Friday, July 23, 2010

Kierkegaard's twisted mind

This book has been added to my bibliographies on humor and philosophy and philosophical style:

Watson, Richard A. The Philosopher's Joke: Essays in Form and Content. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990. (Frontiers of Philosophy)

For content irrespective of humor, the most important essay is "The Seducer and the Seduced," about Kierkegaard. Original publication: The Georgia Review, 39 (1985): 353-366.

Neither the Bible nor Kierkegaard comes off well in this philosophical exercise. Expulsion from the Garden of Eve, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, the tribulations of Job, Christ's despair on the cross--from all this Watson's daughter scornfully infers God's unfairness. Kierkegaard, too smart in spite of his rebuffs to reason, is haunted by victimage perpetrated by the Fuckwit Creator of the Universe. Watson retells the saga of Kierkegaard's "Diary of the Seducer" in Either/Or, which Watson characterizes as "one of the greatest masturbation fantasies in Western literature." The friction between the aesthetic and the ethical is never allowed to climax, however. In real life, Kierkegaard breaks his engagement to Regine Olsen and flees to Berlin for a whirlwind of creative writing activity. To Kierkegaard, God demands an exclusive relationship and women only get in the way.  There is also a vulgar disdain for sex and for its uncontrolled nature, with precedents in Christian theology. God is also a Fuckwit with man's sex drive. And women are only carnal, nothing spiritual about them. Mary and Jesus are sanctified as virgins. Did Kierkegaard secretly crave to be raped by God? Can God say in his defense: "Yeah, he wanted it!" -- ?

Any account of Kierkegaard shows him to be a hateful sadomasochistic prick at heart and his religion cynical and nasty.

Studies in a Dying Culture now on ThinkTwiceRadio

You are invited to listen to my Internet radio show newly named "Studies in a Dying Culture," on "Think Twice Radio", recorded in the awesome metropolis of Buffalo, New York. The latest program was recorded on 19 July: Episode 3: "A Dying Culture, Raggedy Poets, a Farewell to Martin Gardner, and the Historical Trajectory of Secular Humanism".

Episode description:
This episode begins with an introduction and explanation of the show's new title, "Studies in a Dying Culture," borrowed from the title of a book by Christopher Caudwell in the 1930s. Ralph next reads his poem "Raggedy Poet Society", a poem about the elder generation's attempt to express itself at a time when it has become culturally obsolete. Next comes a tribute to the recently deceased writer Martin Gardner, best known for his publications on mathematical recreations and on fringe "science" and extraordinary knowledge claims. The balance of this show is devoted to setting the historical stage for the evaluation of the ideologies of the atheist/humanist/skeptical movement(s) in the USA and current controversies dividing different factions of atheists and humanists.
The theme of this radio show, borrowed from my blog also titled Studies in a Dying Culture:
What is to become of critical culture in this dumbed-down millennium? We aim to provide historical, social, and philosophical perspective.

Read the Introduction to my blog for a somewhat fuller explanation. See my Christopher Caudwell bibliography for more information on the author of Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) and Further Studies in a Dying Culture (posthumous publication, 1949), wherefrom my upbeat title originates. Now is not a replay of the 1930s, but we too approach a civilizational crisis.

The bulk of Episode 3, setting the stage for an historical perspective on atheism, freethought, humanism, and skepticism, begins at 13:15.

The 26 minute mark is where discussion of the history of "humanism" and "atheism" in the USA in the 20th century begins.

At 40 minutes I ask: why these humanist manifestos, and I say a few words about the historical context probably relevant to each.

At the 44 minute mark, I question Paul Kurtz's Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values: Personal, Progressive, and Planetary and his Institute for Science and Human Values newly founded in the wake of the recent crisis within the Center for Free Inquiry. Fred Mohr adds some remarks on programs presented at CFI and the perspectives of Kurtz and other CFI members presented in these encounters.

Michael Parenti's new book

New from Prometheus Books:

God and His Demons by Michael Parenti.

From the publisher's description:
Noted author and activist Michael Parenti brings his critical acumen and rhetorical skills to bear on the dark side of religion, from the many evils committed in the name of “holy causes” throughout history to the vast hypocrisies of its unworthy advocates past and present. Unlike some recent popular works by stridently outspoken atheists, this is not a blanket condemnation of all believers. Rather Parenti’s focus is the heartless exploitation of faithful followers by those in power, as well as sectarian intolerance, the violence against heretics and nonbelievers, and the reactionary political and economic collusion that has often prevailed between the upper echelons of church and state.
Here are some related references & links:

Land of Idols: Political Mythology in America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. Chapter 2: The New Age Mythology; pp. 15-25, 175-177.

Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth. July 2004.

Michael Parenti Political Archive

Martin Gardner vs. Wilhelm Reich & Orgonomy

"Response to Martin Gardner's Attack on Reich and Orgone Research in the Skeptical Inquirer" (1989)
by James DeMeo, Ph.D.; Director, Orgone Biophysical Research Lab; Ashland, Oregon, USA.

Wilhelm Reich's orgonomy was an object of attack in Gardner's (Fads and Fallacies) in the Name of Science. This is one illustration of the demarcation problem, i.e. distinguishing criteria between science and pseudoscience, a problem about which Gardner attempted to generalize, though I don't think that this can be adequately accomplished as a formal matter. As I recall, Gardner speculated whether the early Reich--the Marxist psychoanalyst and author of such notable works as The Mass Psychology of Fascism--was as discreditable as the later Reich who initiated orgonomy as a research programme. This particular twist is symptomatic of the inadequate treatment of the demarcation problem, as the field of psychoanalysis was doubly politicized as a putative science--in its orthodox Freudian and various heterodox incarnations. The earlier Reich was emphatically not a crackpot, but the criteria for judging the validity of his theories at that time may not be so straightforward as what is taken to be scientific method in the physical sciences. What constitutes deviant professional behavior in the cases of psychoanalysis and orgonomy may not be the same sort of thing. There are two dimensions to such evaluation: (1) how seriously the theory in question can be taken, given our background of scientific knowledge at some historical moment; (2) whether the pursuit of research outside accepted channels is an indicator of a pseudoscientific enterprise. We can attempt to formulate some general criteria as to what constitutes crank science, but actually, we have to approach specific cases from the standpoint not of formal criteria but of specific real-world knowledge.

For my own take on Reich, see my essay:
The Late Vitalism of Wilhelm Reich: Commentary
We may also ask now whether James DeMeo has a valid complaint or whether he is a crackpot. The author claims he rigorously follows the scientific method, and that the body of research he cites has been marginalized by the scientific community in a politicized context. DeMeo writes more or less in the style of a rational person, but whether he exhibits paranoia or a persecution complex (another reasonable interpretation) demands that we have a prior sense of both legitimate science and the scientific community.

DeMeo has a bone to pick with both the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, later absorbed into the Center for Free Inquiry) and Martin Gardner. DeMeo complains about smear tactics and censorship for being denied a forum. He complains that CSICOP violates its own stated principles. He establishes that he has scientific credentials but emphasizes that Gardner has none. The immediate occasion for irritation with Gardner is Gardner's article:
"Reich the Rainmaker: the Orgone Obsession", Skeptical Inquirer, 13 (1): 26-30, Fall 1988.
There is a history that begins with Gardner's article:
"The Hermit Scientist", Antioch Review, Winter 1950-1951, pp. 447-457.
There is one charge that is more serious:
Gardner's first attack against Reich appeared in the Antioch Review of 1950, though he was then more restrained in his linguistic distortions and vituperation. In 1952 he attacked Reich, with similar clever wit and fervor, in a chapter in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. His articles helped fuel the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) pseudo-investigation, which has since been demonstrated, through at least three different Freedom-Of-Information-Act searches of FDA files, to have been conducted in a most shabby, antiscientific "get Reich" manner.
One would have to look over the FDA files to ascertain whether in fact Gardner effectively contributed to the persecution of Reich, which led not only to his imprisonment but to an unprecedent government-instigated book-burning.

Whether or not Gardner in any way distorted Reich's claims, there are additional issues raised here. In addition to the nutty alternative science, there are philosophical arguments. DeMeo denies that orgonomy is a religion and reiterates Reich's war on all "mysticism," in which natural science as we know it is also implicated. DeMeo purports to find the root of Gardner's hostility in his own dualistic world view, in which Gardner affirms, sans attempt to justify himself rationally, his own theism. Now while this is indeed a noteworthy point upon which to dwell, DeMeo, following Reich, claims to have surmounted the dualism that plagues the modern world.

Here's a fragment of the metaphysical justification for Reichian science:
[. . .] Reich's functional, bioenergetic works stand in clear opposition to both a dead, machine-like universe, and a dualistic, "spirit-versus-flesh" anthropomorphic deity. Indeed, Reich argued persuasively that the mechanistic-mystical world view was the result of a perceptive splitting-off of organic sense functions, caused by the chronic damming-up of emotional-sexual energy within the body of the observer. For these reasons, he argued, animistic peoples, who lived a more vibrant and uninhibited emotional and sexual life, and who consequently remained relatively free of neuroses, could feel, with their sense organs, the tangible energetic forces which shaped and created the universe.
It gets worse. See for yourself.

Now before I add my own generalizations, I must point out that others have accused the orgonomy advocates themselves of falsifying Reich's legacy by altering his earlier Marxist psychoanalytical writings in accord with his later orgonomy.

A few conclusions of my own, some of which are explicated in my essay noted above:

(1) Taken all together, this is a nutcase alternate "scientific" world-picture, false not only in theoretical or empirical particulars but false as a total package in light of accumulated scientific knowledge, not to mention the tacit background assumptions of methodological naturalism and experimental replicability.

(2) Part of DeMeo's essay reads like scientific experimental empiricism, but if you read some of Reich's own reflections on experimental research, there is indeed a regression to animism in violation of the canons of experimental procedure. (I.e. a certain kind of personal vibe skews results.)

(3) Furthermore, in spite of the eschewing of "mysticism" and affirmation of naturalism, all of Reich's late writings are imbued with a metaphysics which indeed reads like mysticism. Reich's quest to overcome the alienated, fragmented experience of life in the modern world is derailed by a pseudoscientific, illegitimate holism.

(4) While accusing Gardner of harboring an implicit dualism, DeMeo himself vacillates between empiricism and metaphysics in his characterization of his own scientific claims and of the scientific community allegedly engaged in a conspiracy of silence against him.

Gardner, whether wearing the hat of methodological naturalist or theist-in-hiding, was simply not up to the philosophical task of analyzing the tragic turn in Reich's intellectual preoccupations. He was as incapable of profound analysis of ideology as the rest of the secular humanist/skeptical movement, which of course never sees itself as ideological. These folks can spot what's obviously pseudoscientific (unless it concerns memes, evolutionary economics, human sociobiology or some other pet non-paranormal pseudoscience of their own) in fringe science, but to delve beneath the surface, that's not their forte.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Paul Kurtz: "Naturalism and the Future"

In re: Paul Kurtz, "Naturalism and the Future", Free Inquiry.

Kurtz emphasizes the positive point of departure of philosophical naturalism in all its dimensions. He advocates the scientific method, but cautions against methodological reductionism (a.k.a. physics envy). Note Kurtz's exposition of ethical naturalism. All in all, Kurtz wants to emphasize the role of naturalism in constructing the good life.

OK so far . . . one point, though:
"Scientific methods grow out of the practical ways that people cope with the world and solve problems: as Dewey pointed out, they are continuous with common sense."

I think this is quite mistaken; scientific theorization (along with philosophical reflection and critical thinking) is quite the opposite of "common sense".

It's not clear whether the "New Atheists" are being used as a foil here. In the end, Kurtz criticizes Sam Harris for recommending that atheists (etc.) go under the radar, which is different from accusing them of negativity.

My overall discomfort with this piece is that Kurtz abstractly fights the battle for the Enlightenment, but has nothing of analytical value (i.e. scientific) to say about the society we live in beyond these general platitudes. His philosophical preaching is devoid of concrete political and social content. Also, his brand of naturalism can play a number of ideological and political roles; there is no guarantee at all that "naturalism" so vaguely formulated would be used to intelligently analyze society or intervene in its politics. It's sad that after all these decades, Kurtz has so little to say.

Oprah, the self-help & prosperity spirituality racket

How the Self-Help Industry Tied Spiritual Salvation to Spending Lots of Money
by Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown (Bitch Magazine)
AlterNet, July 7, 2010

There is a link to this book:

Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture by Trystan T. Cotten & Kimberly Springer.

As for the book, one can only hope that the critique is not worse than the disease, but I've learned to be wary of what comes down the pike from Hackademia. Still, Oprahification, like Tyler Perry, must be stopped.

History of atheism, freethought, rationalism, skepticism, materialism: bibliography

Behold my latest bibliography:

Historical Surveys of Atheism, Freethought, Rationalism, Skepticism, and Materialism: Selected Works

There is no fixed boundary between analytical treatments of this subject matter, readers, and anthologies, on the one hand (which are now quite prevalent thanks to Hitchens and others), and historical and reference works on the other. Still, I've attempted to focus on historical surveys of varying generality and on dictionaries and encyclopedias, which are obviously basic reference works for historical inquiry.

I have preserved humanism as a separate topic, per my earlier working bibliography:

Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress

As far as texts on atheism as a subject matter, my last attempt to list important recent and not-so-recent books is now quite out of date:

Ralph Dumain on atheism, irreligion, and rationality

I invite additional suggestions for this new bibliography. The most notable omission is the history of the skeptical movement—by this I do not mean skepticism as a philosophical concept, which is covered here—but skepticism in the sense of investigation of claims of the paranormal and fringe science. I know of no histories of this movement, so it is a gap that needs to be filled if the relevant literature has even been written.

I have only one possible such item of relevance (buried somewhere in my files):

Still, Arthur; Dryden, Windy. ‘The Social Psychology of "Pseudoscience": A Brief History’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 265-290, Sept. 2004.

I have not attempted to cover the history of naturalism, which is a much broader, more diffuse, and better covered subject than the history of materialism per se in the USA. Historically there are far more public advocates of naturalism in the USA than of materialism, due not only to prevailing philosophical trends and not only to opprobrium, but also to the witch hunts of J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthyism. There are other specialized areas, such as black freethought, Indian religion and philosophy, and atheism in the USSR, that I cover elsewhere.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Anthony Collins, Freethinker

Anthony Collins' classic work published in 1713,  A Discourse of Free-Thinking, is downloadable from Google books or

For a detailed outline of Collins' life and work, see:

Anthony Collins (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Collins was also a pioneer viz. the notion of emergent properties!

Of course, don't forget the Wikipedia article on Anthony Collins.

You can check for other books by Collins, but I found this one I don't recall seeing featured in brief bios:

A Discourse Concerning Ridicule and Irony in Writing (1729).

From CFI crisis to 'Neo-Humanism'

I begin with an alarming note I received from Norm Allen, staffer at the Center for Inquiry and Director of African Americans for Humanism for over two decades. The occasion was Norm's being terminated from his job, and not merely the fact of it, but according to him, the callous way in which he was terminated. There were other layoffs, and other offices belonging to CFI are closing (notably the Washington DC office), all due to a severe budget shortfall. This was not the beginning of organizational strife within CFI and tension within the humanist community, but its culmination.

I don't want to recap this sad story in detail just now, but a number of acrimonious debates ensued. Not privy to the internal workings of CFI, and not invested in ongoing disputes within the secular humanist community, I had no particular reason to take sides, but I as well as others initially reacted with a great deal of suspicion, largely on the basis of Norm's report of his termination. My interest was mainly in the fate of Norm and African Americans for Humanism (now in the capable hands of Deborah Goddard).

Here are some relevant links to the debate regarding the Center for Inquiry's financial crisis, closing of offices, and layoffs.

See also:

Secular Humanism  Online News, Vol.6, No.6, June, 2010.

The first item is a farewell to Norm Allen.
All of this is fairly moot at this point, and I'll just make a few general remarks. For me intervening in these debates without a basis in solid first-hand knowledge was mighty awkward. I see three main lines of disagreement in this dispute.

(1) The management style and priorities of CFI's current leadership (which was initially put into place by Kurtz).
(2) The management style and priorities of CFI founder Paul Kurtz.
(3) The unavoidable necessity of these layoffs.
(4) Alleged philosophical differences between Kurtz and the new leadership (Ron Lindsay et al).

The new leadership was accused of being callous and corporate. Kurtz loyalists were accused of misrepresentation. The financial crisis was real, and there obviously was no alternative to cutbacks. Remaining in dispute however were labor practices and organizational priorities. There is also the issue of overextension and dependence on large donors under Kurtz's leadership. Overall, there is a question of the ethics of the various parties' behavior, but also the ethics of the public debate.

In any case, I did my duty by publicizing Norm's complaint, but I cannot intervene sagaciously or effectively in this matter, partly because I am not in a position to answer unanswered questions, and partly because the broader critical framework from which I view the atheist/humanist/skeptical movement cannot be practically applied, considering the inevitability with which this organizational trajectory moves. What is already happening is that African American atheist organizing is moving ahead, inside of CFI as well as without, so this welcome development supplements the usual trite concerns and prominent personalities of the atheist/humanist movement, under the banner of diversity. Humanism will remain as bourgeois a movement as ever, with a few dissident voices within it. It is possible that the management and program of CFI will improve once the monetary shortfall is compensated for and now that fiscal accountability has supplanted Kurtz's alleged profligacy, but my perspective will always remain an outsider's perspective, "diversity" notwithstanding.

So, of the four points enumerated above, I'll let others fight out (1) and (2) and will concede the choices made in (3) for lack of contrary evidence. As to point 4--the philosophical debate--I won't say anything particularly in defense of the new leadership, but I find Kurtz's complaints about the direction of the humanist movement, and about the "new atheism" generally, thoroughly bogus.

As for the ongoing debates, probably the most interesting and confrontational is the one on Friendly Atheist.

There's a new development. Lo, out of the ashes comes a brand new organization headed by Paul Kurtz:

Institute for Science and Human Values

Former employees of CFI are on board, including Norm Allen and Toni Van Pelt. Several well-known intellectuals are involved, e.g. Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. The rationale is given in the news section.

On the home page you will find a new humanist manifesto, or rather, "Neo-Humanist":

Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values: Personal, Progressive, and Planetary

Note also this news article:

Kurtz launches venture to explore morality, values in secular society
By Jay Tokasz
Buffalo News, July 10, 2010

Here we learn of  "Science and Human Values, a magazine to be edited by Norm Allen."

If this means that Norm Allen has a paying job and can pursue his international projects, more power to him. This is the one aspect of this new venture that could prove worthwhile. However . . .

This new manifesto reminds me of Marx's famous quote on tragedy and farce. The intellectual dishonesty and delusional pretension of this document are remarkable. I can understand for practical reasons why former employees of CFI signed onto this, but I don’t know what to make of some of the famous names I recognize getting involved in it. This ridiculous label “Neo-Humanism” is like a magic wand erasing the real history of secular humanism (and its terminological siblings “atheism” and “freethought”). It unwittlingly bespeaks not only of its own ideological character but of the ideological functioning and intellectual boundaries of the entire history of the secular humanist movement since the McCarthy era.

Kurtz's assertions of his alleged ideological differences with the new leadership of his former organization are ridiculous. Furthermore, I don't see the need for an institute to promote "values" and "morality", nor do I think it could possibly have any influence on curbing the rampage of the religious Right, or for that matter, make what's left of liberalism more socially conscious. There have been social and political movements galore for a half century or more. What could Kurtz possibly have to add to these beyond what he and everyone else has been pursuing all this time? Middle class professionals and the would-be managerial elite have an obsession with putting on a facade of niceness, but it's a self-deluding protective gesture, and the more ineffective to the social good the more vicious society actually becomes.

Now there is a Facebook page for the Institute for Science and Human Values. Note the ongoing discussion, particularly the debate around the Neo-Humanist founding statement. What a mess! There is at least a 3-cornered tangle of issues: (1) humanism vs "new atheists" (pro-Kurtz), (2) refutation of charges against atheists & "new Atheists" (most notably Ophelia Benson), (3) libertarian socialism vs. affirmation of (welfare state) capitalism in the Neo-Humanist manifesto (Barry F. Seidman). It's especially a mess because Seidman belongs to categories both (1) & (3).

"Neo-Humanism" reminds me of the elephant house at the Buffalo Zoo. Ophelia Benson effectively refutes Kurtz's scapegoating of the artificial pundit-generated category of "new atheists". But she also refutes the community-building pretensions of Barry F. Seidman, who occupies a peculiar position in all of these discussions. He dislikes the new CFI leadership but criticizes Kurtz in a collegial manner. He propounds "humanism" vs. atheism along with his anarcho-syndicalism. We learn here, if Seidman reports correctly, of Kurtz's leftist past. Who knew? You sure couldn't tell by anything Kurtz has said in the past 40 years at least. It's about time someone called him on his admiration for Sidney Hook, who was an arch-McCarthyite terrorizing philosophy departments. Barry Seidman strikes me as rather childish, though. I'm not impressed with the distinction between atheism and humanism. And in practice the demarcation is not as these ideologues would have it. "Humanism" no more guarantees community, commonality, progressive politics or human decency than "atheism". It is ideology, sometimes on point, sometimes platitudinous, sometimes duplicitous.

Seidman is on point, however, in criticizing the Neo-Humanist statement for its advocacy of the market economy. Granted, Kurtz maintains the social-democratic thrust of American liberalism which was killed off 35 years ago, but what qualifies Kurtz to uphold a moribund capitalism which long ago ceased to sustain the welfare state, in a statement otherwise upholding abstract democratic values; and in so doing, does Kurtz legitimately sustain a principled difference with neoliberalism? Does his eschewing of right-wing libertarianism, welcome as it is, really mark a departure from the humanist movement of either recent vintage or of the eclipsed era of Cold War liberalism? What right does Kurtz have to proclaim novelty, in light of other, long-standing liberally oriented organizations, notably the American Humanist Association? What good is his manifesto-mongering going to do now, and what's the point of studying values and preaching ethics as an organizational project in the world we live in now, and in addition to other social movements that actually concern themselves with human welfare? What can Kurtz and his liberal friends possibly say about the deadly, perhaps terminal, stage that global capitalism has reached?

All of this bears out the essentially ideological nature of both the intellectual and institutional history of "humanism" and the historical amnesia which imbues all these debates.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ernst Gellner on ideology

Gellner, Ernst. "Notes towards a Theory of Ideology," L'Homme, tome 18 n°3-4 (juil.-dec. 1978), pp. 69-82.

You may have to create an account (for free) before you can access this.

Gellner insightfully targets a few key characteristics of religious ideologies, most notably Kierkegaard, but falls down on a general theory of the subject. His first mistake is to characterize ideology as a noun: "Ideologies are systems of ideas or beliefs." But ideologies are also relations between persons and sets of ideas or beliefs, and relations between persons and the (social world), which involve relations between the sets of ideas or beliefs and the world. Ideology is a concept with many meanings and theories behind it, but most powerfully, it designates a verb more than a noun. It is not just the ideas one holds, but one's relationship to one's own ideas and to social practice that reinforces the relationship. Hence even perfectly rational sets of idea or beliefs can still function ideologically in the bad sense, i.e. in a fashion which remains unconscious to the holders and appliers of those ideas or beliefs.

Gellner proceeds to dissect Kierkegaard, singling out the notion of "offensiveness", in Kierkegaard's case, the offensiveness of Christianity to reason. Gellner concludes that ideologies must simultaneously attract and repel, that this must be an inherent property. The inner tensions and experiences of offensiveness on the part of potential candidates for ideologization serves as a confirmation of the validity of the ideology itself. Religious existentialism plays on an anxiety about reason and attacks the very notion that people's view of the world can be rationally warranted, claiming a deeper insight into the human condition. Simultaneous menace and attraction/temptation constitute the driving force of the ideological process.

The very eccentricity of ideologies distinguish and isolate them from other ideas, including commonsense notions.

Kierkegaard, like Pascal before him, trades on despair. Either one is despairing or too lacking in consciousness to recognize one's despair. Hence exploitation of vulnerability is key to the process.

Ideologies claim to be intellectually sovereign, they monopolize validation, establishing not only the truth but the criteria for distinguishing truth from falsehood.

However, there is a hidden duality here. Ideologies, in attempting to lure prospects and produce converts, must tacitly admit the context of a broader world which they did not create and do not maintain under their control. Ideologies claim to be all-embracing, but must implicitly posit by contrast a richer empirical world and implicitly accept its conventions.

With this realization, Gellner attacks the premises of two modern theologians, Barth and Tillich, who represent opposite extremes. Barth's disregard for justifying Christian belief does not do justice to the hidden ambivalence of all ideologies, and any belief system could be posited as an unassailable absolute, this Barth neglects the very basis of the efficacy of ideological indoctrination. Tillich goes to the other extreme, eliminating all offense by equating 'God' with 'ultimate concern', by which logic every man has a God, but not necessarily the same one.

There is a footnote here about "fashionable Marxist theology", i.e. that Marxism cannot be transcended because it is the philosophy of our age (combined with a remark about the underdetermination of theory in philosophy of science), and attempts to refute it confirm the bourgeois mentality of the skeptic. I presume Gellner is alluding to Sartre here. This does not seem like much of an argument in embryo against Sartre, and there are far more apropos targets. As I will argue later on, Gellner is ill-equipped to analyze the ideological (in the bad sense) functioning of Marxism, particularly in its worst Marxist-Leninist incarnation.

Gellner's next concern is to distinguish between two oft-conflated issues:

(1) the social construction of reality
(2) the role of ideology within reality

The first concern has become a fad, a super-holism (my term, not Gellner's) according to which systems of ideas are borne not by individuals but by cultures or languages, which leads to relativism (my term, not his). Oddly, Gellner finds this fad nurtured by Chomskian linguistics, i.e. the notion of a universal generative capacity (p. 77, 79). This is nonsense, but what Gellner is really after is French structuralism, or the misapplication of structural linguistics to social phenomena which are nothing like languages. Bourdieu, who quotes, Chomsky, is criticized here (78).

However and to what degree the social construction of reality is effected, ideology has a narrower scope; it is something that happens within the world. This smaller question may be more manageable than the broader one.

Finally, Gellner aims to exclude pre-literate, tribal religions from the category of ideology: the formulation of doctrine is too weak for there to be competition between doctrines rather than magical practices.

While Gellner emphasizes at the end that he is offering notes, not a complete theory, I am nonetheless dissatisified. His greatest insight is into the coercive mechanisms to be found in Kierkegaard, and the complementary defects of Barth and Tillich. This provides an "in" to the mechanisms of faith-based ideological processes. The conversion experience and the "leap of faith" are crucial in this context. Others delimit the scope of "ideology" in different ways, if at all. Gellner cuts off preliterate religious and magical superstitions while focusing on religion and saying little about secular ideologies. Others limit the notion of "ideology" to the modern world, excluding all pre-modern religious societies. Other than the dig at Marxism, which comes down to an implied dig at Sartre, Gellner curiously fails to address a crucial social fact of our time, ideology not based in religion.

I'm guessing that his implied takeoff point is that of a bourgeois liberal out to expose the irrationality of 'extremism', i.e. the left and the right. If ideologies are totalizing though not total, then there must be mechanisms insulating them against criticism, for which Gellner offers a carrot-and-stick mechanism as to how they operate. One might assume that a conversion experience is necessary by which lured recruits take that leap of faith by which an ideology is internalized as a self-authorizing master interpreter of social phenomena. The surrender of rational individual autonomy that Kierkegaard sadomasochistically gloried in could presumably be duplicated in secular ideologies.

However, this is too crude a construct by which to understand the various shades of Marxism and how they operate or not to insulate their assertions from rational criticism. Hopefully, Gellner is not as stupid as Popper. Certainly, the history of the Communist Parties (and their Trotskyist antagonists) provides ample examples of where Marxism in practice went wrong and substituted self-authorizing dogma and manipulation for critical thought. To analyze this is detail requires another post.

For more on Gellner and links, see my entry on Gellner in the first incarnation of another of my blogs, Studies in a Dying Culture.

Mind of the Bible-Believer (prefatory note)

I never got around to writing a full review, but here's a fragment adapted from a post written 30 June 2007:

[In May 2007] I began reading this weighty, demanding 400-page tome (17 May - 3 June):
Cohen, Edmund D. The Mind of the Bible-Believer. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.
It will take some effort to fully digest it. There are several comments on the web, and a couple of mini-reviews from the Christian opposition as well as from liberal Christian semi-sympathizers, but there is only one real full review from the atheist camp (accompanied by the lyrics of a Zappa song), summarizing the Christian techniques of mind control:
"The Mind of "the Bible-Believer": a critique of the book by Edmund D. Cohen (Positive Atheism)
From other people’s criticisms, it seems that these are the main areas in which to evaluate the book:
(1) the schema of mind control techniques
(2) the psychological theories adopted by Cohen
(3) Cohen’s account of the history of Christianity, in general and in the USA
(4) Cohen’s thesis that the founders of Christianity fully intended to engage in mind control.
Cohen’s sympathizers are most sympathetic to (1), and most critical of Cohen’s take on (3) and (4).
My position going into this: I myself am not in a position to judge (3). But I am on the lookout for the incorporation of sociological factors. Psychology in isolation from sociology cannot do the job. Perhaps Cohen’s account of the conditions of the Roman Empire in which Christianity was generated will prove insightful. Perhaps Cohen will have a good explanation, as he purports to, as to why Christianity was so successful in penetrating all different types of cultures.

I still have not evaluated the book after reading it. There’s a heavy-duty Freudian and Jungian preparation, before an immersion into a couple hundred pages on the New Testament’s mind-control techniques. I will return with a more detailed critique.

Descartes’ Bones (1)

Shorto, Russell. Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

There is a web site for this book: Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto.

This has got some important material on it, including an excerpt, a gallery of images, and a reader's guide. Some of the questions asked of the reader are more fruitful than others, and deeper questions could be added.

There is also a link to Shorto's YouTube video, or you can access the video at YouTube itself.

See also the publisher's page at Random House.

Naturally reviews can be found in innumerable places, but here's one from The New York Times Book Review:

Body of Knowledge By GARY ROSEN (October 31, 2008).

And behold: "Gary Rosen is the chief external affairs officer of the John Templeton Foundation." This speaks volumes about the integrity of the newspaper of record. Naturally, the gambit here is to dampen the conflict between science and religion by adopting a middle-of-the-road position that purports to make friends with everyone.

And this position is not far from Shorto's own:

By Julie Phillips. Amsterdam Weekly,6-12 November 2008.
"After eight years of warring fundamentalisms, Russell Shorto says in his new book,
Descartes Bones, it’s time for something new."

The bankruptcy of contemporary thought is multiply worse than the end-of-ideology ideology of the 1950s, predicated on liberal premises, for this manifestation of "moderation" is fundamentally right-wing. Calling people extremists for vehemently opposing extremists ultimately pulls everything to the right, and moderation becomes timidly mitigating the right-wing extremism while capitulating to it. To defame the "new atheists" (a fake journalistic moniker) as extremists, and also to claim that both Obama and McCain represent a move away from fundamentalism: how shamelessly idiotic can you be? This is what today's right-wing liberal pundits posit as a transcendence of dichotomies. It's too disgusting for words.

We learn also that Shorto is a lapsed Catholic, and that his rebellion against his upbringing is related to his preoccupation with the chasm between faith and reason. This issue also contains an excerpt from the book.

The book itself does not seem to be so vacuous, though one must be alert to spin. It can be classified in what seems to be a growing genre of popular philosophical biography, much of it produced by serious scholars. Examples of this genre are Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (my favorite), Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (another favorite) and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil, and Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers and Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Such books take off from a relationship (often antagonistic) between two thinkers, or a specific incident or problem, or a particular thinker, perhaps with respect to a particular question.

This book begins with an account of Shorto's visit to the Musée de l‘homme, where he gets to see Descartes' skull. Then Shorto flash's back to the beginning of his quest. For him, as well as others, Descartes is the intellectual fount of modernity, which has recently come under attack from the right and the postmodern left. The conflict of faith and reason belongs to our time as well as Descartes'. The "new atheists" are cited here. (xviii) As the fate of Descartes' remains shows, Descartes has been appropriated by left and right. The basis for the right's interest is Cartesian mind-body dualism, the mind or soul being untouchable by materialistic science. Shorto follows Anglican cleric Colin Slee in positing a contemporary three-way split: fundamentalist religionists, fundamentalist secularists, and religious liberals. (xix)

Such is the preface and the shallow middle-of-the-road journalistic approach to ideas and politics. It's an unwitting piece of evidence for the contention that religious moderates pave the way for religious right-wing extremists, an argument that can be extended to politics in general, though today's atheist liberals would probably not understand this.

Chapter 1 gets down to the actual history. The story starts with Descartes on his deathbed. Descartes protests against proposed medical remedies for his soon-to-be-fatal condition. Here we find an interesting, underappreciated facet of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution: The new skeptical attitude was also applied to an inherited body of medical pseudoscience. Materialistic medicine, based on the soon-to-be-established mechanical world view, is something taken for granted (by its critics as well as by its other beneficiaries), but physical medicine was inseparable from religion in Descartes' day; prayer was an integral to treatment as medicaments. (8) Since this is by no means a relic of the past, Shorto wonders what makes the modern modern. He wonders whether the divide between the material and the spiritual is wrong. (9)

Again, the shallow editorializing. However, we shall see what we can learn from the historical account as the book proceeds.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Crisis of Religion: African skeptic's new book

The Crisis of Religion: The Feral Excesses of the Gullibility of Man by Adebowale Ojowuro (Verity Publishers, 2009) is the work of a Nigerian skeptic now living in South Africa.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Geoffrey Waite on Esoterism, Heidegger, & Cassirer

Here is a piece I compiled recently out of previous discussions:

On Geoffrey Waite on Esoterism, Heidegger, and Cassirer by R. Dumain

This is my summary and criticism of a flawed analysis of the infamous 1929 debate at Davos between the Nazi-to-be philosopher Martin Heidegger and soon-to-be-exiled Jewish liberal Neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Waite claims that both liberals and Marxists have not understood the esoteric dimension of their philosophical/political enemies and and thus have been intellectually helpless in opposing them.

Moral: The collapse of reason in society is mirrored in the collapse of reason in its intellectuals.

See also my related piece:

Nietzsche & the Analytic-Continental Divide: Denouement of Bourgeois Reason; Or, Analytical Philosophy's Being-for-Death

Keywords: Geoffrey Waite, esoterism, esotericism, esoteric, exoteric, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Friedrich Nietzsche, lebensphilosophie, positivism, irrationalism, fascism, analytical philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophical culture, bourgeois philosophy, life philosophy, Romanticism, dualism, duality, dichotomy, reason, Benito Mussolini, relativism, Neo-Kantian, Neokantian, Neo-Kantianism, Kant, Nazi, Nazism, force, manipulation, cunning, violence, hierarchy, rank, Hans Vaihinger, will, power, Enlightenment, political theory, capitalism, Davos, debate, 1929, Cultural Studies, Marxism, nihilism, communism, Louis Althusser, decisionism, rhetoric, metaphysics, Leo Strauss, Goethe, social class, Pierre Bourdieu, liberalism, humanism, ontology, myth, audience, vulgar Marxism, Herbert Marcuse, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Karl Kautsky, Marburg School, socialism, ground, naivete, ideology, psychoanalysis

Esoterism, Occultism, the Illuminati, & Fascism

Written 16 June 2010, now slightly edited with slight additions:

Today as I approached my local supermarket to buy groceries, I saw a parked pickup truck with a number of bumper stickers on it, alleging conspiracies by the Illuminati, Wall Street (alleged also to have financed Lenin and Trotsky), 9-11-01 as an inside job, et al, with an assortment of other bumper stickers quoting left and right sources. And this thinking is hardly atypical, esp. among the uneducated and self-educated. By the appearance of things I assume this crackpot had to be white, but Washington is full of black people who think just like this. Large segments of the population are oriented towards occult explanations for social developments they don't understand and refuse to investigate otherwise.

Esoterism = fascism. Paranoia = gullibility. Unrestrained conspiracy-mongering = negation of critical thinking. Cynicism = credulity. The fascicization of American culture accelerates.


Cynicism & Conformity by Max Horkheimer

Georg Lukács on Irrationalism and Nazism: The Unity of Cynicism and Credulity

What Is Cynical Reason? Peter Sloterdijk Explains

Cynicism as a Form of Ideology by Slavoj Žižek