Monday, September 12, 2022

Against ideology



As we watch economies fail and societies move into the more advanced stages of dysfunction and dissolution, there is a lot of political finger-pointing going on. Blame is typically assigned in such a way as not to upset one’s preferred political or economic narratives.

Targeting ideological enemies necessarily entails a labeling process. The terms used are normally vague and abstract but loaded with emotional content – positive for terms designating “us”, strongly negative for terms designating “them”. Though the abstractness of the terms in question may confer a veneer of intellectual seriousness, the communicational dynamic remains purely rhetorical. Meaning is reduced to connotation, the various “isms” and so on merely providing convenient ways of encapsulating ill-defined sets of attachments on the one hand and aversions on the other.

Political ideologies are real is the sense that they affect the way people interpret history and current events and motivate action but, incorporating as they inevitably do political myths and simplifying abstractions, they are quite useless as analytical tools. This is not to say, of course, that terms like fascism, corporatism, socialism, capitalism, etc. – qualified to distinguish different forms where necessary – cannot be a useful shorthand when they are used descriptively and in historically informed ways.

The trouble is, such terms are rarely used like this. More often than not they are used rhetorically: as tribal markers, as weapons of ideological combat.

I do not have a particular ideological position to which I am committed or which I am promoting. This is not for want of trying to discover or build one. After much study and thought, I have come to the conclusion that this desire to choose or construct a preferred ideology is ill-conceived.

It is quite unnecessary to have some kind of explicit social blueprint in mind. Better not to, in fact (for all sorts of reasons, most of them relating to the contingent and context-dependent nature of social and cultural interactions).

Part of my Ph.D. thesis was focused on the revival in the 1930s of the principles of economic liberalism and their development and application during the post-WW2 era. The broad aim of the self-styled “neoliberals” – mainly European thinkers – whose work I was writing about was to offer an alternative to totalitarianisms of the left and the right. This is a goal with which I was (and still am) sympathetic. But, as I say, I have come to believe that no abstract system or ideology is adequate to deal either with questions of ends (which involve crucial moral choices) or means. How is an abstract system supposed to mesh with the complexities of an historically evolved and evolving social structure? The old joke has the Irishman telling the stranger who asked for directions, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It matters – a lot – where you happen to be.

Liberal institutions developed within – and were dependent on for their proper functioning – cultures which had certain common features. A certain kind of culture and a certain level of trust and moral attainment are prerequisites for liberal values and institutions to thrive. Those conditions no longer apply in the societies with which I am most familiar.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Remarks on culture and religion

I want to recapitulate here and expand on some points I made elsewhere in partial response to a piece written by Daniel Kaufman entitled "Remarks on religion".

First of all, I should explain that I am not much interested in talking about religion in religious or strictly philosophical terms. Philosophical discussions about the existence of God, free will, etc. strike me as fundamentally theological in nature even if an atheistic line is being pursued (as it often is). I have the same feeling about much of philosophical ethics. It has its roots in (moral) theology and religious disputation – and it shows!

It is worth noting that many religious people – including intelligent ones – have been hostile to theology and the ready application of philosophical methods to religious questions. Blaise Pascal, for example, distinguished between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (his God) and "the God of the philosophers" (as he scornfully put it). He satirized the casuistry of the Jesuits of his day and the trivialization of morality and the hypocrisy which it entailed.

I am sympathetic to Pascal's point of view but, since I am not religious, my rejection of theology is based on different grounds from his and is more thoroughgoing. I simply do not see theology as a serious or viable area of study.

In earlier times, of course, theology (or divinity) was widely seen as a high-status discipline: the queen of the sciences, no less. And, in the Christian West, philosophy derived its scholarly status from theology of which it was seen to be an integral part, as well as from ancient Greek and Roman thinkers many of whose ideas had been incorporated into medieval and Renaissance thought. Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics were especially influential.

Two broad areas which developed within this theological matrix did become viable secular fields of study: natural philosophy (or what we now generally call science); and logic. Mathematics had regressed in Roman and medieval times and only began to flourish again in the 17th century with the rise of modern science.

I realize all this is broad-brush and oversimplified but it should help explain my general attitude to philosophy and religion and, with respect to the latter, my tendency to focus on the historical, cultural and psychological side of things.

Dan had contrasted the evangelical and Pentecostal Christians of the Bible Belt with two Jewish Hasidic sects:

"When I first moved to the Bible Belt, I was surprised by the level of confidence people had in their particular brand of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity (some of them brands I’d never even heard of until that point) and used to think that the best thing for them would be to live in a Lubavitch or Satmar community for a few weeks, where it would become quickly evident that there were people far more religiously committed and more rigorous in their religious lifestyles than they are."

Unlike these Jewish groups, evangelicals and Pentecostals profess and proclaim (in Kaufman’s words) their own “extraordinary and intense religious faith” whilst behaving in other respects “pretty much like everyone else.”

The main criticism here is being directed at a particular group of Christians and I can't really comment on its appropriateness. I do have the sense, however, that the tenor of these passages may betray a lack awareness of the standard Christian view of what religious commitment is at its core and what it entails. Whatever it is, it is decidedly not about outward forms and observances; and it is not in the least competitive. The very notion of "religious lifestyle" is alien to the standard Christian view as I understand it.

I have no direct knowledge of "Bible Belt" Christians, nor of the Jewish groups mentioned. Regarding the latter, Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar are rival, Brooklyn-based Hasidic sects originating in Russia and Hungary respectively. They differ, amongst other things, in terms of their attitudes to outreach and proselytizing within the wider Jewish community [Chabad is active in such activity but Satmar is not]; and in terms of their attitudes to Zionism and the state of Israel [Satmar remains staunchly anti-Zionist].

Dan talks about the “self-deception” or “psychic indolence” involved in seeing ancient religious texts as embodying eternal truths “about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it” rather than in more realistic terms. He characterizes sacred texts as “fascinating and often lurid elements from the eclectic, messy, often ugly history of human development.” Fair comment.

I would have thought that one way US evangelical Christians differ from, say, Jewish ultra-Orthodox or extremist Islamic groups, is in their relative openness to the modern world, to ordinary life.

Mixing faith-based and modern views necessarily involves inconsistencies. But compartmentalization of one kind or another is a universal feature of our brains. Some of the greatest scientists bracketed out their religious beliefs in rather crude ways or aligned themselves with extreme and anti-rational ideologies or political movements. Though most of us manage to avoid such extremes, the logical aspect of our thinking is always in an awkward or ambiguous relationship with more emotional aspects of thought – including those that relate to existential anxieties, to attachments and aversions, to religion, politics, self-image and identity.

The final issue I raised was that of cultural and religious identity. In the course of his discussion, Dan explicitly acknowledged his Jewish lineage as well as the essentially secular Jewish culture in which he was raised. For his parents – and for himself, apparently – ancestral religious practices continued to be meaningful in the absence of belief.

For me there is a tension here, a potential problem. I realize that Judaism is not creed-based or doctrinal in the way many Christian groupings are, but beliefs are still important. It seems to me that if a member of a religious (or even a political) group stops believing the central doctrines of the group, he or she ceases to be, in a real and fundamental sense, a part of that group, even if there is little change in outward behaviour. What was deeply motivated is now merely "going through the motions." This phrase says it all.

I see that people brought up within a particular religious group or sect or denomination will continue to share a common cultural background but if they have left the sect or ceased believing its fundamental tenets their sense of themselves – and of their relationship to the group – changes. Their sense of identification with the group is necessarily reduced and qualified. This is why defining Jewishness largely in terms of the religious tradition (in terms, that is, of Judaism) is obviously a problem for non-religious Jews. When scriptures lose their special status and come to be seen solely in historical or literary terms, when prayers and rituals are no longer expressions of religious experience but mere nostalgic forms or reassuring customs, they gradually but inexorably lose their power to command attention and motivate religious practice. They become museum pieces. They die.

Religious Jews, of course, are committed to maintaining not just the rituals and practices but also the beliefs that shaped and motivated these practices. So the tension I speak of here does not apply to them. (The problems of inconsistency and compartmentalization alluded to above may apply, however.)

My preference is to see group affiliations in personal and individual terms, simply in terms of sets of shared and overlapping cultural elements and personal values. And, to the extent that Jewishness is seen in this way (i.e. as an evolving element within various disparate cultures rather than in terms of direct links with an ancient, Hebrew-speaking population and the religious practices and beliefs of that population), existential questions about cultural survival simply will not arise.


Sunday, July 24, 2022

The decline of literacy

I find myself frequently having to modify and simplify my language to avoid misunderstandings. This is partly because of traditional divergences between British and American usage and the inevitable compromises that come with globalized and inter-cultural communication. But it goes further than this and relates, I think, to declines in levels of literacy. Levels of literacy impact not only on written but also on spoken forms of language. General literacy allows for larger lexicons and more complex syntactic forms.

Another factor is that, as the status and role of literary models have diminished, foundations for normative grammar have been eroded. In the past, languages and dialects without a (written) literature were widely perceived as inferior to languages with an established literature. Such a view is mistaken. But it was widely held. Writers were seen not only as adding value to the culture and the language but as culture-creators and nation-builders.

As I say, such beliefs are problematic, but texts did provide semantic and syntactic stability. The existence of a canon of literary texts implicitly promoted a standard form of the language as well as providing cultural reference points.

What’s more, a standard education typically incorporated elements of historical linguistics and/or classical languages. This meant that most educated speakers had a relatively sophisticated grasp of the nature and dynamics of language which in turn affected how language was used in day-to-day life.

One aspect of this which is not often discussed relates to etymology and subtleties of meaning. Knowledge of the original meaning of a word-stem affects the way a word is used and understood, even if the meaning has changed significantly over time. These sorts of subtle, etymology-based connotation no longer apply for most listeners or readers, with the result that certain fine distinctions of meaning become impossible to convey.

We currently have a cultural elite which is ostensibly committed to anti-elitism, a situation which militates against standard (prestige) forms of language being supported or promoted. Political and cultural fashions will inevitably change but the sorts of literary-oriented values which were embedded until recent times in Western and some Eastern cultures are probably lost forever. Technological factors (especially the digitization of information and communication) will no doubt continue to drive changes in the longer term, and these changes – especially the replacement of reading for pleasure with other easily-accessible forms of entertainment – mean that the high levels of literacy and linguistic knowledge which characterized the professional and middle classes until the later 20th century will not return any time soon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Dreams, perceptions and delusions

I have never considered dreams – my own or anyone else’s – worth recording or trying to analyze in any serious way, but I have always maintained an interest in the various manifestations of consciousness and the functioning – and malfunctioning – of the brain. Doing some sorting recently, I came across some scribbled notes which I made a while ago and which got me thinking again about dreams, perceptions and peculiar waking experiences.

Dreams have a special fascination, of course. Operating outside the normal imperatives of waking life, the brain takes on a (sometimes disturbing) life of its own.

Various kinds of waking experience also give us insights into the workings of our brains. Especially under stressful conditions, unexpected things happen: hallucinations, visions, so-called mystical experiences, devastating waves of fear or dread, unexplained convictions.

With respect to peculiar waking experiences, my own have been (mercifully) few and far between. One such experience was utterly terrifying and occurred in early adolescence. No drugs were involved. I may write about it another time.

A far less harrowing episode occurred a couple of years earlier. It involved a failure of visual processing. Three spatial dimensions collapsed into two. The scene before me decomposed and I could no longer distinguish form, just colour, a kaleidoscope of colour. Quite beautiful actually. Even (in the context) strangely liberating. Again, no drugs were involved.

As a child, I did not know much about the brain, but this experience gave me a sense of the precariousness and the general nature of the visual system. There were obviously all sorts of complex mechanisms in play, and this brief failure of the system had allowed me to look behind the curtain, as it were, to get a glimpse of the not exactly raw but non-integrated data that lay behind the finished product which the visual system normally presents us with. What was normally integrated had, for a time, disintegrated, revealing not only the precariousness of the system but something of its distributed, layered and constructive nature.

Dreams and delusions involve not only visual processing but also a more central feature of the brain, its narrative-generating function. In dreams, the narrative-generating function is given free rein, being largely detached from sensory input and the constraints and imperatives, both physical and logical, that moving around in the real world necessarily entail. In this respect dreams have parallels with hallucinations (where sensory input is overridden or is processed in anomalous ways) as well as with other kinds of delusion.

The stories we tell ourselves in our waking hours to orientate ourselves within the social world derive largely from stored information but real-time sensory input is also important. As we all know, there is a tendency for these stories to become detached from physical and social realities. Such tendencies are exacerbated by processing failures in individual brains, brought on by stress, disease, aging, etc..

Take the following example. Late one night my mother was in hospital recovering from major surgery. I got a call from the hospital asking me to come in because she was upset and they thought I might be able to calm her down. It turned out she was sleep-deprived and showing signs of paranoia. She was convinced that the nursing staff were not humans. They were aliens from another planet. But, being a very level-headed and intelligent woman, she was also aware of the silliness of this conviction and in fact embarrassed about it. So it wasn’t too hard for me to reassure her.

Capgras syndrome involves integration failures in respect of the various brain processes associated with the recognition of and responses to known individuals. The sufferer will recognize the face and body in question but, because the usual emotional responses associated with this recognition do not kick in, he or she will have a strong sense that this is not really the person normally associated with that body. In this manner, loved ones may be perceived (for brief or extended periods of time) as hostile intruders. I have had the experience of having to deal with transient episodes of this syndrome in aged relatives. It’s quite common, I believe.

As I indicated above, what got me thinking again about these topics was coming across some scribbled notes from the past. One document related to a dream which my mother had – and told me about – twelve years ago. I quote verbatim from my notes…

Last night’s dream involved the disruption of a church service. In the dream she was a school-aged child, though an adult friend whom she had not known in childhood appeared in the dream and spoke to her. The church in question was specified by name. It was not one she had known as a child but was the church she was married in.

In the dream she sought out and gathered together the noisiest things she could find: tin cans and “a strange kind of metallic vessel” – she wasn’t sure what it was but she was “pretty sure it would make a noise.”

“I tied all these things together and crept up towards the altar where the priest was moving to and fro. The array of objects made a very disruptive noise and the priest swung around and here’s this girl shaking [the objects] madly to make as much noise as possible. There was nothing anyone could do, it was such a surprise. I wanted to irritate him, to stop him doing all the things I hated, worshipping this God who wasn’t there.”

“I walked out [of the church via] the side aisle. People looked the other way. They would see what I was doing as wrong and I knew I was doing wrong – but I had to do it, to try and stop them. I threw the noise-making contraption onto the ground outside the church…”

I am not saying that this dream has any great significance but it is amusing in its way. It also bears witness, I think, to longstanding frustrations and to an independent spirit adamantly opposed to (what was perceived as) obfuscation and mystification.


[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.]

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Distorting history

Bharath Vallabha used to be a regular contributor to The Electric Agora. He returned recently with a piece about how, in his view, some of the central and most polarizing debates of post-World War 2 academic philosophy were the product of a misreading of intellectual history. Both Gilbert Ryle and Richard Rorty were extremely influential and both gave a false picture of Descartes' thought and the Cartesian tradition more generally.

Here is Bharath on Rorty and Ryle and how his own views have changed:

[Rorty] went from being a Princeton philosophy professor and president of the APA to basically decamping to literature departments. He was right about problems with the direction of analytic philosophy, but it was a mistake to connect that criticism to Descartes et al.. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is no more a careful study of Descartes than Ryle’s Concept of Mind was... I think Rorty was reading a lot of what was wrong with analytic philosophy back into early modern philosophers. This kind of reading back led to Rorty being polarizing, because he was lumping together 300 years of thinkers in a way that divorced them from their historical context.

To be honest this is a new thought for me. For longest time I was on the side of Rorty and Ryle against early modern philosophy of mind and as it carried over into analytic philosophy... Rorty’s book says more about Rorty’s struggle with professional philosophy than it does about Descartes and Kant. It seems strange to me now that there is some special conception of mind common to Descartes to Nagel even given the vast differences in context of what being a philosopher is between them. My thought is if we let go of this kind of generalizing over centuries to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys, would be easier to listen to each other – in ways for example Rorty and his Princeton colleagues couldn’t do. And in ways current traditionalists and social justice warriors now can’t, because both are wedded to historical generalizations.

On binary thinking:

Resentationalism versus Pragmatism, and fitting historical figures into those categories, forces a binary choice at every turn, in the present and in the reading of the past. There is then no way to rethink the terms of the debate. However, if one sees historical figures with new eyes and with greater openness to historical context, new, more productive conversations are possible.

I agree with this entirely. Like Bharath, I favour more historically-oriented approaches. And I too have only recently come to realize the extent to which Ryle was misrepresenting Descartes. Rorty distorted history also. He was worse than Ryle, in my opinion, because he let politics intrude into his professional work, and also because of his anti-science bias.

Despite his criticisms, Bharath made it clear that he values the writings of Rorty and Ryle (if not the work of their followers). I am less positive. Though I give credit to both Ryle and Rorty for their stylistic power and the thought-provoking nature of their best work, my reservations outweigh my sympathies.

I share Ryle's secular outlook and his commitment to an apolitical approach to academic work. But, in my opinion, any attempt to carve out a sacrosanct space, distinct from the sciences, for an academic philosophy of mind is fatally flawed.

In terms of general outlook, however, I am definitely further away from Rorty than I am from Ryle. I am close to the former on one matter only, as far as I can tell. I am sympathetic to his disillusionment with and drift away from academic philosophy.

Rorty's roots were in literature (his father was a poet) and I understand that he took comfort in his final illness reading the likes of Swinburne rather than philosophical works. (Martin Heidegger – another master of historical distortion – followed a similar trajectory.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

More on culture and language

I recently set out some of my basic beliefs and assumptions about what there is and about what makes a person.

"Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being..."

And, in a recent podcast, I talked about Gottlob Frege's beliefs and assumptions about life and language, views which I endorse to a large extent. Frege saw human thought and language in fundamentally organic and holistic terms.

 


I am adding here a few general thoughts on culture and language. My sense is that these various fragments are compatible with one another and form (potentially at least) a more-or-less coherent whole.

Language is probably the most basic cultural element for two reasons: it bridges biology and culture in ways that other cultural elements do not; and it is the foundation or at least a sine qua non for the development of many other cultural forms and practices, from religion and politics to mathematics.

Culture is undoubtedly real but a culture is impossible to define in a precise way. The same applies to language and languages. Just as each of us deploys a unique linguistic system (idiolect) which is different in various ways – scope and details of lexicon, aspects of syntax, pronunciation, etc. – from the linguistic systems deployed by others within our language group, so each of us embodies a unique cultural mix.

This idea obviously relates to the idea of individualism and, I think, justifies taking individualism seriously as a potential way of dealing with social problems related to various kinds of identity politics and stereotyping.

Degrees of overlap vary between individuals but, because cultural elements are so diverse, there is no single measure of commonality. Some cultural elements are easily isolated and compared but most are not.

Take language. Though the idiolect notion is (in my opinion) central to any truly scientific approach to language, for practical purposes it is useful – necessary in fact – to distinguish between languages or dialects. This inevitably involves abstraction and simplification – but then so does most of our ordinary, day-to-day thinking.

Religion is another fairly clearly identifiable cultural element, at least in the sense that the churches and sects and religious movements of the modern world can be defined and demarcated in both social and doctrinal terms. Complications arise, however, when you start to look at how participating individuals envisage and justify their participation. Congregations may be gathered together physically, but each individual will have a unique perspective on what they are doing and why.

I am conceding that identifying and drawing cultural distinctions within certain defined areas is not only possible but inevitable and necessary. But defining and drawing these distinctions is difficult to do in a rigorous way. And, if one is talking about a culture in a general sense, that task becomes well-nigh impossible.

The notion of a national culture is particularly problematic. Where there can be said to be such a thing, it is of necessity imposed and artificial – in contrast to regional cultures, for example, which are shaped over long periods of time by local conditions and practices.

Generally, it makes more sense to talk of national myths and ideologies rather than national cultures, I think. Perhaps if one is looking at a fully-fledged totalitarian state in which the natural course of cultural history has been totally blocked or perverted by a central authority, leaving the population with no other culture than that which has been imposed upon them by their ideologically-driven overlords, you could talk about a national culture. But, even in such cases, pockets of resistance will inevitably arise, complicating the picture.

Ideology and political myth, I am saying, need to be distinguished from (and are always in tension with) the more spontaneous and organic forms of thought and action which derive from the activities of small groups, families and individuals pursuing their personal goals.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Individualism and cultural embeddedness

I talk here about my general goal in this series of podcasts of presenting and defending a form of individualism which takes seriously our cultural embeddedness, noting that universal political prescriptions – to the extent that they can be applied at all – are rarely successful. Reference is made to the surprising origins of neo-liberalism in Europe in the 1930s. The European neo-liberals were keen to distance themselves from earlier, laissez-faire approaches to economics and emphasized the importance of cultural factors.

Tags: neo-liberalism, laissez-faire, Chicago School, Milton Friedman, Louis Rougier, Wilhelm Röpke, groupthink, cultural embeddedness, language, Karl Vossler, close reading, science, Gottlob Frege.