I’ve devoted a lot of attention lately to a writing project focused on Alasdair MacIntyre‘s thought, one I first mentioned in my interview with Skholiast. It began critical of MacIntyre and then turned more sympathetic to him, but has become much bigger than that – because it has become a project articulating my own method for cross-cultural philosophy. The idea started off as a potential blog post (I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”) and then grew to the size of an article, but it may well become multiple articles, a book, or even multiple books. I’ve articulated some elements of this methodological position in previous posts and given my current thoughts in a paper for the Prosblogion’s virtual colloquium, but there’s a lot more to say beyond that.
As I come to engage more deeply with MacIntyre, though, I find myself faced with an important distinction: the methodological MacIntyre is not the substantive MacIntyre. I draw a great deal of inspiration from the former, with some modifications; I am more in agreement with him than not. But in the latter I find a great deal to reject – and to reject, moreover, on methodologically MacIntyrean grounds. Continue reading
In the previous discussion of why intellectualism and voluntarism are important, I left out what I think may be the most important aspect of all, one which leaves its mark on our thought today in the modern West. Namely: whether God is an intellect or a will bears directly on the way we think of morality – at least when we understand morality in terms of law, as the Abrahamic traditions all have to some degree.
If God is a will, then that will makes morality: morality is whatever God’s will commands. Continue reading
Medieval Christian philosophy (or theology), often referred to as “scholasticism”, is often characterized as being about abstract questions with no relevance to anybody outside the scholastics’ own tradition. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often taken as an example of their sort of irrelevant question, though as far as I know no medieval philosopher ever actually asked that question. People who characterize medieval Christian thought this way would likely also need to say the same about medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophy if they knew anything about it (which, typically, they don’t).
You will probably have guessed that I do not share this assessment of medieval thought. True, some of their questions presuppose so much that it is hard to imagine it relevant to those outside their tradition – such as the question of whether angels can occupy the same physical space, which they actually did ask. But every tradition depends on assumptions that others may not necessarily share – certainly including analytic philosophy, where so much ethical reflection depends on taken-for-granted “intuitions”. For these reasons I often refer to analytic philosophy as the scholasticism of the liberal tradition.
Yet analytic philosophy does ask questions that are relevant to those who do not share its assumptions, and the same is true of medieval thought – even on questions that might appear irrelevant at first glance. I note this point with reference to one medieval question in particular: Continue reading
It seems to me that the concepts of ascent and descent allow relatively easily for intermediate positions between them, compromises that attempt at a synthesis. I suspect that in this respect they are different from the related binary of intimacy and integrity. Thomas Kasulis tries to argue that intimacy and integrity are incommensurable – one may experience elements of each at once, but it is difficult to take a moderate position between them, let alone to establish a synthesis. I am not convinced that Kasulis is right about this, but I do think that at least middle grounds on intimacy and integrity are harder to establish than on ascent and descent.
For relatively few seek the pure transcendence of the Yoga Sūtras, abiding in a pure universality outside the changing world. It is an uncompromising and drastic ascent that demands we act and be with a higher universal, leaving the particulars of the world behind us. Jain monks, following a similar path, deliberately renounce dependence to all particulars up to and including food – they often end their lives through sallekhanā or santhara, intentional slow starvation. Continue reading
Last time I discussed the relationship between the concepts of Ascent and of transcendence. I think there’s more to say about the latter. Last time I had noted two forms of transcendence: an Ascent beyond the physical world, and the “transcendence by descent” endorsed by Martha Nussbaum in which one transcends one’s own limits. But I think there’s also a third type found between them, one which I’ve spoken of before in other terms.
A key feature of any kind of transcendence, it seems to me, is dissatisfaction: something appears wrong with that which one is trying to transcend. In Nussbaum’s transcendence-by-descent, one is dissatisfied with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. In an Ascent, one is in some sense dissatisfied with the whole world. But what if one is dissatisfied with the whole world in a way that motivates one not to step outside the world, but to change it? Continue reading
While recently poring over Ken Wilber‘s works, I’ve thought repeatedly about his ideas in relation to Alasdair MacIntyre‘s. Wilber, ever since he identified the pre-trans fallacy, has been an arch-modernist: the world from the Enlightenment onwards has been far better than the traditional world that preceded it. His most recent phase has taken a more postmodern, relativistic turn, but even as a postmodernist he is still a modernist: for Wilber the pluralism of a postmodern worldview is a clear advance, a development, and a pretty unambiguous one.
This is not the worldview one finds in MacIntyre. Continue reading
A decade or so ago, in David Hall‘s graduate class on method and theory in the study of religion, Hall asked the class why the study of religion in recent years had focused so much on particular historical details in individual places rather than larger issues that characterized or crossed traditions. I responded that the competitive job market and publish-or-perish tenure system require that people take an ever narrower focus, in order to carve out a niche for themselves. Hall replied, “Er, well, yes, that’s the cynical explanation.”
And I thought: cynical? Hall made his name studying the material conditions that gave rise to American “religion,” the economics of printing and text production. Much of his career was about the (often wise) materialist advice to explain the popularity of certain ideas by following the money. And yet suddenly, when that same mirror was turned on his own intellectual environment, of the 21st-century North American university – somehow it became “cynical”? Somehow, unlike all those thinkers we study, we have magically managed to escape the pressures of money-making and live in a world of pure ideas? Continue reading
Suppose a trolley is hurtling down a track, on which are placed five innocent people with no chance to escape in time. You are standing beside a switch that will redirect the trolley onto a track where stands one innocent person, who also has no chance to escape. Should you flip the switch, and thereby kill one to save five?
Now suppose there is no track onto which the trolley can be redirected; the five innocents will be in its path no matter what happens. Instead of being beside a switch, you are standing on a bridge over the tracks, beside a very fat man looking down over the action. You can push the man over the bridge, knowing his enormous girth will stop the trolley’s movement before it hits the innocents. Should you push the man, and thereby kill one to save five?
Michael Sandel begins his famous course on Justice with this action scene, and it’s a great way to start such a course. This trolley problem, ingeniously introduced by Judith Jarvis Thomson and the late Philippa Foot, is a wonderful way to shock beginning students out of their ethical complacency. For nearly all people faced with this problem agree they would kill one to save five in the first situation but not the second. After hearing one case they think there’s an easy principle by which to decide the right action; after hearing the second, they are forced to admit that there isn’t. Continue reading
Aristotle, ascent/descent, Asperger's syndrome, Augustine, autobiography, G.W.F. Hegel, Graham Harman, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, nonhuman animals, Oliver Sacks, Plato, Rāmānuja, Raphael, Śaṅkara, Temple Grandin, Thomas Aquinas
I’ve just been reading the popular neurologist Oliver Sacks‘s piece “An Anthropologist on Mars,” from the book of the same name. It’s a short biography of Temple Grandin, a woman whose life was recently made into a movie. Grandin, an animal researcher, has Asperger’s syndrome or “high-functioning autism”; she understands science, and animals, much better than she understands the social interactions of her fellow human beings.
People describing Grandin often reach first for words like “extraordinary,” “fascinating,” “remarkable.” These are not the words that come to my mind. I say this not because I find her accomplishments limited – they are major – but because I find her story very familiar. I don’t know if I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s myself; but I do know that Asperger’s is part of a spectrum, with full-blown autism on one end. At the other end, I think, one finds the behaviour of typical science-fiction geeks and absent-minded professors, in whose company I unquestionably fall.
The central features of Asperger’s syndrome are a difficulty with social cues and a narrowness of interest; one falls far outside the normal realms of human interest and interaction. (My interests are almost opposite Grandin’s, yet this makes me sympathize with her more. Where Grandin has been obsessed with animals since her youth, my mother recalls that I was the only child to be completely uninterested when a bunny rabbit was brought into our classroom.) The subtle interplay and social niceties that come so naturally to most people, must be learned deliberately and consciously, as one learns mathematics – and learning these is often far more difficult than learning math.
There are a number of philosophical implications that the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome might have. In today’s post, I want to focus on its implications for the history of philosophy. Continue reading