Saturday, March 24, 2012

Privileging people before abstractions

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life by Mark Francis: A stunning revelation of a personality and thinker about whom even most well informed Victorianists evaluate largely from misinformation. This book presents an entirely new understanding of Spencer. --Frank M. Turner, John Hay Whitney Professor of History, Yale University 4:40 PM

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
by Nicholas Phillipson 
Smith saw himself primarily as a philosopher rather than an economist and would never have predicted that the ideas for which he is now best known were his most important. This book shows the extent to which The Wealth of Nations and Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, were part of a larger scheme to establish a grand “Science of Man,” one of the most ambitious projects of the European Enlightenment, which was to encompass law, history, and aesthetics as well as economics and ethics, and which was only half complete on Smith’s death in 1790. 
Nicholas Phillipson reconstructs Smith’s intellectual ancestry and shows what Smith took from, and what he gave to, in the rapidly changing intellectual and commercial cultures of Glasgow and Edinburgh as they entered the great years of the Scottish Enlightenment. Above all he explains how far Smith’s ideas developed in dialogue with those of his closest friend, the other titan of the age, David Hume. (20101018) 4:51 PM

I should realize that where ‘taller personalities’ got things wrong – Ptolemy, Newton, Einstein, et. al. – there is scope for me to inquire / inspect on my own whether there may be other right paths / doctrines. Viswa [sbicitizen]

The Mother once lucubrated on the difference between geniuses and mystics.  Her answer may help us understand why it is that sages, who have attained Enlightenment and are supposed to be in constant union with the Supreme Divine, do not possess the unique spectacular talents that are often displayed by geniuses, why they are not found resolving unsolved math problems, painting like Picasso, playing chess like grandmasters, or discovering novel groundbreaking drugs.  
“It is a disease of the ordinary human intellect—which comes, moreover, from separation, division—to make a thing always either this or that. If you choose this, you turn your back on that; if you choose that, you turn your back on this. It is an impoverishment. One must know how to take up everything, combine everything, synthesise everything. And then one has an integral realisation.” Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 9, pp 90-95. (online)

Michael Polanyi (1891–1976): The reductionistic attempt to reduce higher level realities into lower level realities generates what Polanyi describes as a moral inversion, in which the higher is rejected in favour of the lower. This inversion is pursued with moral passion. Polanyi identifies it as a pathology of the modern mind, and traces its origins to a false conception of knowledge; which although relatively harmless in the formal sciences, generates nihilism in the humanities. Wikipedia  

Michael Polanyi has so extensively described, it is faith that guides us to the potentially fruitful question -- one that can be asked "in good faith," and to which we can anticipate an answer to be forthcoming. For example, "Newton doubted the traditional theory of 'gravity,' but he believed in the unity of the world.... Doubt set his thought...

Karl Polanyi understood by economic change, since we were looking for a more positive construction than a simple negation; and this is where the idea of a human economy came from. What makes an economy “human”? First, it privileges people before abstractions. People make and remake their economic lives and that has to be the basis for thinki... On profit and rent in the history of capitalism from The Memory Bank - Dec 14, 2011 11:00 AM
Marx nor Polanyi (who had less excuse to miss it almost a century later) saw the social consequences of converting the class struggle that animated the liberal revolutions into a form of bureaucratic capitalism based on an alliance between the capitalists and the enforcers. But Weber did, with the Prussian junkers and Rhineland capitalists under... The resurgence of the civic from The Immanent Frame - Nov 30, 2011 2:15 AM
Karl Polanyi first argued. By sundering material objects from moral meaning and symbolic significance, disembedded capital de-sacralizes the shared reality we all inhabit and reduces everything to tradable commodities. And by separating financial from ethical value and measuring all things according to nominal monetary worth, global finance gr... 

I just finished watching a video of a debate on religion with Christopher Hitchens on BookTV. I enjoy watching debates like this because it challenges our myths about society, culture and reality. Speaking of myths, I think that Savitri Era Open Forum: If Joseph Campbell was alive today, he would be cheering on Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens by ~C4Chaos September 18, 2007

Why not take Hume’s model of human nature instead? For Hume, humans are defined at the most fundamental level by sympathy towards others, not self-interest. This makes sense empirically in terms of what we actually observe, from an evolutionary perspective in terms of our closest primate relatives (bonobos and chimps), and psychogenetically in terms of how persons develop in a social world from infancy on. For Hume the problem isn’t “how can we overcome individualist self-interest so as to enter into cooperative relations?”, but rather “how can we break with the partiality of sympathies (tribalism/kinship relations) to form sympathies outside our immediate network of fellows?”
Many religions here would be a part of the problem because they often reinforce tribalistic, exclusionary relations rather than opening on to broader communities. Taking another tack, there’s also Spinoza: “Nothing is more useful to man than man” (Ethics, Part IV). My fellows are my self-interest. The are part of my happiness, help me in my work, part of my safety, they are my prosperity in the world, etc.
At any rate, it strikes me as strange to suggest that religion is the only thing that can draw people together in a common project. I also find the idea of a “common body” a bit horrifying (so many ugly historical resonances with these desires vis a vis nationalism and religion). People are drawn together by problems. Problems can come from all sorts of places. Moreover, we see people drawn together all the time by politics, collaborative work, conversation, love, celebration, building, etc.

I think the God of philosophers and theologians is something quite different than the God of popular religion. There’s always something a bit devious in the work of philosophers and theologians when discussing God. They turn everything upside down and inside out. I teach a lot of theology in my classes and have noticed over the years that my students are far more troubled by the theologies of Descartes or Thomas than the atheisms of Lucretius and Dennett (and remember I’m in an extremely religious part of the country). Why is this? These theologies are more corrosive to their religious beliefs than anything the atheists write. They can just take up a position of opposition with respect to the atheists, but with the theologians…
Now there’s a challenge! Now suddenly their Biblically and Church inspired beliefs are challenged by a rational analysis of the essence of God and what would have to follow from this essence. Part of my point here is that we should take great care, I think, not to confuse academic discourses about God with religion. When discussing religion I think we should discuss what the people believe and do, not how the theologians and philosophers rationalize this.

Instead of tying religion to belief/s in the supernatural, what about understanding religion as primarily rooted in non-ordinary realities and/or forms of experience? This is what Robert Bellah does in his most recent book “Religion in Human Evolution” (2011), drawing on Alfred Schutz’s notion of “multiple realities.” There is the world/reality of daily life, which is the world of working, of rational response to anxiety and need–but this is not the only reality humans inhabit. Indeed, no one can live in that world all the time, and as Bellah points out, some can’t live in it at all: we see them wandering city streets, homeless. Religious realities are not the only non-ordinary realities: football is a good example of how ordinary space and time can be transcended for the sake of a game. Then there are the realities of TV, movies, plays, music, daydreams…
Bellah writes: “the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed. Each culture, each era, constructs its own world of daily life, never identical with any other. Even the meaning of ‘standard’ time and space differs subtly between cultures, and fundamental conceptions of person, family, and nation are all culturally variable. By this I do not mean that the world of daily life even in its cultural variability is not real–it is real enough. But it lacks the unique ontological reality, the claim to be perfectly natural, that it seeks to secure when it puts in brackets the doubt that it could be other. It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that the bracketing is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life” (p. 4).
Bellah goes on to suggest that science and religion in their own ways can issue such commands, as well. Religious realities in particular he connects to the feeling of an infinite Whole generated by a participatory relation (rather than manipulative, as in the world of daily life) to the Cosmos. Of course, all these realities overlap and cut across one another at various points. This generates symbolism, the capacity for ordinary things to point beyond themselves, to remind us of other forms of consciousness, other realities. Bellah ends up rooting religion in play and ritual. He argues that play has no biological significance, though it can of course be understood as adaptive in any number of ways. It primary significance, though, is that play is an end in itself, rather than a means to something else. Bellah rejects the notion that religion can be understood primarily in terms of propositions and beliefs, which seems to be what you want to do. Instead, he connects it experience, expression, and again, to the way symbolism, once expressed, can feedback upon experience to reshape it.

There are millions of believers out there that see the supernatural– whether in the moderate form of just positing and transcendent God or the strong form of demons, possessions, miracles, etc –as absolutely crucial and central to religion. Descriptions such as this, I think, are just attempts to sanitize religion. That is, I think the intellectual that is religiously inclined sets about cleaning up religion in theorizing it because they are embarrassed by this extremely common supernatural element. In my view, though, when analyzing a phenomenon we go with those beliefs that are statistically dominant in a population, not with rationalizations we’d like to be true. Moreover, if it is true that religion is just about “non-ordinary experiences”, then why call it religious at all? Certainly we all have non-ordinary experiences yet many of us feel no need to describe these things as religious.

Our worth lies only in the measure of our effort to exceed ourselves, and to exceed ourselves is to attain the Divine. -The Mother (1973)

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