A Philosophy Revisited

I have been in a reflective mood today, thinking about my previous post on a personal moral philosophy, and I admit that I have allowed this to slip away in the busyness of life and laziness of will. I’d like to try and take some time this Summer to rediscover this and cultivate it in my behavior. I would like to have some time for reflection, so I need to find a way to carve this out of my day. It honestly shouldn’t be too difficult, but it means the sacrifice of some of my more petty forms of entertainment. Again, a laziness of the will is my main impediment.

I’ve been thinking about it, and it seems to me that of the Hellenistic philosophies, Epicureanism best reflects my own inclinations and thoughts, although I still find the four qualities outlined in my previous post to be sort of the means to my Epicurean ends. I think this can best be summed up with the following aphorism, “Seek a happiness that allows others to be happy.”

A new category: Religion

I have been considering this for some time now, especially since I am growing further apart from my religious past, that I wanted to sort out my explicitly religious posts from my other philosophical entries.

Well, I have done it, so if anyone is interested, here are my religious entries and here are my more philosophical entries. As you can tell, I have not stopped posting about religious topics, but it has been more of an outsider perspective now, as well as how to deal with religious social issues from an atheists perspective. I have no idea if anyone will even be interested in this category, but at least if you weren’t interested in it, it has been safely secluded from my other philosophical posts, in case you were interested in those (ha ha).

The First Step in the Line of Despair: Philosophy

Schaeffer begins this chapter with a brief discussion of Hegel, whom he sees as being the gateway to the new modern perspective on truth and morals. He points to Hegel’s conception of truth as synthesis as being the point of departure from the objective epistemology rooted in causality. However, while describing Hegel as the door, it is to Kierkegaard that Schaeffer designates the title of “first modern man”. For it is Kierkegaard’s rejection of reason as an instrument for arriving at synthesis, and his adoption of the non-rational “leap of faith” that makes him the father of existentialism (and other “anti-philosophies, as Schaeffer calls them), both secular and religious.

Schaeffer then attempts a rapid fire description of the varieties of modern philosophical thought, both Continental and Analytic, and finds a common thread that runs through them all, that being their grounding in the non-rational and the failure to propose a unified rationalistic explanation for the human experience. Schaeffer also notes that these attributes are shared with non-European philosophies as well, and concludes that Eastern mystical philosophy is equally grounded in non-rational and incommunicable experience. Having run the gamut of major modern philosophical strains, Schaeffer has at last arrived at what he sees as the only consistent position, that of Christianity, which he sees as able to supply the critical element he finds missing in other perspectives, a unified and rational explanation in which to ground our experience, namely in the propositional truths of the Christian bible, from which we can then confidently assert an objective external world as well as the realness of our experiences in that world.

I confess to having significantly more difficulty making my way through this chapter than the previous one. I suspect the reason for this is that it was easier to allow Schaeffer’s states to pass when he persisted in generalities, but that as he became more specific in his arguments in this chapter, the heightened clarity brought out the controversial nature of his narrative as well. First, it seems almost inconceivable to me that he would start his discussion of the philosophical shift with Hegel and the departure from causality when it is so glaringly obvious that the critical shift in thought regarding cause and effect began, not with Hegel, but rather Hume, and just how important Kant’s response to this challenge was in shaping modern philosophy. Which isn’t to deny significance to Hegel, but he is clearly not the starting point in this discussion. Schaeffer does refer his reader to another of his works, Escape from Reason, for a more detailed exposition on the matter, but it still seems to me to be a significant oversight to not have introduced the reader to the important influence these men had on Hegel and the reasons that motivated him to pursue this new line of thought.

Second, his criticisms of Kierkegaard, and specifically Kierkegaard’s use of the Abrahamic account to illustrate the leap of faith as an epistemological foundation, seem to me to demonstrate a certain degree of naivety, both in his estimation of Kierkegaard’s knowledge of the biblical text, as well as the literary nature of the text in question. It should not be simply granted that what we are reading in the Abrahamic account is in any way objectively factual, as though we have before us the unfiltered notes of an objective historian observing the events in the life of a certain nomadic pastoralist. Again, his view obstructed by this literalist reading, Schaeffer fails to notice, or comprehend, the more sophisticated and contextually human interpretation that Kierkegaard brings to the passage. Far more than Schaeffer, it is Kierkegaard that seems capable of empathetically placing himself in the position of the literary figure of Abraham.

Next, while I do not feel qualified to critique his description of the various philosophical schools, his ability to link them all together within the confines of his historical and philosophical narrative seems stretched to the point of breaking at times. This including his attempts at linking together the foundations of Continental and Analytic philosophy, as well as the overly broad and simplistic representation of non-European thought. He finds it necessary at both of these junctions to shift the narrative so as to achieve the inclusion of these entries within the same vein as existentialism (which is clearly his primary target of criticism).

Additionally, the reader is constantly confronted with what can only be described as the continued blindness to Schaeffer’s own philosophical context. Not only thoroughly Eurocentric in its perspective, it can be accurately described as being narrowly bound within the confines of that strain of Protestantism known as Reformed. Schaeffer seems incapable of realizing that his incessant drive toward a unified system of rationality has much more to do with the attitudes of the age of rationalism and scientific revolution that emerged from the Renaissance than it does with historical Christianity (a quick read of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum is sufficient to demonstrate the mindset of the period). One can easily observe precisely the same sorts of experientalist perspectives prominently displayed in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as more modern Christian traditions, like Methodism and Pentecostalism. There is, in fact, nothing particularly Christian about his philosophical position of insistent rationality, although it seems certain that Schaeffer is more than willing to deny the Christian nature of his fellow religionists in so far as they diverge from his own beliefs.

Finally, Schaeffer has yet to successfully withdraw his own philosophical position from the net of his own objections, since anyone reading his criticisms will naturally want to ask him how is it he has rationally arrived at the bible as his philosophical foundation. It seems to me that arguing that it holds a position of an unquestionable criterion by which all else is judged is no different than the role experience plays for the existentialist, and fails to move the discussion forward. Schaeffer appears to be intent on convincing his reader that his criterion works where others do not. It is not clear to me, however, that his opponents have failed as utterly in this task as he portray them, nor that his own position is as thoroughly successful as he wishes it to be. Regardless, from the philosophical ground that Schaeffer has sought to stake out, I would think the entire endeavor hinges upon whether one believes we can confidently know that there is in fact a god as Christianity proposes. In the absence of this reality, his position is not significantly different from what he attributes to Julian Huxley, a position he describes as being unreasonably based upon a lie. It will be necessary for Schaeffer to overcome this obstacle if he is to advance his own position in a consistent and unhypocritical fashion. Until then, his offer is the equivalent of trading contents of an unopened box for something else of value, with only the promise of its holder that it is of equal or greater value and the condition that the deal be void should the box be opened before the transaction is complete. It is a tall order to demand this of even those who are inclined to believe you, nevermind the more skeptically inclined.

The next essay

Without even having received the first essay back, I feel compelled to already begin considering the next one. The three topics have been given as the basis for the next essay:

  • Discuss and critique Leibniz’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s views on the relationship between the mind and the body.
  • Discuss and critique Leibniz’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s views on the nature of perception.
  • Discuss and critique Locke’s, Berkeley’s, and Hume’s views on the nature of language.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, as I find all of the philosopher’s mentioned interesting, and the subject matter also compelling. One thing that I do need to look into is how well developed the various topics were with during this period. It wouldn’t do to discuss a matter that remained rather immature and underdeveloped by the thinkers in question. This is why I may be leaning away from language, since I don’t believe the subject was really considered all that carefully until after the period being studied in this course. As far as I can tell, the Augustinian view of language continued to be the predominant and largely unquestioned explanation. This would make for a rather uninteresting paper to try and analyze how the same basic and unsophisticated position was held by the three philosophers in question.

But we’ll have to see. I need to do a little more reading into their works before I can make that decision.

Fall Semester

Well, I should have started the Fall semester on Monday, but was negligent, and so I’ll be going to my first class of the semester tomorrow. I’m just taking Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy and Classical Greek. So, those of you who read this blog will now be mercilessly subjected to Greek and Medieval philosophy. I apologize in advance.

This also means that a new sub-category will appear under Languages to hold whatever Greek I happen to be spouting. At least I hope to be spouting Greek, as that would be the ideal outcome of my time spent this semester. Good luck to me.

The path

Is there a path that does not result in losers? That does not create the killed and be killed, the oppressed and the oppressor? It seems that every attempt at compensating for some inequality only creates a new inequality. We wrestle with the competing desires of the individual and the collective, both within ourselves and in the society at large. We are individual creatures, and yet our strategy for success is heavily dependent on being able to manage in a collective. But the individual is never banished, only restrained, and only so long as it is convinced that its interests lie with the collective. As soon as these two diverge, we choose the path of the individual.

But the path of the individual is all about creating winners and losers, for the individual strives for ascendancy over the other, to place itself in a position of power and press others into subservience. It is in response to this that we have assigned various attributes a position of primacy in society, to protect us against this drive of the individual that would risk the welfare of the collective for personal gain. Love, justice, loyalty, fidelity, honesty, courage. There are many more besides these, but the common thread between them all is the call for the individual to subject. But too often these virtues are used as tools to keep the masses in line while those in positions of power take advantage of this selflessness for their own purposes and gain. Is there anything that can be done about this?

I have my doubts, for only the powerful can displace the powerful, and the willingness to use this power is itself indicative of an inclination to take what is before you and use it to your own ends. Thus, you change the face of abuse, but not the system, which seems endemic to the human condition. The way forward is thus obscured by the limitations of human nature, both for the individual and the community.

This is something I have been struggling with, and I have found myself withdrawing further from political discussion as the lines between right and wrong and increasingly blurred. Blurred, not because something in the world is changing, I suspect this is how the world has always been, but rather because I feel I have pressed in far enough to become dissatisfied with the various socio-political narratives that are bandied about. There is no story that does not result in someone losing, and I wonder and the justice of this. No one is purely evil. No one is purely good. What harm do we cause with our good intentions? It is not so easy to see the implications of our actions, especially as it expands outward in a growing circle of effects that touch real peoples lives.

So, what is the way forward? What is the path that does not result in losers? It must be one of selflessness, one that seeks to do no harm, one that is burdened with the needs and weaknesses of others and equipped with an invincible hope that defies the reality of experience. Strive always to do good, to love, and to hope. And Paul was correct when he said that love is patient. It must be if it is to succeed, for humans do not change overnight, and neither does society. And this vision must keep the individual firmly in its sights, even as it seeks to improve the individual through affecting the society. No one can claim to love humanity but fails to love the humans that compose it. Such a love is emptiness and a lie, a sort of self-love that seeks its own gratification through entertaining lofty ideas of itself.

But humans are not easy to love. Unlike the idea of humanity, they require uncomfortable sacrifices, without the promise of glory or praise. But that is the path, the way that does not lead to choosing who loses. Or rather, it chooses itself as the loser, but by taking this upon itself, it is able to transform it into victory, since by taking on the burden of self-loss, it overcomes the limitations of the human condition and achieves its victory and establishes its goals. I think the real question is to develop a sense of how to apply this principle to various situations. The only way that I can think of is to practice it in the situations where application is clear and to build from there. I wonder if I am capable of doing this.

God chose the foolish things of the world

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

~ 1 Corinthians 1:26,27

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:18

We were discussing 1 Corinthians this Sunday in the bible study I regularly attend at my church. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but there does seem to be a definite theme, at least early on, of wisdom and foolishness in respect to both God and the world. Paul actually seems to spend a significant portion of the first three chapters discussing wisdom and foolishness in relation to God, and especially the Gospel.

I’ve been thinking about what it is that Paul means about the talk about the foolish and wisdom. At first, I thought it might be something sort of radical, like Tertullian’s fideistic phrase, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”, a sort of rejection of worldly wisdom altogether. I don’t think it is quite that radical, however, after having looked over what Paul has to say.

Instead, I think it is rather more like the quandary that Jesus presented us in his teaching that we cannot serve two masters. It is a question of standards and measures. How are we measuring our life, our reputation, and our goals. Is it by earthly standards and do we seek acclaim according to the measure of this world? Or are we looking to Christ, and to the standards that God has laid out in the Gospel. For the Gospel doesn’t operate in the same way that philosophy does. It doesn’t rely on arguments or rhetorical brilliance to win for itself converts, but instead relies on the power of God as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. And the reality of this power is not communicated to us through eloquence or reason, but by the Spirit who impresses these spiritual truths upon those who are spiritual.

What does this mean for us though? What are the practical implications of the teaching for our lives? I think the first one is that we have to live humbly, and secondly, to not allow the opinions of the world to sway us from following Christ. But I also think that there is a second consequence, namely that the truths of the Gospel are not accessible to worldly wisdom. So, perhaps it is fideistic. After all, Paul states directly that God determined that he would not be known through the wisdom of this world, but rather through his son, Jesus Christ. This would seem to argue that there is no Christian epistemology that is not grounded in some kind of direct impression, although to what level the person is aware of this seems uncertain, and would appear to rather vary between individuals as to what their subjective experience of it is.

One question I do have, is how to consider those mentioned as being bypassed by God, the wise, the powerful, and the prestigious (or noble). What should these people do? Are they being called upon to abandon their vocations, or merely to not look to them as a standard for measuring their lives? I don’t think that this passage makes it clear, but we have other verses that would seem to argue for the latter, including John the Baptists own admonishment to the crowds to return to their vocations, but to conduct them in such a way that was befitting one whose purpose was determined by the principles of the Kingdom of God, and not of this world. However, I think the truth is rather more complicated than that, and I think instead that God deals with people on a much more individual level, and that we shouldn’t expect a general principle to be determinative in every instance.