Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paul Kurtz and Marxist humanism (5)

Click here for the Preface and Notes on Contributors, and eventually for other content:

Tolerance and Revolution: A Marxist-non-Marxist Humanist Dialogue, edited by Paul Kurtz and Svetozar Stojanović. Beograd: Philosophical Society of Serbia, 1970. 165, [1] pp. Contents, pp. 7-8.

                        TABLE OF CONTENTS

        Preface ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑   5
                      I. PAPERS AND COMMENTARIES
I.  J. P. van Praag Causes of Alienation in Modern
        Technical Society and Their Elimination ‑ ‑ ‑         11
        John Lewis – Commentary on van Praag ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑   25
        Mathilde Niel – Commentary on van Praag ‑ ‑    27
    II. Svetozar Stojanović – Revolutionary Teleology and
        Ethics ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ - - - - -                            29
        Andre Niel – Commentary on Stojanović ‑ ‑ ‑     49
        Staniša Novaković – Commentary on Stojanović - -   51
  III. Paul Kurtz – In Defense of Tolerance ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑        53
        Mathilde Niel – Commentary on Kurtz ‑ ‑ ‑        60
        Pierre Lamarque – Commentary on Kurtz ‑ ‑ ‑   61
  IV. Niculae Bellu and Alex. Tanase  – Perspectives and
       Contradictions in the Contemporary Development of
        Man       ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑                                            65
        Andre Niel – Commentary on Bellu and Tanase ‑ 82
   V. Mihailo Marković – Human Nature and Present Day
       Possibilities of Social Development ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑             85
        Mathilde Niel – Commentary on Marković ‑ ‑ -   102
  VI. Lucien de Coninck – Human Possibilities and Social
       Conditions                      ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ - -        105
        Andre Niel – Commentary on de Coninck ‑ ‑ ‑     112
VII. Andrej J. Hlávek – Power and Responsibility ‑ ‑   115
VIII. Emanuele Rierso – Rights of Individuals and Demands
         of Society ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑                                   123


1. Human Nature and Common Values ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑            131

Robert Tucker                          English section
P. Vranicki                               German section
Andre Niel                                French section

2. Humanism and Radical Change of Social Structures    137

John Lewis       English section
J. Pasman         German section
Alex. Tanase    French section

3. Participation and Bureaucracy ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑ ‑                       145

Robert Stein                             English section
L. Hansel                                 German section
Lj. Tadić                                  French section


Participation, Bureaucracy, and the Limits of Tolerance ‑ - 153

Paul Kurtz
Mihailo Marković
J. P. van Praag
Niculae Bellu


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ethics as Metaphysics & Ideology

“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” – Theodor W. Adorno [1]

Ethics as a philosophical or ideological subject is both social and individual. Its purview is the regulation of individual behavior under an assumed social context. It may also involve a critique of the social context in so far as reality does not live up to ideals. But the ideals are as a rule predicated on existing social reality even when critical of it.

Marx’s & Engels’ dictum that in class society the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class holds here. The virtue ethics of an Aristotle or Confucius presupposes and justifies the repressive institutions of the existing order. Presumably some concepts of use may be extracted from them, but only selectively, shorn of their metaphysical and sociopolitical obfuscations.

In bourgeois society ethics undergoes certain transformations. Kant is a superb example of an individualistic ethics which both criticizes pragmatic social reality and reflects the presuppositions of emerging bourgeois society. Self-submission to an abstract concept of duty, irrespective of circumstance or inclination, the illusion that one can actually live as if others could be regarded as ends and not used as means, as if this were an individual matter, represents the quintessence of bourgeois illusion, of fairness and strict accounting in the marketplace, even as it criticizes the actual by reference to the ideal.

We could go through the various systems of ethics and unearth the tacit assumptions behind each—utilitarianism or any ethical calculus being the most obvious correlate to the quantifying tendencies of the capitalist marketplace and the money economy.

Ethics at this historical stage goes hand in hand with the secularization of society. What about ethics postulated as the basis of a movement or institutionalized philosophy? Here the secularization of religion comes into play.

Consider the Ethical Culture movement initiated by Felix Adler. Adler, raised in the rabbinical tradition, was philosophically a Neo-Kantian and politically a social reformer. If we move ahead to the forging of the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, we see also an inclination towards social reform as well as the secularization of religion: the Unitarian influence in the formation of this humanist movement was considerable. [2] We have here, as in other instances, a transition from theology to philosophy and a liberalization of religion to the point of jettisoning its supernaturalist baggage.

In the ensuing decades we have seen episodic issuings of new manifestoes, publication of books enunciating the principles of humanism & delineating secular ethics, endless regurgitation of the same generalities, with varying specifics in laundry lists of social concerns. [3] The abstract principles of liberal democracy and individual human rights have been laid claims to along a spectrum of political positions, from libertarianism to anti-Stalinist Marxism. [4] To the extent that abstract humanistic principles serve as rallying points to focus attention and forge coalitions in differing social situations, they may be useful, though hardly resulting in a full-fledged sociopolitical world view as is often claimed.

Once one speaks of creating a new ethical system to be formulated and promulgated as a doctrine, especially as general principles have been enunciated time and time again and are already part and parcel of the moral arsenal of liberal democratic values, we see how little advance has been made in the past two centuries to transcend idealistic metaphysics. Whether it is individual ethics or a planetary ethic, what could be more pointless and ineffectual in the absence of a serious social movement that provides a comprehensive social analysis and platform? [5] For all the prating about the scientific method and scientific morality, a secular ethics is pure ideology, a metaphysical massage for the upper middle class intelligentsia and assorted entrepreneurs, a superimposition of a schema of platitudes onto social reality concomitant with a numbing of any serious analysis of class society, and absent serious linkage to reform movements in the manner of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.

Ethics as a new religion or religion-substitute had its time as a stage in the liberalization of religion and the reforming instincts of a “liberal class”, useful up to a point even with its limitations. But what it represents is long obsolete, actually retrograde by comparison with today’s needs and apparently progressive only with respect to right-wing religious revanchism. Religious humanism apes the institutional structures and moralistic sermonizing practices of its supernaturalist forbears. Secular humanism forgoes religious humanism’s obvious mimicking of religiosity (albeit in attenuated, watered-down forms), but preserves the ideological ornamentation of middle-class respectability: “we’re nice people and we have an ethical catechism to prove it.” Such earnest naïveté has lost its charm. [6]

[1] From Minima Moralia (1951). See also Wikipedia entry and Lambert Zuidervaart, Review of Deborah Cook (ed.), Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts. The standard translation by E.F.N. Jephcott is available in hard copy. Another translation can be found online: Minima Moralia, translation by Dennis Redmond (2005).

[2] Edwin H. Wilson,  The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto.

[3] See my bibliography, Secular Humanism—Ideology, Philosophy, Politics, History: Bibliography in Progress.

[4] See for example Tolerance and Revolution: A Marxist-non-Marxist Humanist Dialogue, edited by Paul Kurtz and Svetozar Stojanovic (1970) and Humanist Ethics: Dialogue on Basics, edited by Morris B. Storer (1980).

[5] Paul Kurtz still adheres to a social liberal, social democratic perspective and his condition of manifestoitis is chronic. See Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism and Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values: Personal, Progressive, and Planetary (2010).

[6] The ideological limitations of humanism were criticized by anti-Stalinist Marxists a half century ago and more. I have blogged twice about George Novack (William F. Warde, pseud.), “Socialism and Humanism” (1959) and Paul Mattick, “Humanism and Socialism” (1965), criticizing both. Mattick’s application to this post is more diffuse. Novack never updated his analysis from the 1930s, when Trotskyism and the liberal humanist movement were serious ideological contenders and competitors. Neither Novack nor Mattick seriously address the need for specific secularist campaigns and coalition politics even in their time, a lapse now especially obvious in the absence of the left wing working class movements of yesteryear. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sikivu Hutchinson interviewed by The Secular Buddhist

Episode 66 :: Sikivu Hutchinson :: Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, The Secular Buddhist. 34 minutes.

"Author and educator Sikivu Hutchinson speaks with us about her book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars." Hutchinson reviews her work and her background, including her secular upbringing. Her family was nonreligious and politically radical, but in a community saturated in religion, compounded by a Catholic school education.

Hutchinson strives for balance in the evaluation of black religious institutions from slavery to the present. The adoption of Christianity was a means of claiming personhood in Western civilization under extreme conditions. But the various hierarchies inhering in the Bible are deemed "corrosive and insidious", not to mention the rise of the prosperity gospel. There is also a link between the black religious right and the white religious right, for example, in opposition to abortion. Black Americans are the most religious and most disenfranchised group in the USA.

Hutchinson is concerned with the revisioning of public morality, especially in public education, with a view to the elimination of the various orders of hierarchy, which have their origins in and are reinforced by religion.

The question of racial imbalance in atheist groups is addressed. How can this be remedied? In addition to greater representation of black intellectuals and leaders in prominent positions, Hutchinson sees a need to revise priorities, away from the fixation on evolution and science literacy, to a broader range of concerns that can be found among black atheists. Why is organized religion such a compelling force? If one cannot answer this question in connection with the various forms of social discrimination, then atheism and humanism will have limited appeal to people of color. Hutchinson focuses specifically on the situation of black American women. White atheists have to become educated about these issues. Secular humanism has to be made more palatable to people of color. Consider the social welfare dimension of religious institutions.

Near-term objectives include becoming more organized. Small organizations exist. The first African Americans for Humanism Conference was held last year. Hutchinson has received considerable feedback on her book. Hutchinson was especially compelled by the anti-gay agitation of black churches in California. Black nonbelievers need a safe place to show their faces. Hutchinson's group is Black Skeptics.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Black Freethought @ Atheist Nexus

The last time I reported here on my Black Freethought group at Atheist Nexus was 10 December 2010. I have reported on the progress of other groups since. There's a lot going on; I can't keep up with everything in a timely fashion. Some time between 10 May and now my group's membership passed the 400 mark. The increase from 318 to 408 members in a six-month period is not spectacular, but 90 new members in a cyberspace in which there is much competition for attention, even for black atheists and their fellow travellers, is a respectable showing.

Friday, June 3, 2011

What Newtonianism was

The thinkers of the scientific revolution, including the scientific geniuses who spearheaded it, had one foot in modernity, one foot in the pre-modern past. We would scarcely recognize their conception of scientific argument as it existed then. Case in point, here are a couple of paragraphs I wrote some years ago about Newtonianism in Newton's time.

*    *    *

Written 19 November 2003:

A few days ago I read Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob. I once had quite an interest in Newton, circa 1979, when I was interested in the dynamics of the totality of his thought (which includes alchemy and theology) in the cultural-philosophical-ideological complex of his time. This little book shows how archaic Newton was in his overall perspective—he was no mechanist that we would recognize. Aside from his vitalistic conceptions of matter outside of the realm for which he is famous, his aversion to materialism with the ever-present atheistic tendencies attributed to or associated with it reveal a Newton not fully modern and a society caught in irresolvable ideological contradictions. Newtonianism was ideologically tinged with non-scientific political preoccupations: it could be an apology for order or a call to revolution. Newton was of the party of order and moderation, favoring neither revolution nor absolute monarchy.

*    *    *

Written 17 October 2007, extract from my post on another of my blogs:

For 400 years innovations in the special sciences have yielded master metaphors for organizing an explanation of the entire world and filling in gaps in specific knowledge of all its facets with ideology. From Newtonian physics to Darwinism to relativity to quantum mechanics to information theory to computer science to chaos theory to complexity, the process has never stopped. But in Newton’s time this phenomenon was far worse in that obscurantism per se was not the main issue, but rather the inability to separate scientific theory from metaphysics and theology. (See Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism by Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and Margaret C. Jacob.) We would not even recognize the arguments over Newtonianism as scientific ones today, as both political and theological positions were staked out with respect to it, and it seems that neither its architects nor its popularizers had an adequate epistemological understanding of the basis of scientific abstraction and how it related to the rest of the world-picture. However, there was some place to go, from astronomy to physics, and finally to chemistry, and the Romantic era coincided with the question as to whether physio-chemical processes alone could account for life. Yet an organismic, vitalistic sense of living matter could not jibe with progress in scientific research, and however mysterious life and consciousness still felt with the progress of " mechanistic" science, vitalism could only lead to mysticism, obscurantism, and regression, and there are no more prospects for it today than there were 200 years ago, when lack of knowledge allowed it a respectable existence. Yet Goldner thinks he can finesse the objective problems of scientific research and its incorporation into a general world-picture by spouting nonsense about cosmobiology, an outmoded basis for world-comprehension.
From: Stephen Eric Bronner (3): Bronner vs. Goldner on science & the Enlightenment

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Paul Kurtz and Marxist humanism (4)

This article is only partially available online without a subscription to High Beam Research:

"The Survival of Humankind Is the Basic Humanist Value: An Interview with Svetozar Stojanović" by Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry, Volume 16, Number 3, Summer, 1996.

This interview covers the history of the Praxis School as well as the later disintegration of Yugoslavia and Stojanović's political role during this period.

Presumably there is related material scattered in the archives of Free Inquiry; for example:

"A Serb's View of NATO's Bombs" by Svetozar Stojanovic, Volume 19, Number 3, Summer, 1999