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.

Lancelot Hogben on the fusion of science & mysticism

The apologetic attitude so prevalent in science to-day is not a logical outcome of the introduction of new concepts. It is based upon the hope of reinstating traditional beliefs with which science was at one time in open conflict. This hope is not a by-product of scientific discovery. It has its roots in the social temper of the period. For half a decade the nations of Europe abandoned the exercise of reason in their relations with one another. Intellectual detachment was disloyalty. Criticism of traditional belief was treason. Philosophers and men of science bowed to the inexorable decree of herd suggestion. Compromise to traditional belief became the hall-mark of good citizenship. Contemporary philosophy has yet to find a way out of the intellectual discouragement which is the heritage of a World War.

SOURCE: Hogben, Lancelot. The Nature of Living Matter. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1930.

Bertrand Russell on the fusion of science & religion

Russell, Bertrand. The Scientific Outlook. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1954 (based on 2nd ed., 1949; 1st ed, 1931).

In Chapter 4, "Scientific Metaphysics", Russell notes that science is losing confidence in itself, in its grip on objective reality, hastened by the conundrums of the new physics. Russell is unhappy with Arthur Eddington's account of physics and thinks his prediction of the ultimate death of the universe will undermine faith in science, belying Eddington's optimistic tone. Russell himself is possessed by a skepticism that denies the unity and lawfulness of the universe. This development is welcomed by partisans of religion. Russell finds a bifurcation in two notions of science, one as metaphysics, the other as practical utility. Practically, science is advancing even while faith in its metaphysical foundations is weakening. Russell has his own doubts about the reality of the external world, but what is not justified is the retreat to religion on the part of James Jeans. The former quasi-religious status of scientists as a priesthood of religion is giving way to a new timidity on the part of scientists.

Chapter 5 directly addresses the question of "Science and Religion". Scientists themselves are returning to religion in face of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Russell dismantles attempts to link quantum mechanics to the rehabilitation of free will. Eddington, for example, is guilty of this. Jeans, on the other hand, argues that God is a mathematician. Russell makes short shrift of this notion and ultimately finds it a rehash of old theological arguments, which do not pass muster from the standpoint of the fundamentally naturalistic basis of science.  Russell also has a few words to say about Lloyd Morgan's idealistic notion of emergent evolution.

Russell's own indulgence in skepticism--although briefly in these two chapters--does not significantly detract from his demolition of the merger of science, religion, mysticism, and idealism, perpetrated by scientists themselves. We should also remember that Russell's erstwhile colleague Alfred North Whitehead, author of process philosophy, also took up the cudgels of idealistic metaphysics. (Not a word is said about Whitehead in this book, though I think we know what Russell thought.) This development shows up the ineluctable duality of bourgeois thought, as it vacillates between positivism and irrationalism. World War I was indeed a watershed, which generated a peak in the merger of science and mysticism among the intelligentsia in the 1920s. Yet this was minuscule compared to what followed in the wake of World War II, with the explosion of New Age thought, beginning with the Beats, then the counterculture of the '60s and '70s, and finally the yuppification of the New Age bringing it back to where it belongs among the affluent, the privileged, and the comfortable.