really has nothing to express other than regret over where he finds himself deposited in history.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Frederick Douglass home invasion

Frederick Douglass home, Anacostia, Washington DC, 14 January 2005

Here's my report written just after my visit on 14 January 2005:

Today I finally got around to a project I've had in mind for a few years: I visited Frederick Douglass' Cedar Hill home in Anacostia, now maintained by the National Park Service. My goal was to attempt to photograph certain objects in Fred's study, particularly busts of Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss, both members of the Left Hegelian movement and pivotal figures in the history of German freethought. Strauss' 1835 Leben Jesu marked a turning point in the demythologization of the gospels. Strauss also divided the struggling factions following Hegel into Left, Right, and Center. Feuerbach is best known for his book The Essence of Christianity, translated into English early on (unlike most of other writings of the Young Hegelians, a good number of which remain untranslated to this day) by the novelist George Eliot. Feuerbach argues that religion reflects an inverted world and is a projection of the alienated human essence. This revolutionary concept had an enormous impact, so much so that Feuerbach himself is often forgotten. Feuerbach also had a revolutionary program for philosophy, which didn't get quite so far because of the limitations of his concepts. He considered philosophy (having reached its summit in Hegel), like religion, as a disguised form of theology, and hence requiring a materialist inversion as well. Feuerbach provided Marx with a nascent conception of ideology, and also lives on historically as a precursor to Marx, though he should in no way be limited to this role.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service's Douglass web site neglected to mention that, due to renovation, the entire contents of the house were removed, and so all there is left to look at inside is the wallpaper. Various old black-and-white photos of the missing objects were set up on easels so you could see what you were missing. The only upside is that this is the only opportunity visitors will get to walk through these rooms, which will be roped off once restoration is complete. So the only thing left for me to do was pose for a couple photos in front of Fred's empty bookcase. You can see the bookcase, as well as his study when Fred was using it, in a photo on my web page:

Letter to Ludwig Feuerbach from Ottilie Assing about Frederick Douglass

This brings us to Ottilie Assing. After leaving the house, we stopped in the Visitor's Center to see more artifacts and other items on display. I guess the Park Service wants to keep it clean for the kids, as no mention was made anywhere of one of the most important people in Fred's life, the German-Jewish immigrant Ottilie Assing (an intriguing gerund), Fred's unofficial main squeeze and intellectual influence. There is of course plenty of documentation on Fred's two wives and kids, but poor Ottilie is left out of account. I think she committed suicide after Fred married someone else. Ottilie was a fervent atheist, and claims in a letter to Feuerbach (see web page) that she converted Fred to atheism. Fred was of a skeptical temperament (evinced in remarks about racist churches and complaints about his people's absorption in lodges and mystical cults), but my guess is that she was exaggerating a bit. This is another obscure tidbit of intellectual history that reveals yet again the complex interweaving of human destinies and covert interconnections that bind us all together.

Black freethought explosion 2009-2010: from blogs to social networking

I have variously reported on the state of the black freethought movement in the USA and abroad. Key entries are dated: May 13, 2008; February 6, 2009; May 30, 2009; June 2, 2009; September 14, 2010. There are of course numerous specific reports interspersed throughout. But since I haven't been systematically updating my readers, I want to give a quick overview of progress over the past two years.

In my estimation, the watershed year for the burst of black freethought activity was 2009. I can't determine at the moment when I joined Facebook. I joined in 2008, and I was active by January 2009, but I am usually a late comer, so I was slow to join up and get involved. By that time I had found "Black Planet" to be subpar. (There were two groups at that time, one of which involved several people who don't know what "freethought" means.) When I joined up on Facebook, there were a few black freethought groups, some inactive or with low membership, a couple more active. The membership numbers and activity at that time were not impressive, as far as I can remember.

I had been aware of Reginald Finley's prodigious radio show The Infidel Guy. There was also a plethora of YouTube videos. Otherwise, I noted an upsurge in black freethought activity with the emergence of blogs. It did not seem that the various bloggers and commentators on them were generally aware of one another's existence. One of the first blogs I frequented was Zee Harrison's Black Woman Thinks...Religion, Politics, Race, Atheism and more!. Another was Wrath James White's first blog, Words of Wrath. (He subsequently initiated a second blog called Godless and Black.) I discussed the need for a new social networking group with someone I encountered on Wrath James White's blog, I think, but since I didn't see others taking the initiative, I went ahead and started my "Black Freethought" group on Atheist Nexus, which at that time had just become the social networking site for atheists in the English-speaking world. I started my "Black Freethought" group on February 6, 2009.

On June 1, 2009 my Black Freethought group attained its 100th member. At that moment, it was the leading social networking group of its kind. Spring 2009 also saw other major advances, such as Gary Booker's First Annual Conference of Black Nontheists in Atlanta, and Sikivu Hutchinson's public visibility. Since then, activity of all kinds has exploded, with conferences, organizations, blogs, Facebook groups, podcasts, and various other individual initiatives. (I have reported on various of these, but I will have to review my records and then list them all in one place. I see I will also have to update my web guide.)

It seems that Facebook is where everyone wants to be. I didn't care for it at first, and I still don't like the way it's organized, but I spend more time on Facebook than elsewhere now. My group on Atheist Nexus is no longer in the lead. At some point, the Facebook groups "Black Atheists" and "Black Atheist Alliance" pulled out way ahead of mine.

Here are some statistics as of this writing:

Atheist Nexus groups:
Black Freethought  -  318 members
African Atheists - 60 members
The Infidel Guy Show - 168 members

African/Black Atheists and Believers @ Think Atheist - 24 members

Facebook groups:
Black and Non-Religious - 97 members. (I joined at least as far back as February 2009, eventually became administrator.)
African American Atheists - 13 members - stillborn
African Americans for Humanism - 227 members
African Freethinkers - 385 members
Black Atheist Alliance - 455 members
Black Atheists (Mario Stanton) - 584 members
Black Freethinkers International - 17 members
The Infidel Guy Show - 447 members
Secular Students at Howard University - 58 members
Single Black Atheists Dating Pool - 134 members

There are four Facebook freethought groups specifically for South Africa. For all I know, there may be other groups, as I can't keep up with everything. Making generalizations about the content of all these communications will require a much more intensive effort.

I should also mention the pioneering network, which involves special interest groups organizing face-to-face meetings. I got involved with meetups as far back as 2004, including local atheist meetups. I have not investigated the activity of meetup groups nationwide, but there is a meetup group for the recently organized African Americans for Humanism DC (AAH DC).

I'll conclude with a reminder of my Web Guide to Black / African-American / African Atheism (which I see needs some updating) and my Working Bibliography on African American / Black Autodidacticism, Education, Intellectual Life.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Not by Genes Alone

This looks more promising than the fare offered by Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson:

Richerson, Peter J.; Boyd, Robert. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Publisher description:
Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In this stunning exploration of human adaptation, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics.

Not by Genes Alone offers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Richerson and Boyd illustrate here that culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. Drawing on work in the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, and economics—and building their case with such fascinating examples as kayaks, corporations, clever knots, and yams that require twelve men to carry them—Richerson and Boyd convincingly demonstrate that culture and biology are inextricably linked, and they show us how to think about their interaction in a way that yields a richer understanding of human nature.

In abandoning the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived, Not by Genes Alone is a truly original and groundbreaking theory of the role of culture in evolution and a book to be reckoned with for generations to come.

Wisdom and Abstract Thought

In my previous post I expressed exasperation with Stephen S. Hall's new book Wisdom. There are a few references in his book that seem to be worth following up.

*     *     *

Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, edited by Robert J. Sternberg. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Part I. Approaches to the Study of Wisdom:
1. Understanding wisdom R. J. Sternberg
Part II. Approaches Informed by Philosophical Conceptions of Wisdom:
2. Wisdom through the ages D. N. Robinson
3. The psychology of wisdom: an evolutionary interpretation M. Csikszentmihalyi and K. Rathunde
4. Wisdom as integrated thought: historical and developmental perspectives G. Labouvie-Vief
Part III. Approaches Informed by Folk Conceptions of Wisdom:
5. Toward a psychology of wisdom and its ontogenesis P. Baltes and J. Smith
6. Wisdom in a post-apocalyptic age M. J. Chandler and S. Holliday
7. Wisdom and its relations to intelligence and creativity R. J. Sternberg
8. Wisdom and the study of wise persons L. Orwoll and M. Parlmutter
Part IV. Approaches Informed by Psychodevelopmental Conceptions of Wisdom:
9. The loss of wisdom J. A. Meacham
10. Wisdom and reflective judgment: knowing in the face of uncertainty K. S. Kitchener and H. G. Brenner
11. Wisdom: the art of problem finding P. K. Arlin
12. An essay on wisdom: towards symbolic processes that make it possible J. Pascual-Leone
13. Conceptualising wisdom: the primacy of affect-cognition relations D. Kramer
Part V. Integration of Approaches and Viewpoints:
14. Integration J. E. Birren
Author index
Subject index.

"This authoritative volume represents the only complete collection of psychological views on wisdom currently available. Considered an elusive psychological construct until recently, wisdom is currently attracting interest as an independent field. The acclaimed psychologist Robert Sternberg perceived the need to document the progress made in the field, and to point the way for future theory and progress. The resulting book introduces the concept of wisdom, considers philosophical issues and developmental approaches, and covers folk conceptions of the topic. The final chapter presents an integration of the fascinating and comprehensive material."

*     *     *

Paul B. Baltes (1939–2006) appears to be the leading researcher on wisdom. See also the Paul B. Baltes Wisdom Page. And lest we forget, Wikipedia. And here is the book referenced by Hall, available online:

Wisdom as Orchestration of Mind and Virtue by Paul B. Baltes. Berlin: Max Planck Institute for Human Development, 2004.

*     *     * 

The Wisdom Page "is a website dedicated to helping us better understand wisdom — that vitally important but poorly understood pinnacle of human functioning." This site is chock full of resources on the subject.

*     *     *

In December 2003 I approached this question not from what is usually thought of as practical wisdom, but in its historical dimension, linked with the development of the human intellect along with society. See my essay Wisdom and Abstract Thought, which I wrote for discussion with a local philosophy group. Unsurprisingly, it fell on deaf ears.

My point of departure was an aspect of what I found salvageable in Soviet philosophy, namely a correlation of philosophical development with the evolution of the scientific-technological basis of society and social organization. This was a fundamental approach of specialized Soviet philosophy quite different from the way philosophy is taught in these parts, where the best we can do as an alternative to traditional teaching and the wasteland of analytical philosophy is this duplicitous ideological category misnamed "continental philosophy". Though I've cogitated about the relation between wisdom and abstract thinking for years, I decided to pursue the topic after chancing upon Theodore Oizerman's Problem of Wisdom as a Real Problem, a subchapter in Oizerman's Problems of the History of Philosophy. Oizerman is subject to criticism on other grounds, but here is a complement to the ahistorical approach of people like Hall.

Incidentally, the most influential Soviet Marxist developmental psychologist continues to be Lev Vygotsky. Attempts have been made to fold his socially oriented perspective into cognitive science (see my blog entry on this subject), notably:

Frawley, William. Vygotsky and Cognitive Science: Language and the Unification of the Social and Computational Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Neuroscience as ideology: bourgeois wisdom at work

In re:

Hall, Stephen S. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

"A compelling investigation into one of the most coveted and cherished ideals, 'Wisdom' also chronicles the efforts of modern science to penetrate the mysterious nature of this timeless virtue."

PART ONE: Wisdom defined (sort of)
What is wisdom?;
The wisest man in the world: the philosophical roots of wisdom;
Heart and mind: the psychological roots of wisdom
PART TWO: Eight neural pillars of wisdom.
Emotional regulation: the art of coping;
Knowing what’s important: the neural mechanism of establishing value and making a judgment;
Moral reasoning: the biology of judging right from wrong;
Compassion: the biology of loving-kindness and empathy;
Humility: the gift of perspective;
Altruism: social justice, fairness, and the wisdom of punishment;
Patience: temptation, delayed gratification, and the biology of learning to wait for larger rewards;
Dealing with uncertainty : change, "meta-wisdom," and the vulcanization of the human brain
PART THREE: Becoming wise.
Youth, adversity, and resilience: the seeds of wisdom;
Older and wiser: the wisdom of aging;
Classroom, board room, bedroom, back room: everyday wisdom in our everyday world;
Dare to be wise: does wisdom have a future?

See also the web site of Stephen C. Hall.

*     *     *

"Wrong life cannot be lived rightly."
          — Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 18

This aphorism does not appear in Stephen Hall's book, and Adorno does not appear to be part of the mental universe of Hall's attempt to scientize "timeless virtue". As bourgeois reason totters on its last legs, the latest fad of popular science purporting to explain social and in many cases political behavior is neurobiology. Like all bourgeois scientism, this line of inquiry is predicated on ideological amnesia, an erasure of real history, society, and politics. Granted that both neurobiology and evolutionary theory are essential to comprehension of the material basis of the organism, of everything it is capable of thinking and doing, the conceit here is that the biology of individual cognition in abstraction is proffered as an explanation of how we function in society, and this is why the spate of popular books on the subject is reactionary to the core.

Hall only questions his endeavor in the final chapter, pondering whether a focus on wise individuals only fosters a personality cult and hero worship, distracting from the thing itself. He also contemplates the future of wisdom given the state of consumer culture.

Otherwise, Hall trots out various culture heroes as possible examples of wisdom: Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oprah. Again, qualities of wisdom are abstracted out of total social situations, oblivious to the dimension of ideology critique that could be applied to any and all of his examples. 

Anyone who could quote David Brooks even in passing as a person to take seriously betrays a political cluelessness the contemptibility of which defies description.

Wrong life cannot be lived rightly

"Wrong life cannot be lived rightly."

          — Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, section 18

Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, from 2009, slightly edited.

* * *

22 Jan 2009

Of late this aphorism keeps popping up in my head, as a spontaneous counterpoint to social/cultural input. I can't recall the contexts that spur these thoughts, but they may have something to do with the self-help industry, Oprah, Obamamania, the culture industry, American individualism, upper middle class liberalism . . . vs. the larger perspective that challenges the false immediacy of popular ideology. I also have in mind Adorno's notion of theory and practice, of his lectures on Kant's morality, on his obsession with Auschwitz. Otherwise, I am just considering this sentence in isolation from its context in Minima Moralia.

I keep coming back to this quote as a challenge to the veil of falsity that hangs over American life, which this insane fetishism of President Obama perpetuates. There should be a way of explaining accessibly what is at stake in Adorno's view, or in any intellectual's that does not join in with the crowd.

Now I am curious about who has written what on the ethical dimension of Adorno's thought, indeed, that lies behind Adorno's thought. I haven't read it, but the first thing that comes to mind is . . .

Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics by J. M. Bernstein
1. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly;
2. Disenchantment: the skepticism of enlightened reason;
3. The instrumentality of moral reason;
4. Mastered by nature: abstraction, independence, and the simple concept;
5. Interlude: three versions of modernity;
6. Disenchanting identity: the complex concept;
7. Toward an ethic of nonidentity;
8. After Auschwitz;
9. Ethical modernism.
You can also read some of the intro via

Also, there are two essays in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno.

23 Jan 2009

A few years back I objected to Adorno's notion that the good life could only be characterized negatively; that we couldn't say anything positive. This also dovetails with Adorno's animosity towards Erich Fromm, who, because of his generally affirmative posture, was called by one of the Frankfurters — maybe it was Marcuse — the Norman Vincent Peale of the left. And yes, I have found Adorno far too ascetic and austere. But when one feels that one's culture and society has been totally compromised, and one can see the long-range implications of negative social forces, taking this stance makes more sense.

But it's not mere elitism that drove Adorno, though it does relate to his lived experience as a product of high bourgeois culture. Adorno lived through the destruction of European culture as he knew it. His first book, on Kierkegaard, was published the day Hitler took power. The swallowing up of the individual personality — what was then called "modern man" — by the monstrous machine of society, was not the world of postwar prosperity in western nations as we knew it from approx. 1950-1970, which also involved a dehumanizing regimentation against which the '60s generation rebelled. Fascism meant that the individual life could be totally compromised, and there was no room to maneuver. Adorno may have also experienced survivor's guilt, not only in general, but in particular, in relation to his close friend Walter Benjamin.

However exaggerated Adorno might have depicted the iron cage in prosperous western democracies (but for only about the last two decades of his life), even with a more differentiated and refined analysis, Adorno's broad-brush picture nonetheless abstracts out broad social trends, ongoing processes rather than total faits accompli. As such, Adorno highlights decisive aspects of contemporary society that are ideologically repressed by the culture industry and the so-called ideological state apparatuses: that is, Adorno expresses broad contours of society against the enforced silence about how society is fundamentally constituted.

Hence Adorno doesn't address what the individual is going to do, or what social activists are going to do, but what can't be spoken in the mainstream media and cultural apparatus. And this is why I bring in the self-help industry, Oprah, Dr. Phil, Extreme Home Makeover, American Idol, and the rest. The largess bestowed by the wealthy and corporate America on a few lucky people is fine for the individuals who benefit, but it is predicated on the falsification of social reality and social misery, while fostering a groveling attitude to corporate America (or whatever country you live in).

So maybe we don't need to be depressed all the time, but the gap between the illusory notions on which society runs and the recognition of the gap between that and an understanding of what's really going on and the depth at which it has to be challenged, is likely to promote a much-needed negativity. Though I don't believe in being grumpy 24-7, I don't trust people who always want to think positively, for, when one examines their ideology, one always finds it predicated on falsehood. And when the people who espouse it belong to the privileged upper middle class (though not exclusive to them), I find their attitude insufferable.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Howard L. Parsons: East meets West (2): Naturalizing the religious impulse

I have uploaded three excerpts from this book I started to review in a previous post:

Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8)

Howard L. Parsons on the Role of the Philosopher

This is Parsons' general prescription for the philosopher's task and not specifically tied to the theme of the book.

Howard L. Parsons on Naturalist vs. Supernationalist Perspectives on Value

Parsons is skeptical both of Barth's neo-orthodoxy and Tillich's liberal theological palaver about 'being'. We should seek the natural basis of human dependencies instead of railing against modern man and hyping his dependence on a transcendental source. Progress means that theology tends to become anthropology. Parsons seeks to preserve some of the traditional concerns, but with an updated, naturalistic world view. This is an example of how he typically expresses himself:
Yet a full anthropology, which sees man in society, history, and nature, in the full stretch of space and time, might bring modern humanism to affirm, in a new and qualified way, some of the assertions of ancient religion.
While I've seen much worse in my time, I find this sort of formulation conceptually muddled. Parsons also evinces an excessively deferential attitude toward sacred figures and what others call the great spiritual teachers. On the plus side, Parsons sees the human symbolizing capacity as having from the beginning taken a wrong turn into superstition. Parsons also criticizes Sartre's mournful nostalgia for the outmoded supernaturalist position.

Howard L. Parsons on Naturalism & Religion: Conclusion

Parsons sums up his position in the final pages of the book. Parsons is mostly on track, but I object to his characteristic formulations, e.g.:
Is it possible to combine the best of the religious perspective with the power of scientific knowledge and control now in our hands? It is not only possible; it is necessary, if we are to be saved from a science determined by men who do not understand or appreciate the evolutionary role of man in nature and his responsibility toward it, and from religions that do not understand and even repudiate science. The first would give us man divorced from nature and from values grounded in nature; the second, values divorced from man and nature. In both cases, values become arbitrary and, in the event of conflict, subject to settlement by capricious preference and arbitrary power.
 In his essay "Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique" Parsons evinces an awareness of the interplay between positivist and irrationalist tendencies in the ideological life of bourgeois society. However, he tries too hard to have it both ways, affirming modernity and criticizing tradition while fudging his analysis of the allegedly admirable facets and impulses of pre-modernity. There is both sophistication and epistemological repression going on here, which I suspect is related to his brand of Marxism with its lack of recognition of the ineluctable impossibility of socialism in rapidly modernizing peasant societies.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shit happens

I can't remember whether it was two or three decades ago that I saw my first "Shit Happens" T-shirt. There are many variations of the list, but they're all about the various religious views of why shit happens. There are numerous listings on the web. I haven't checked to see which is the most complete. This one, from the infamous journal Maledicta (Volume 12, 1996), claims to be complete:

The Complete "Shit Happens" List

Some of these are quite funny. Note, thought, that the first one listed here is also the first one you will see on all the T-shirts, namely: "Taoism: Shit happens." And seriously, that's all there really is.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tribute to Indian Atheists- Part II

Here it is. Most of these names are new to me. I recognize Ambedkar, Rushdie, A. Roy, and B. Singh.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society revisited

Revisiting my experiences of the 1970s (the '70s being the key to all mysteries) through the prism of the 1990s and thereafter prompted my attempt at an analytical approach that would explain the historical need, appeal, and limitations of the mysticism endemic to the most advanced black jazz musicians of the 1960s, an approach that would differ from the orientation of the burgeoning scholarship surrounding them. A few scholars of these musicians (e.g. of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton) appreciated my endeavors, which aimed at something different from their own invaluable work. Historically, it has been necessary first to vindicate and document black cultural achievements and place them into the mainstream of intellectual life. This is an ongoing process. Yet Americans cannot follow Europeans in simply preserving cultural artifacts as museum pieces that never change while time, society, and sensibility move on, either in positive or negative directions (or both simultaneously). (The Wynton Marsalis gambit of excising the avant-garde from legitimate jazz tradition was reflected in Ken Burns' falsification of the history of jazz in the '60s and '70s, which speaks volumes about the nature of popular culture and class stratification today.) But also, the more we think about what has changed, what we lost that we couldn't save, and what we have outgrown, once the task of vindication has been accomplished, we have to evaluate where we're at now, in the process of blindly feeling our way into the future.

Recent musings about Sun Ra have diverted my attention to an old project of mine:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians (2002, 2004)

I have noted that one of the most striking things about some of these avant-garde jazz composers/musicians is the individualism that characterizes their construction of belief systems or esoteric/mystical conceptions. Coltrane graduated from traditional Christianity in North Carolina to eclecticism in Philadelphia, studying everything, professing tolerance of a multiplicity of paths, while developing no original system of thought. Sun Ra concocted out of his sources an Afrocentric cosmo-mythology combining an interest in ancient Egypt with interplanetary travel. Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama, so it is understandable why only taking up residence on the planet Saturn could get him far enough away from the South. Anthony Braxton comes out of Chicago, constructing an original esoteric system more mathematical and abstract. There must be a way of analyzing this historical trajectory in a fashion different from both uncritical boosterism and from an overall historically and sociologically impoverished atheist/humanist movement.

I concluded the ruminations collected herein with two generalizations—the moral of the story, if you will (pardon the fancy language):
(a) Oppositional mystical/metaphysical positions are anticipations of developments to come, formulated at a time and staking out a territory before they can be concretely realized in society and developed in theoretical form. In Hegelian fashion, that which is needed but cannot become concrete must live as abstraction.

(b) When the historical moment is due for the sublation of mystical/metaphysical abstractions into scientific/cultural form, and this fails to happen, then a regression takes place, and the dark side of mysticism—intimately connected with fascism—comes out into the light, the concealed weaknesses of a cultural strategy become manifest, and the cultural strategy goes bankrupt.

"Bankrupt" is the key word for today. Neither a return to the 1950s, perpetuation of navel-gazing avant-garde noodle-doodle, nor indulgence in the pole-dancing bullshit many of you take for music today, will do. But there is something missing in thought as well as in culture, and for that neither nostalgia nor presentism will do. Our work of mourning involves living in a state of tension between present and past, and figuring out how to survive a future that is rapidly being stolen from us.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Where are the atheist women? (2)

One of the strongest reactions against the Ms Magazine blogger who doubted the prominence of women in the atheist movement was Jennifer McCreight's intervention:

Does the media really care where the atheist women are?, November 1, 2010.

If you want to know where the atheist women were and are, see her list:

A large list of awesome female atheists
by Jen McCreight, Blag Hag blog, January 3, 2010.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Where are the atheist women?

This asinine article garnered some harsh responses:

Will “New Atheism” Make Room For Women? by Monica Shores, Ms. Magazine Blog, November 1, 2010

It was an accusatory article about the alleged domination of the (new) atheism by old white men.

Here is what I wrote on Facebook in response to a news feed:
This article is quite dishonest. We can start with the fact that it was the press, not the atheist movement itself, that coined the bogus concept "new atheist" and chose the "four horsemen" as the stars. Who invites these people on talk shows and writes about them in the press? Who stopped the media from featuring Ali more and giving Jacoby more than a column on the Washington Post web site? As for the atheist/humanist movement itself, it too is held hostage to celebrity culture in order to pay the bills. There are far more intellectually astute people of any race or gender behind the scenes than people likely to become superstars. And were one to look at the history of the freethought movement, women were never the meek and passive individuals they are made out to be here. As for the ideological notions most prominent in the movement, there's a lot worse than Hitchens' cracks about women, and they are driven--sociobiology is a prime example--by an ideology more profoundly rooted than sexism. How small and shallow. Incidentally, I recall a number of feminists who invested a fair amount of energy defaming Edwards & Obama because they thought getting a white woman in the White House really mattered. This is the shallow ideological level at which this country operates.
Various published responses more directly assaulted the misstatements of this article. This one appeared on the Ms blog itself:

Where Are All The Atheist Women? Right Here by Jen McCreight, Ms. Magazine blog, November 3, 2010

Stalking the Mystic Bourgeoisie

Here's an interesting reading guide on

So you'd like to ... protect yourself from the Mystic Bourgeoisie, a guide by Christopher Locke

Locke claims to be working on a book with the working title Mystic Bourgeoisie: Numinous Lunacy & the Sanctimonious Narcissism of the New Age. Here's a tidbit from his rant:
"Far more expensive, however, is the widespread attitude that this kind of 'mysticism' is a harmless, even socially beneficent 'lifestyle option.' As it was in the past, it's actually the 'spiritual' underbelly of political fascism—and it's bearing down on the present like a fast freight."

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions by Ronald H. Fritze (London: Reaktion Books, 2009)

See the author's web site, linked above. Here is the publisher's description:
Invented Knowledge is an exploration of the murky world of fake science and pseudo-history: fields that generally rely on lost continents, ancient super-civilizations, conspiratorial cover-ups, preternaturally daring and undocumented discoveries, and even vast Satan-inspired plots to offer an alternative version of the past.

At once lively and authoritative, Ronald H. Fritze illuminates the phenomenon of false history by telling the story of a select group of pseudo-historical ideas. He explores legends such as the lost continent of Atlantis, and the original settlement of the Americas by a European people, who established a glorious civilization only to be supplanted by the invading ‘Red Indian’, and whose only remains are the many mounds scattered across the eastern United States. He also discusses the beliefs of more recent religious groups, such as the Nation of Islam and Christian Identity. Fritze shows that in spite of, or perhaps because of, the strongest rejections of mainstream historians, and the lack of scientific evidence, some of these ideas have proved very durable, and gained widespread acceptance in the public mind. Such ideas can also be deadly – the Nazis, for example, believed in a false version of European history in which the German people were a superior race destined to conquer the world.

With many diverting examples of spurious narrative, artificial chronology and ersatz theory, Invented Knowledge also unravels the disputes and debates surrounding controversial books such as 1421: The Year China Discovered America, Black Athena, The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lloyd L. Brown: the complete interview

Some time ago I posted an excerpt from a 1996 interview with black Communist and novelist Lloyd L. Brown (1913-2003). The excerpt concerned Brown's perspective on black religiosity. The full interview can now be found on my web site:

Lloyd L. Brown Talks to Mary Helen Washington: Writing the Collective Narrative (Route One Interview)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Martin Gardner, mathematical games, & me

In my obit for Martin Gardner, I mentioned my teenage devotion to his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, which I discovered in 1967 after picking up a copy of the magazine in my local drugstore. In his June 1968 column he proposed a problem concerning Baker's Solitaire, and followed up with readers' solutions in subsequent issues. My name appeared with several others in the September 1968 issue, but as these acknowledgments were not included when the column was anthologized in Mathematical Magic Show: More Puzzles, Games, Diversions, Illusions and Other Mathematical Sleight-of-Mind from Scientific American in 1977, I reproduce said acknowledgment here:

Mathematical Games: Counting Systems and the Relationship between Numbers and the Real World” by Martin Gardner [Excerpt including acknowledgments for solutions to Baker's Solitaire problem]

Other than winning medals or certificates for scholastic achievement and spelling bees, this was one of my first of many trivial claims to fame. I think I once got a letter published in Superman comics when I was a kid. And I once sent a purportedly clever letter with photos to Mad Magazine, but that was a bust. Anyway, this was my sole interaction with Martin Gardner, now preserved for the ages.

See also this section of my games web guide:

Homage to Martin Gardner (October 21, 1914 – May 22, 2010)
Mathematical Games Web Links

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Howard L. Parsons: East meets West = New Age + Stalinism (1)

The 20th century was replete with the literature of the meeting of the East and West, in respectable philosophical literature, in pop philosophy, New Age thought, and popular culture. As the ideological trend of postmodernism gained ascendancy in the 1980s, the older literature gave way to a whole new basis for combining the most obscurantist currents in Western and Asian thought. Under the postmodern dispensation, it is easy to forget what the older literature looked like.

The entire East-West paradigm formed the basis for the suppression of Marxism as an analytical approach, and Marxism gave the lie to the ahistorical metaphysics underlying the concepts of East and West. While individuals might embrace elements of both, disciplined intellectual inquiry never did so. As bad an influence as Soviet Marxism was, it was not ethnocentric in limiting its purview to Western philosophy. Marxism has a long history of engagement with Indian and Chinese philosophy, for example, and from an entirely different perspective than East-meets-West literature.

I have always been averse to Marxist philosophers who were part of or gravitated to the Soviet camp. In the 1970s and 1980s the Amsterdam publisher B.R. Grüner was a major outlet for their writings. Examination of their output reveals both highs and abysmal lows. Over the years I largely passed by the American philosopher Howard L. Parsons, both in print and in person. Recently, however, picking up one of those old Grüner volumes I had perused several times before, I found something by Parsons I found worthwhile:

"Theories of Knowledge: A Dialectical, Historical Critique" by Howard L. Parsons

I wrote the following on 23 October:
I was surprised to find Berkeley getting credit for something, not to say that pleases me much, but Parsons is dealing with philosophical reactions to the inadequacies of contemporaneous thought, not just for the obscurantism of the alternatives. I find especially interesting his take on mysticism, which he probably polished in his other writings on Eastern philosophies (e.g. Man East and West), which I've passed over until now, but now I think I'll return to them. The weaknesses of bootlickers of the USSR are all too evident to me (and I used to see several of them in action in person), but this essay showed that in certain respects, some of them do have something to offer. B.R. Grüner published all these people, and their offerings were mighty uneven, but still there is some salvageable material. I should also say that material like this provides a perspective that the American atheist/humanist movement has entirely excluded, and which Marxist literature such as this implicitly criticizes.
Then I came across this book, which had been lying about for years, unread:

Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B.R.Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8)

While this took me back in time, I don't recall reading anything on this theme quite like this book. Neither New Age literature nor various Marxist analyses of religion produced this sort of thing in my experience. It reads like a fusion of historical materialism and metaphysical typology, or Stalinism and New Age.

Actually, Parsons' writing style is quite vivid, and this is a plus. There are a number of oddities in the book, though. For example, Parsons deploys Sheldon's physiognomic typology (ectomorph-mesomorph-endomorph, certebrotic-somatotonic-viscerotonic), a peculiar scheme I've not seen promoted since the days of Aldous Huxley. Mao is alleged to possession feminine facial features. Socialism is victorious in the East, which presumably is a plus for the Eastern mindset.

Parsons is not an unqualified partisan of Eastern philosophy; his perspective is congruent with the popular notion of the complementarity of East and West, akin to that of female and male, that both supply qualities the other lacks. Unlike New Agers or other advocates of East-Meets-West, Parsons is critical of the authoritarian, hierarchical, feudal social institutional and ideological dimension of Eastern thought. This deficiency is incorporated into his complementarity model. In other ways, Parsons fails to be critical of the metaphysical conceptions of Indian and Chinese thought he incorporates into his framework.

Parsons provides some detailed analyses of the development of Indian religion and Chinese thought. Oddly, he relates Lao Tzu to social class and revolution (95-97), in contrast to the patriarchal, hierarchical disposition of Confucianism. Incredibly, Parsons relates Sheldon's body typology to differentials between Eastern and Western civilizations (98). (Mesomorphy is Western?) The book is like this, painting a vivid picture in which sociohistorical analysis is fused with pseudoscience and metaphysical fragments.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Joachim Kahl, German atheist

Joachim Kahl (1941- ) was once a theologian, once a Marxist, and is still a philosopher. Apparently he is no fan of Dawkins & co. One of his books has been translated into English: The Misery of Christianity, Or, A Plea for a Humanity without God, with a preface by Gerhard Szczesny, translated by N. D. Smith. (Penguin, 1971).

Here is one translated piece that can be found on the web:

The Answer of Atheism: "There Is No God" by Joachim Kahl, translated by Michaela Sommer.

There are various quotes from Kahl on various web pages. Here are a few quotes from The Misery of Christianity to be found in an article entitled If Christianity does not scandalize you, you do not know it!:
“The necessity to go on criticizing Christianity and theology is due to the simple fact that they continue to exist. The light of reason once more has to be directed against today's representatives of religion who have always benefited from the universal human trend to forget.”

“This book is a pamphlet . . . It cannot and does not want to conceal its polemic intentions. It was written due to a constant constraint of purification. I do not share the generally prevailing prejudice that rational criticism can only be presented in an undercooled and reserved manner. I have not written this work without anger and without study, but with anger and with study, with the ire developing of its own accord after a sufficient amount of thorough studies. If Christianity does not scandalize you, you do not know it!”

“The New Testament is a manifesto of inhumanity, a wide-ranging mass betrayal; it makes people dumb instead of enlightening them about their real interests.”

“The New Testament is the outcome of neurotic and narrow-minded people. Human sexuality is not seen as a source of pleasure, but as a source of fear, not as a medium of love, but as a medium of sin. Everything natural and bodily is banned – in part openly, in part hidden.”
Here is another quote from another web page:
“If have learnt a great deal from Franz Overbeck’s writings — so much that his personal fate terrifies me. At the end of his long period as Professor of Theology at Basle, he admitted: ‘I can honestly say that Christianity cost me my life. To such an extent that, although I never possessed it and only became a theologian as the result of a ‘misunderstanding’, I have taken my whole life to get rid of it.’ Does this situation have to be perpetuated? Christianity has already cheated too many people out of their lives. That is why I want to get rid of it, right away.” (p. 21)
Yet another quote, from the web site Bad News About Christianity:

The Ustaša, as this terrorist organisation was called, was responsible for the forcible conversion of some 240,000 Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism and for putting about 750,000 of these people to death. There was, from the beginning, close collaboration between the Catholic clergy and the Ustaša. Archbishop Stepinać, whom the Vatican appointed in 1942 to be the spiritual leader of the Ustaša, had a place, together with ten of his clergy, in the Ustaša Parliament. Priests were also employed as police chiefs and as officers in the personal body-guard of the fanatical Croatian head of state, Pavelić. Nuns marched in military parades immediately behind the soldiers, their arms raised in the fascist salute. Abbesses were decorated with the Ustaša order. The most cruel part of this movement was played, however, by the Franciscans, whose monasteries had for some time been used as arsenals. Several monks and priests agreed to work as executioners in the hastily set up concentration camps to which the Orthodox Serbs were sent for mass execution by decapitation. These massacres were so brutal that even Croatia's allies, the German Nazis, protested against them and petitions were sent to the Vatican. Pope Pius XII, however, said nothing, just as he also said nothing about Auschwitz. It was not until some ten years later, in 1953, that he broke his silence by promoting Archbishop Stepinać, who, as one of those bearing the greatest guilt, had been sentenced by the Supreme People's Court of Yugoslavia to sixteen years" forced labour, to the rank of Cardinal for his "great services" to the Church.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vygotsky & Cognitive Science

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) was one of the great pioneers of psychology, with a Marxist perspective that fell into disfavor with the Stalin regime. His Soviet school of psychology nonetheless survived, and he has been influential in the West as well.

I've had this book lying about for years, and stumbling onto to it recently, realized I should move it way up in my reading queue:

Frawley, William. Vygotsky and Cognitive Science: Language and the Unification of the Social and Computational Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

There are some reviews and related articles you will find interesting:

Rosemary Luckin, review, Computational Linguistics, Volume 24, Number 3, pp. 520-524.

William Frawley, Why I am (still) a sociocomputationalist and why you should be, too!

KaiLonnie Dunsmore, Individual Mental Functioning in a Sociocultural Context: Schematic Representations of Cultural Knowledge when Comprehending Text.

Jacques Vauclair and Patrick Perret, The cognitive revolution in Europe: taking the developmental perspective seriously.

My current motivation for taking an interest comes from my perception of how reactionary cognitive science is when applied in an ahistorical manner to social & political problems. Same goes for neuroscience: Sam Harris is a prime example of clueless ideology at work. I have no idea the degree to which the cognitive psychology crowd takes Vygotsky's Marxism seriously.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

James Hervey Johnson's "Superior Men": the old atheism & the new

Today's topic is the pervasive historical amnesia permeating debates over the "new atheists" both within and without the atheist/humanist milieu. I recently picked up this old booklet Superior Men, by James Hervey Johnson, published in 1949, which evidently is the same as the linked text. It's this sort of material--good or bad--that the critics of the "new atheists" leave totally out of account, as if there never was any past other than a "civilized", genteel intellectual tradition that the "new atheists" have somehow degraded. Au contraire, public atheists today are meek & tame compared to firebrands of the past, and certainly no less "cruder" or bellicose than some of them.

The Case Against Religion (originally, ''Superior Men'')

James Hervey Johnson was the successor of Charles Lee Smith, founder of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism and editor of The Truth Seeker. This publication had a reputation for anti-Semitism. In any case, this is a subculture that has been ejected from historical memory in contemporary debates.

Tribute to Indian Atheists- Part I

Here it is:

This video includes contemporary and historical figures. For a better view, see this video on YouTube.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Richard Dawkins & Neil de Grasse Tyson at Howard University (6): Jamila Bey reports

So I’m Not The Only Black Skeptic by Jamila Bey. NPR, October 8, 2010.

Lovely Jamila (at right, above) is charming as ever. I can't believe she was unattractive in high school. In any case, kudos to her for learning Yiddish. (Also in photo: Faron Coggins, Mark Hatcher, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Ayanna Watson.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Howard University symposium 2: Science & Faith in the Black Community

I have already blogged about the first symposium at Howard University on 28 September 2010, a dialogue on "The Poetry of Science" featuring Richard Dawkins and Neil de Grasse Tyson. In the evening there was a second event, a panel discussion on the topic "Science and Faith in the Black Community", with Howard University student Mark Hatcher again serving as moderator, and panelists Richard Dawkins, Anthony Pinn, Sikivu Hutchinson, and Todd Stiefel. I have not yet got around to writing up my notes, but you can find my report on this panel as well as on the Dawkins-Tyson dialogue on the latest installment of my Internet radio show "Studies in a Dying Culture", recorded and posted on 18 October, courtesy of Think Twice Radio:

10/18/10 Manny Fried's memoir published / Science, Religion & the Black community: symposia at Howard University

Following my preliminary remarks and my tribute to labor organizer & playwright Manny Fried, my segment on the black freethought movement begins at 18 minutes into the broadcast. My account of the evening panel discussion begins at the 43-minute mark. My apologies for the misremembering of names and other details. Finally, remarking on my forthcoming review of a new scholarly book on the "New Atheism", I have time only to comment (beginning at the 57-minute mark) on a regrettable historical amnesia that disables an honest accounting.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fan Zhen (450 - 515 AD), Chinese philosopher

Fan Zhen (范縝, hanyupinyin Fàn Zhěn, also transliterated as Fan Chen, occasionally Fan Zen) was a Chinese philosopher whose life span is listed as (circa) 450 - 515 AD. Extensive information about him in English is extraordinarily difficult to find, and his major work Shen Mie Lun appears not to have been translated into English. I could not find him in my two major English language compendia of Chinese philosophy, Fung Yu-lan's A Short History of Chinese Philosophy and Wing-Tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy.

Here is what I have found in English. The most information is concentrated in a Wikipedia article on Fan Zhen.

On Food for Thought, a web site of heretical quotations, this one can be found:
The spirit is to the body what the sharpness is to the knife. We have never heard that after the knife has been destroyed the sharpness can persist.
Fan Chen (c.450-c.515)
Thung Chien Kang Mu, Chapter 28
Translated by Leon Wieger (1856-1933)
Textes Historiques, 1905 
Fan Zhen gets singled out in John C. Plott's Global History of Philosophy: The Patristic-Sutra Period, Volume 3. He gets two sentences in Rom Harré's One Thousand Years of Philosophy: From Rāmānuja to Wittgenstein.

Fan Zhen is best known for his opposition to Buddhism and his denial of the immortality of the soul, in effect a materialism denying the separate existence of the soul. According to the Wikipedia article, he got in big trouble for this.

I first learned of Fan Zhen via Esperanto: Ateisto Fan Ĝen, a chapter in Antikvaj Filozofoj de Ĉinio [Ancient Philosophers of China] by Hoŭ Ĝjŭeljang, translated from the Chinese. Fan Zhen is labeled an atheist. He also opposed the putative law of karma and its justification for the existence of rich and poor. There is some detail in this short chapter of the Fan Zhen's ideas of the material basis of the "soul". Perhaps one day, in lieu of further sources in English, I will translate this chapter.

In the meantime, we can thank Esperanto as a bridge language from Chinese culture, and we can enroll Fan Zhen as a hero in the annals of freethought.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Edgar Saltus: The Anatomy of Negation (1)

Saltus, Edgar. The Anatomy of Negation. Rev. ed. London: Brentano's, 1889. (First ed., 1886.) Other copies of the 1886 edition are downloadable from Google books, including this one. Plain text file downloadable from Ebooks.

Edgar Saltus (1855-1921) was an acclaimed writer in his day who has dropped out of history. Still, there are those who wish to rehabilitate his reputations. See, e.g. Edgar Saltus: Forgotten Genius of American Letters? by Jason DeBoer. Several works by Edgar Saltus are available at Project Gutenberg. For another take on the type of writer Saltus was, see Edgar Saltus’s Imperial Orgy. You can also get a substantial preview of Edgar Saltus: The Man
By Marie Saltus.
Saltus prefaces The Anatomy of Negation by claiming it to be a historical compendium of anti-theism. It is not really a thorough history nor is it limited to atheism, but it could best be considered an historical narrative of skeptical and heterodox thinking, told from a rather equianimous point of view. Saltus considers the first thinker to break from religious thinking to be Kapila in ancient India. There is also an extensive account of the Buddha, and Lao Tzu to round out chapter 1. Saltus moves from China and India to ancient Greece and Rome. Lucretius is the star of the Roman saga.

Chapter 3 gives us a history of Christianity. Deep into this chapter, the skeptic Montaigne makes his appearance (103ff).

Chapter 4 takes off with the saintly Spinoza, who gets a good 10 1/2 pages. Then there is a lengthy treatment of Voltaire, followed by LaMettrie, Maupertuis, d'Holbach, Diderot, and d'Alembert.

With chapter 5 we encounter German idealism--Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and a passing mention of some of the Young Hegelians. Clearly Saltus does not understand Hegel. He gives far more attention to Arthur Schopenhauer.

Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences (1)

Steven; Rose, Hilary; eds. 1980. Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences, with an introductory essay by Ruth Hubbard. Cambridge, MA: Shenkman Publishing Co., 1980. xxix, 363 pp.

This book appeared under other imprints with different titles. I have digitized the table of contents. Note the links on this web page. Joseph Needham's oft-reprinted article can be found here:

"History and Human Values: A Chinese Perspective for World Science and Technology"

Commentary on Needham and related issues can be found elsewhere on this blog. I have more to say about Needham's philosophical blundering. My post on "The Politics of Neurobiology: Biologism in the Service of the State" by Rose & Rose reproduces the first paragraph of the article, along with my snide remarks about historical amnesia and the secular humanist / "new atheist" movement.

It seems that the radical science movement has been all but forgotten. It was a mixed bag, and I have my doubts even about its more rational elements, but this history seems to have been swept under the rug altogether with the radicalism of the 1970s. The first article fairly summarizes the views of Marx and Engels, with some pertinent criticism of Engels' dialectics of nature (p. 14). "The Incorporation of Science" is about the incorporation of science--and science studies--within the capitalist system. Andre Gorz attempts to locate scientists within the class structure. Mike Cooley, who analyzes the labor process in production, is a name familiar to me from elsewhere: I think it is a book called Worker or Bee?. These first four essays survey the general problem of science within the capitalist system.

"The Politics of Neurobiology" antedates the current rage of cognitive science, and the attempts of neurobiologists to read off politics and society from the structure of the brain, a thoroughly ideologically blind and reactionary endeavor.

Many may remember the scientific racism and IQ controversy of the 1970s. I was studying the history of scientific racism while the skeptics movement was preoccupied with astrology and spoon-bending.

Hans Magnus Enzenberger questions the ideology and politics of the then-burgeoning ecology movement (which we now call environmentalism), for example, the then-current "limits of growth" concern.

There are several articles on women's issues and women's place in the sciences.

Sam Anderson's article on "Science, Technology and Black Liberation" reflects the revolutionary ambitions and bombast of the time. Anderson chafes against the "special nigger" status he claims is imposed on black scientists, and bursts with the ideological energy of anti-imperialism and self-reliance (even quoting Kim Il Sung). Such rebellion against bourgeois professionalism was a hallmark of the time, but such impulses ultimately could go nowhere, esp. the impulse not to remain alienated from the black masses at large.

This type of politicization was characteristic of the time and reflected in several of the essays, predating our age of lowered expectations. Of course one must also comb this literature for elements of naivete. Perhaps the most grating element in general is the sympathy for Maoism. I have my reservations about scorching broad-based indictments of "reductionism", but clearly there are real problems addressed by this label.

Three articles are of particular philosophical interest.

Lewontin and Levins articulate and claim a more sophisticated analysis of the phenomenon of Lysenkoism than what is found in other literature. They see it as more than simple bureaucratic despotism, and they also reject Maoist attempts to rehabilitate Lysenkoism. I am not sufficiently acquainted with Lewontin's philosophical proclamations to know how they hold up. I am cautious in making big political and philosophical claims for what later became known as dialectical biology, but I'm sure E.O. Wilson is falsifying history:

"Science and ideology" by Edward O. Wilson, Vol. 8, Academic Questions, 06-01-1995.

I mentioned Needham's article, which I want to return to elsewhere, as the combination of historical materialist analysis and utter philosophical/ideological confusion is noteworthy.

Finally, there is "Ideology of/in Contemporary Physics" by Jean‑Marc Levy‑Leblond which is interesting in a number of respects. I will return to this later. For now I will note that the author addresses the institutionalization and division of labor within physics, and the epistemological problems within it, including education and popularization, and the chronic inadequacy of philosophy of science to adequately address what goes on within physics, most notably quantum mechanics.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Politics of Neurobiology revisited

Biologism is the attempt to locate the cause of the existing structure of human society, and of the relationships of individuals within it, in the biological character of the human animal. For biologism, all the richness of human experience and the varying historical forms of human relationships merely represent the product of underlying biological structures; human societies are governed by the same laws as ape societies, the way that an individual responds to his or her environment is determined by the innate properties of the DNA molecules to be found in brain or germ cells. In a word, the human condition is reduced to mere biology, which in its turn is no more than a special case of the laws of chemistry and hence of physics.
SOURCE: Rose, Steven; Rose, Hilary. “The Politics of Neurobiology: Biologism in the Service of the State,” in Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences, edited by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, with an introductory essay by Ruth Hubbard (Cambridge, MA: Shenkman Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 71-86.

So begins this essay from the 1970s, when the radical science movement was in full swing. There were various perspectives and agendas in this movement. Part of it was irrationalist in character, another part was overpoliticized, but there was a vigorous questioning of the social and political roles and ideological dimension of the scientific enterprise and various apologists in various fields of scientific endeavor. While the roots of contemporary obscurantism can be found in this period, there was also a vigorous Marxist inquest into the sociology, economics, politics, practices, and ideology of scientific disciplines, again, sometimes subject to bad politicizing and philosophizing, but nonetheless worthy of continued interest. Just as McCarthyism wiped out the history immediately preceding the 1950s in the public mind, so neoliberalism (in its liberal as well as conservative incarnations) has effectively erased the 1970s as an object of popular comprehension.

This historical amnesia is characteristic also of the secular humanist/atheist/skeptical movement in the USA, which now is highlighted as progressive in an age dominated by right-wing politics and manic irrationalism, whereas in the 1960s and '70s this movement was way behind the curve of social and political consciousness. The entire movement, in its desperate effort to bolster reason in a burgeoning new Dark Age, hunkers down behind a shallow scientism that erases society and history from its world view, remains unaware of its own history and of the ideological struggles within the sciences it reveres, and uncritically gobbles up the ideological droppings of its celebrated apologists.

A particularly noxious example of this is the uncritical slobbering over a politically and historically very ignorant man, Sam Harris, whose latest book is all the rage: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. That someone could advertise such banality and peddle it as novelty is a truly remarkable manifestation of a society at the end of its rope.

Asian Philosophy & Critical Thinking

Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence? by Soraj Hongladarom

The author poses the question as to whether critical thinking culture-specific (e.g. Western). His project is summarized as follows:
In this paper, I attempt to argue that critical thinking is not necessarily incompatible with Asian traditional belief systems. In fact I will show that both India and China do have their own indigenous traditions of logical and argumentative thinking. Since the logical traditions within both Indian and Chinese cultures were perceived to be not conducive to their respective ideals, they were eventually supplanted by the more dominant traditions which did not emphasize criticism or argumentation as much as social harmony or intuitive insights. I will further try to show that, since the logical traditions are already there in the major Asian cultural traditions, they can and should be reexamined, reinterpreted and adapted to the contemporary situation. This would be an answer to the Western educators who have found no such tradition in the East.
This immediately raises the question as to the relationship between logic and critical thinking. There are now various schools in the study of critical thinking, not all limited to the baseline enumeration and analysis of logical fallacies. (Note the bibliography.) However, the history of logic is rather peculiar in its ties to metaphysics and theology, and thus there is no need to suppose that logic automatically engenders critical thinking; to the point, critical thinking that challenges a presupposed dogmatic viewpoint. Training in logical argumentation has historically been proven to be good training ground for the production of heretics, an unintentional by-product of fairly rigid institutionalization.

This article responds to this question only indirectly, by adumbrating the reasons for the decline of logical traditions in China and India. In India, the limitation of expertise in logic to a priestly caste rendered it vulnerable to political occlusion under changed conditions. There are different schools of thought as to what happened in China. (Here are summaries of some theories: The Rise of the West.) Given China's high level of development prior to European scientific revolution and age of exploration (conquest), there is no reason to suppose an inherent inferiority of Chinese capabilities. China's ultimate stagnation can be seen as conjunctural, but there are "underdeterminationist" and "overdeterminationist" explanations for divergences between Chinese and European civilizations. Steve Fuller adheres to the underdeterminationist model, according to which progress in science was prevented from occurring by special circumstances.

A word on Joseph Needham, who in this article represents the other viewpoint on Chinese science. Needham became the major Western authority on the history of science and technology in China, and he contributed to addressing the historical addressing of how China, once the scientifically most advanced civilization in the world, fell behind Europe. Needham offered specific historical information about China's scientific achievements and its relation to China's overall development, but he also held philosophical views that overstressed China's organicist philosophical and cultural base, that somehow provides a superior model even though the Chinese blew it. (See for example Needham's multiply reprinted "History and Human Values: a Chinese Perspective for World Science and Technology".) Needham has often been criticized for violating his own empirical research with ideological justificationism. In the 1930s he was a Marxist, part of the British social relations of science movement. His orientalism, a recurrent temptation for Westerners seeking to escape their own alienation, eventually got the better of him. Elsewhere I will take up Needham's fall into philosophical obscurantism.

If scientific progress is associated with critical thinking, then one must look at the cultural paths adopted in the development of various civilizations, including what might have been different had not different philosophies prevailed, had not Confucianism in China and mysticism in India not succeeded in their ascendancy. The dominance of "social harmony" (scare quotes supplied by me) over a culture of argumentation may be an historical route taken, but trajectories can be altered. The author wishes to steer Thailand into the camp of critical thinking.

The author's own historical analytical perspective is weak. General comments taking "culture" and "tradition" as fundamental categories are always suspect, as is the notion that somehow cultures have to develop their potentials from "within" even while radically deviating from or developing against tradition. Critical thinking is going to be developed or not from where people are at now, whether reacting to their own cultural tradition or assimilating a knowledge base and methodology from elsewhere.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Julian Huxley, humanism, UNESCO & the USSR

The evolution of a UNESCO "philosophy" was yet another source of fear for the Soviet Union. Julian Huxley as Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the first session of the General Conference attempted to outline the basic ingredients of a UNESCO "philosophy" which he hoped might serve as a general frame for the Organization's program.

Huxley's philosophy for the organization was what he called "world scientific humanism"—"humanism" because UNESCO was concerned with peace and human welfare; "world" because it had to do with all the peoples of the world and with individuals on the basis of equality of all; "scientific" because science provided "most of the material basis for human culture" and because science needed to be integrated with intellectual and spiritual values. A more controversial aspect of this philosophy was the element of evolution which its author sought to inject into it. In the opinion of Julian Huxley this philosophy must be evolutionary because the theory of evolution had indicated man's place in nature and his ultimate relationship with the rest of the universe.

The Yugoslav delegate, Mr. Rubnikar was on hand to present the dominant communist doctrine. In his view the adoption of an international official philosophy would "lead to the enslavement of thought and of the spirit of creation and form an arbitrary obstacle to the spread of culture". He branded such an approach as "a kind of philosophical esperanto". An adoption of the Huxley approach would be tantamount to a rejection of the marxist dialectical materialism and the mere fact that an anti-dialectical materialist philosophy was being strongly proposed for the UNESCO was enough to raise doubts in the minds of Kremlin foreign policy makers as to the desirability of Soviet participation in such an Organization. However, it was undoubtedly consoling to the Kremlin to note that the Huxley approach was not adopted as representing the official view of the UNESCO, but it was equally disquieting to Moscow to think that countries with liberal democratic views almost dominated the scene inside the Organization.

SOURCE: Osakwe, Christopher. The Participation of the Soviet Union in Universal International Organizations: A Political and Legal Analysis of Soviet Strategies and Aspirations Inside ILO, UNESCO and WHO (Leiden: Sijthoff, 1972), pp. 134-135.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Daoism update

Well, this is really just a collocation of my various links on the subject, particularly on the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), the fundamental philosophical text of Daoism (Taoism). Here are my relevant blog entries and web pages, and links to other sites.

These are the most relevant entries among several on Chinese philosophy on my Studies in a Dying Culture blog:

Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), a new translation

Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), Ames & Hall

Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)

The Tao of Brecht

On my main web site:

Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy (review of J. J. Clarke, The Tao of the West) by R. Dumain

Eastern & Western Philosophy: Unpublished Letter to the Editor
[rejoinder by R. Dumain to 'The Great Divide' by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad]

Hegel on Daoism (Taoism)

Hegel on Number Mysticism: Pythagoreanism, Astrology, I Ching

Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht's Lao Tzu

T.W. Adorno on Zen Buddhism

Washington Philosophy Circle: meetings April-June 2005

Taoism (Daoism) in the West (bibliography)

Offsite links:

Taoism Virtual Library

Tao Te Ching - Translation comparison

Dao House... of discourses and dreams

Quotations / Zitate (Western thinkers on Laozi / Dàodéjing)

Daoist Alchemy in the West: The Esoteric Paradigms by Lee Irwin

Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tsu's Road into Exile (1938) by Bertolt Brecht. Or see at Dougsblog.

Peasant Dialectics: Reflections on Brecht's Sketch of a Dilemma by Antony Tatlow

Lao Tzu and the Apaches by Ioan Davies

Brecht's Use of Moism, Confucianism and Taoism in his Me-Ti Fragment by Gaby Divay

Brecht's Way (Brecht between Taoism and Marxism)

Paul N. Siegel: The Meek and the Militant

The Meek and the Militant: Religion and Power Across the World by Paul N. Siegel (1986)

    Contents, Preface, chapters 1-3, 9

    Chapter 10: sections "The Castroites and Religion", "The Sandinistas and Religion", "Religion and the Struggle for Socialism"

No one can accomplish everything in one book, but this one is one of the best surveys of the socio-political history of religion that I have seen, from a Marxist perspective.  In this respect, it is far more comprehensive than Alexander Saxton's more recent Religion and the Human Prospect.

Part 1 sets up the philosophical and methodological approach to the analysis of religion. Siegel begins with the French Enlightenment's materialism and critique of religion. He moves on to its criticism by Marx and Engels, and their approach to religion and society. Siegel compares genuine Marxism to Modernist Christianity, agnosticism, Freud, Stalinism, and early Christianity.

Part 2 sketches the social roots and dynamics of the major Western religions, with chapters on Judaism Catholicism, Protestantism, the United States. Part 3 covers the religions of Asia and the Middle East: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

Part 4 covers the relationship between religion and socialist movements, in Russia (Lenin and others), China, Cuba, Nicaragua, with a concluding section on "Religion and the Struggle for Socialism".

I have not read enough to comment on the entirety of the book. Sections 2 and 3 are reasonable in their ambitions to give a view of what historically and socially motivates the major players on the world scene of religion (with the exception of the New Age thought of the 20th century). Siegel's attempt at comprehensiveness will be very useful for readers, who can then proceed to fill in the details and whatever lapses there are, elsewhere.

I would like rather to concentrate on the overall perspective of the book and particularly on Part 1. Siegel's premise is that Marxists must collaborate with religious people while maintaining their independent philosophical perspective. The translation of this general principle, which I think is a no-brainer, into specific circumstances and tactics, by no means yields a clear perspective. Even dodgier, with possibly sinister implications, is Lenin's principle, indicated at the beginning and end of the book, that "the revolutionary party will subordinate the struggle against religion to the class struggle" (emphasis mine). All depends on the meaning and application of the notion "subordinate". First, there's never a uniformity of social development and action, and different individuals play different social roles at different times. It is not the business of any revolutionary organization to subordinate everyone it can get its hands on to a single action and a single goal. Furthermore, in a world degenerating into incoherence, retrogression, and unreason, there is no one movement, let alone organization, that unequivocally embodies the forces of social progress and reason. The politics that Siegel envisions is dead.

There are two other philosophical points on my agenda:

Siegel's exposition of classic dialectical materialism, while it could be worse, should not be taken as is. The notion of dialectical laws and logic touted by both Stalinists and Trotskyists remains crude and logically vulnerable.

The third and most important philosophical point, a problem in all Marxist literature on the subject, concerns the origins of religion and supernaturalism and the mechanisms of superstition and magical thinking. The Marxist insight that religion is tied to mystification and alienation with respect to nature and social relations is essential, articulated front and center in a way that is missing in the mainstream Anglo-American agitprop on the subject. However, this is only a framework from which to begin. Saxton in his unimaginative empiricism criticizes Marxian formulations, and himself attempts to fill in the gaps with evolutionary psychology and an account of the "crisis of consciousness" which engendered religion as a survival tool insulating the human species against the fear of death. The psychological mechanisms, social functions, motivations, rationalizations, social functions, and deployment of magical thinking and superstition are more variegated than the usual Marxist adumbrations and Saxton's supplementary explanation account for.

I emphasize also that a look into the intrinsic mechanisms of supernaturalist mystification should expand Marxist approaches to the subject beyond the instrumentalist attitude towards religion as either reactionary (ruling class) or emancipatory (liberation movements). The issue of social forces and the quality of life is more than what you can use.

With these reservations in mind, I hope we can prepare ourselves for the next stage in the analysis of religion.