Category: Theory (Page 2 of 9)

On the Precipice

by Victor Wallis

Like many others (unless they are in a state of simple denial), I sometimes feel paralyzed by the enormity of the environmental challenge.

How to break through this?

We must begin with the certainties.

First is the science. Not every aspect of it, of course, but the basic contours. The most in-depth, up-to-date, and accessible account is Ian Angus’s 2016 Monthly Review Press book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (see my review at Climate and Capitalism). When you read this book, you will see how in some respects the point of no return has already been reached. But even if full collapse is only a matter of time, many life-and-death choices will still confront us along the way – over what we may hope will be more than a single lifetime.

The second certainty is that we are being systematically lied to by the most powerful interests in this society. It is now known that the big oil companies, by their own research in the 1970s, confirmed what would later become common knowledge about the climate-impact of greenhouse gases, but they then undertook a deliberate campaign of obfuscation which continues to this day (see updates at kochvsclean.com).

The third certainty is an outcome of the second: hundreds of millions of people who should – and could – be waging the battle of and for their lives, are instead propelled by a structured inertia, part “practical” and part ideological, to continue with their daily routines – of heating or cooling, driving, flying, over-indulging in one or another addiction, and acquiescing in wars of domination – as though nothing had changed.

And yet things have changed!

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The Worth of a State: Tribalism versus Individuality

By: Glen Paul Hammond

Man’s commonest weakness, [is] his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side.

This is what Mark Twain saw as the motivation behind much of the evil that human beings perpetrate in the world.  In his essay, The United States of Lyncherdom, Twain sought to understand how good, ordinary people, “the vast majority of whom are right-hearted,” could participate in the hideous act of vigilantism and the unlawful, public lynchings that took place in the United States after the American Civil War (243).  It was not a deep-seated evil that resided in the hearts of individuals, according to Twain, but a herd mentality that made it impossible for any individual to oppose the group.  He called it Moral Cowardice and stated that it was “the commanding feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000… (243).”  Any group spurred on in a fervor of declared moral correctness would be near impossible for any, but the strongest individuals, to oppose. Although the human propensity to belong to a group can and has been utilized for much good in the world, society must also be mindful of the fundamental flaw in the herd mentality.  This article will attempt to outline this flaw and, in so doing, expose the danger it poses to liberal democracy.

Human beings are social animals and one of the consequences of this is the inevitable tension that exists “between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity” (Aronson 13).  Several empirical studies attest that even when there are no explicit constraints against individuality, the human animal’s desire to belong creates, in part, a propensity to conform.  Examining a set of classic experiments in his book The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson explained that subjects were motivated by two important goals: “the goal of being correct and the goal of staying in the good graces of other people by living up to their expectations”(Aronson 20).  Yet, the studies showed that, even when the group was obviously incorrect, a disproportionate amount of individuals went along.  This, in essence, revealed that  an individual’s desire to be part of the group overrides the need to be correct and that, as a means to resolve any inner conflict, many individuals fully adapt to the herd by proceeding to rationalize the group’s ultimate correctness.  In so doing, the individual satisfies both inherent needs, and popular opinion becomes the moral compass under which the individual happily operates. This, however, is the crux of the problem.  Twain’s cautionary stance against the corrupting power of moral correctness is uncomfortably close to much of the apprehension many feel today toward political correctness (PC) and his concept of the herd mentality is dangerously similar to an understanding of what is motivating the current thrust behind identity groups. Thus, the old dialogue of individuality versus tribalism is re-emerging.

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Against Term Limits

Guillaume LeBlanc from New American Perspective takes issue with President Trump’s suggestion of adding Congressional term limits.

In what was certainly a bid to win more good will with the populist right (and perhaps even the populist left), President Trump recently called for term limits on Congress. The reaction was much more subdued than I expected, although it did play out more or less as this sort of thing normally does: with the populists sharing articles about it, complete with complaints about “career politicians”, while only a few skeptics bothered to chime in to oppose it. And when it comes to the issue of term limits for Congress, put me firmly in the opposition camp.

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What Is Truth?: On the Need for an Old Paradigm

By: Richard Oxenberg

I. Introduction: What Is Truth?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate famously responds, “What is truth?”

This question has reverberated through the ages, not least because different religions and different cultures – as Pilate’s question suggests – have presented us with very different versions of what they have called “the truth.” Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and others have fought violent battles to promulgate and defend their particular version of “the truth.”

These bloody ‘truth’ battles played a significant role in motivating the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the hope of the early scientists and their champions to find a reliable and verifiable method of distinguishing true from false, a method based on generally available evidence that would yield truths of universal validity – truths that all informed, intelligent, and rational people would be able to agree upon.

The sciences have been hugely successful in their endeavor. Our ability to predict and control events in our physical environment has advanced immeasurably due to the employment of modern scientific methodologies. There can be no question about this.

What might be questioned, however, is whether the sort of truths the modern sciences provide are the truths we fundamentally seek. Aristotle writes, in his Metaphysics: “The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature.” When Jesus speaks to Pilate of “the truth” he is not, of course, speaking of what we would think of as “scientific” truth, he is speaking of the truth concerning “the supreme good.” Indeed, it might be argued that the very success of the physical sciences has led to an obscured understanding of just what we seek when we seek “the truth.”

My contention in this essay is that we need a paradigm shift in our conception of ’truth’ – one that will return us to the philosophical insight that the highest truths are those concerning “the good.” Let us call this “philosophical truth.” The pursuit of philosophical truth employs different methods and procedures than are offered by the sciences, methods and procedures that must be, by the very nature of what they pursue, less rigorous and reliable than those of the hard sciences. Still, to recognize the importance of pursuing these higher-order truths is, I believe, an imperative of our time. We have increasingly become a culture that – as the saying goes – knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We know, as never before in human history, how to do what we want. Our problem is that we don’t know what to want.

How do we begin to think meaningfully about truths pertaining to “the good”? First we must endeavor to locate the domain of value within our own experience. Let us, then, turn to a consideration of this.

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Faith vs. Reason?

By: Hendrik van der Breggen

For some people, the relationship between faith and reason is like oil and water—they don’t mix. On this view, religious beliefs cannot and should not be subject to rational evaluation.

I disagree with this view.

To defend my disagreement, I will look at some objections to the use of reason when it comes to matters having to do with God, then I will set out some replies.

Objections to the use of reason

Objection 1. At the core of a religious belief system are some fundamental assumptions about the world, and these cannot be tested by reason.

Objection 2. Rational inquiry is open ended: on an ongoing basis we need to consider newly turned up bits of relevant evidence, so a proof is never had, and so a reason-based decision about God must be put off indefinitely—hence reason is of no help.

Objection 3. When it comes to God, we must make a leap of faith. Faith involves risk and commitment, and faith is purely subjective—these are different from reason.

Objection 4. God is “wholly other” (utterly transcendent) and thus beyond the capacity of reason to grasp.

Objection 5. Using reason makes reason one’s God, placing reason above God—and thereby one commits idolatry.

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Cultural Anglicanism: A Pleasing Illusion

By: Glen Paul Hammond

The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.G.K. Chesterton

Sonia Maria Pavel, in her recent article on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, examines the way the 18th century Irish statesman, author, political theorist and philosopher, expressed concern for the dismantling of the old decent draperies of life by what he saw as the “new conquering empire of light and reason” (Pavel). Pavel’s article focuses on two dimensions of Burke’s argument: The first is his historical and anthropological account of both the origin and function of “pleasing illusions” within a culture, and the second is his justification for the intentional revival of those illusions, which he saw as necessary for the establishment of social cohesion. Pavel’s two-dimensional perspective is offered as a lens for the examination of political deception and what Burke saw as the instrumental value in having a politically beneficial fiction. In my view, however, this approach also serves to highlight a part of Burke’s argument that is most necessarily applicable for the maintenance of free societies today, and one that Pavel does not address in her article. Namely, that human beings are religious animals by their constitution and that, in the case of the West, without the Christian religion there would be a void left in the minds of people that would soon be filled by some other more pernicious superstition. Ultimately, this would undermine the existence of Western liberal democracy (Burke 75). Recently, this opinion has even been reasserted by the most unlikely of sources: the intellectual atheist, Richard Dawkins.

According to Pavel, Burke defended the necessity of prejudices, and the conventions that they generate, as a means to produce “a common moral heritage that engendered stability through feeling of familiarity and belonging.” She argues that such pleasing illusions “surrounding power” were “not designed as ways of deceiving people into obeying authority,” but rather evolved alongside a mechanism of mutual obligation that produced a societal system of functional requisites. Through an investment in the requisites of the community, a cultural ethos was produced that was gentler and more liberal than any system could be if the same behaviors were enacted through a set of laws, enforced by an authoritarian agency. Prejudices such as these, which evolved not through calculated planning for any particular end, but rather “emerge and develop historically,” provided individuals with a means to negotiate the world that, in their absence, would leave members of a society “alone and afraid” with nothing but what Burke called their “naked shivering nature” (Pavel).

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Heidegger, Metaphysics, and Wheelbarrows: A Poetic Introduction to Heidegger’s Being and Time

By: Richard Oxenberg

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickensWilliam Carlos Williams

In order to appreciate Heidegger’s thought it is necessary to see it in relation to the Western metaphysical tradition from which it has emerged. This would be true, of course, for any thinker, but it is especially so for Heidegger, because Heidegger’s thinking represents a radical challenge to the tradition itself. Heidegger does to the traditional view of Being and the world what Marx is said to have done to Hegel’s dialectic: he stands it on its head. He stands it on its head – so he might contend – in order that we might finally see it right-side-up.

The problem with the traditional view, from Heidegger’s perspective, is not that it fails to illuminate the most abstract and remote issues, the Alpha and Omega of Being, but that it fails to properly grasp what is most obvious, what is everyday, what is right before our eyes; what is, perhaps, so close that it is uncomfortably close. And in this failure it has institutionalized an interpretation of life that is inauthentic and self-alienated. Perhaps the best way to see this is to examine something that is itself rather simple and everyday, first from the traditional and then from the Heideggarian standpoint.

The poem quoted above will serve this purpose well. It is, apparently, the expression of a simple moment of life; perhaps it is a worried sigh, a moment’s nervous reflection. It might have been uttered at the end of a long day’s work, or in preparation for a new one. It is almost too simple to say anything about. We are finished with it before we have begun. And yet it is precisely here, in the obvious, in the everyday, that Heidegger begins his revolutionary investigations.

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Racist Ideas, Justice, and Freedom: A Review and Reflection on Ibram Kendi’s ‘Stamped from the Beginning’

By: Jeremy Kingston Cynamon

We tend to think that hierarchical institutions like slavery emerge as the result of racist and hateful ideas. Ibram Kendi’s new book Stamped From the Beginning, offers an intriguing and far reaching historical challenge to that narrative. Kendi reverses the causal arrow and argues that rather than racist ideas causing discriminatory practices, racist ideas are more accurately understood as ex post justifications of those practices. In other words, hierarchical institutions emerge first – owing to self-interested economic, political, and social reasons –  and are then justified in theory by clergy, intellectuals, and other elites.[1] Perhaps Kendi’s most surprising claim is that racist ideas penetrate even the minds of liberal reformers, activists, and theorists, who are otherwise considered progressives. Here he cites W.E.B. Du Bois and Barack Obama amongst many others, ultimately suggesting that racist ideas infiltrate nearly every discourse and sphere of social life.

Kendi’s book is, as its subtitle suggests, an incisive and thoroughgoing study of the history of racist ideas in America. But it is more than that; Stamped From the Beginning is also rife with implications for political theory. It has much to say both about the ongoing discussion about distributive justice, and about how we conceptualize freedom. Its central argument, which points to the need to address deep structures of inequality, can be interpreted as particularly troublesome for liberal theories of distributive justice. This same argument also highlights some important limitations of the typical bifurcation of freedom into its positive and negative variants.[2]

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Naked, Shivering Creatures: A Look Behind Burke’s “Pleasing Illusions”

By: Sonia Maria Pavel

“Only man placed values in things to preserve himself – he alone created a meaning for things, a human meaning! That is why he calls himself “human,” that is: the esteemer. […] Only through esteeming is there value: and without esteeming, the nut of existence would be hollow.”[1] – F. Nietzsche

In the Reflections, Edmund Burke expresses his concern with the radical political changes prompted by what were then recent events in France. He sees the “new conquering empire of light and reason” threatening to tear off the old “decent drapery of life.”[2] Contrary to the enlightened reformers leading this empire of light, Burke defends prejudice and the “pleasing illusions” that surround political power. In his view, prejudices ought not to be cast aside simply because they are old or irrational, but rather valued as a common moral heritage that engenders stability through feelings of familiarity and belonging.

In this article, I differentiate between two dimensions of Burke’s argument. The first is a historical and anthropological description of ‘pleasing illusions’ – their manifestations and meanings in pre-revolutionary France. On this front, I take Burke to be arguing that the ‘pleasing illusions’ surrounding power are not designed as ways of deceiving people into obeying authority, but evolve alongside relationships of obedience thereby making them gentler and more liberal.[3] According to him, communities and cultures are not built from scratch in accordance to a rational plan to yield particular results, but emerge and develop historically.

At the same time, on a secondary political level, Burke’s argument is not merely a tribute to this fading cultural reality; it is in itself a rationalist justification of why it should be revived and rehabilitated. Burke argues that life without such prejudice is brutish and crude. Sans prejudice we would be left with nothing but our “naked shivering nature,” alone and afraid. As a result, he reasons that conventions should be maintained through prejudice.[4]

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Femininity and the Emasculation of Western Politics

By: Glen Paul Hammond

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to toe, top-full of direst cruelty!”

With these words from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the playwright provides modern readers with a sense of what the western world’s view of womankind was in the late medieval period. This view backed up a foundational belief that women were ill-suited to the hard demands of leadership outside the home. Shakespeare’s stratified society was a more complicated system than our own; aristocrats were “born to rule,” and women, depending on their placement within that system, were, more or less, expected to turn their talents to the personal sphere of society, allowing men to apply theirs to the professional world that operated outside the home. In Lady Macbeth’s desire to “unsex” herself, the character outlines the way different traits were assigned to the sexes: She wants kindness to be replaced with cruelty, and compassion to be replaced with action.

As these caricatures of sex traits began to be dismantled in the post-feminist world of the 20th century, female leaders were expected to adopt the attributes of male-styled leadership, since these were still considered the defining features of a leader. However, by the end of the 20th century this began to change, so much so that in the early 21st century, the pendulum seems to have swung the other way.

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