Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic?

This is a question that has garnered a large amount of press in the last few weeks. The cover article in The Atlantic's monthly print edition, 'What ISIS Really Wants' (March 2105) played the part of catalyst.

The article was written by Grame Wood, a Canadian journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. Reaction was almost instantaneous. News feeds exploded with more or less--sometime more and sometimes less, in my estimation--credible reactions to Wood's claim that there is something deeply Islamic about the 'ideology' or 'worldview' that inspires the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIL, which stands, more broadly, for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Certain more radical strains of politically conservative and liberal punditry seized on the idea that ISIS was deeply Islamic. For what were naturally different reasons. Conservative commentators wanted to see something deficient in Islam itself to explain its inability to be modern, Western and European, to generate the institutions that support civil society, to develop the rule of law. Liberal commentators saw Islam as inherently patriarchal, oppressive, or, at least, repressive, and saw ISIS as only the most recent expression of this. Other, more centrist positions, call for a more moderate interpretations with a measured reticence like President Obama, who is staunchly opposed to identifying ISIS with Islam. For some, most likely pragmatic, raison d'etat, he opted to use the label of 'violence extremism.'

Of course, this does not exhaust all the possibilities. An article in Salon, usually a more radical, left-leaning news source, by Haroon Mughal was titled 'The Atlantic's Big Islam Lie: What Muslims Really Believe about ISIS.' The article described the recent history of the region that birthed ISIS, highlighting the United States' disruptive influence in the region. It also made the important point that the vast majority of Muslims, in fact, do oppose ISIS' extremism. If the group has been able to flourish, that has more to do with the lack of legitimate local authority to check the its growth and progress. The disruptive influence of the United States, again, has played no small part. Fareed Zakarai addressed Wood's contentions on his Sunday morning CNN show, Global Public Square. In a related article, 'The Limits of the "Islamic" Label,' he makes the point that 'many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology.' But if we only understand the ideology, we will never what motivates individuals to become extremist.

I myself am of two minds on the question. I think ISIS is Islamic insofar as it deviates from the Islamic norm; but insofar as ISIS deviates from the norm, it is not Islamic. Clear-thinking persons, who insist on the absolute validity of the principle of non-contradiction, may accuse me of positing a doctrine of double-truth. However, the reason that I am of two minds is really quite straight forward. The question has two possible answers, one factual and the other normative. ISIS is Islamic insofar as its language, the authorities to which it appeals, and its general ethos are Islamic. But ISIS is not Islamic insofar as most persons and groups, including those within the region, that self-identify as Muslim reject its claims.

The matter can perhaps be stated more clearly in these terms: the Islamic community broadly conceived, or what Muslims know as the Ummah, has existed since the 7th century, and can today count around 1.6 billion members, in its various fractious manifestations. ISIS, as an infinitesimal part of that larger whole, has been around for a couple of years; it's numbers are maybe in the tens of thousands. Now it is simply inconceivable that ISIS stands for the Islamic community as a whole. ISIS is a flash-bang in the frying-pan: its extremism is simply not sustainable, and so it's essentially Islamic character (both factually and normatively) must be seriously doubted. The Ummah has lived and will continue live on. ISIS? Not so much.

This, at least, seems to me a credible position to take for a person who is moderately well-informed about the Muslim world. The position balances between the different sort of concerns that crop up whenever one tries to define groups with respect to each other (or with respect to sub-groups or off-shot groups). The act of defining a group presumes some normative identity, whereby we can discriminate what does and does not count as being part of the group. But the definition also has a 'factual' (or actual) point of reference; namely, the persons who are defined as belonging to the group or not.

The problem with the present conversation that has grown up around the Wood's article, it seems to me, is that it misunderstands the essentially communal nature of Islam. As it is with most other classical religious traditions (perhaps with the exception of Greco-Roman traditions of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, which are escapist doctrines), so it is with Islam that theology is sociology. The Christian Church, the Jewish Covenant (or Chosen) Community, and, to a lesser degree, the Buddhist Sangha and the Confucian family, are comparable examples. Doctrine informs of communal way of life, which includes basic moral norms and also ritual practice.

The present conversation in widely-read North American new sources fundamentally misunderstand the communal nature of religion. It bounces back and forth between defining Islam, on the one hand, in abstraction as a body of doctrine, or an outlook; and, on the other hand, as an object of sociological study. Commentators begin by distinguishing theology from sociology, and then try to figure out afterwards how they fit together, with ambiguous, often one-sided success.

This is a very real problem. If theology is sociology, then the definition of Islam will be derived from the entire history of the Ummah, beginning with the Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622, when the Ummah formally had its beginning. Rather than cherry-pick examples, which can be spun to fit any narrative, the definition will contend the moral arc inscribed a Muslim's account of Islam's own history. But if theology and sociology are first regarded separately, and only afterwards related to each other, then we land in the absurd situation where the question, Is ISIS Islamic? is debated at length and with great sincerity.

The case in point here is Wood's article. The argument of the article can essentially be boiled down to the claim that if it looks like Islam, smells like Islam, and feels like Islam, then it must be Islamic. As Wood commented in a follow-up article, he subjected himself to a rigorous early-morning regime of consuming as much hate-full ISIS propaganda, hoping that the effects would wear off by the evening, so he could sleep. He wanted to inhabit the extremist universe. He noticed that ISIS language borrows heavily from existing Islamic tradition. The apocalyptic language that it employed was especially striking. Wood, at this point, made a genuine contribution to the public discourse on ISIS. What rationale does the organization have for provoking absolutely everyone? They are trying to bring about the end of the world. He points out, 'The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.'

Certainly, this is true. Apocalyptic movements often act in ways that defy the conventional norms of rationality. ISIS does not appear concerned, for example, in the slightest with self-preservation. It wants to be the harbinger of the Last Day. And even though it cannot be sure that it is (such things belong to God alone), it can at least hope.

But Wood's argument gets a little fuzzy at this point, for the reasons I pointed out above. He, if you will, has in his possession a pair of ideas. The first idea is generic conception of Islam, its doctrine and its practice, abstracted from the material record of its history. The second idea he has is of ISIS, both what it claims for itself and what it has actually done, which it has done a very good job of publicizing on its own. One is timeless, for all intents and purposes; the other is in time. He holds them up for readers to see. And he suggests an answer to the question, Is ISIS Islamic?

To his credit, Wood backs away from explicitly calling the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam. Alternative Islamic voices are cited towards the end of the article. But his own position is buried in the later half of the article. Commenting on Salafi preachers, who he sees as an ISIS analog in the West, he says, 'To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.' That some of his readers have not been so reticent to call the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam is not surprising. The article moves in the direction, even if it never arrives at the destination.

Wood's opposes an of an abstract idea about Islam to a vanishingly small group of Islamic extremists. In his eyes, the transience of extremist movements and the accumulated wisdom of past generations counts for naught. Human history has no depth; tradition, no weight. Wood quite literally cannot see the Ummah. Everything is made to stand and fall on a single judgment about a tiny group of individuals, in their tiny corner of human history. The question, Is ISIS Islamic? is not only the wrong question; the terms on which it is asked are entirely out of proportion.

The problem that Wood and so many other scholars is that they diagnosis the pathology of extremism by pathologizing religion. They pathologize religion by cutting the human world in two: doctrines and practices go on one side, groups of people go on the other. Where does that leave him? Wood's most recent article, 'What ISIS Really Wants: The Response,' cites as sources actual members of ISIS, who have reacted positively their portrayal. But he does not see the interpretive dilemma.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Idea of the Dissertation

My intention here is to summarize the argument of my dissertation in as unpretentious and straight-forward language as possible. The point is not to 'dumb down' the argument. It might seem that this is what I am proposing to do. But this is the wrong way to think about talking about one's dissertation. One doesn't write a dissertation to cultivate an esoteric form of knowledge, which no one else would understand--so why bother try to talk about it in the first place? One writes at least for a small group of people. So why not try for a larger (admittedly hypothetical) audience?

The subject of my dissertation is the idea of religion that is found in Edward Caird's Gifford Lectures on The Evolution of Religion (1890-2) and The Evolution of Theology (1900-2). Card is mostly unknown today, so a few comments may be helpful to situate him. He held the Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, for 27 years (1866-1893), before finishing off his career (and, it turns out, his life) as the Master of Balliol College in Oxford, in England (1894-1907). He was a main representative of the Scottish branch of the idealist (or, more precisely, the Absolute idealist) tradition of philosophical inquiry. He was a contributor to the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, at a time when individual entries could run many pages in length, which his did. He was a major participant in the Gifford Lecture series (1888-present) in its very earliest years. And, perhaps more importantly, if a little less obviously, he made his name being among the earliest English-speaking persons to write on hugely influential German-language philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Georg W.F. Hegel. He and his contemporary British idealists worked hard to translate their obscure German prose into something a practically-minded Englishmen could comprehend.

Now I want to set all of this information aside, and approach the topic of Caird's work from a different angle. The information is essential, of course, to understanding who Caird was and why he ended up writing the books that he did. The task that I have put myself to here is different, though. What I have in mind is a 'practical' description. Burying the reader in a crush of historical references will be counterproductive.

What do I mean by a 'practical' description? I will develop what I mean, and what I take to be the essential of Caird's thought, in three steps.

First, I will define what Caird thinks it is to be self-conscious: one is conscious of oneself as having a self-conscious experience of the world that is centered on one's own body. While this should not be a stunning revelation to anyone, I am interested in the difference that Caird describes between being conscious of oneself as an individual body and the aims and claims of modern scientific study. He argues that modern science aims at securing 'empirical universality' for its claims, and does not care in the slightest that you or I are individual bodies.

The First Part of the Argument

Second, I will describe how Caird uses this definition of what it means to be a self to draw attention to the fact that you and I, as individual bodies, are not in space and same way that we are in time. This claim, though no less practical, is a little more complex in nature. If you consider that human beings are free to choose whatever direction they want to travel in space (at least as far as your feet or vehicle can take you), but cannot choose what direction they want to travel in time, then you get the general idea. I will spend a little bit of time developing exactly what this entails.

The Second Part of the Argument

Third, I will ask, if we are not in space the same way we are in time, how is it that we come to knowledge of the past--either of natural history or human history? As individual bodies, we are here and now. Historical knowledge regards knowledge of other theres and thens, to which we have no immediate access. Some mental trick must required in order to be able to infer temporal change and distance from the distribution of fossil in layers of rock or words preserved on a page.

The Third Part of the Argument

And, in conclusion, I describe how Caird's conclusions regarding the fact that we are individual bodies, are consequently in space differently than we are in time, and must therefore infer ourselves into seeing temporal change and distance, lead him to narrate the human past, and specifically the history of religious belief and practice. Caird draws attention to the fact that especially when persons read texts (though the point can include more broadly the studying of other human artifacts), what they do is look for cues that make sense in their self-conscious experience of the world. Since everyone's self-conscious experience of the world is centered in their bodily life, Caird argues that the study of the material record of the past must be grounded in bodily life.

In short: if you can't see your own body in the historical record (and you can't), you have to look for the bodies of others in the places and times of their lives.

Go to The Conclusion of the Argument

The First Part of the Argument

If I ask you to tell me about yourself, what sort of answer are you likely to give? First, you will most likely tell me your name. From there, the number of possible answers seems to extend infinitely: where you live, where you are from; who your parents are, who your family members are, what you do for a living, what you enjoy doing in your spare time, where you went to school, what you favorite sports team is, and so on. Which question you choose to answer first is up to you. But you will tell me about the things that you think are important to know about yourself. So we may say that your answer will be revealing of your self.

Most people, I think, will recognize that there is something disingenuous (or at least incomplete) about any one of the answers to these possible possible. None of them quiet get at who you or I 'actually' are. Even our names conceal as much as they reveal. A name, at best, is an intelligible point of reference--a key, if you will, that opens one person's world up to another person. You say, I am [insert your name]. I am from... I do... I like... etc.... etc.... But a name is just as easily a bottomless hole, into which can throw as many things about oneself, without ever filling it up.

A couple of things follow from the potentially limitless number of questions, and answers to questions, about who you am I are. The first is that we all seem to carry around an idea of ourselves as something solid and whole: an 'I' that can be distinguished from other person, beings, and things. Our experience of ourselves as wholes, in fact, is so persistent, so pervasive, that even if you disagree with me--that is to say, if YOU disagree with ME--you have already proved my point. The second thing that follows is that were someone to ask us to tell them about ourselves, it is unavoidable that we talk about some limited aspect or some part of ourselves. For example, you ask me to tell you about myself. I respond by telling you my name, that I am Canadian, I am not a teenager, and I grew up on a farm. Try as I might, however, I could never relate to you the whole myself. No amount of description could ever exhaust the whole of who I am.

The problem I have been describing is the problem of self-consciousness. The problem is essentially one of rational self-reference; that we are not only the things being described; but also that are we the things doing the describing. We get along just fine talking about things other than ourselves. We may or may not be right about these other things. If we are not right, we can go back and get a better idea of the other things in question.

The matter is never so straight-forward when describing our own selves. We never leave ourselves in the first place, so there is nothing, strictly speaking, to go back to. But when we actually do try to describe ourselves, the best we seem able to accomplish is to describe some aspect or limited part of ourselves. In short, our self, that something whole that we know ourselves to be, always seems just out of reach, even while we know that the whole of our self is doing the reaching.

Caird looks at the problem of self-consciousness and wonders why it should be a problem in the first place. He wants us to think about what sort of answer are we expecting. And he wants to know whether the answer that we expect true to the sort of 'thing' that we are.

Every major work that Caird ever published can be read on a meditation on these themes. Caird's basic argument is that, when asked about ourselves, our modern scientific education has trained us to turn 'inwards' and away from the 'external' world. We have been trained to think about our self as an idea or an intellectual object--and not as a physical object. When asked about our self, our education predisposed us to turn inwards to think about that idea we have of ourselves. If we do respond to the question, either we give a partial answer, which we intuitively 'know' to be inadequate; or we shy away from answering at all, since we are perpetually unsure about whether we are ever in position to give an answer.

Caird thinks this is the absolutely wrong way to go about asking the question. The right way to ask the question is hiding right in front of us. Your self cannot be an idea you carry around in your head about your self. If your self is an idea you carry around with you in your head, then who is carrying the idea of your self around in their head? Is not the person carrying around the idea of your self...yourself?

The problem, again, is one of self-reference. What we are cannot merely be an idea that we carry around in our own heads. This simply will not compute. We are a self-conscious being who have ideas about themselves.

Caird thinks the proper response to questions about the self is not to turn 'inwards' away from the 'external' world. The proper response is to turn 'outwards' towards the 'external' world where you find yourself as an individual body.

Who am I? Well, I am this body, the one sitting in front of a computer typing these words on the screen. Or am I the one who will later read the words over to make sure they make sense before I post them online. Or am I the body that is prepare food for myself. Or go to bed. Or wake up. Or kiss my wife. In every case, I am this body. The places and times change, certainly. The fact that I am this body will not. And when this body ceases, when it dies...well, then in every sense of the word, so will I. That is to say, I will cease in every sense that I understand myself to presently be this body. What lies beyond is another question entirely.

Thinking about ones own self in this way, about one's self as this body, is harder than it sounds. An empirically-minded thinker is not likely to see the point in the first place. The reason is that the language of modern science continually refuses to let us think about ourselves as individual bodies. Modern science lets us think of ourselves as bodies, certainly. But it's statement are always generic, never personal, and so never individual. The consequence is that modern science (or, more precisely, modern scientists) can tell me a lot of things about bodies. What it cannot do is tell me about the existential fact that I am this body.

Just how hard this is will become more apparent in the second part of the argument, in which we come face to face with the fact that we are in space in a different way than we are in time.

Go to The Second Part of the Argument

The Second Part of the Argument

The first part of the argument described how Caird wants us to turn 'outwards,' not 'inwards,' when we are asked to think about our selves.  He wants us to think about the bodies that we actually are, and not a collection of ideas floating around in our heads. In Caird's own words, we only ever come to consciousness of ourselves through our consciousness of objects in the world. The reason is obvious: we find ourselves in a world of objects (or bodies), both our own and others besides. We are bodies before we think of ourselves; and we remain bodies after we do. We are bodies when get up in the morning, before we lay our heads down to rest; and we are still bodies after we drift off to sleep. The ideas that we have about ourselves all refer, in some way, shape, or form to that world of bodies. And when our bodies cease to function, our lives, our selves, will have come to an end.

The second part of the argument look at what happen when we actually do turn outwards and think about ourselves as these bodies. Caird wants to draw our attention to the fact that we are in space differently than we are in time.

The language of modern science has almost completely desensitized to our individual experience of bodily life. Modern science aims at empirical universality, or at descriptions of the natural order that are always (at all times) and everywhere (in all places) the case. The law of Gravity and the theory of evolution by natural selection are two good examples. Gravity is the force of two masses acting upon each other, which is expressed as a function of their sizes and the distance between them. Evolution by natural selection is the process whereby the material environment selects for and against the physiological features (and ultimately their corresponding genes) of certain individual organisms over those of others. Cultural context does not alter the explanatory function of the laws of gravity or the theory of evolution. It does not matter, for example, that an Ancient Greek thinker like Aristotle thought falling or the growth of organisms on very different (and also very wrong) terms. A person like Aristotle can think whatever he wants. It remains that case that the way objects fall and organisms grow in ways that are better accounted for by the law or theories of gravity and evolution. Hence the claim to modern scientific claim to empirical universality: thus and such is always and everywhere the case.

However persuasive and correct, modern scientific explanations are--and they certainly are--Caird thinks that they are both limited in their scope application and are exceptional in relation to our actual, individual, self-conscious experience of things. The fact that we are in space differently than we are in time is perhaps only the best example of this. The modern scientific picture of the universe shows us a universe that is approximately 13.8 billions years old and 92 billion light years across. It reveals how through a gradual process the galaxies, stars, planetary systems, and planets were formed. And it shows how life gradually arose and evolved through successively more complex forms, until we come to beings like ourselves, whose cerebral cortex is the most sophisticated physical object that we know--which is also, not coincidentally, the only physical object that we know that is capable of asking questions about itself and developing extremely sophisticated methods of divining an answer.

The picture of the universe described by modern science is a seamless spatiotemporal extension: it begins in the distant past and moves towards the present moment, spanning the entirety of the universe. Now compare this to your actual experience of the world. But when you look around at the world that you share with other persons, beings and things, you see bodies, which are beside each other in space, at a specific point in time. You can move about in this space in whatever direction you want, as long as you aren't impeded by other bodies or the force of gravity. You are aware that this space extends beyond your immediate field of perception, but find yourself limited by your bodily situation.

There are ways, of course, of circumventing some of these physical limitations. Human ingenuity is boundless. However, there is one sort of limitation you can never negate, no matter how hard you try. You cannot go backwards in time, jump ahead in time, or speed time up--which is precisely the sorts of thing that the modern scientific picture of the universe proposes to do. It proposes to tell you, the individual person who is situated here and now, what was happening there and then in the past, and what can be expected to happen in every other there and then in the future. Modern science does not seem bothered much by the fact of your individual situation. In this sense, its picture of the universe is highly abstract. It represents the way things are, yes, but only from a certain narrow perspective, which asks you to suspend your perceptions of the practical conditions of your individual bodily life. It is theoretical, and not at all practical. The practical picture of the universe (or, if you prefer, of the world), is the one you already have: the picture of you, as an individual person, as an individual body, going here and not there, standing up or sitting down, eating or sleeping, etc.

Our self-conscious experience of the world, the one which is centered in our bodies, can never show us a world that is a seamless spatiotemporal extension. There is no two ways about this: we are in the world in a way that is different in space than it is in time. When the police officer pulls you over for driving 120 km/h where the posted speed is 80 km/h to give you a ticket, the speed  is are described in a way that distinguishes a distance in space from a length of time. The distance in space is divided by the distance in time in order to yield a speed (or velocity). You can, of course, avoid getting a ticket by slowing down. You cannot avoid the fact that  in your immediate, practical experience of the world that space does one thing and time does another--and that they place very different constraints on your self as an individual body.

The important question that should concern us here is how the two pictures are related and which has priority over the other. Caird thinks the answer is obvious. If we are these individual bodies--if we live with these bodies, feed them, care for them, and die with these bodies--then the practical picture must have priority over the modern scientific picture. The only way the modern scientific picture could have priority is if and only if we were not in these individual bodies that we call our own. If we were not, then there could be no question about being in space differently than in time. In fact, we would be neither in space, nor in time, since not being in individual body (or not being a individual body) is conceptually equivalent to being dead.

This brings us to the third and final step of Caird's argument. If we are stuck here and now in our individual bodies, how do we ever come to a knowledge of other theres and thens. How is it possible, for example, for a person to write a book on the physical origins of the universe, the biological development of the human species, or the general course of human history? How do we move from our practical situation, according to which we are in space differently than we are in time, to a narrative account that presupposes no such practical distinction?

Go to The Third Part of the Argument

The Third Part of the Argument

The first part of the argument describes how Caird wants us to think about our own selves as individual bodies. This should not be difficult because we in fact are individual bodies. The second part of the argument examined what happens when we do this: we notice that we are in space differently than we are in time. Though this may require us to stretch a few more intellectual muscles, I think we can come around to see his point. On the one hand, we are individual bodies in a space filled with other bodies. On the other hand, we remember the past, are aware of our present bodily situation, and have an expectation of the future. Space and time are intertwined, but they belong to different sides of our self-conscious experience.

Granting that all of this is true, neither parts of the argument are particularly amendable to the picture of the universe painted by modern science, one which is billions of years old and tens of billions of light years across. Modern science aims at empirical universality; it shows us a universe which is a seamless spatiotemporal extension. Our self-consciousness experience is grounded in practical conditions in our individual bodily life; it shows us that we are in space differently than we are in time.

The third part of Caird's argument wonders how we make sense of the past (and by extension the future), given that we are each perpetually stuck in our heres and nows, with only fleeting impressions of other theres and thens. Now, this is not the same thing as asking whether we can know the past at all, yes or no? Caird wants to avoid the sort of intellectual flippancy that says that if we either cannot or do not know with certainty, so the question must not be important to ask. In fact, we all have knowledge of the past, whether that is in the form of personal memories or information gleaned from other persons, books, and other cues found in the world that is accessible at our fingertips. The internet has been a huge boon, in this respect. That we have knowledge of the past is not up for debate. Caird wants to how we come to that knowledge. (For those who have read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Caird question is a variation of Kant's question, How is a synthetic a priori judgment possible? and Hegel's description of the 'Dialectic of Sense-Certainty'.)

The question is a very specific one, though no less important for its specificity. How is it that we, each and every one of us no more and no less human than the next person, move from our individual experience of the world, according to which we are in space differently than we are in time, to a modern scientific picture, which shows the universe as a seamless spatiotemporal extension. How is it, for example, that I, in Montreal, Quebec, in the year 2015 know about the natural history of the universe or of the human species, spanning millions and billions of years up to the present moment? Or, more modestly, how is it I can know anything about Caird? After all, nobody actually 'observes' the formation of galaxies, star systems, and ecosystems. Nor does anybody 'observe' the evolution of life right through to the development of a species that can ask itself, How did I get here? And Caird is dead. There is no going back and 'observing' him either. At the present moment, all I see is a room filled with people sitting at computers. I suspect that others will find themselves with a similarly truncated experience of the world.

If we do not observe the past, how is is that we can come to know about it at all? It turns out this depends on what sort of knowledge we are interested in. If we are interested in natural history, the most obvious answer is to go to a physics or biology text. If we are interested in human history, better pick up a specifically human history text. In both cases, most of us will end up going to some text or other to find out what other people have said on the matter. A very small number, specialists in their respective fields, may try to figure out if the picture we have received from others is actually correct. At this point, natural scientists are likely to put their books down and look at actual physical evidence. Historians are just as likely to look for older books (or other sorts of human artifacts). Books are no less physical, of course, but they do have the defining characteristic of being revealing of a specifically human intelligence.

Regardless whether a person is looking at natural or human materials, it remains the case that they never leave their bodily situation here and now. The sorts of evidence that they engage with is always evidence given in a particular place and at a particular time. Precisely here is where Caird's proposals get really interesting. The picture of the universe painted by modern science implicitly suggests that the entire universe, past, present, and future, can be conceived as an objective order--as a collection of objects that we think about, but are otherwise are not involved with. But, insofar as we are our individual bodies, we already know this cannot be true. So there must be a mental trick that we play on ourselves that allows us to 'see' the past.

And indeed, there is a mental trick. If distances in time cannot be perceived in the world of bodies (and they cannot), we must mentally infer that is a distance in time between ourselves and the 'thing' in question (which we do all the time) . The distribution of fossils, geological formations, or the concentration of Carbon-14 in a rock face afford us clues to changes through time. In a similar, though not exactly the same sense, books give us cues to reconstruct a picture of the past. The essential point, though, is that we have to mentally infer temporal change and distance, which we never observe in the world of bodies.

With the natural sciences, we mentally infer temporal distance, such as I have been doing here whenever I have described natural history of the universe. I let my mind run up and down the course of the natural history of the universe, while my body remains firmly here and now (still sitting in front of a compuuter). In this case, we may say that the 'ground' of intelligibility remains 'external,' even though the temporal inference is 'internal,' or mental.

With the study of human history, the matter is a considerably more complicated. Let us say I pick up one of Caird's books. I know in advance of picking up the book that it was written by a person, who is like myself, in some other place and time. What I am doing when reading Caird's text is searching for my own self-conscious experience of the world in the text; that is, I look for features of the world that I recognize in someone else's description of of the world. If Caird says he is writing on Kant, or Hegel, or religion, or Aristotle, or Plato, or philosophy in general, my own education to this point will have furnished me with a certain number of expectations. It is in dialogue with these that I come to understand what Caird has to say about this or that matter. If there are absolutely no cues in the text that I can make sense of in terms of my world, beginning with being able to understand the language in which the book is written, the text must be unintelligible to me.

The take-away is that, just as I am in space differently than I am in time, the ways in which I make sense of natural history and human history are similarly bifurcated. The 'objectivity' of natural history is always grounded 'externally' in the world of objects. The 'objectivity' of human history is grounded 'internally' in my own self-conscious experience of the world.

Go to The Conclusion of the Argument

The Conclusion of the Argument

After having thought of ourselves as individual bodies, discovered that we are in space differently than we are in time, and watched ourselves inferring temporal distance in order to construct a picture of the spatiotemporal world in which we live, it may still be a question what we have gained in the process. The arguments that I have been making so far can be gleaned from Caird's writings on Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel. They are bare-bones arguments concerned more to describe the 'structure' of our experience of the world. If we want to actually see what sort of account of human history they yield, we have to turn to the last chapter of his study of Hegel his Gifford Lectures on The Evolution of Religion.

With the study of natural history, we saw that it was simply a matter of extrapolating from a body of material evidence how a given set of natural phenomena has changed over time. Nothing complicated about this. After Lyell, Darwin, especially, showed us how to infer temporal change from fossil distribution in rocks faces, it was a rather simple matter to repeat the process of inferring change over time from other sorts of natural phenomena. Counting tree-rings, radio-carbon dating, sampling ice-cores all fall into this category.

The same cannot be said for the study of human history. Certainly the findings of natural history can be coordinated with the study of human history: human beings do have bodies, and as such are subject to natural forces. But when reading texts, one is not merely inferring temporal change and distance from a collection of natural phenomena. One is engaging with the intelligible traces of another person's self-conscious experience of the world. So one not only infers temporal distance (as well as spatial distance), one infers that the text was written by a being (or beings) like oneself. If the texts tells me about trees, or wars, or inclement weather, mothers and fathers, churches and states, I can make sense of what is going on in the text because the words have reference in my own experience of the world. If I read about minds (or soul) and bodies, spaces and times, I can make sense of these because they also have reference to my own experience of the world.

So, on the assumption that when studying the material record of the specifically human past (like texts and other such artifacts) that we encounter self-conscious beings fundamentally like ourselves, Caird says that human history can be divided roughly into three different intellectual/religious periods:

1) objective, or pre-Axial, religion
2) subjective, or Axial, religion
3) Absolute, or modern scientific, religion.

I will describe the principle characteristics of each period in a little more detail in a moment. Keep in mind that Caird is not playing the part of an 'empirical' historian, who flies up and down the course of human history, oblivious to the fact that his body is still situated here and now (in Glasgow or Oxford, in late 19th century Scotland or England). The anchor of Caird's analysis in his own bodily situation. Since he cannot find his own body in the texts, he goes looking for what other persons have said about their bodily life: singly or in communities, thinking about things, acting in various ways, in the different places and times of their lives.

Caird's division of human history is as follows:

1) The first period, or objective religion, is characterized by the worship of gods with whom human beings share the world, and who usually have some physical representation; and by the political authority of a chief or king who, in some sense represents the gods. This period ultimately comes to an end with the Egyptians and Persians, the Warring States Period in China, the Later Vedic Period in India, and, much later in the Americas, the Aztec and Inca. It's defining characteristic is that persons interpret the significance of their lives almost exclusively in terms of figures and images derived from their immediate experience of the world.

2) The second period, or subjective religion, is characterized by the belief in a transcendent personal divinity like the Creator God of the Jews, Christians, Muslims, or Hindus, or a transcendent impersonal divinity like the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the Buddhists, Confucians, or the Daoists; and by the belief that political authority is always transitory, and is only good insofar as it helps human beings attain their true end, which is beyond the present world. Its defining characteristic is that persons find themselves beyond the present bodily life; and while bodily life cannot ultimately be ignored, it's energies tend to be channeled to 'higher' purposes.

3) The significance of the third period, or Absolute religion, is twofold. On the one hand, Absolute religion is conducive to modern science because it refuses to find any trace of divinity in the natural world. It posits that God is the Absolute that is beyond all divisions and distinctions in the world. Absolute religion sounds the death-nell for heliocentrism and the idea that species never change. By refusing to find God in the world, it makes possible the subsequent developments of modern science and technology.

On the other hand, the corollary of Absolute religion's the idea that God is not found in the world is that there nothing comparable to human beings in the world. Absolute religion does not propose the intellectual outlook of objective religion, which finds gods in the external world. It does not propose, as does subjective religion, to understand God as a merely idea in a person's mind. Absolute religion finds God in a through a person's self-conscious experience of the world, which is grounded in their individual bodily life. Absolute religion sees the individual human body as bearing absolute moral significance, for the simple reason that human life is nothing without it.

The third period brings Caird's narrative up to his present. His style of philosophizing gives readers the impression that the continued development of Absolute religion, towards a clearer conception of the natural world and a clearer idea of human distinctiveness, would happen simply as a matter of course. Human beings would continue to unpack the secrets of the natural world and would also continue achieve greater and greater economic, political, and social equality.

The general movement of human history through the 18th and 19th centuries seemed to confirm this. The Glorious Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) portended greater equality. So also did the increasing access to education and the expansion of the political franchise through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, especially in the Anglo-American world. Caird died in 1907 before WWI (1914-18), and did not anticipate its devastation, but he would have noted the significance of the destruction of so many royal houses in Europe. He also would have supported the establishment of unions and applauded the League of Nations, The United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

The danger to Absolute religion comes from the project of modern science, which it helps to inspire. Modern science refuses to allow God to serve as an explanation of natural phenomena. As a direct consequence, it also explains away specifically human thought and action. Take, as an example, contemporary neuroscience: neuroscientists looks at the brain as a merely physical object; they take no notice of the fact that they are persons with brains, who are asking about a specific feature of their own physical make-up. The neuroscientist aims at an 'empirically universal' statement about brains. They are not interested in the slightest in the practical, conditions of a individual persons self-consciousness experience of the world.

But interest in those practical conditions is essential to telling human history and the history of religion.

Go back to The Idea of the Dissertation

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Manual Labour

The virtues of manual labour are not something very often celebrated. Nor are those of its unskilled cousin, menial labour. Why this is the case should not be very hard to figure out. Everyone wants ‘meaningful’ work, which manual labour is not; or is not supposed to be.

Meaningful work is a job that pays well, finds you at a desk, and does not require you to take a shower right after you return home. It engages your mind, let’s your creative juices flow. It finds you in Richard Florida’s creative class, which is at the forefront of the new ‘knowledge economy.’ It may even allow you to be your own boss, set your own hours, pursue your own goals. Meaningful work, in other words, is not the sort of work that most people end up doing. 

So it is commendable that Brian Dijkema has taken up the cause of manual labour in his latest piece ‘The Work of Our Hands.’ The dignity of manual labour, he says, is the conversation we are not having, But we should be. The God who has created all things is the Great Equalizer; he plays no favourites, has no obvious preferences: sees the good in everything and everyone. Building buildings, stocking shelves, pouring coffee, cleaning floors, and preparing food are just as good as running businesses, writing books (and blogs), designing homes, and running country. So far as the Almighty goes, every job is worth doing—though with exceptions, one may suppose, like pimping and high finance.

Dijkema finds himself in good company. The pedigree of his argument goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, who held that some jobs are not better than others on account of the favour they allow you to curry with divinity. It is not better to be a priest and less good to be a day labourer or a tradesperson or a civil magistrate. Each contribute their part of the workings of the community, which allows the whole to thrive. On that account, each are as good as the others.

This, in a short summary, is the Protestant ethic animating what Max Weber called the spirit of capitalism. Through the medieval period, religious authorities believed secular labours as less important than sacred duties in the larger scheme of things. This world has passing away. It's relative means paled in comparison to the heavenly kingdom. But after the Protestant Reformation, all believers were now priests, and all their secular labours, now sacred.

If the religious language is off-putting, consider the same claim in a more secular idiom. Today, when money reigns supreme, we would say that it is not better to be make more money as a professional and less good to be a wage-earner. Everyone's job possesses equal value. Everyone has their part to play. 

So manual labour possesses an intrinsic dignity. It is good work, work worth doing, and so worth doing well. It is worth celebrating. But this is not to say that manual labour cannot still be dehumanizing. We read that the Almighty placed human beings in the pristine garden to cultivate it. We also read that he cursed human beings to toil by the sweat of their brows, after they ate an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The lesson seems to be that knowledge always comes with the price. If we would ‘master’ the world, we must toil as a consequence.

Dijkema wants us to see the dignity in manual labour, but he warns against forgetting that work is often ‘toilsome.’ The message is one that I heartily applaud. However, Dijkema's antipathy towards a Marxist analysis of class conflict seems to stunt the moral force of his argument. He is able to admit that manual labour can be toilsome, that it can be exploitative, that is can be dehumanizing; he is ultimately not able do say why these things are the case.

Witness: 1) Dijkema claims that manual labour possess an inherent dignity, but can be toilsome (and so without apparent meaning for the labourer).

Witness: 2) Dijkema claims that we often toil among 'thorns'--with appropriate biblical references to the Fall into Sin (Genesis 3) and to the Vanity of Vanities (Ecclesiastes 1).

But witness: 3) what Dijkema leaves out.

Both of these are true, so far as they go. The problem here, it seems to me, is that Dijkema never gets around to explaining why manual labour should possess an inherent dignity, which, by extension, would explain why it can often be so miserable. Dijkema wants us to celebrate manual labour (for God's sake), but never gets around to explaining what is in it for us. 

Is it not simply that labour, including manual labour, is meaningful because it allows us to secure the means for life? Labour puts food on the table, clothes on one's back, and a roof over one's head. The person who does not work, does not eat; or so the old saying goes. Whereas the person who does work is able to eat and (in our capitalist economy) more.

And is this not also the reason for why so much labour can seem meaningless? A lot of what counts as manual labour is menial in every sense of the term: it enables one to live, but hardly to live well. It finds persons going through the same motions, day after day after day. It dissociates the person who toils from the products of their labour, which serve the material interests of others. And that is if they can find a job. 

Now, this is not true across the board. A good number of professions that fall into the category of manual labour are paid quite well. These provide a sense of personal fulfillment and enable persons to live well. And, of course, if you are being paid well, maybe the need for a sense of personal fulfillment is not as high. You can go home at the end of the day and enjoy life with family and friends. 

But it is true in more than enough cases to warrant a skeptical read of a defense of any argument that seems to suggest a person ought to simply 'work-for-the-sake-of-working,' or force meaning of labour because God wants them to. This is disingenuous in the extreme, and forces one to wonder what god, in fact, is being served. If WE talk the talk of meaningful manual labour, then WE also have to walk the walk by paying a living wage for it.

That is the real discussion we should be having. Indeed, if you think that the human being is created in God's image, that is the only discussion you should even consider entertaining. 

I am vain enough to think that, deep down, Dijkema agrees with me. He just needs to let out that little Marxist living in each of us. Then he will be able to talk about the existential distance between what a person is and what a person does; to talk about how far out of sync these have to be in order to claim that persons are dehumanized. 

Also see: Menial Labour

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Presenting a Dissertation

There comes a time when every Ph.D. must present the contents of their dissertation.

Yes, this is as bad as it sounds. A dissertation can run from 250 to 300 double-spaced pages of text and upwards from there. At 300 words per page, that come out anywhere between 75,000 to 90,000 words or more. They aren't nice words either. A dissertation is a peculiar sort of technical writing that involves talking at the same thing from a wide variety of perspective. It is an ugly process, whose only product is cumbersome, laborious sentences, cobbled together paragraphs, inaptly named sub-sections, and on, and on, and on.

Presenting a dissertation is a rather different beast. Here one's ability to summarize matters. Why did they (in this case, me) write on topic X? What did I find interesting about topic X? More to the point: what will other people find interesting in topic X? And the kicker: what should other people take away from my dissertation? Succinct summaries are the order of the day. Time is money, and the rest of the world has very little of either.

Such questions are the bane of every Ph.D.'s existence. Most have to fight hard, I suspect, to stifle feelings of resentment about having to justify their dissertation at all. The academic's temptation is as it has always been: intellectual vanity. The temptation is visited doubly on the Ph.D., who at best is an academic in training. Like the accredited academic, they live in the space between ideas in a person's head and words on a page. But unlike accredited academic, they have not yet anything to actually be proud of.

The academic of 10, 15, or 20 years or more is justifiably proud of something. They have tangible accomplishments to point at. They did this, or wrote that. The Ph.D. only has thoughts, words, and maybe a few short papers, which, if they had more time, they could tidy up for publication. But in the larger scheme of things, they have nothing at all.

And this can be profoundly unsettling, and is probably mildly unsettling most of the time. The Ph.D. is bound to look around them at their accomplished supervisors. They will look a little further afield at friends, old and new, who have found gainful employment engaged in other non-academic things. Then look down at their own hands to see very little at all. The reason, of course, is that there actually is nothing in their hands. No degree (except for a undergraduate and a Masters, but who is counting those these days?), so no sale-able skillset (even if they are actually able to do things, like mentor students, teach classes, edit papers or articles, write), and no immediate prospect for income. Nothing that can be translated into an equivalent material value; nothing that can objectively justifies the price tag of the education. Not a damn thing.

Well, you say, that is what the presentation of the dissertation is about. That is why you pour years of your life--your blood, sweat, and tears, all your 'treasure'--into writing the dissertation. So that it can be...monetized.

But just think about what you are saying. All of that work needs to be compressed into a few short, snappy sentences, which might, just might, pique someone's interest. Like the proverbial rich man who has a better chance of going through the eye of needle than into the kingdom of heaven, the Ph.D. student's prospects never seemed so dismal.

Feelings of angst aside, there is an important moment of truth in the need to present one's dissertation. The reason why one presents one's dissertation is ready-to-hand. The academic-in-training (in this case, myself) needs to remind themselves of this for time to time. The academic life may be a life spent reading articles and books 99.999998% of the world will never even hear of. The academic may engage in conversations with other academics that are utterly unintelligible even to an educated audience. The academic nonetheless must communicate their work in some way to someone, anyone--just not to no one.

I will indulge my academic training for a moment. Ancient Greek philosophers made a lot of use of the term logos. The term meant something along the lines of 'reason' or 'rationality.' It referred both to ideas and words; that is, both to the ideas floating around in a person's head and the words they use to communicate those same ideas to other people.

The upshot of the dual-meaning was that you could have a rational (or logical) discussion with another person so long as recognized that there was an intrinsic connection between the ideas and the words used to communicate them. If other people were unable to make sense of your words, it might be that you were talking irrationally (or illogically). Or it might simply mean that you had spent a sufficient amount of time explaining yourself. The discussion would have to continue in order to clarify exactly where the difficulty lay. If other people were able to make sense of your words for themselves, then thoughts and words were in alignment. The discussion could come to an end. It had achieved its logos, its reason.

Refusing to present the contents of one's dissertation, in light of the Ancient Greek example, would amount to being irrational. Feeling resentment about having to justify the contents of their dissertation, while understandable, would also be irrational. One ultimate aim of a dissertation is not to develop a private language that unintelligible to everyone but yourself. You do your academic work in order to communicate its results--not to everyone, of course, but at the very least to a small groups of someones.

The point may seem a small and insignificant. Ask yourself a question, though, about how many people go about their days doing what they doing, without a thought about what it means to/for other people.

Most people, I suspect. Including aspiring academics. Would that more would do so.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Writing a Dissertation

If you asked me today whether I would put myself through the ordeal of writing a dissertation again, I would tell you to ask again in six months. That is when this soul-sucking process should be nearing its completion. Things may look different with the advantage of hindsight.

I can’t say with confidence today what I will tell you in six months. And that is an occasion for some soul-searching.

For those on the outside looking in, writing a liberal arts dissertation goes something like as follows. You have a collection of somebody else’s writings. You want to understand what that person wrote and why they wrote what they wrote. This goes beyond simply reiterating arguments. You analyze how one idea fits with another and/or implies still another, and you figure out what is assumed to make the arguments in the first place. And then you write it up so that other people understand why spending all the time that you did trying to understand and why it was a worthwhile endeavour.

In the process, you will have read some things over a hundred times. Other things you may only have glanced at once. And you will be plagued by the thought that you missed something important, something obvious, something a monkey would have seen.

That is not all. You will write certain things over and over and over again, trying to get the wording just right. You will wonder whether this section of the chapters makes sense coming before or after that section of the chapter. You will dread the thought of moving it around, because that means you have to rewrite the transition paragraphs.

When you are done, you will hold your life thus far, the sum of your efforts, your life’s work—even your life’s worth—in your hands, amounting to a small bundle of sheets, roughly 250–300 pages in total.

Did I mention that the group of people you write this document for is very small?

They can’t pay you enough for this shit. Not nearly.

Nor do they.

I cannot claim complete ignorance about the trials and tribulations that come with writing a dissertation. But now that I am in the thick of things, I can see that the view from the outside and the view from the inside are not in any final sense commensurable. The externals look much the same (the time, the effort, the faraway space-cadet look) regardless whether you are on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. However, the externals can only tell half the story—and not the important half.

The only good analogies that I can come up with for the experience of writing a dissertation are falling in love or believing in God. The dissertation may be talked about, even in the liberal arts these days, as the product of a lengthy program of research. Granted there is something to this characterization: it is far more programmatic than most anything else persons will write. But it is also of a much more personal endeavor than can be allowed by the language of the natural sciences. The dissertation writer (i.e. me) chooses to study something that interests them. They search for ‘ways’ into their materials. They look for interpretive ‘keys’ to unlock their meaning. They contrive summaries and illustrations to convey their message. Through it all, they will find themselves drawn along by some essential quality. And they must find a way to communicate its character to others.

This is very much, in fact, like the experience of falling in love or believing in God. Unless one shares these experience, the essential quality is almost impossible to convey. (Not that this has deterred philosophers and poets from trying.)

The experience of love provides the more straight-forward example. Love between two persons cannot be forced, though it can be nurtured over time. It is the ‘deepest’ part of one person in conversation with the ‘deepest’ part of another person. The superficial evidences of love, the stuff that other people get to see likes hand-holding, smiling, looks of concern, and even frustrations that visibly boil over, necessarily fail to do any justice to the experience.

The experience of love can also be deeply alienating. If you fail to understand the basic motivations behind my thinking or feeling as I do about the one I love, then you and I are not likely to see eye to eye. This is likely to be occasion for pain and/or separation. Belief in God, or more generally belief in the divine, functions in much the same way. (Not without reason has it been said that God is love.) The quality of a person’s belief and/or disbelief in God is ultimately only communicable with person’s who believes on similar terms. To believe very differently very easily creates the conditions for mistrust, or even animosity.

But there is a significant difference between loving another person or believing in God and writing a dissertation. With a dissertation, one contends, not with other persons, but with your own self.

The experience is thoroughly disagreeable. There are words on the page. They are your words (or, in this case, my words). But they are not saying quite what you want them say. The mental image in your head has become blurred in the transition from thoughts to words on a page. Not completely lost, of course. The outline remains vaguely discernible. But the sentences and paragraphs on the page don’t cohere like they did in your head.

My experience has been that the further I get into the material—reading, taking notes, writing, re-writing, etc.—the more I become susceptible to irrational outbursts at imagined foes. If the words on the page don’t quite look like the thoughts in my head, my first, unbidden response is usually to find blame with someone else. For example: one of the other persons who works on the same material that I am working on. I disagree with them, but I can’t quite express in words why it is they are wrong. So anger flares up at them, provoked by my own inability to express my thoughts in words.

Think about it in this way. Someone who is writing a dissertation is carrying around in their head images and impressions of many other people, who they are trying to weave together into a coherent picture (usually of one person in particular). In those moments they are not actually reading or writing or doing something other obviously productive thing—the sort of stuff the rest of the world thinks is productive—titanic battles are being waged, often just below the surface of their conscious attention.

That is why someone who is writing a dissertation stalks around rooms aimlessly, can’t quite meet your eyes, or is generally morose all the time. They are engaged in mock battles with images of other persons. But those other persons turn out to be your own self; or, in this case, myself.

As I said earlier, a soul-sucking process.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas in a Time of Culture War

It is that time of year again: Christmastime. To paraphrase Dickens (though not from A Christmas Carol), it is the best of times, and also the worst of times. The time when holidays are exhausting, the people you spend it with tiring, and the inevitable return to work depressing. Just like every other time of year, in fact, only more so.

It is also the time of year when a small but vocal sub-section of the population lament the fact that no one seems to remember 'the reason for the season.'

You may know of whom I refer to: the cultural warriors.

They are the one's who want to put Christ back into Christmas, to rescue it from rampant consumerism. Or they want to take Christ out of Christmas because it has become much too commercialized.

The semantic argument neatly parallels the cultural criticism. If Christ is in Christmas, that is because the word itself contains a historical trace of things that once were, namely, the celebration of Christ's mass--or Crīstesmæsse in ye Olde English  And if Christ has been lost to the celebration of Christmas, that is because people now find themselves animated by baser motivations, like the desire for new toys, new clothes, and, with a little less frequency, books. New game consoles, electronic devices, or perhaps just straight-up cash, to be spent however the recipient so desires, are also possibilities.

The rest of the population--tucked comfortably in their secular beds in the feigned hope that a rotund gentleman in a red suit, the memory of Eastern Orthodox saint, which was revived by a major soft drink producer in the first half of the 20th century, will shimmy down the chimney--wonder what all the huff and puff is about. Live and let live, they say. It's is all just stories, anyway. What really matter is that you enjoy the time you have, and with family, if you have them.

Welcome to Christmas in a time of culture war. The culture warriors wag their collective finger at the rest of the population, who happily mold the holiday to their secular ends. They pit the virtues of faith against the indifference of reason; the will to believe against the tepid bath that is common sense. The battle is fought almost exclusively, and certainly ineffectually, from one side, to the great annoyance of the other.

Christmas in a time of culture war is more accurately described as Christmas in a time of material plenty. The capitalist organization of the economy is real miracle here. (No really, it is.) The competitive organization of the marketplace has freed persons to improve their material lot through their own creative industry. This translates, in turn, to an increase in financial resources, which can be invested back into one's own business, or can be used to purchase things things like food, clothing, shelter, or, in line with our theme, Christmas presents.

Consumption, even conspicuous consumption during the holiday season (when, we are reminded, business either makes or breaks its yearly budget), is the engine driving the entire operation. Consumption drives a cycle of economic expansion, which rains blessing on the masses. But, if the culture warriors are to be believed, the cycle is one with vicious moral and spiritual consequences. Market economics and capitalist finance has endowed its beneficiaries with more personal freedoms than has hitherto been known anywhere on earth. We no longer have to wait on others to give us gifts, which we don't deserve anyway. Now, like the proverbial self-made man who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, we can buy gifts for ourselves--the sort that we really do deserve.

The consequence of material plenty is the schizophrenia of culture war.

Think it over for a moment. The old Christmas stories are typically set in economically trying times. This is as true in the Gospel narratives as it is in Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The stories are about the needy and vulnerable, just trying to eek out an existence on the edge of civilized life. Or think of the Christmas Truce on Christmas Eve in 1914, when 100,000 British and German soldiers decided singing Christmas carols and playing football (i.e. soccer) with the enemy was better than depriving him or breathe and life. The context makes the act of giving especially poignant.

At Christmas in a time of material plenty calls to serve God instead of Mammon amount to the pot calling the kettle black. There are poor people surrounding us on all sides. But they are not the one's vocalizing their displeasure with consumerism. The ones who feels the pin-prick of conscience are the one who raises their voice.

But the Christmas story is more 'secular' and so more materialistic than the cultural warriors allow. The accounts of Jesus' birth Matthew 2 and Luke 2 contain no message condemning material goods nor calls to stand apart from the rest of consumerist culture. Quite the opposite. In Matthew 2, The Magi bring expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the boy-child in Bethlehem. In Luke 2, this parents dutifully go to Bethlehem to register in the Roman census, but, as the story goes, find no room in the local inn, and are forced to settle for a manger in a stable. The image painted is rustic, not ascetic. It is not a matter of denying oneself the goods one can afford, but in being grateful for the gifts that one cannot.

And finally, there is the general question of what the Christmas story is supposed to amount to. The Gospel of John does not have an explicit account of the the birth of Jesus. But its prologue (John 1) does retell the creation narrative in Genesis 1 in the light of Jesus' coming. It describes how 'the Word became flesh' and 'made his dwelling with us.' The latter phrase could also be rendered as 'tabernacling' or 'tenting' with us. There is no escaping that the meaning of the phrase is thoroughly materialistic. God 'tents it' with humanity precisely by taking on humanity's ruder, material nature. In other words, God is the quintessential consumer who likes stuff just for the sake of liking stuff--the stuff we are made of, the stuff we have, and so on.

The lesson in all of this, I suppose, is that if the cultural warrior finds their material needs more than satisfied this Christmas, they should donate something to charity and/or shut up. Bemoaning the fact that other people either have forgotten about or don't know the 'reason for the season' is only to put one's own self-righteousness on display. And no one wants that.  It is Christmastime, after all.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Quebec Charter Troubles

A closer look at the Bill 60, the so-called 'Quebec Charter of Values', has me scratching my head. I don't claim to be a legal expert. I probably don't have the correct technical vocabulary at my disposal. Still, I can't help but think that the Charter's proposed amendments to the Preamble and Section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom (1976) with a lengthy reference to the values it promulgates--values things like 'state secularism' and 'religious neutrality', etc.--has overstepped some legal limit or violated some legal precedent. From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), to the American Bill of Rights (1789), to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms itself, no one seems to have thought it necessary to enshrine the secularity of the state.*

That is very strange. That is so strange, in fact, it deserves a moment's pause. Every single one of these other documents are bona fide 'secular' documents. They are 'the real deal' as far as pieces of secular legislation go. So why the difference?

My honest answer is that I don't know. I have my suspicions, of course. What I don't have is the knowledge or resources at hand to provide an exhaustive literature review. The best I can do is list a few things that come to mind.

My leading suspicion is that in amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the PQ government has not the foggiest idea for what exactly bills/charters of rights are traditionally intended. Such documents were drafted for the protection of individual citizens against the arbitrary depredations of the state's representatives. Such documents are made law so that everyone plays by the same rules--and so, by extension, persons in position of authority don't abuse the authority the state delegates to them to see that its business is carried out.

It would never occur to the drafters of these bills/charters of rights to define the state as secular because their character is already intrinsically secular. It is in the very thing they give formal definition: that every single person possesses something like 'inherent dignity' and 'inalienable rights', which cannot be altered by any 'external' consideration--like a physical or mental handicap, or physical appearance or choice of clothing, or the sorts of groups they associated with, to name but a few possibilities.

By adding reference to the secularity of the state to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Charter of Values seems to fall into the error of treating the state as if it were an individual, whose dignity and rights needed protecting. But protection from what or whom? Other individuals?

When a state has enshrined its own secular character alongside the dignity and rights of individuals, it seems to me something has gone very wrong. The state outsizes all the other persons in the room. In practical terms, the law no longer protects the 'inherent dignity' and 'intrinsic rights' of individuals qua individuals, but privileges individuals qua some external consideration or other.

While I have no objection to the Quebec government legislating for the protection French language and culture, using the Charter of Values to amend the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms seems to be the wrong way to go about things.

The latter Charter is a great deal less free, after all, when the former Charter requires the following caveat is made:

“In exercising those freedoms and rights, a person shall also maintain a proper regard for the values of equality between women and men and the primacy of the French language, as well as the separation of religions and State and the religious neutrality and secular nature of the State, while making allowance for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.”


*A friend of mine pointed at that the French Constitution of 1958 actually does make explicit reference to the secular character of the state. I note it also makes reference to the French language. The more I think about this, the more 'French' the Quebec Charter of Values looks, and the more Anglophone my thought processes appear.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The PQ's Catholic Hangover

The Quebec Charter of Values, otherwise known as the controversial Bill 60, is a peculiarly Catholic document. The irony ought not be lost on anyone. The document is essentially a lengthy reflection, in the form of a piece of proposed legislation, on the nature of secularism. It holds up as an ideal the separation of 'religion' and 'state', but ends up perpetuating a very Catholic notion of secularity. The long arm of the Catholic Church, it seems, still exerts its influence long after the Quiet Revolution. The evidence is there for everyone to see in Chapter 1, Section 1, in which the state's secularity is affirmed except in instances related to Quebec 'cultural heritage that testify to its history'. But that is only a superficial matter. The influence of Catholicism runs much deeper.

The idea of religious beliefs propagated in the contemporary media is of truth claims that can be easily disproved by the methods of natural science. Evangelical creationism falls into this category, as does a general disbelief in miraculous occurrences. Other examples of this way of characterizing religion can easily be found. But this is to misrepresent broad sweeps of religious belief and practice. The idiom that religious beliefs, in particular the 'ethical monotheisms' Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, more naturally make their home is that of political theory, of law and contract, of judgment and negotiation. The practical expression of what are sometimes undoubtedly abstruse metaphysical claims respecting God are found in relations between persons. Hence sacred texts stipulate morality, lay out a general order for relations between rulers and subjects, and advocate for the materially disadvantaged.

Different religious traditions nonetheless are constituted by different emphases. In the Western world, for example, there are very generally speaking two forms of atheism: Protestant atheism and  Catholic atheism. These engender two very different responses to religion. The basic difference comes down to how authority is understood to be mediated to individual, whether in the form of a text (like the Bible) or in the form of a person (like a priest or bishop). On the whole, Protestantism tends to be more textually-oriented, whereas Catholicism has a much more clerical focus. Hence, when persons with a Protestant background embrace atheism, it tends to be an atheism of a more cerebral sort, which hones in on the 'irrationalities' of religious belief. While, when persons with a Catholic background reject the faith, their rejection tends to assume an anti-clerical form.

The same sort of logic applies to how one understands secularism. Protestant secularism tends to be more abstract, to concern itself with how a person thinks, rather than with how a person appears. As long as a person's outlook regarding the public sphere lines up with the rest of us secularly-minded folk, they can think what they want (within reasonable limits) and wear what they want (at the risk of drawing stares). On the other hand, Catholic secularism assumes the aforementioned anti-clerical form and fixates on the manifestation of authority. The differences between Catholic and Protestant secularism, of course, are not hard and fast. But I find the difference of priorities between Francophone and Anglophone communities too uncanny to pass by without comment.

The sorts of things being proposed in the Charter should now come into clearer focus.

The main task of the Charter is to legislate how the representatives of the sovereign authority shall manifest its secular nature. It identifies both the covering of the human face and the overt display of religious symbols as fundamentally contrary to state secularism. Persons in the employ of the provincial government, who are the visible manifestations of its authority, are instructed to remove any offending garment or decoration in the prosecution of their duties.

Notably, I think, the Charter does not bother to define what secularism is, nor what religion is, nor what the religious neutrality of a secular state is. The only concrete statements it makes regards how the employees of the provincial government ought to appear while the dispense with their duties. The rest is simply assumed.

So Catholicism continues to leave its negative impress on Quebec politics. Proof is found in Anglophone exasperation over what is perceived to be the unfair targeting of Muslim women under the thin veil of disinterested secular state. Anglophones cannot understand why what a person wears matters as much as it does, nor why it commands as much support as it seems to have among Francophones. Whereas persons like Premier Pauline Marois and Minister Bernard Drainville seem genuinely perplexed why anyone would oppose the idea of a employees of the provincial government conforming to some basic secular standard of dress.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Another Quebec Referendum in the Works?

In the distant recesses of my memory, there is a vague recollection of 100,000 Anglophones traveling to Montreal to tell Francophones that a united Canada needed the province of Québec in order to be whole.

The large-hearted gesture seems to have had the desired effect. The referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1995 was settled with a decisive 51% voting against leaving the federal union of Canada. I remember commenting to one of my high school friends that a second defeat meant the sovereignty movement was now likely to disappear entirely from the Canadian political landscape.

At the time, I had no notion that I would ever make a home in Québec. The province, for all intents and purposes, was a foreign country. But it was something I was taught about in Canadian history class or learned about reading Canadian history books. In my mind, as a Canadian--which, as an Ontarian, is how I thought myself--I identified with Quebecers because they too were Canadian.

It did not matter that I had never (at least to my knowledge) met a Quebecers. The stories were enough to sustain the mental connection. On the Plains of Abraham, my heart was with the valiant Montcalm, not perfidious Wolfe; just as it was with stalwart Brock on Queenstown Heights, not the American invader. That Canada was an anachronism in both these instances mattered not one bit. Montcalm the Frenchmen and Brock the Englishmen stood for what would become Canada. So also with the French habitants and the Loyalist settlers in the Maritimes and Ontario. They stood for the Canada I inherited, and so they were both my figurative ancestors. (I cannot be the only person who grew up thinking this way.)

My Canada is bilingual and multicultural. My Canada embraced more than my lingually-challenged and culturally flat-footed self ever could be. At the same time, living in Montreal the past 4.5 years has allowed idea of Canada to mature. I now recognize my Romantic idea of Quebeckers was the idea of an Ontarians--an Anglophone's vision of what Francophones should be.

Yesterday Premier Pauline Marois has called a provincial election on what nearly every observer and political commentator agrees are identity issues. The PLQ staked their political fortunes on the so-called Charter of Québec Values. The reasons appear entirely cynical. After the PLQ won its minority government, its movement in the polls was flat. And then, for causes that appear inexplicable to an Anglophone, the party's prospects immediately improved after they found their wedge issue.

Whether Marois' thought processes were essentially cynical is a chicken and egg question. Which came first? The PLQ's Charter of Québec Values, or the voter's desire for something like it? By fixating our attention on the actions of a few individuals on top, we risk misunderstanding the dynamics on the ground.

For the moment, the Charter seems to have done its work. The time has been judge right for the PLQ to seek its majority in the provincial legislature. That, by calling an early election, Marois is backtracked on a resolution from last year to fix the date of the next election is immaterial at this point. Whether she is perceived to have used the election to avoid testifying before a legislature committee to her involvement in her husband's alleged misuse of government funds may not be. The Liberals and there CAQ are both likely to use these barbs to great effect.

But, as strange as it sounds, Québec is the one place in North American where it's not the economy: it's identity, stupid! Campaigning on the virtues of the Charter seems also the perfect way to test the waters for a future referendum. It is a way to change the political conversation, and even to generate future support. The PLQ can also count on the fact that the rest of Canada's attitude towards Québec has changed significantly in the last two decades. One hundred thousand Anglophone's are not making the trip to Montreal this time around.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Story: The Coronation of Charlemagne

On Christmas Day in the year 800, the Frankish king Charles the Great, who better known as Charlemagne, was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor.

Christmas stories are various and sundry. There are children’s stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the scriptural narratives of Jesus’ birth, or morality tales like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story of Charles’ coronation stands apart from the rest by being both factual and mainly a matter of academic discussion.

Unlike Rudolf or Scrooge, Charles is an actual historical figure. Unlike Jesus, the contested meaning of his earthly life does not inspire cultural crusaders to draw up battle lines. Though impressive in his own right, Charles cuts a rather mundane figure across the backdrop of human history. With so many other impressive figures from which to choose, he easily slips from view.

But this is not to say his story should not be taken down from the shelf and dusted off once and awhile.

The details of his are uncontroversial. Charles entered St. Peters to celebrate Christmas mass. While kneeling before the altar, Pope Leo III placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him the Holy Roman emperor.

No one contests that a coronation took place on Christmas Day in the year 800. Owing to the distance in time and the scanty amount of evidence presently available, however, the meaning of the coronation is not entirely clear. Was the coronation the brainchild of the king or the pope? Which party stood to benefit? His biographer Einhard tells us that Charles was caught unawares when the pope named him emperor. Doubtless this was a well-crafted piece of political theatre. The humble king may be seen by all not to have sought this high office. The pope, as the exalted head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, raises another up to oversee the mundane, worldly affairs of Christendom—its administration, defense, and the like, so that he could get back to the business of shepherding men’s souls to their eternal home. Both the ends of Church and State were served.

Now, since he already had a kingdom, Charles gained nothing but a title in his coronation. The oldest son of Pepin the Short, he was co-ruler of the Franks with his brother Carloman from 768-771. Just as war between the siblings seemed about to break out, Carloman died from what were apparently natural causes. The source materials give us no reason to suspect any misdeed on Charles’ part. Nor would we expect them to. It is almost inconceivable that any medieval historian would begin the narrative of the reign of so successful of king as Charles with betrayal and murder. Lacking evidence, we may only gesture into a speculative void about what was actually the case.

But it is fairly easy to infer from the events of his life that Charles wanted an empire--and by implication the title that went along with it. Much of his life was spent in the saddle. He saw action in present-day France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Everywhere the borders of his realm were extended, northwards into Saxony, southward beyond Barcelona, and eastward towards the Danube. To his credit, Charles was also responsible for a series of economic, monetary, educational, and ecclesiastical reforms. These efforts were collectively responsible for the brief flowering of Frankish culture known as the Carolingian Renaissance. They could not have been affected, except for the support Charlemagne lent to the Church and to its institutional reform.

Ties between the Frankish court and the papal curia grew apace. The Church was a source of both clerical (i.e. religious) and clerical (i.e. administrative) support. So when Pope Leo fled Rome in 799, he went to Charles for help regaining the papal throne. Charles made his way to Rome in November of 800 at the head of an army. And a little more than a month later, at Christmas mass in St. Peters, Leo crowned him Imperator Romanorum, ‘Emperor of the Romans’. The moment had a double significance: it restored to the West the imperial authority that had departed three centuries earlier to Constantinople in the East; and it formally severed ties that had already been severed in practice with the Roman (read: Byzantine) Empress Irene in Constantinople. The material resources of the Eastern Roman Empire had long since become insufficient to maintain the temporal holdings of the Church in Rome proper against the depredations of the Lombard lords. The Western Church needed a Western champion.

Einhard claims Charles had no knowledge of the pope’s intention, and would not have agreed if he had: ‘[H]e at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.’

As we call know, every Christmas story ought to have a moral. That being the case, we must search for moral to the story of Charles’ imperial coronation.

Perhaps we might see in Charles’ coronation a caution against confusing the jurisdictions of Church and State. The pairing of Charles and his biographer Einhard are strikingly similar to Constantine and his biographer Eusebius. The latter pair has come under considerable criticism in recent centuries for drawing the politics and religion closer together than our modern liberal sensibilities are comfortable with. We might also draw a salutatory lesson about the grand pretensions of political theatre. The vociferous claims Charles made about not having wanted an imperial mantle do not pass the smell test.  The formal imperial inauguration only confirmed in theory what had already come to pass in practice.

These assessments contain a measure of truth in them; but they both go against the grain of human history. Time always moves forward, even as we look back and assess from where exactly we have come. The past was no different. Whatever judgment we pass against Charles must be made with this in mind.

So we ought to judge Charles against his predecessors, just as we must judge ourselves against our predecessors—one of whom among was Charles. 

The appropriate comparison is made with the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Babylon, and the emperors of Rome. Set alongside their imperial rhetoric, Charles’ denial to have sought an imperial mantle is startling. It matters very little, in this light, whether Charles’ display of humility was only pretense. What matters was that pretense was necessary in the first place. Over the course of a millennium, the basic forms of political legitimation had been entirely inverted. The rulers of the ancient empires claimed to be gods or sons of gods. At least in theory, even if theory was not completely realized in practice, they were the all-powerful manifestations of divinity on earth. They were the soul animating the body politic; the lives of men were theirs to dispense with as they saw fit. The degree of divinity to which a ruler in the ancient could lay claim, in fact, appears a function of the density, size, and sophistication of the civilization. The larger the political entity, the more precarious its existence; which meant that the measure of authority required to maintain a political entity increased exponentially, until it became only natural for kings to liken themselves to gods.

A clear division between Church and State is the first indication that something fundamental had changed in the transposition from the Ancient into the Medieval worlds. The authority of the gods over men is no longer concentrated in a single person; it is differentiated into separate forms, which serve to limit each other. The key to the transposition is in the pretended humility. The basic form of authority in the Ancient world was of the gods over men. Whereas the basic form of authority in the Medieval world was of God become man, and more precisely, a vulnerable infant. The actual exercise of authority may still entail the command of one man over the rest, but, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, it now slouches towards Bethlehem.