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.

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