Saturday, October 29, 2011

Descartes' Secret Notebook (3)

Aczel, Amir D. Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. xiv, 273 pp.

Now we come to Chapter 20: Leibniz's Quest for Descartes' Secret. Leibniz was attracted to aspects of Descartes' philosophy but was seriously repelled by it as well. Leibniz was critical of Descartes' principle of doubt, suggesting that degrees of doubt rather than absolute doubt be admitted in specific cases (209).

Some of Leibniz's major interests are outlined. I note a mutual interest with Descartes in Ramón Llull's ars combinatoria (210). After three years in Paris, facing the prospect of being recalled to Hanover, Leibniz urgently pursued his aim of inspecting everything that Descartes ever wrote. On June 1, 1676 he succeeded in gaining permission to view Descartes' hidden manuscripts. Scanning the Preambles, Leibniz, a Rosicrucian, recognized an oblique reference to the Rosicrucians (213). The secret notebook, De solidorum elementis, contained obscure formulas and figures. The geometrical figures were depictions of the five Platonic solids, and a connection to mysticism was evident. Leibniz began to copy the records, recognized what was going on, and added a marginal note (219).

Descartes' notebook disappeared, and Leibniz's papers on this subject remained undetected for two centuries. Several subsequent viewers of these documents failed to crack the code. Finally, in 1987, Peter Costabel published his analysis of Leibniz's copy of Descartes' manuscript (220). Leibniz had discovered that Descartes discovered a formula that generalizes the structural characteristics of the Platonic solids (221).

Chapter 21: Leibniz Breaks Descartes' Code and Solves the Mystery. Kepler had postulated a connection between the five Platonic solids and the spacing of the six known planets. Descartes found a formula for all polyhedra, but because others would connect this with Kepler and Copernicus, and so kept it to himself (225-229). Descartes' formula F + V - E = 2 inaugurates the field of topology. Euler discovered this formula, which was named after him.

Other misfortunes befell Descartes' legacy in the 17th century, when his works were proscribed by the Catholic Church and teaching of Cartesian philosophy banned in France. It wasn't until 1824 that his works were reprinted. Adrien Baillet came close to crediting Descartes' discoveries in his biography, but not being a mathematician, did not understand Leibniz's explanation and omitted publishing the information (230). Leibniz remained obsessed and ambivalent concerning Descartes, praising him while alleging limitations. Leibniz kept in contact with Cartesian scholars (231). Leibniz was at work developing the calculus. Concerned about the priority dispute with Newton, Leibniz would not have wanted to acknowledge an influence from Descartes (234-235).

Aczel adds an epilogue to this story. Descartes is seen as the great forerunner of contemporary astrophysics, heavily dependent on geometry linked to algebraic methods. The Platonic solids are n longer relevant, but . . . but satellite data obtained in 2001 supports the notion that the geometry of the universe as a whole fits the geometry of some of the Platonic solids (238-239). One new model posits the universe as an octahedron folded onto itself. The icosahedron and dodecahedron have also served as models.

It's a somewhat peculiar final tribute to Descartes, and Descartes' whole life story is a somewhat roundabout way of getting to discussing the mysterious notebook, but the story is nonetheless interesting, and, aside from the tribute to the mathematical and scientific geniuses of the early modern world, it reveals even more the peculiarities and complexities of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Descartes' Secret Notebook (2)

Aczel, Amir D. Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. xiv, 273 pp.

Chapter 12 finds Descartes moving to Holland in 1628, meeting and eventually breaking with his friend Isaac Beeckman over claims about what Beeckman taught Descartes.

Descartes worked on his book Le Monde from 1629-1633. Descartes was a Copernican, but cancelled publication in November 1633 upon learning of Galileo's ordeal under the Inquisition. Descartes' situation was probably much safer, but he continued to steer clear of publication, fearing reprisals. Details follow.

Chapter 13 recounts Descartes' secret affair or marriage with a servant woman, Hélène Jans, which produced a daughter Francine. Descartes was devastated when Francine died in 1640 (p. 147).

Chapter 14 is devoted to Descartes' epoch-making 1637 work Discourse on the Method. Descartes' invention of analytical geometry was a revolutionary discovery. Chapter 15 details Descartes' solution to the ancient Greek mystery of doubling a cube—the Delian problem.

Chapter 16 concerns Descartes' friendship with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, hungry for knowledge of metaphysics, physics, and mathematics.

In Chapter 17 we find Descartes embroiled in confrontation with academics in Utrecht, chief among them Gisbert Voetius, who in opposing Cartesianism levelled the dangerous accusation of atheism. Cartesian philosophy was banned from the university. Ultimately, there was a vicious lawsuit which Descartes lost, and he had to issue a letter of apology to avoid imprisonment.

In Chapter 18 we approach the final chapter of Descartes' life, in which he is induced to come to Stockholm by Queen Christina. She lavished honors on him while others in the court were hostile. Tutoring the queen also cramped Descartes' lifestyle. Worse, as we see in Chapter 19, the Swedish climate did him in. He resisted until almost the end the quack cure of bleeding the patient, and then gave in, and then died. His last words were: "Ah, my dear Schluter, this is the time I must leave." (p. 197)

The fate of Descartes' remains is summarized here, but you can also read the whole story in Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones. Now we return to the story of what became of Descartes' locked box (202).This box contained copies of various correspondence and responses to critics, but also secret manuscripts—Preambles, Olympica, Democritica, Experimenta, Parnassus—and a notebook containing cryptic mathematical and other symbols. In the final installment, we shall review Leibniz's inspection of Descartes' notebook and the ultimate deciphering of the mysterious text.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Conspiracy thinking – my name in lights

Note this blog post:

Conspiracy Thinking – Turning Points
Oct. 2, 2011

The blogger reviews some key books on social paranoia, links it to American individualism, and recommends Chip Berlet's Political Research Associates, G. William Domhoff's power structure research, and my The Paranoia Papers: Theory of the (Un)Natural History of Social Paranoia: Selected Bibliography.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Black freethought still on the move

Here are a few recently accessed links pertaining to African and African-American humanists and atheists:

Why I Am a Philosophic Humanist, Not a Member of Some Religious Group by Leo Igwe

African Philosophy Platform, established by Warren Allen Smith
Under exploration here: "What original ideas concerning idealism, materialism, dualism, naturalism, rationalism, positivism, or other stances have African philosophers developed?"  Site caveat: "Philosophy is a broad subject, so this platform will confine itself to academic, humanistic, and naturalistic philosophy, not to religious and spiritual discussions." This site has not been active since 2009.
The wiki Philosopedia also covers black freethought, summarized under Af - Ah.

In Washington, DC, the Secular Students at Howard University, the under the leadership of Mark Hatcher, is active. Here is a recent article in the student newspaper The Hilltop:

Perspective: Confessions of an Atheist by Dominic Ripoli

My group Black Freethought on Atheist Nexus now has 451 members.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fan Zhen (450 - 515 AD) revisited

As I indicated in my previous entry on this Chinese thinker, information in English is rather scarce. In the course of looking up Wang Ch'ung (Wang Chong, 27–c. 100 AD), I came across another link to Fan Zhen on a rather eccentric web site:

Rationalism and materialist philosophy in China: Fan Zhen, Wang Chung

Once again, the Esperanto page, which also has English links, can be found on my site:

Ateisto Fan Ĝen

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Descartes' Bones & The Best of All Possible Worlds

I never got around to continuing my review of Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, nor did I ever get around to reviewing Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil. The former has objective content that merits attention regardless of Shorto's spin on the subject suggesting a moral for our time. Shorto is a journalist. Nadler is a serious scholar of Spinoza and of that period. Here is a paragraph I wrote on 21 July 2010:
The last two books I'm reading are about early modern philosophy: Russell Shorto's Descartes’ Bones and Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds. The latter is about the theological-metaphysical problematic of Leibniz, Malebranche, and Arnauld. [This] . . . coincidentally dovetails with parts of the former book, which I'm still reading. Nadler refrains from drawing too many conclusions from this material, unlike Shorto, who thinks like a shallow journalist in reading today's conflict between faith and reason into the past. However, one can draw more severe conclusions from Nadler's book, should one choose to adduce the evidence presented therein to condemn Christianity—not just religion in general but Christianity in particular. I will write about this, assuming I can catch up to my proliferating ambitions.

Atheist Viewpoint: Diversity in the Movement

From American Atheists:

. . . with David Silverman (President of American Atheists), A. J. Johnson (Director of Development), and Ron Barrier. The question of intersectionality or belonging to multiple minorities is discussed as part of the general discussion on the (non-) participation of minorities in the atheist movement. Johnson contributes the notion of social capital and the most of substance on this topic and others. Johnson disagrees with Silverman that diversity including libertarians and other conservatives merits serious consideration. Ron Barrier is accommodating to ideological divergences but Johnson is not having it. I can only hope that the conservative/libertarian element is marginalized in the movement, but I don't believe this any more than Johnson does. Note the closing song "I Ain't Afraid" by Holly Near.

Descartes' Secret Notebook (1)

"The sciences are now masked; the masks lifted, they appear in all their beauty. To someone who can see the entire chain of the sciences, it would seem no harder to discern them than to do so with the sequence of all the numbers. Strict limits are prescribed for all spirits, and these limits may not be trespassed. If some, by a flaw of spirit, are unable to follow the principles of invention, they may at least appreciate the real value of the sciences, and this should suffice to bring them true judgment on the evaluation of all things."

   — Réne Descartes, Preambles
Aczel, Amir D. Descartes' Secret Notebook: A True Tale of Mathematics, Mysticism, and the Quest to Understand the Universe. New York: Broadway Books, 2005. xiv, 273 pp. (The above quote can be found on pp. 38-39.)

While I recommend reading this in hard copy, you have a number of online options at your fingertips. Begin with the Publisher description. You can also read a sample text.You can read the whole book online at And if you have a compelling need to download yourself a pirated copy, you can also download a compressed file from Megaupload.

I've written on this blog before on the burgeoning genre of popularized history of philosophy. Often the ideas themselves are shortchanged, but the biographical narratives are compelling and vividly portray the social contexts of the times. I have been especially rewarded by a complex of books whose narratives (unintentionally) bleed into one another; they could almost be grouped as volumes in a single series:

Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity;

Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World;

Steven Nadler, The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil;

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

Aczel's book fits in here, too, especially as it intersects the narratives of Nadler and Shorto. While Descartes' coded secret notebook is ostensibly the subject of this book, it is in actuality a biography of Descartes, with the decoding of the notebook the climax of the tale. There are, of course, other biographies of Descartes. Here is one review:

Serfati, Michel. "Descartes, the Pioneer of the Scientific Revolution" [review of Desmond Clarke, Descartes: A Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2006], Notices of the AMS, vol. 55, no. 1, January 2008, pp. 44-49.

I have not found any awe-inspiring reviews of Aczel, but here are a few:

Book Review – Descartes’s Secret Notebook, 22 April 2009

Star Topology, 13 Jan. 2011

Descartes' Secret Notebook, Steve Zipp, 20 Jan. 2009

One interesting feature of this book is the incorporation of recent discoveries and scholarship concerning Descartes.

Aczel begins with an account of his encounter with Descartes' cryptic manuscript: actually, the original is lost, and Aczel is really looking at the insatiably curious Leibniz' transcription of Descartes' manuscript. Aczel recounts also how he came by the idea of writing this book. Then he tells the story of Leibniz's encounter with Descartes' hidden work. Some quotes from variously titled texts are adduced, along with Descartes' pseudonym Polybius. The encrypted notebook itself consisted of 16 pages, with alchemical and astrological symbols, obscure figures, and puzzling number sequences. Following this teaser, the book traces the entire course of Descartes' life.

Descartes was the progeny of a wealthy family, endowed also with a tremendous curiosity, an ability to master a variety of skills and a wide range of knowledge, with an especial brilliance in mathematics. He was particularly fascinated by Greek mathematics, and by the power and limitations of what the Greeks could construct with straightedge and compass alone. Descartes was also quite the adventurer, joining in several military escapades, apparently motivated by curiosity rather than partisanship, even taking the side of Protestants in some campaigns though he himself was a lifelong Catholic. (Descartes was a confident swordsman who on one occasion fended off a boatload of criminals he had hired who schemed to assault him and steal his money [pp. 93-95]. He also got caught up in a duel over a woman [pp. 123-125].) Because of his extraordinary ability to solve mathematical problems, Descartes befriended a Dutchman whom he met as a soldier, Isaac Beeckman. They shared a considerable range of knowledge. (Note Descartes' letters to Beeckman of March 26 and April 29, 1619 on Ramon Llull, pp. 47-48.) This is where Descartes' curiosity about mystical ideas was aroused.

Chapter 4 recounts the key dreams that inspired Descartes, his notations in the text Olympica, and the possibility of a meeting with Kepler. Chapter 5 concerns the Athenians' obstacle in doubling the size of the Apollo Temple, a mathematical problem that cannot be solved by straightedge and compass alone. The Delian Problem, as it is known, stumped the Greeks. Descartes' meditation on this problem led him to the mathematical revolution he initiated: the unification of geometry and algebra.

Chapter 6 details the key meeting with the mystic-mathematician Johann Faulhaber of Ulm. We also find a confirmation that Descartes planned to write a mathematical treatise under the pseudonym Polybius the Cosmopolitan. In his notebook Descartes used alchemical symbols used by Faulhaber (pp. 74-75). Faulhaber was interested in the Kabbalah as well as in alchemy. Descartes' solved Faulhaber's mathematical problems. While engaged in a military campaign in Prague, Descartes noted in Olympica on 11 November 1620 a great discovery (p. 79).

In the following chapter we are introduced to the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, or the Rosicrucians, who were cosmopolitan philosophical revolutionaries. Descartes was heavily influenced by the Rosicrucians, so much so that he had to publicly deny any such allegiance, whether or not he was covertly a Rosicrucian. (This rumor also disturbed his close friend Mersenne, a Catholic priest albeit more progressive than most.) Descartes was quite interested in occult matters, and the Rosicrucians were also leaders in mathematical and scientific investigation. Faulhaber was a Rosicrucian. Kepler at least had a Rosicrucian assistant, if he was not one himself. Leibniz, who examined Descartes' notebook, was a Rosicrucian.

I am leaving out of account several details of Descartes' life: his bon vivant lifestyle as well as his periodic retreats into solitude—in hiding even—his military adventures, his interests in women, his financial affairs, etc. The most puzzling aspect of Descartes' character is his investment but apparent detachment regarding military affairs. Aczel finally addresses this question at the end of Chapter 11, after detailing Descartes' participation as a scientific observer in the brutal siege of La Rochelle, in which the population was starved out in the course of its military defeat. Descartes had no animosity against the Huguenots, who were crushed by the Catholic power, or against Protestants in general, whom he had fought for. Aczel attempts to explain Descartes by noting that he was trained by the Jesuits and was inducted into and attracted to military order and structure. In the 17th century, war was conducted in a highly and visibly ordered manner. (pp. 129-130)

This might be one of the more telling indications of the contradictions of the birth of modernity. If I believed in the notion of "instrumental reason" as a fundamental explanatory category, here I would find a key target, as I would in the other unresolved dualities of religion and reason, occultism and science, omnipotent mind/immortal soul and mechanical body.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Max Horkheimer, Montaigne, & bourgeois skepticism (2)

Bildung and Critical Theory facing Post-modernity by Ilan Gur-Ze'ev

The postmodernity part and the conclusions are insufferable ("critical pedagogy" has always struck me as idiotic) but the content concerning the Frankfurt School and Bildung is interesting.

Here's the passage specifically about Montaigne:
A clear manifestation of this optimist-positive utopianism is Horkheimer's "Montaigne and the role of skepticism." From within the Marxist tradition Horkheimer here articulates the importance and weaknesses of modern, bourgeois skepticism, which is a central element of Enlightenment and the project of Bildung. Because the bourgeoisie have the upper hand, claims Horkheimer, the worth of the individual becomes mainly an economic issue and the critical Spirit becomes an individual’s aesthetic pastime. Skepticism, he claims, is targeted at saving the individual. This is its great goal. But Critical Theory, in opposition to this tradition, conceives the individual as basically dependent on social conditions and understands her emancipation as part of the liberation of humanity, coming about within an essential change in the social totality. This new society, according to the early Horkheimer, will actualize Montaigne's quest for the happy realization of the essence of the human.
It's hard to imagine an academic department more worthless than Education, "Critical Pedagogy" included, unless it's Political Science. Anyway, here's another specimen:

Adorno, Horkheimer, Critical Theory and the Possibility of a Non-Repressive Critical Pedagogy by Ilan Gur-Ze’ev

Horkeimer's essay on Montaigne is mentioned here, too. And here at least is a critique of Henry Giroux, his descent into postmodernism, and his misunderstanding of Marcuse (who also comes under fire) and other critical theorists. The author also recapitulates the development of the ideas of Horkheimer and Adorno.

What does all this come to?
Counter-education, if true to itself, cannot be, like Critical Pedagogy wants us to believe, an attempt to implement any “theory”, as sophisticated or good-intentioned as it may be. If true to itself, counter-education must challenge any theoretical, ideological, or political "home", any master signifier, dogma, or ethnocentrism as manifestations of the Same, of the thingness in Being, which human beings are called to guard and transcend (Heidegger 196, 234). Counter-education, in this sense, must be at once Messianic and negative at any cost. This means that it cannot satisfy itself even with identification with the negation of self-evident, with the resistance to the ethnocentrism of the oppressed and cannot identify itself with the “worthier” violences they actualize against their own "internal" and "external" Others.
Ugh! I can't go on.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Max Horkheimer, Montaigne, & bourgeois skepticism (1)

In re:

Horkheimer, Max. “Montaigne and the Function of Skepticism,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings, translated by G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer and John Torpey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), pp. 265-311. Original publication: “Montaigne und die Funktion der Skepsis,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7, no. 1 (1938).

There are some choice quotes in this 1938 essay, few of which will be comprehensible out of context. Let me begin with my favorite:
There is no humanism without a clear position toward the historical problems of the epoch; it cannot exist as a mere profession of faith to itself. The humanism of the past consisted in the critique of the hierarchical feudal order, which had become a fetter on the development of humanity. The humanism of the present consists in the critique of the forms of life under which humanity now perishes, and in the effort to transform them in a rational manner. [p. 308]
Though written in 1938, this claim is applicable to today's humanism, which I intend to show has been intellectually stagnant for decades, esp. lacking in profound social, historical, and political analysis. I adduce this quote as an entry into a whole intellectual tradition excluded by the Anglo-American humanist movement.

Here's another interesting quote, the conclusion of the article. It is not readily decipherable out of context, however:
. . . skepticism in its liberal and authoritarian forms constitutes an aspect of the dominant bourgeois type of individual. The reason is that characterological structures are consolidated and transformed not by knowledge and enlightenment but by material conditions. The advances in weapons technology, by means of which entire peoples are held in check by a well-stocked army, are much more decisive for the persistence of skepticism as an anthropological characteristic than the arguments with which the skeptical attitude seeks to rationalize itself. One could counter that insights such as these constitute the very essence of skepticism. To be sure, it is typical of skepticism, as well as of the dominant character as such, to ascribe the vulgar motives—according to which alone the rulers of the world act—not to them and their principle, but to the idea of humanity itself. The difference here is that the critical theory which we espouse, in contrast to skepticism, does not make an antitheoretical absolutism of the insight into the inadequacy of things as they are and the transitoriness of cognition. Instead, even in the face of pessimistic assessments, critical theory is guided by the unswerving interest in a better future. [p. 311]
Now let's skip to what others have to say about Horkheimer's essay.

Young Horkheimer: Critical Theory Before the Dialectic of Enlightenment, And After It by Matthew Sharpe (2007).
For young Horkheimer, the re-emergence of scepticism in the modern age, first in Montaigne (MFS) and later in Hume’s ‘deconstructions’ of personal identity as “fictional” or consciousness as a “theatre” (MFS, Stirk), already reflect the material disempowerment underlying the bourgeois’ paeans to the autonomous “masters and possessors of nature”.
That's it for Montaigne, though the author places this in context of Horkheimer's overall project of the 1930s.
This analysis, however, is all about Montaigne:

Frankfurt School, 1938: Max Horkheimer on Montaigne by Bruce Miller, Old Hickory's Weblog, 29 January 2011.

For some background on Montaigne:

Michel de Montaigne by Marc Foglia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Note Richard H. Popkin on the conservative dimension of skepticism. It was from Popkin's work that I learned of the dual ideological role of skepticism 40 years ago.

Additional references on my web site:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Philip Kitcher: Militant Modern Atheism

Kitcher, Philip. "Militant Modern Atheism," Journal of Applied Philosophy,Vol. 28, No. 1, 2011.

While defending the "new atheists" on the matter of their objection to superstition, Kitcher is dissatisfied with the belief model of religion, suggesting an orientation model instead and offering a working taxonomy of religious orientations. Here is a key passage:
First, militant modern atheism is entirely correct in its assault on those types of religious life that fit the belief model. On the other hand, all three of the non-secular approaches that accord with the orientation model are defensible. In the case of the mythically self-conscious that is hardly surprising, and the militant modern atheists applaud when tho e who continue to think of themselves as religious firmly reject ‘supernatural’ entities — the militants think, however, that what remains hardly deserves the name of religion. More problematic, at first sight, are the cases of the doctrinally-entangled and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the sociocultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation. Militant modern atheism tends to overlook this point because it is in the firm grip of the belief model, and thus assumes — wrongly — that correction of belief about the occupants of the cosmos can automatically be articulated into a satisfying vision of what is valuable in one’s life. Perhaps that is true for the privileged few, but it is not so for the less fortunate many.
I find Kitcher's justification of an orientation model unconvincing and incoherent, though indeed the belief model (which one sees in its most ridiculous incarnation in Sam Harris) is shallow and asociological. Kitcher however does go on to emphasize the inadequacy of religious experiences, however valuable they may be as pure experience, as justifications for beliefs and doctrines.

Kitcher also addresses the inadequacy of Dawkins' & Dennett's speculative evolutionary psychology, which is based on the belief model, or in the case of Dennett an incipient orientation model. Kitcher frames the inadequacy in terms of needs which may be unmet by Dawkins' perspective, given the fact that few can participate in the creative scientific life therein indicated. You can read Kitcher's conclusions for yourself. I find his treatment inadequate, and paradoxically, predicated on the same academic isolation as that of the militant atheists he criticizes: his tolerance is the tolerance of the privileged, and just as apolitical.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Blasphemy Tanka for James Baldwin

 Blasphemy Tanka for James Baldwin

In James Baldwin's tale,
    Go Tell It on the Mountain,
        a note for Jesus:
    ". . . tell that puking bastard to
kiss my big black ass." It's there!

REFERENCE: James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953; New Dell Edition, 1970), p. 163.

— Ralph Dumain, 7 & 11 August 2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Richard Wright's Outsider vs. the priest

Cross's anxieties now condensed themselves into an attitude of sullenness toward the priest. He disliked most strongly all men of religion because he felt that they could take for granted an interpretation of the world that his sense of life made impossible. The priest was secure and walked the earth with a divine mandate, while Cross's mere breathing was an act of audacity, a confounding wonder at the daily mystery of himself. He felt that the attitude of the priest was predicated upon a scheme of good and evil ordained by a God whom he was constrained out of love and fear to obey; and Cross therefore regarded him as a kind of dressed-up savage intimidated by totems and taboos that differed in kind but not in degree from those of the most primitive of peoples. Cross had to discover what was good or evil through his own actions which were more exacting than the edicts of any God because it was he alone who had to bear the brunt of their consequences with a sense of absoluteness made intolerable by knowing that this life of his was all he had and would ever have. For him there was no grace or mercy if he failed.

SOURCE: Wright, Richard. The Outsider (1953). Restored text: Works. Volume 2. Later Works: Black Boy (American Hunger); The Outsider. New York: Library of America, 1991. (The Library of America; no. 56) Excerpt from Book Two: Dream, p. 494.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

UFO (Haiku for Richard Wright)

"The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,
Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix'd into furrows of death;
Till deep dissimulation is the only defence an honest man has left"

  — William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, 49.23; E198

"Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form."

  — Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843

  (Haiku for Richard Wright)

    by Ralph Dumain

Whirling in the sky,
  the truth is over their heads
    in more ways than one.

  (4 August 2011)

by Ralph Dumain

The Outsider read
              summons purple-flowered fields
       contrasting the doom.

(Written 11 Feb. 1995)

  A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

  — William Blake, Songs of Experience

The first stanza of this poem prefaces Richard Wright's The Outsider.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Freethought Blogs

The new multi-blog Freethought Blogs is now operational! (August 1)

The member blogs are:

Is Critique Secular?

Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, Critical Horizons by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. (The Townsend Papers in the Humanities; no. 2)
As if Judith Butler weren't already disgusting enough. Anti-imperialism as an absolute for the (pseudo-)left is rotten politics. And of course academic politics is nothing but unscrupulous careerism anyway.
Edis, Taner. Is Critique Secular?, The Secular Outpost (blog), December 6, 2010.
I'm glad to see someone besides myself denounce the intellectual alliance between postmodernist westerners and apologists for Islam.
Gourgouris, Stathis. “De-transcendentalizing the secular,” The Immanent Frame (blog).
Unequivocal defense of secularism and rejection of identity politics, coupled with an interesting analysis of the relation between transcendentalism and theism (Descartes, Kant), but decoupling a necessary relation between secularism and the Christian West.
Mahmood, Saba. “Is critique secular?”, The Immanent Frame (blog).
“This line of thought urges you to choose: either one is against secular values or one is for them.” This is actually the case, though Mahmood denies it. A noxious example of the dishonest Counter-Enlightenment collusion between postmodernism & religion.
Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “What the Danish Cartoon Controversy Tells Us About Religion, the Secular, and the Limits of the Law,” Religion Dispatches, January 7, 2010.
Rotten to the core.
Thomassen, Lasse. Review: Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, Critical Horizons, Vol 12, No 1, 2010, pp. 103-107.
On the Danish cartoons; the book under review is apparently another horrid example of the meeting of postmodernism and religion.
Yager, Colin. “Is Critique Secular? Thoughts on Enchantment and Reflexivity.”
A completely confused mess. Thoughts on Habermas, Taylor, Romanticism, with too much dallying on Byron. Bankrupt.

Chris Hedges vs. Sam Harris

The Wrong Conclusion
By Eric MacDonald, Choice in Dying (blog), 30 July 2011

John Gray and Steven Pinker are full of crap. And in this case, Chris Hedges.

The Blog : Dear Angry Lunatic: A Response to Chris Hedges : Sam Harris

Hedges is good on the "liberal class" and the fascist threat, a real douchebag on atheism.  Harris is politically backward and historically illiterate. This is a reminder that one cannot wholeheartedly belong to any individual social movement at this time. Some are at odds with others; they are all riddled with contradictions.

Marxism & religion: 2 articles

A key challenge for socialists - Marxists and Religion - yesterday and today
by Gilbert Achcar, International Viewpoint, 15 October 2004.

I mostly agree. I agree esp. with the criticism of alliances between British Trotskyists and Islamists.

Opiate of the People? - Marxism and Religion
By Michael Löwy
International Viewpoint Online magazine, IV368, June 200.

The historical overview is interesting, but I think Löwy is shallow and wrong. I also think Ernst Bloch is wrong. Löwy's treatment of the Frankfurt School is deplorable.

Roland Boer on Terry Eagleton

Quailing Before the Real: Terry Eagleton on Ethics
[review of Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics]
By Roland Boer, The Hobgoblin, 1 December 2010

Roland Boer makes mincemeat of Eagleton's left Catholicism. I have doubts about Ernst Bloch as well. I will never ever trust the advocates of liberal or left religion.

The Bolsheviks and Islam

International Socialism: The Bolsheviks and Islam
by Dave Crouch, Issue 110, April 2006

Fascinating historical material, combined with the rotten "anti-imperialist" politics of the British Socialist Workers Party. Assuming for the moment that this account is accurate, we must emphasize that the political model of the early Bolshevik regime is unusable for today's politics. One may marvel at the attempt to finesse the modernization and secularization of a multitude of backward cultures, and marvel still more at the Bolsheviks' notion that they might succeed, that they, combining state power with the concentrated power of reason, could actually leverage an irrational society into a rational one. The British SWP, for all its historical sophistication, would not want to acknowledge this impossibility. The objectivity of Stalinism, not only what it was consciously, consists in the logic of stooping to conquer. Just as it dragged the feudal peasant Russian Empire into the modern world by despotic means, it also adapted and lowered itself to the meanest peasant mentality to make it happen. The Bolsheviks seized a critical historical moment and took a chance on the future. But today's Marxists who look to them for guidance are only fooling themselves.

Dewey & the Dao of Politics

Sor-hoon Tan, The Dao of Politics: Li (Rituals/Rites) and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government, Philosophy East and West - Volume 61, Number 3, July 2011, pp. 468-491.

Combining Dewey & Confucianism: nearly all East-Meets-West literature is trash, as is nearly all contemporary Chinese philosophy in dialogue with the Western. This article appears to be no exception. The lack of intellectual and political principle of these hacks is breathtaking.

Atheism | The Kojo Nnamdi Show

Atheism | The Kojo Nnamdi Show, July 28, 2011

"In our society, it's taboo to insult Christians, Jews, Muslims or other believers for their faith, but many feel no such compunction about atheists. And a surprising number say they wouldn't vote for an atheist. Negative attitudes toward atheists may be in part the result of misconceptions about atheism and the various philosophies associated with it, like secular humanism and free thinking. We speak to atheists working to raise their profile and create a better understanding about what they do—and don't—believe."

Kudos to Kojo for a fairness uncommon in the mainstream media.  All the guests were good, with just one caveat. In this case I especially liked no-nonsense Edwin Kagin, who represented American Atheists and Camp Quest. I dislike the overly diplomatic, weak, and mealy-mouthed tenor of humanists in spots, and worst of all, the demonizing of the New Atheists. There is but so much of the soft and cuddly humanist sales pitch I can take. Note also the Jamaican caller who never had contact with other atheists before.

The New Atheists, Political Narratives, & the Betrayal of the Enlightenment

The New Atheists, Political Narratives, and the Betrayal of the Enlightenment. The Real Delusion: Part 1
by Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard, Dissident Voice, July 27, 2011

I'm in partial agreement, but note my objections. The 'New Atheists' is a journalistic fiction. The campaign against superstition is not a distraction; it's not the case that the New Atheists have distracted us from the real issues, but they have failed to make the unbreakable linkage between irrationalism and the real issues that undergird it. Harris is indeed the worst of the lot.

Malcolm X vs. James Baldwin

In Part 3 of this three-party discussion James Baldwin offers a superior perspective to that of Malcolm X's Nation of Islam nonsense, and in the process firmly rejects all religion, all theology, all myth, while showing no mercy concerning the moral bankruptcy of American society. How sad that the imbeciles who comment on this and other YouTube videos single out Malcolm X for praise, when Baldwin's world view is so much more sophisticated.

Spinoziana: Berger, Borges, Yovel & Nietzsche

Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger

This new book from Verso by the venerable John Berger is not to be missed. (I haven't seen it yet, though.) You will find more of interest on the Verso page, including the YouTube video embedded above.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote two poems in homage to Spinoza. (See my web site for more Borges goodies: Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web.) There is more than one translation of both poems. You might miss this one otherwise, so here is an out-of-the-way translation for your benefit.

Spinoza” by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Yirmiyahu Yovel

This translation prefaces Yovel's Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence [v. 2 of 2] (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). While in vol. 1 Yovel seeks out sources of Spinoza's philosophy of immanence in the culture of the Marranos, in vol. 2 he traces various philosophical configurations of the Spinoza's immanentist influence in subsequent thinkers. The chapter comparing Spinoza and Nietzsche is especially revealing, as is Nietzsche's snarky poem, herein translated:

To Spinoza” by Friedrich Nietzsche

This I think yields another insight into the underlying viciousness of Nietzsche's philosophy. (See my Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography for more.)

Humanistic Judaism: religion or philosophy?

I always liked the Humanistic Jews—in DC, the Machar people—but this is mealy-mouthed nonsense. Humanistic Judaism is not, as far as I know, traditional Judaism. The latter is unequivocally a religion; the former, I would think, depends on the individual perspective of the participants. But people should be clear about what they're advocating and not engage in mystification. If everybody's Jewish values were Einstein's, we'd now be in a better world, but "Jewish values" are not metaphysically given; they're no more than what you make them, especially when you're selective about the ideas you have extracted from tradition.

Raymond Tallis critiques scientism

Raymond Tallis - Undiscovered | New Humanist, Volume 126, Issue 4, July/August 2011
"A misreading of science has persuaded us that we are no more than our evolved brains. But, argues Raymond Tallis, a more expansive philosophy of humanity is mounting a fight-back"

This article makes a good start, but it's still a bit fuzzy. It could have been much better; the author could have delved deeper into the ideology of scientism that keeps the atheist/humanist/skeptics movement willfully ignorant of history and society.

Diversifying the Skeptics Movement?

If this doesn't show up the still uncritical insipidity of the "skeptics" movement, I don't know what does:

The Skeptical Canon by Austin Dacey, July 26, 2011 (CSI)

The one glimmer in this cavalcade of banality is the cryptic reference to Greta Christina's suggestion (not specified in this essay). The best thing that could be done for the so-called skeptics movement would be to boot Jillette, Shermer, Dawkins, and Harris out of it. The increase of "diversity" appears to have done little for actual rethinking of the tacit ideology underlying the whole movement, where the social superstitions that really cause harm—libertarianism for example—are swept under the rug as issues.

Penn Jillette's libertarianism—advocacy of sweatshops & other bullshit!—Michael Shermer's love of Ayn Rand and his pseudoscientific "evolutionary economics", Dawkins' pseudoscientific drivel about "memes" and religion as a virus, Harris' political backwardness and philosophical childishness concerning morality's relation to science—all of this shows up the tacit ideological underpinnings of the so-called skeptics movement. "Diversity" has not changed this ideological culture, or the culture of celebrity, one iota.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Which is the Way to God, Please? Little Piglet Asked

Wo bitte geht's zu Gott? fragte das kleine Ferkel by Michael Schmidt-Salomon kaj Helge Nyncke is a famous German antireligious children's book.

An English translation of the text is downloadable: Which is the Way to God, Please? Little Piglet Asked  (A book for all those who won't let themselves be fooled), translated by Fiona Lorenz.

Click here for (a slideshow of) the illustrations.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Moses Mendelssohn on reason, revelation, miracles & the practice of Judaism

Jennifer Michael Hecht in her book Doubt: A History (p. 365) adduces this quote; I am quoting a larger chunk:
Judaism boasts of no exclusive revelation of eternal truths that are indispensable to salvation—no ‘revealed religion’ in the usual sense of that phrase. Revealed religion is one thing, revealed legislation is another. The voice that let itself be heard on Sinai on that great day did not proclaim
‘I am the Eternal, your God, the necessary, independent being, omnipotent and omniscient, that recompenses men in a future life according to their deeds.’
This is the universal religion of mankind, not Judaism; and the universal religion of mankind, without which men are neither virtuous nor capable of happiness, was not to be revealed there. Actually, it couldn’t have been revealed there, for who would have been convinced of these eternal doctrines of salvation by the voice of thunder and the sound of trumpets? Surely not the unthinking animal-man who hadn’t thought his way through to the existence of an invisible being that governs the visible. The miraculous voice wouldn’t have given him any concepts, so it wouldn’t have convinced him—let alone the sophist, whose ears are buzzing with so many doubts and ruminations that he can’t hear the voice of common sense any more. He demands rational proofs, not miracles. And even if the teacher of religion raised from the dust all the dead who ever trod the earth, in order to establish an eternal truth, the sceptic would say:
‘The teacher has awakened many dead, but I don’t know any more about eternal truth than I did before. I do know now that someone can do and say extraordinary things; but there may be several such beings, who aren’t ready to reveal themselves just yet. And all this ·raising-the-dead routine· is so far removed from the infinitely sublime idea of a unique and eternal Deity that rules the entire universe according to its unlimited will, and detects men’s most secret thoughts in order to reward their deeds according to their merits, either here or in the hereafter!
Anyone who didn’t already know this, anyone who wasn’t saturated with these truths that are so indispensable to human happiness, and ·therefore· wasn’t prepared to approach the holy mountain, might have been bowled over by the wonderful manifestations but he couldn’t have learned anything from them. – No! All this was presupposed; perhaps it was taught, explained, and placed beyond all doubt by human reasoning during the days of preparation.
Jerusalem: or Religious Power and Judaism (1782), edited by Jonathan Bennett

The most remarkable part of this passage is the quote from the hypothetical skeptic. Hecht summarizes other aspects of Mendelssohn's position (pp. 362-366). Mendelssohn severed belief from practice and, as Hecht notes, was convinced that Jewish practices could be adhered to without belief. He proved to be correct within a century and a half. However, if you read further in Jerusalem, you should note that this liberalized and rationalized view of religion remains burdened with a fundamental contradiction. It is quite true that Judaism differs from Christianity in that it is more about behavior than belief or salvation. Furthermore, in today's secular society this is the tacit orientation of most American Jews. However, there is none other than an irrational and authoritarian basis for adherence to the Torah or its "legislation". Hence Mendelssohn, though a hero of the Enlightenment (and specifically the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment), is at best a liberal figure, and not as radical as his contemporary Salomon Maimon, not to mention Spinoza. (See also my post on Maimon in my Esperanto blog: Salomon Maimon: filozofo & obstina judo.) Hecht is not concerned with this contradiction, though; she concludes with an apparently laudatory reference to Mendelssohn's pluralism.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Re-thinking reason in the service of postmodern irrationalism

Re-thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, edited by Kerry S. Walters. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. xviii, 265 pp. (SUNY series, Teacher Empowerment and School Reform)
Table of Contents:
Introduction : beyond logicism in critical thinking / Kerry S. Walters
Teaching two kinds of thinking by teaching writing / Peter Elbow
On critical thinking and connected knowing / Blythe McVicker Clinchy
Educating for empathy, reason, and imagination / Delores Gallo
Critical thinking, rationality, and the vulcanization of students / Kerry S. Walters
Toward a gender-sensitive ideal of critical thinking : a feminist poetic / Anne M. Phelan and James W. Garrison
Critical thinking and the "trivial pursuit" theory of knowledge / John E. McPeck
Why two heads are better than one : philosophical and pedagogical implications of a social view of critical thinking / Connie Missimer
Community and neutrality in critical thought : a nonobjective view on the conduct and teaching of critical thinking / Karl Hostetler
Critical thinking and feminism / Karen J. Warren
Teaching critical thinking in the strong sense : a focus on self-deception, world views, and a dialectical mode of analysis / Richard W. Paul
Toward a pedagogy of critical thinking / Henry A. Giroux
Teaching intellectual autonomy : the failure of the critical thinking movement / Laura Duhan Kaplan
Critical thinking beyond reasoning : restoring virtue to thought / Thomas H. Warren
Is critical thinking a technique, or a means of enlightenment? / Lenore Langsdorf.
This annotation is compiled from comments written on 28 Jan. 2005, 4 Feb. 2005, and 29 Aug. 2006:

The premise of this book is to challenge prevalent assumptions of the 'critical thinking' literature, i.e. that limiting critical thinking to an expose of logical fallacies and to concentrate exclusively on the formal aspects of rational thinking just won't do the job. All this is true, and several of the essays provide more comprehensive models of reasoning, all except the feminist essays (and the postmodernist ones—usually the same), all of which are garbage. We can find similar things going in feminist philosophy of science, similarly trashy.

I have a strong aversion to the use of feelgood language as a tool of manipulation, which this book seems to represent: keywords like "empathy", "gender", "feminism", "community", "nonobjective", "sensitive," "empowerment" are red flags. What is most alarming and depressing here, if my hunch proves to be correct, is a move not beyond formalism, but beneath it, i.e. towards an illiberal irrationalism in the guise of emancipation. This is just the worst of the mentality that came out of the self-indulgent childishness of the '60s, which at least was sufficiently undertheorized at the time not to yield the monstrous intellectual constructs whose institutionalization began in the '70s and exploded into pop culture in the '80s. It is truly mind-boggling and distressing how this poison has insinuated itself into the commonsense of liberal and radical intellectuals. Some of them seem to be amnesiac about their own history. (Once again my trademark slogan for explaining our current state: “It's the '70s, stupid!”)

The move beyond formalism seems to be a pretext to retool critical thinking in an irrationalist format exploiting the obscurantist comfort language of communitarianism and feminism. What could serve as a more fitting example of the counteracting of the expansion of social vocabulary by philosophical contraction?

As a counterweight, consult the essays of Karl Maton, who has analyzed the logic of knower vs. knowledge modes of legitimation, characterizing the new knower mode as the inverted correlate of the divine right of kings. I'll add that the proliferation of identities coincides, curiously, with the eclipse of the individual.


Popes, Kings & Cultural Studies: Placing the commitment to non-disciplinarity in historical context” by Karl Maton

Historical Amnesia” by Karl Maton & Rob Moore

Feminist 'logic'

Nye, Andrea. Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic. New York: Routledge, 1990. (Thinking Gender Series)

Representing Reason: Feminist Theory and Formal Logic, edited by Rachel Joffe Falmagne and Marjorie Hass. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.
Here is the publisher's description:
Philosophy's traditional "man of reason"—independent, neutral, unemotional—is an illusion. That's because the "man of reason" ignores one very important thing—the woman.

As feminist philosophy grew in the 1980s and '90s, it became clear that the attributes philosophical tradition wrote off as "womanly" are in fact part of human nature. No longer can philosophy maintain the dichotomy between the rational man and the emotional woman, but must now examine a more complex human being, able to reason and feel. Yet feminist philosophy also makes it clear that men and women theorize the world in different ways, from different perspectives. Representing Reasons: Feminist Theory and Formal Logic collects new and old essays that shed light on the underexplored intersection of logic and feminism.

The papers in this collection cross over many of the traditional divides between continental and analytic philosophy, between philosophical reflection and empirical investigation, and between empirical investigations with an individual or societal grain of analysis. This is possible because Representing Reasons frames the relationship between logic and feminism in terms of issues rather than historical figures or methodologies. As such, the articles serve as a model for crossing these divides, just as they break down the traditional divide between logic and feminism.
Here is what I wrote about this nonsense on 29 August 2006 (only slightly edited):
This drivel creates rather than closes a gap between logic and feminism and demonstrates how feminist philosophy defiles every subject it touches. "Feminism" in academic terms apparently has nothing to do with the perceptible goals of the sadly now antiquated term "women's liberation" (which presumably meant something); rather it is the self-serving ideological smokescreen for a professional middle class elite, much like Afrocentrism or similar mystical nationalisms. It is ironic but telling how traditionally 'feminine' petit bourgeois feminist theory is in practice—oh, I'm just a helpless innocent emotional female and look what these awful men have done to me—i.e. resorting to the most traditionally feminine weapons—duplicity and manipulation. If 'theorizing the world differently' comes to this, then these women have disqualified themselves from any claim to reason and demonstrated the very intellectual inferiority they protest.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Undercover Philosopher & critical thinking

I have long meant to read and review this important book. See also the web site for The Undercover Philosopher. Here is the Introduction.

I'm guessing that this could be one of the best introductions to critical thinking in a practical way, beyond the usual compendia of logical fallacies and guides to informal logic.

Here is a video from the case files of the Undercover Philosopher:

This book feeds into my project initiated a few years ago, under the title "Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking." This is could also be called metacritical thinking. I aim to evaluate various theories and practices of critical thinking.

I sent this comment to the author on 28 April 2008:
From the looks of the introduction, this book is right on point. [. . . .] I am especially interested in the philosophical dimension. Your capsule summary of the practical meaning of historical philosophical debates is pretty much on point. I only disagree that the Frankfurt School feeds into postmodernism. Some have tried to use late Adorno for such purposes, but I think this gambit is pretty flimsy. There is, of course, a tendency for the contemporary purveyors of a smorgasbord of continental doctrines to blend them all together, but, paradoxically, I think there's an implicit and not entirely honest selectively at work in what gets appropriated.

Interesting that you should mention Kant. This evening I attended a talk on Hume and Kant, which was quite interesting as an introduction, but the speaker herself couldn't draw the appropriate conclusions about the difference between the 18th century and now. The opposition between foundationalism and skepticism should have been left behind a long time ago. Oddly, nobody understood my point that once you drop the demand for absolute certainty, your philosophical agenda becomes completely transformed. However, I have yet to see the appropriate conclusions being drawn even among those with an academic training in philosophy.

All of the chapter and subchapter headings bespeak issues of great interest. The first ones I would want to see are the section "Media Misrepresentations: Training, Ideology, Careerism, Politics, and Organization", "Big Picture Assumptions", and Chapter 6—the philosophical chapter.
Now there is no need for you to concern yourself with any of what you just read. The book is very down to earth and is intended for the average person.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (3)

Follow-up on my preceding two posts: Here is my first intervention on the subject on the Ray Bradbury Message Board, 8-9 May 2003.

More importantly, there are several excerpts of the 1979 miniseries on YouTube. Here is one of the climactic scenes:

I presume this is part of the soundtrack. The entire recording was available for purchase and can still be found at

Ray Bradbury & religion

I first became interested in this topic upon revisiting the 1979 mini-series The Martian Chronicles, which I found thematically rich, lack of sophisticated special effects notwithstanding. I wrote an essay about it and transcribed a thought-provoking scene:

The Martian Chronicles & Our Subjective Desires (8/2/2001, rev. 5/17/2003, 6/1/2003)

In 2003, I participated in the Ray Bradbury Message Board. (This is the current incarnation of the message board. There are links to an older version I will also include.) Here I am extracting and mildly editing some of my interesting posts on Bradbury's fictional treatment of religion and principles of criticism.

*  *  *

posted 05-15-2003 12:32 AM

I would also want to look at the open-endedness of Bradbury's stories from a less open-ended view, i.e. what makes it objectively possible to draw opposing conclusions from the text? It's interesting that Bradbury shows Peregrine to be selfish and parochial in projecting his own need and thus torturing the Martian. If the Martian really were Jesus, it would be just as bad, because the selfishness would be just the same. It's this aspect of the story that I find brilliant. On the other hand, the priest's basic standing, his mission, and his quest are granted their dignity; only his provincialism and lack of knowledge of other things in the universe are lacking. Hence he comes off looking pretty decent in spite of his limitations.

I find this fascinating and I think revealing of Bradbury. I would not have let the priest off the hook like this, but then I'm a different person. Ultimately this aspect of the story is a bit too pious (and even conservative) for me. It is also guaranteed as much as possible not to offend the religious believer, while the author still remains a freethinker. In other words, Bradbury comes off as a religious liberal rather than an iconoclast against traditional religion. I think this is a shortcoming myself, a lack of critical edge, but what Bradbury does he does beautifully.

posted 05-15-2003 02:23 AM

Now when I say that I would not have been as lenient as Bradbury, that statement is only of value insofar as it allows us to inquire into the logical structure of Bradbury's fictional treatment of religious topics. You have explained fairly well both aspects of RB's treatment of the subject. On the one hand, he evinces skepticism towards limited and partial views which lay claim to more complete knowledge that he evidently thinks exists. On the other, he treats these limited views as components of a larger truth, a puzzle to be better put together if not completed in the future. This is the logic I believe needs to be delved into.

This structure allows a number of things to happen. One, spiritual experience, or the alleged spiritual content of belief systems, can be preserved intact and only closed-minded dogmatism rejected. One could even claim that such openness reflects the real meaning of traditional religious views more so than their dogmatic shells. Two, the specific nature of the partial truths revealed in various religious systems in relation to the yet undetermined whole truth remains indefinite and unspecified. Hence a religious liberalism that can be all things to all people except to die-hard fanatics who terrorize anyone who refuses to genuflect to their religious beliefs--I won't name names.

I find this an interesting logical structure, esp. in comparison to others that might be constructed. True, it's Bradbury's that matter here: not to disavow, not to endorse, but to understand. But one way of understanding is to dig into the assumptions involved. In stories such as "The Fire Balloons" and "The Messiah", RB is might generous to these priests--much more than they deserve, in my opinion, but what matters is the underlying logic of the stories. Are there other RB stories where his implied criticism of conventional religion is much harsher?

posted 05-15-2003 12:39 PM

I agree on the point about the difference between the symbolic indeterminacy of literature vs. the precision demanded by philosophical analysis. Literature embodies within it various models of reality, and we both agree that we can demand precision in our analyses of these models even though we would never demand of the artist an unequivocal advocacy of a particular position. However, by making this demand on ourselves, we can overcome our own inhibitions in getting to the bottom of the object of our scrutiny.

My personal acquaintance with Bradbury's views suffers from several decades of separation from his work. I'm going on memories of books I haven't read since some of you were born, most likely. But my immediate stimulus was an investigation into The Martian Chronicles and related stories, though I have had thoughts about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451, and generally about the boldness in the repressive 1950s of Bradbury's radical critique of American society. I actually never read "The Messiah"--I don't remember reading it--until a few days ago. Same with "The Fire Balloons." Instead, I was going on a vivid impression I did not forget even after two decades of the scene from the miniseries. I've rarely seen such a brilliant expression of a philosophical concept. Indeed, ideas matter more to me than special effects, which is why I find SF movies so insufferable, including the recent dumbed-down version of Solaris.

The priest's confrontation with the Martian Jesus was brilliant. It was all about his need, his projections, and the effects of his subjective needs, i.e. the torture of others. This is a profound observation you never ever see in popular culture. And if this Martian Jesus were the "real" Jesus, the message would be the same: why do you continue to torture me with your need? Because of YOUR need, I am held hostage to this form and am forced to suffer. Brilliant!

So the story stuck with me, as it resonated with my world view, a rare experience for me in watching TV. But it didn't even occur to me until reading these stories and reviewing this thread that the story in its religious liberalism still respects conventional piety much more than it deserves. Not that I would demand Bradbury rewrite his story to unequivocally condemn the priest, but you see it's just this aspect of Bradbury's work that demands further analysis. Because in it there may be some conventional thinking, sentimentalism, or even psychological inhibition (Midwestern?) that may explain how Bradbury handles his material across the board. I never thought about this before, but this consideration opens up new territory, to me at any rate.

posted 05-15-2003 07:51 PM

I cannot pursue a conversation that is predicated on an opposition to critical thought. Hence questions like why can't you just appreciate it as a story and don't worry about what it means, or what's wrong with conventional thought, are conversation-stoppers for me. As for distrust, I distrust people who don't think and who oppose critical thought.

The question of leniency to the priest opens up an avenue of deliberation which several people would like to shut down. "Tolerance" in this case means the destruction of critical thought and the endorsement of repressive institutions that have 2000 years of unspeakable crimes behind them. The question here is not to force ex post facto RB to write the story some of us might have preferred to be written, but to get at the assumptions behind his treatment. In reality, there are several kinds of priests: the sincere kind portrayed in Bradbury's stories, political priests of the right and left, tolerant priests, fanatical, authoritarian priests, child molesting priests, passive and dependent priests who join the church like others join the army so that they will be told what to do, etc. But whichever type you pick to focus on, you ought to consider that person's relationship to an authoritarian, retrograde institution like the Catholic Church. (Not that others don't serserve the same criticism, but this reprobate institution is the one udner consideration now.) In other words, instead of taking people at face value, their underlying assumptions about their place in the world have to be questioned, by me anyway. But feel free to go back to sleep, if you like.

RB happened to pick one or more of the better priests: showing their limitations still leaves them off the hook because of their sincerity and alleged good intentions. I'm not saying that it is a defect of the story that RB didn't treat his priests differently: it's that, by considering a range of possibilities, we can get at the assumptions underlying the story and therefore the "evidence" given us to react to in the various ways that we do. I was quite content to accept "The Messiah" (in its transmuted televised incarnation) as is for over two decades, because what I thought it did it did brilliantly. I still do, but now I ask more questions, after reading through this thread, in which I find the analysis of Mr. Dark to be very useful and everyone else's remarks to be completely useless. The priest is shown to be reacting to his subjective need, which means victimizing the Martian "Jesus." But it might as well be the real Jesus: even the most sincere worshipper is a parasite feeding off the misery of this poor deified Hebrew instead of standing on his own two feet. The way RB dramatizes this insight is a stroke of genius. So this can be a basis of further deliberation: what are the other consequences of such belief systems and the institutions that support them, even in their most benign moments? Does Bradbury enable us to push even further, does he push further himself, does he backtrack? Does his tolerance in the final analysis put the brakes on critique being carried to its ultimate conclusions?

Again, he need not have done more than he did in this one story. But as readers we ought to do more. If we don't, then we remain naive. You of course have this right, but I am not obligated to keep quiet about what I think for fear of offending your delicate sensibilities, which in the final analysis may not be well-intentioned either.

posted 05-16-2003 06:51 PM

We could take this further and ask, why take the priest seriously at all? Just my question. Bradbury shows up his limitations, but not too harshly. [GS--another interlocutor] also makes the crucial point of tying Christian imperialism to real, physical colonization. The Martian Chronicles is inter alia a critique of how the USA treated the territory it conquered after exterminating the Indians. Anyone who knows the basic facts about the acitivies of Christian missionaries knows the criminal role they played in terrorizing the native peoples. And the Indians did not take this crap lying down. Several Indian chiefs, among them Red Jacket, had scathing contempt not only for Christians, but for Christianity itself. In their arguments they showed themselves the equals of any secular humanist, contrary to the popular images of Indians current nowadays guided in every thought and action by spirit visions. The compulsion of irrational belief in unprovable assertions of allegedly earth-shattering import based on unverifable sacred texts written in distant times and places, there is the very essence of imperialism. This issue is conceptually distinct to be sure from a generic conception of the divine or of spirituality, but the claim that a particular religious doctrine is not false but just part of a greater truth is the sort of wishy-wishy tolerance that tolerates nonsense and harmful ideas in lieu of defining the specific relationships between particularistic doctrines and the generic sensibilities to be defended.

[. . . ] What do you think RB's use of the word "God" implies? Is hew just using it as a conventional symbol or does he mean it literally in a recognizable way? And how does it relate to his poetic style in general? Do you take him seriously as a poet, or do you think his poetry is rather conventional, second-rate doggerel?

posted 05-16-2003 11:05 PM

To reiterate the logic of this inquiry: what is the structure of RB's story/stories that enables us to argue for an emphasis on its/their lessons from our own varying points of view? What are the range of possible interpretations that may reasonably be based on the text itself? Also, what are the projections we are likely to make based on our own individual viewpoints? [MD--another interlocutor] presented a convincing case for RB's own views, those implicit in his stories and what is known of his explicit views.

One or more people identified RB as a Unitarian. The question of RB's known personal identification and the views implicit in his fiction are not synonomous though obviously related. They are not identical questions, because the very nature of fiction or poetry as opposed to a philosophical argument or assertion is that it sets up a concrete picture of a reality, which, instead of labelling itself, presents itself to us to interpret as we may, as does life itself. Artists create something concrete, whose implicit structure may even "prove" the opposite of what they consciously intended.

Naturally, facing this scenario, I interpreted it in a way congenial to me. Then I read about two pages of posts on this thread, and I realized I had to think about other aspects of the story which were never issues for me. From reading these posts, I concluded that the lack of sharpness to what the issues really are in life could result in a flabby judgment of the fictional narrative. Again, it's not a question of whether RB should have written a different type of story and prove that he is on one side or the other. Rather, by inquiring sharply into the issues raised by the narrative, and the range of possibilities enabled by its structure, including but not limited to RB's known or probable attitudes, we get define with greater depth the logical structure of suppositions that both the narrative and we make.

I'm pretty sure I'm not succeeding in getting this across, even to a sympathetic reader, nor do I think I would do much better by taking care not to arouse other people's hysteria. It's not an easy point to convey under any circumstances. [GS] has brought out some additional implications of "The Fire Balloons." An essential point of my last point, hysterical reaction notwithstanding, was: what is the relationship implied between generic spiritual concerns and specific doctrines? It's not that RB must conform to anyone else's notion, or that an interpreter should project his own views onto RB's intentions in order to feel more comfortable with the work. It's that, unless we can pose pointed questions that sharply compare our sense of reality to what we read, we are not going to fully understand the conceptual structures at play. In the final analysis we might wish to determine, without diminishing RB's achievement: what is RB capable of saying or showing in his work, and what not? Hence the problem of being wishy-washy, or mental inhibition, self-censorship, the fear of thinking unacceptable thoughts.

posted 05-17-2003 02:05 AM

I am not interested in building community; I see no value in it, especially not in intellectual matters. However, I am interested in exercising the mental discipline not to lose focus or control of the subject matter and to be able to advance a line of argument to the next step. Avoiding stagnation--becoming bogged down--is what I would like to strive for in these discussions. That way, disagreement doesn't have to lead to a dead end, at least not until there's nothing left to be said.

Perhaps the fault is mine, but you missed my point about the Indians. My characterizing them as equal to secular humanists (not secular humanists themselves!) in their reasoning ability to reject the authority of the Bible is the opposite of romanticizing Indians (or am I compelled to say Native Americans?), as people close to the earth, guided by spirit visions, and similar Noble Savage crapola. My intent was to show them as reasoning beings in their better moments just like anyone else. So it's not about idealization or romanticization. As for any missionaries doing any of them any good, that's news to me.

Now back to Peregrine. Yes, I accept your characterization of the story and its characters. Just extend that reasoning further and ask yourself why those priests were even priests at all. If course if they weren't, there would be no story and we would be up the creek, but suppose Peregrine's open-mindedness and capacity for self-examination had led him to even more drastic conclusions about the institution and belief system in which he was enmeshed. There are even further implications to this scenario than those brought out. No, it wouldn't make sense for RB to pursue them to the extreme in this one short story. The story might even lose its plausibility and effectiveness if it were pushed too far. But it is easy to see that one could draw far more drastic conclusions about being part of a church or a religion. (This has happened in history, too, even in theology, for example in Higher Criticism or the curious doctrine of Christian atheism or Death-of-God theology.) I'm suggesting that it is important to see this, not to criticize Bradbury or his story, but to clarify its implications, its emphases, its silences, its ramifications, and to extrapolate to the horizons of its conceptual universe or beyond if necessary.

Something tells me you understand what I'm getting at and something tells me you don't. There are at least two levels involved here--one of that of Bradbury's stories and personal philosophy--and the meta-level of evaluation of religion and perhaps other issues in general. Then there is the interaction between the two. It seems that the issue here is not so much about Bradbury himself, but how our appreciation of Bradbury interacts with our general understanding and what we look for in any situation. My suspicion is that wishy-washy tolerance serves as a brake to conceptual clarity. And BTW, the original historical purport of toleration was to respect people's rights and freedom of conscience, not their beliefs, two entirely separate matters.

posted 05-17-2003 02:52 AM

I don't know how one separates thinking from feeling. I would never trust anyone who did that. One of course communicates with the prospect of an ideal listener who will understand what one is talking about, however slim the likelihood of such an outcome. Brains are only handed out one at a time, though, and thus it is an immense struggle to formulate the notions in one's head and for others to get them into theirs. The key word is struggle. How can there be any friendship in ideas? Thought is by nature ruthless; its very existence is a struggle against inertia; it can't accept being dragged down, slowed down, or held down.

I also have a problem with all fandom--it's like joining a cult or a church. Sometimes people can share things they love in common. But how far does that commonality extend? Why expect it to go very far? That makes no sense.

When I first read through this thread before adding my two cents, I was very offended by both content and manner of expression, especially by certain religious persons whose names I won't mention and with whom I have no intention of conversing. They have no obligations towards me, nor I towards them. But since such people are used to having their way in this society--in fact terrorizing the whole society--I only wish to emphasize that they're not going to get away with it around me. Other than that, they can do their thing and I mine, and hopefully we can stay out of one another's way. There is only one obligation as I see it: to be able to advance some usable idea, and not to go round and round in circles.

Otherwise, I think all the pretence to civility and community just covers up a lot of hypocrisy and the contradictions in the application of one's alleged principles. Why not just take difference as axiomatic? At least that way one can negotiate differences. But you can't go around pretending that people--or nations--are unified when they are not, except by violence, by silencing people who contradict your lies.

posted 05-17-2003 10:59 AM

On Blake [ . . . .] the concepts of outline and of nature are fairly consistently characterized in Blake. Nature is considered as the "indefinite". "Outline" is characterized as the basis of virtue. Nature without man is barren, the lowest plane of existence. All conventional religion: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam--the whole schmeer--along with deism and Lockean empiricism!--is really "natural religion", i.e based on the logic of brutality and domination that governs the empirical natural and social world. I've never seen any interpretation of this particular line, "Nature has no outline, but imagination has." Being literal-minded myself, I have my own interpretation.

FYI, this line comes from Blake's last engraved original work, "The Ghost of Abel"--very brief, only 2 plates--which is a heretical reading of a heretical reading of the Cain & Abel story. The first heretical reading was Byron's "Cain", which caused a major scandal. Blake defends Byron but suggests he did not go far enough. For Blake, the God worshipped by conventional Christians is really Urizen or Satan, the false God of empire, oppression, revenge, and "morality". Byron rebels against this God but is left in the wilderness, forlorn.

There is a whole a symbolic economy to Blake's words and symbols, which reflects and struggles against the ideological landscape of his time.

One might get something out of comparing and contrasting Blake with Bradbury, but I'm not going to touch it at this stage.

Since we are off-topic, just one more thing, as Colombo would say. Is it confirmed that Bradbury is a Unitarian? In the 19th century, the Unitarians were in hot water with the religious fundamentalists. There is also an indefinite association with the Higher Criticism and German philosophy, which was little understood but considered to be the fount of heresy. And then there was Bruno Bauer, dean of the Young Hegelians. Very little of Bauer was translated into English, so we are dependent upon paraphrases and interpretations of his views by others, such as this one:
"But if Christianity was universal and did not know the limits of previous religions, it was at the same time the worst religion: 'Christianity is the religion that promised men most, that is all, and took back most, that is all.' Bauer attempts to explain this ambivalence of Christianity thus: the nearer that religious consciousness approaches to truth, the more it alienates itself therefrom. Why? Because, qua religious, it takes the truth that is only to be attained to in self-consciousness away from self-consciousness and places it against self-consciousness, as though it were something alien to it. What is opposed to self-consciousness as alien is not only formally separate from self-consciousness (in that it stands outside it, is in heaven or comprises the content of some long past or far in the future events), but also this formal separation is backed up by an essential and real separation from all that goes to make up human nature. When religion has reached the point that man makes up its content, then the climax of this opposition has been reached."

I cite this as one way of approaching the issues raised by the ostensibly ecumenical spirit of RB's stories. I agree with [MD...] that the textual analysis of RB's own work is what matters here. But is there a single other person in this discussion whose treatment of the text has been based solely on what the text itself is saying? If it were, I would have entered this discussion in a very different frame of mind. But as I saw an ideology at work throughout this entire discussion, I said to myself: there's an obstruction at work here; what is it?

I think I've gone as far as I can without repeating myself endlessly. As for "community", as this brings us into the overall political situation, I would suggest that you look around you at what kind of society you are living in and what you think your place in it is. 'Nuff said.

posted 05-20-2003 11:40 PM

Do you think that Bradbury's conception of space travel as reaching toward God and finding the latter's finger approaching his is comparable to Arthur C. Clarke's notion, e.g. in 2001? If either one is right, though, wouldn't it depend upon space travel broadening the conceptions of the human race? It has been said that travel broadens the mind, but then again there's the classic American tourist: he stays in fancy hotels and acts as if he is back home.

posted 05-30-2003 02:16 AM

My video set of The Martian Chronicles miniseries finally arrived in the mail two days ago. I'm in the process of watching one of the three parts per night, which is two hours a pop. I've written some running commentary under a different rubric on this discussion board.

It's a good thing I ordered this, because I was correct in supposing that the telecast from which my home-made tape originated was a butchered version. I've watched parts one and two so far. Watching part 2 this time, I got to see the one scene that was cut from my version. In between the scene where David first reappears and disappears and his return to the Lustigs, there is a long segment featuring Frs. Peregrine and Stone. Lo and behold, it is the story of "The Fire Balloons", with only the names changed.

While at first the priests irritated me, as the cinematic depiction of all clergy does, their contrary points of view and Peregrine's strong interest in the Martians caught my interest. When they encounter the three blue spheres after getting lost walking their way back to the settlement, the priests' contrary reactions are noteworthy. Stone thinks they are the devil's work, but Peregrine has a positive attitude. The spheres save the priests' lives from an avalanche, but Stone's opinion does not change. While Stone is asleep, Peregrine tests his theory that they are intelligent, moral beings by jumping off a cliff, whereupon he is rescued by a sphere. Peregrine offers to build a Martian church, but the sphere declines.

I noticed something interesting about Peregrine's expression of faith. For all the talk of sin and meeting Christ, he has a different attitude toward the Martian spheres not from any faith in God but faith in his fellow creatures. This is quite clearly the opposite of Stone, who would rather find the inhuman in the human than the human in the inhuman. Peregrine jumps off the cliff with faith not in God but in the good will of the spheres. Very interesting.