Sunday, January 27, 2013

The New Agnosticism; or, Screwing Around With Previously Respected Humanistic Disciplines: a review of James Wood's lecture "The New Atheism and the Modern Novel"

A little over two weeks ago I listened to a lecture by James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, entitled “The New Atheism and the Modern Novel.” For those of you who did not attend, here is basically a copy of the lecture. Everything he said was contained verbatim in one of these two essays. Take a few minutes to read them before proceeding.

Have you finished? Good. Now for the airing of grievances.

My initial problem with the lecture was on account of the dates. You will notice that the two pieces date from the summer of 2011. It is now January 2013, and nothing has changed. Now, I have no problem with an academic lecturer giving the same talk multiple times in different places several months apart. Nor do I have a problem with an academic giving a lecture at about the same time it appears in print.  But delivering a piece a year and a half after putting it in print is suspect. To be sure, if the lecture's argument is sophisticated, or if the lecturer is an engaging public speaker, this mitigates the situation. What matters in attending a lecture is that you leave knowing something that you could not have known going in, or needed a refresher on going in.

Wood's lecture did not do that. His lecture consisted of three main points, summarized as follows:

1.   The New Atheist screeds are not capable of adequately treating the doubt, fluctuation, ambiguity, incoherence, and even absurdity that comes with practicing a life of faith.
2.   Novels are.
3.   Isn't that great?

Now, I agree with all of these. Even so, these insights require little critical discernment, and they are not substantially developed further in the course of either of the essays that form the lecture. Wood calls out the New Atheists on several counts: that they have not made any real intellectual developments since Bertrand Russell (save the addition of evolutionary neuropsychobiology to their arsenal), that they take the text of the Bible far more literally than it deserves, and that they have a lack of sympathy to a life of faith. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Wood's understanding of faith and theology is any more sophisticated than that of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. The reasons he gives for why he lost his faith are unconvincing. For instance, his understanding of unanswered prayers is naïve. The argument is that if God exists, surely He will answer prayers. I do not recall an answered prayer; therefore I see no evidence that God exists. “If you pray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies, your prayer was not answered.” What Wood does not grasp is that the prayers for the lives of the cancer-stricken congregation members were answered—in the negative. A negative answer to a prayer is often painful. But why should God, of all persons, not be allowed to say no? The prayers were answered, only not in a way that Wood was hoping for.

Wood falls victim to at least one vice of the New Atheists that he does not mention: the refusal to give propositions of faith their due. There is a facile glibness about the essays that is irritating to someone who takes religion seriously. “To worship Christ...was to worship the bastard child (in the strict sense of the word) of an absolute bastard (in the vernacular sense of the word)” is a line that could have been filched straight from Hitchens. The closer Wood gets to central Christian tenets, the shallower appears his grasp of their importance for the believer. For instance, giving “you must change your life” as a gloss on John 3:5 is about as accurate as glossing John 15:13 with “love hurts.” You need a savior to be born again; you can use a therapist, twelve-step program, or a little willpower to change your life. Wood thus reduces a supernatural mystery to a self-help slogan. This is essentially to say that a sinner does not need salvation. He just needs to make better choices. Were this all Jesus meant when he spoke to Nicodemus in John 3, then the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were overkill.

If his take on soteriology seems thin, his take on the Resurrection completely misses the point. Consider his account of the debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams over whether or not the Resurrection “actually happened.” He sums up his view by saying “Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God's presence in the world, God's intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.” For those of us looking for a definite answer to this problem, Wood answers, “there couldn't be one.” Really, he is not interested in the Resurrection as a possible fact. Wood sees the discussion about the proper use of language, as though that is all the Resurrection can be. This may be an adequate position for an atheistic literary critic, but the Christian believer must believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As St. Paul observes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17). In attempting to reduce the question of the Resurrection to a difference about metaphors, Wood is just as reductionist as the New Atheists themselves.

Wood is also strangely silent about the matter of how to read the Bible. We are to avoid exclusively literal readings, but how should we properly read and understand Sacred Scripture? The only view Wood seems to give as a favorable alternative is to read the Bible as you would “any other book,” and I would guess that Wood has the novel in mind. This proposition will not work. In the first place, there is no one way to read a novel. More importantly, no accepted critical methods of reading treat the text as a final authority. No one believes that Melville provides salvation, nor does any reader dogmatically claim that The Brothers Karamazov is the authoritative novel, whatever that would mean. If we read the Bible as a novel, we are deciding to read it as still one more book that we need not submit to. We would also be reading it as a work of fiction, which means that we would already be prepared to exclude one possible result of our reading: that these events happened and are true. Finally, one important tenet of Christianity divides the Bible from other texts—the Bible's divine inspiration. Christians take the Bible to be the Word of God; that is to say, they expect God to reveal Himself through a reading of these particular texts. That is to say, when you read the Bible, there will be divine power at work in the act of reading and comprehending. By contrast, no one invokes the Holy Spirit when reading Proust or Salinger, unless he has an exam the following day. To read the Bible as a novel, then, is to not read it as a believer, or at least to read it without entertaining the possibility that it contains divine truth. The Gospels, for instance, do not ask for merely sympathetic readers; they ask for readers who want to know more about Jesus.

With a little closer examination, Wood's argument that the modern novel treats the religious life with more nuance is less clear. His chief supporting claim is that novelists are interested in seeing both sides of a theological argument. The two examples he comes back to are Dostoevsky on the Christian side, and Jens Peter Jacobsen on the atheistic side. Dostoevsky creates the atheist Ivan Karamazov, who adeptly argues against Dostoevsky's own belief; conversely, Jacobsen creates a character who argues for the truths of Christianity. This notion of “both sides” also applies to the novelists' use of language. As studies of language itself has become murkier in the 20th century, modern writers are also seldom literalists, being interested in metaphors, images, and religious language.

It is strange, though, why Wood stresses the modern novel in particular as the primary repository of insight into the modern practice of faith. There are other areas of thought and literature that provide such insights. Many modern poets are God-worried: Baudelaire, Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Auden, and Bowers come to mind. Or, to step away from literature for a moment, there is no mention of modern theology as a possible source of investigating the religious life. It is not as though theologians are not interested in problems of doubt. Wood's citation of Cardinal Newman is an example. We might also mention St. Augustine's reflections on his godless period in the Confessions or the influential description of the dark night of the soul by St. John of the Cross. Or that the Summa Theologica entertains the possibility from the outset that God does not exist. Or, for a layman's perspective, the despondency of C.S. Lewis after his wife's death from cancer. Theologians have been very interested in possible objections to their doctrine and can give voice to doubts strongly. This might make us wonder what, in the treatment of faith, the novel can give us that theology cannot.

One possible answer to the question is fairly simple: the novelist can give a representation of lived faith. Theology deals in explication and examination abstractly, while the novel deals with the details of lived reality. But there is a subtle problem with this: simply presenting the details of lived reality is not necessarily an improvement for someone seeking theological insight. Here is a passage from a modern novel that Prof. Wood gave as a fine example of a modern novelist exploring questions of faith and doubt. As this is the sole departure of the lecture from the published essays, I quote the passage from László Krasznahorkai's War and War (1999) in its entirety.

...because he didn't feel like going home to an empty apartment on his birthday, and it really was extremely sudden, the way it struck him that, good heavens, he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ's sake, nothing at all about the world, which was a most terrifying realization, he said, especially the way it came to him in all its banality, vulgarity, at a sickeningly ridiculous level, but this was the point, he said, the way that he, at the age of forty-four, had become aware of how utterly stupid he seemed to himself, how utterly blockheaded he had been in his understanding of the world these last forty-four years, for as he realised by the river, he had not only misunderstood it, but had not understood anything about anything, the worst part being that for forty-four years he thought he had understood it, while in reality he had failed to do so; and this in fact was the worst thing of all that night of his birthday when he sat alone by the river, the worst because the fact that he now realised that he had not understood it did not mean that he did understand it now, because being aware of his lack of knowledge was not in itself some new form of knowledge for which an older one could be traded in, but one that presented itself as a terrifying puzzle the moment he thought about the world, as he most furiously did that evening, all but torturing himself in the effort to understand it and failing, because the puzzle seemed ever more complex and he had begun to feel that this world-puzzle that he was so desperate to understand, that he was torturing himself trying to understand was really the puzzle of himself and the world at once, that they were in effect one and the same thing, which was the conclusion he had so far reached, and he had not yet given upon it, when after a couple of days, he noticed that there was something the matter with his head.

Upon hearing this for the first time, my first thought was that, in terms of technique alone, this is no advance on Joyce or Faulkner. Neither of them would have used that intrusive “he said,” even if the fragment were a verbalization of the narrator's thought. But, more importantly, the kind of thought process detailed in this narration is not very profound. The gist of the passage is that, after 44 years, it dawns on the narrator that he is no closer to understanding the world than before. This is not an insight that requires a convoluted narration as given. Many less reflective minds have reached this conclusion in fewer words. Nothing new is given here, and certainly nothing particularly subtle. Why it needs to be said at all, and at such length, is the true mystery of this passage.

There is a more unsettling side to Wood's emphasis on the modern novel, having to do with his emphasis on the modern—and by modern, he means after 1850. The century and a half between Melville, Flaubert, and Baudelaire and the rise of the New Atheism is a rather small span of time in literary history. It is not as though previously there were no fiction writers bold enough to depict the doubts and inconsistencies of the life of faith or the role of religion in life. A dozen names can show the variety of pre-1850 views on religion: Boethius, Dante, Chaucer, Rabelais, Montaigne, Donne, Herbert, Milton, Racine, Bunyan, Voltaire, and Goethe. And this is just a restriction to the Christian religion; we could look at the relationship of man to the gods in Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Lucretius, and Virgil. None of these names are mentioned, even though I would argue that all of them have more insight into the problems besetting the religious consciousness than Krasznahorkai. Wood's literary consciousness seems telescoped to the most recent phase of modernity. What is puzzling about this is that he seems somewhat oblivious of that being the case. At any rate, he does not explain why he begins with Melville and Flaubert and passes over Dante and Bunyan, whose respective treatments of the Christian life were, in my opinion, equally sophisticated (and in the case of Dante, matchless). This, I think, is one of the cardinal weaknesses of the lecture as a lecture, that his central claim is explained by name-dropping rather than a clearly defined reason. Even if he had said something as outlandish as “the modern novel is a better place to find nuanced depiction of the life of faith because, around 1850, the Emperor Xarphon of Glendix-5 implanted this idea in the heads of several Earth humanoids,” at least it would have been a reason that could be argued with.

I would venture at least two possible reasons for why Wood makes the claim he does. One is that the technique of the novel improved significantly at about that time; more specifically, novelists became better at depicting the inner workings of character's minds in prose that allowed them to make finer distinctions. We could investigate the merits of such a claim by comparing novelists of different time periods. It would be a mammoth exercise in comparative literature, but it would be worthwhile. Of course the claim would not be proved thoroughly in an hour-long lecture with other subjects, but a brief outline of an argument could be sketched. The difficulty with this reason as it pertains to the lecture is that Wood does not focus very much on the form of the writers, but more on the content. The example of Krasznahorkai is telling; the style of his longest example of doubt in fiction is graceless. I am thus disinclined to believe that he restricts his attention to novelists after 1850 because he finds their style better.

My second proffered reason is that he believes the religious content of many post-1850 writers to be an improvement over their predecessors, for a simple reason: modern novelists are more prone to doubt. Or, to put it more bluntly, the only way that an intelligent modern writer can relate to religion is by doubting it. This would explain his selective literary memory. His list of modern writers consists almost wholly of atheists or agnostics. His treatment of Dostoevsky is the exception that proves the rule. Dostoevsky may appear on the side of faith, but for one interested in traditional religion, it is a very qualified affirmation. Most of the religious figures in The Brothers Karamazov are not given terribly sympathetic treatment. The faith of Alyosha seems more rooted in feeling than reason. Ivan's doubts are never resolved satisfactorily, and they bring Ivan to madness. One might fancifully say that an appropriate image for Ivan's end would be the Dark Wood in which Dante comes to himself at the start of Inferno--that is to say, Dostoevsky ends in 1880 where Dante began in 1310. Dostoevsky's relationship to faith is certainly more ambiguous than Dante's or Bunyan's.

What I see as Wood's tacit claim that, rephrased in the words of Yvor Winters, “a Christian no longer possible for an intelligent man,” is doubtful simply by looking at the literary scene beyond his own roll-call. Many writers from 1850 and beyond were able to come up with sensitive treatments of doubt while affirming traditional religion and morality, and it is outright misleading not to mention them or minimize their importance. There is much mention of Melville, but no mention of Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jacobsen gets a lot of space, but none goes to his compatriot Kierkegaard. The names of G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy are left out, to say nothing of more obvious names such as C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even writers who are atheists but defend the Church are not mentioned, such as the lapsed Catholics James Joyce or Anthony Burgess. (I find it significant that he mentions absolutely no Catholic novelists.) But for me, the most glaring omission from the ranks of modern novelists is Flannery O'Connor. Her two novels feature protagonists who are dragged into faith kicking and screaming, and they kick forcefully and scream loudly. The presence and mystery of God is everywhere in Flannery O'Connor, but so is rejection and doubt. O'Connor was no purveyor of mealy-mouthed pieties rooted in blind faith; more than any other writer, in fact, she recognizes that adequate skepticism requires a kind of faith. As she wrote in a letter to the poet Alfred Corn, “What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don't bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.”

I will quote two other important excerpts from this letter to Corn (dated May 30, 1962), for they directly relate to Wood's lecture. Two paragraphs after the quote given above, she writes, “Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there.” Wood mentions that Melville said something similar, that the ocean rises and falls like a human conscience. The difference, though, lies in the simple clause, “It's there.” Faith has a constancy in O'Connor that Melville does not have and that Wood wants to imagine as impossible for someone with intellect. O'Connor also writes, “To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you.” Wood's method seems to be the exact opposite: if you are going to find out about faith, the last people you want to talk to are the people who believe it and practice it. Better to leave them off; they actually believe what they're saying is true, which is not what an allegedly intelligent man is looking for.

I do not want to criticize Wood merely because he is not a Christian. Yet when he takes issue with the New Atheists because of their refusal to grant the value of religious faith, and then proceeds to treat religious faith glibly and omit authors that affirm thoughtful faith rather than doubt, he appears two-faced and one-sided. Wood is certainly no New Atheist, but he is very much what I would call a New Agnostic, someone who maintains a sense of glib detachment about the limits of our certain knowledge regarding propositions of faith. The problem, though, is that the New Agnosticism is just like the old agnosticism that Chesterton pilloried in The Ball and the Cross, a murky, indistinct substitute for robust belief or unbelief.

Finally, Wood's conclusion was underwhelming. It might be interesting to examine more closely the effect of the high modern novel on subsequent theological criticism. But what Wood really wants to examine is the high modern tendency to make a religion of the aesthetic, and this is something that has been explored and, I think, exploded. To find a substitute for religion in art has been tried and found wanting. To set up artistic appreciation as a substitute for faith leads, in the end, to appreciation alone. But mere appreciation, as an end in itself, without clearly defined standards, will lead to the decadence of Swinburne and Wilde or the empty rhetoric of Wood or the later Harold Bloom, who would like to see Shakespeare as a secular god. Appreciation differs from love; love, like faith, is an existential commitment, and as such cannot be made or cultivated in a mode of ironic detachment. Appreciation can be much more ephemeral. I can listen to Bach one day and Wagner the next without feeling that I am committing a grave intellectual contradiction.

I would have preferred that Wood close with an exploration of a more obvious question—in fact, the one that I had come to the lecture to hear him discourse on—what effect has the New Atheism had on the modern novel? In trying to answer this question seriously, I would be going way out of my depth, as my knowledge of third millennium literature is practically nil, and the New Atheism is too recent. If I had to speculate, though, my initial answer would be, “Almost none.” If literature has placed itself beyond questions of good and evil, then it is immune from that which the New Atheists attack. But the price of that is we should also not expect literature to lend us any further insight into the human condition, except for those humans seeking Ph.D. topics.

Wood does not want to see two millennia of theology reduced to Basil Fawlty's attack on an automobile, but he does want to see it reduced to a series of pleasant, hardly authoritative metaphors. This is similar to Mary McCarthy's view of the Eucharist, that it is “a symbol and a very good one.” Flannery O'Connor's reply to this was, “Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.” I would like to think that, if O'Connor had been present for the question period after Wood's lecture, she would have said well, if the Resurrection is a metaphor, to hell with it, to hell with literature, and to hell with us.

Friday, December 7, 2012


The first announcement of the Eucharist divided the disciples, just as the announcement of the Passion scandalized them: "This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?"(John 6:60) The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion for division. "Will you also go away?"(John 6:67):the Lord's question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has "the words of eternal life"(John 6:68) and that to receive in faith the gift of His Eucharist is to receive the Lord Himself. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1336)

Disclaimer: I am a layperson, not a priest. I am not theologically trained in any but the most liberal sense of the word: I have read Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and various other Church Fathers, but I have no more authority than anyone else in the Church.

I have always had problems with the doctrine of transubstantiation, ever since I knew what it was. After all, how can you claim that the little wafer and the bit of wine are the body and blood of Christ? Mistake me not; my question was not with the validity of the claim itself, which I can accept on faith as revealed doctrine. If you have questions about the authority of the claim, this will be of little use to you.

My questions were rather about the nature of the change. In what respect were the elements of the Eucharist the body and blood? Transubstantiation requires a change in the real substance of the bread and wine; anything else would be consubstantiation at best, a Lutheran doctrine that the Catholic Church rejects and which (as I understand it) states that the essence of Christ resides in the bread and wine, so that the elements are changed, but their essence is still present.

Here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about transubstantiation (with some unfortunate violence to the formatting:

The mode of Christ's presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as "the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all sacraments tend." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, 73, 3c) In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained." (Council of Trent 1551: DS 1651) "This presence is called 'real' - by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present." (Paul VI, MF 39)
It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion. Thus St. John Chrysostom declares:
 "It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God's. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered." (St John Chrysostom, prod. Jud. 1:6: PG 49, 380)
And St. Ambrose says about this conversion:
"Be convinced that this is not what nature has formed, but what the blessing has consecrated. The power of the blessing prevails over that of nature, because by the blessing nature itself  is changed. ... Could not Christ's word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before? It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature." (St. Ambrose, De mysteriis 9, 50;52: PL 16, 405-407)
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: "Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation." (Council of Trent 1551:DS 1642; cf Mt 26:26 ff.; Mk 14:22 ff,; Lk 22:19ff.; 1 Cor 11:24 ff.)

Aristotle separates objects into substance and form, at least in thought. (He never makes claims that they are really thus separable, stating "The form and the matter are not separate from the thing.." in Physics Book 4 Section 2, Richard McKeon translation). He goes more fully into this in De Anima:

We are in the habit of recognizing, as one determinate kind of what is, substance, and that in several senses, (a) in the sense of matter or that which in itself is not 'a this', and (b) in the sense of form or essence, which is that precisely in virtue of which a thing is called 'a this', and thirdly (c) in the sense of that which is compounnded of both (a) and (b). Now matter is potentiality, form actuality; of the latter there are two grades related to one another as e.g. knowledge to the exercise of knowledge. (Aristotle, On the Soul, Book II Chapter 1 7-12, Richard McKeon translation)

Here we have three senses in which the above quotations about transubstantiation might be taken. Which one is correct? or rather, which one gives us the clearest understanding of the mystery?

Sense A: God's 'material', by which I don't mean He's made of stuff that could be touched, but rather His 'substrate' or 'underlying stuff', comes into the bread and wine while His 'form' doesn't. By 'form', I mean that which would be perceivable. So then, asking why we can't taste it is silly.

Thus we would say: Transubstantiation is trans-substance, not necessarily trans-form. The substance is different, but not the form, so there is nothing perceivably different about the object (which consists of both substance and form) - no difference in taste, color, texture, anything - but it still contains instead the substance of our Lord Jesus Christ. This does some violence to the original Greek conceptions, but that is a matter for faith.

This is a very pat explanation that preserves the etymology (transubstantiation not transformation) but it is wrong - counter both to dogma and reason. The distinction between being and form is one of abstraction, not one of essence. Splitting the being of God in such a way then not only flies in the face of the Church - which takes great pains to declare that it is in no way a part of God in the bread and wine, but rather He Himself wholly - but it also artificially splits being into two, thereby making a multitude out of what is properly unity.

Sense B: God's 'form' enters the bread and wine. That is, the essential element of God, that by which we say He is God, enters the bread and wine. This doesn't get us over our difficulty at first. After all, if the 'form' of God enters the bread, and it is by 'form' we perceive (e.g. we say that a statue is a statue not because it is made of bronze, but because it is statue-shaped), then why don't we perceive God in the bread? To answer this, we have to realize that 'form' can be taken in two ways. In some places, Aristotle is using the word 'morphe', which means things like physical shape, like a statue might have. In others, he uses 'eidos', which means more a purpose or definition - still tied to shape and sight, but more removed. For example, a triangle is a triangle because of its 'eidos', whereas a physical representation of a triangle has a 'morphe' that mimics the 'eidos' (well or not so well depending on who drew it, but never perfectly - 'eidos' does not admit of the imperfections necessarily present in material objects).

Furthermore, 'eidos' itself means two different things, if we look at it through the metaphor of Plato's divided line in the Republic (which I shan't quote here as being entirely too long, though I encourage you to go look at it - it starts around Republic VI 509D), where we get the (implicit?) distinction of proper objects to match the distinctions of the understanding - the lowest being the imagined things, which partake most fully of visual existence, which point through their forms to a higher realm of noetic objects, those examined in reason alone (I'm skipping over those 'believed' which exist in the mind but not examined), and then the eidetic things - the forms themselves, which transcend pure rational understanding and are those by which all other things are said to be.

These eidetic things seem very good candidates for the substance of God. They are, after all, the highest realm, and are those by which all things else are said to be. Thus we could say that the 'eidos' of God is what transubstantiates into the bread and wine, and yet while a form, thus satisfying definition (b), does not permit of perception, so we don't taste God.

However, again, this falls short. It once more splits the 'substance' of God into two parts - the essential part, and the dependent part. Then it stuffs the essential part into the bread and calls that God, which, if not heresy, is very, very close. So this won't do.

The only option left is option (c), and I think this will fit our purposes. It encompasses both (a) and (b), which we can still artificially split into the 'matter' and 'form' of God for the sake of understanding. Given what we came to above, neither present a difficulty to sense, and this allows us to address one further problem with the argument thus far.

The wording of transubstantiation is not, "This cup is the new covenant in me, poured out for you," but, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you." Now, after all the above, I don't mean to draw the distinction and say that only the flesh and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ become the bread and the wine, because that itself cuts off an inappropriate part from the whole. By saying flesh and blood, Christ doesn't mean a physical body made of sinews and meat and such. If he did, the original Supper would have promptly done so, given His power, and I'm sure the Gospels would have mentioned it (and the Apostles would have balked, excepting maybe Peter). The only way that I can make sense of it is if He meant that the substance of His flesh and blood - meaning their whole reality as the flesh and blood of God per se. That is, He doesn't mean the specific corporeal body He has - or perhaps He does, but not understood like a butcher understands the body of a lamb, as material for other designs. The body is, in a metaphor that reveals itself as metaphor and in so doing reveals itself as truth beyond the metaphor, present to us, as full substance - the 'material' of God and the 'form' of God united in the 'being' of God, but both (which is truly one), not being proper objects of sense, not perceivable in the communion wafer or the communion wine, to fall back on the metaphor through which the understanding grasps at such high objects.

This is still a mystery, but the point of this inquiry was not and could not be to solve the mystery, but rather to cast it in the light of what understanding I could bring to it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Breakdown of the Humanities

A few days ago, I listened to a lecture on "Against Theory," the notorious 1982 paper by Knapp and Michaels. The lecture was informative and interesting. Of special note was the end, when the lecturer, Paul Fry, did his best to rescue the discipline from the paper's clutches. At the end of the lecture, though, I found myself asking what exactly was the discipline that Prof. Fry saved; what are its boundaries, what is its proper study? No doubt my questions could have been answered more thoroughly and conventionally had I listened to the first lecture in Prof. Fry's series. But I am an impatient man, disinclined to trust conventional academic wisdom (concerning the humanities in particular), and given to hair-splitting. I decided, then, to try and sort out for myself, with recourse only to memory and etymology, as many of the different branches of studies of literature and language that I could. What follows are the conclusions I came to that afternoon. They should not, by any means, be taken as academically official definitions. They are only convenient aids to my own thinking.

The first task to be set was to try and come up with a tentatively positive definition of literary theory. Obviously, rearranging the words and saying "a theory of literature" would not do. There are many ways to view literature; which most properly applies to literary theory? I thought of some of the other titles or subjects of Prof. Fry's series of lectures: the hermeneutic circle, deconstructionism, New Criticism, linguistics, Russian formalism, the anxiety of influence, queer theory, Lacanian analysis, post-colonialism, gender theory, even neopragmatism. So many different ways of approaching the subject of literature, but what did these approaches all have in common? All of them, it seemed to me, wanted to take literature as a whole as its subject. What they were after was a framework that could be applied to all forms of literature that are manifest in the world. In addition, there seemed to be an emphasis on the writer himself and the influences at work on him: the state of his mind, his gender, his orientation, his place in the world. Combining those two, I arrived at a starting definition: literary theory is the study of how texts come to be, and the study of the forces at work behind them, vis-à-vis the personal state of the writer, and the formal demands of the medium.

This may not appear to be a very helpful definition. After all, such phrases as "the forces at work behind them" and "the formal demands of the medium" are rather vague. Nonetheless, I found that this way of saying allowed me to make some crucial distinctions. The first distinction that I made was between literary theory and literary criticism. Often we see these two terms used interchangeably; and though they are closely allied, there is a crucial difference between the two. The word "criticism" comes from the Greek verb "krino," which means "to judge, distinguish, or pick out for oneself." If we follow the word carefully, we may say that the task of criticism is to be able to make distinctions between good and bad writing, and explain those distinctions. It is this sense that Yvor Winters, one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, had in mind when he reviewed C.S. Lewis's volume for the Oxford History of English Literature: "It is [Lewis's] critical mind that bothers me. It is my own conviction that one cannot write the history of poetry unless one can find the best poems. ...Lewis cannot find the poems" (The Function of Criticism). Taken together, the two sentences are the most concise statement about what it means to be a literary critic that I know.

One implication of Winters's claim is that there are value judgments involved in satisfactory criticism. This is the fundamental difference between theory and criticism. Strictly speaking, literary theory is concerned with literature as it comes to be and the principles which underlie its formation. We might say that in the study of literary theory, we are concerned with literature as a phenomenon. What this means is that literary theory is purely a descriptive discipline. As literary theorists, we should not restrict ourselves to inquiring about how only good books or great books are produced. The notions advanced should (ideally) apply to Moby-Dick, La Chanson de Roland, and Twilight. Whether or not we should put Twilight on par with the other two is fundamentally a matter for criticism.

One other way of distinguishing the two occurred to me as well. The critic is concerned with what happens once the text is produced--how we should judge it based on our reading. The theorist is concerned with what happens as the text is produced--what goes into the writing of it. Theory treats of the "before," criticism of the "after." Rather fancifully, I drew up this triple analogy between agent and discipline: author is to text is to reader as theory is to literature is to criticism.

With that distinction made to my satisfaction, I went back to work on my original definition. I still wanted to hold to the notion that literary theory examined the "forces" (for lack of a better term, but this is a blog post) at stake, but I wondered what those "forces" would be. The first one that I thought of was beauty. Surely beauty would be at work in some way as a work of literature came to be; do we not often speak of prose styles or poetic diction as beautiful? After some brief reflection, I did not think that was the case, for two reasons. First, I remembered the titles of Prof. Fry's lectures once more; none of them seemed to have much regard for beauty, and the lecture on Knapp and Michaels had not one word devoted to it. If what Prof. Fry was teaching was literary theory, then beauty was not in it. Second, I thought once more about literature as a phenomenon. We may say that a phenomenon is beautiful, but that is once again a value judgment, and so we are back to the problem of literary theory vs. literary criticism, only this time with a different criterion. Literary theory does not have traffic with beauty. That opened the question of what discipline has beauty as its subject. The answer, it seemed to me, was in aesthetics. Accordingly, I defined aesthetics as rational inquiry into the principles of beauty, giving an account of what is beautiful and why. I emphasize the rationality to distinguish aesthetics from aestheticism. One is an important and under-explored science; the other is poorly digested Edgar Allan Poe.

Incidentally, it is such a small step from literary criticism to aesthetics that we may call the former a sub-discipline of the latter. If we wish to say so, however, we must accept one premise: that good literature is beautiful.

Next, it seemed a good idea to distinguish literary theory from the sciences involving language. The phenomenon of literature refers most simply to texts, not language. Though texts are a vehicle for language, and texts cannot be formed without language, I had set myself the parameters of wanting to see how discrete I could make each subject--in this case, seeing if I would empty the term literary theory of its meaning if I were to distinguish it from the science of language. But here a new problem raised itself; what is the science of language properly called? Linguistics was one that many people nowadays would put forth. Yet fifty years ago, many people might used that definition for philology. Add to that the new developments in the discipline of hermeneutics, and I was quite puzzled. I now had three subjects I needed to separate from each other, and from literary theory to boot. How could all three of these be the science of language?

Language, I reasoned naively, was the use of signs (words) to communicate meaning. There were more subtleties, I knew, but this gave me enough room to make distinctions. If I wished to study language, I could go about it three ways: by studying the symbols and the human capacity for it, by studying the meaning of meaning and problems of interpreting the signs, or by studying the connection between the two, that is to say, how man interprets the signs.

Thus I formulated the definitions accordingly. Linguistics is the study of what a language is in itself, as well as man's capacity for it. In other words, its subject is what constitutes language, and how man constitutes it. Even more fancifully, it is the study of logos in man; one might say that the favorite Bible verse is John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word."

Since language in man involves the use of signs and symbols, we may also consider linguistics a more restricted form of semiotics--the study of what signs and symbols are. Perhaps we could say that linguistics is the common ground between semiotics and anthropology; it is the study of uniquely human signs.

The linguist is preoccupied with the Word in general. But we, as humans, do not stop with the universal Word; we communicate not by language in general, but by language in particular, by individual words with meaning. Now the meanings of words are not as fixed as we might like them to be, but are modified over time. Hence, it seems fitting to assign a study to this problem of determining what words mean in different contexts or time periods. This accorded with one definition of philology which I recalled: the study of the meanings of words as they change over time and are recorded in texts.

I had reasoned (simply put) that linguistics was the study of words and philology was the study of words with meaning. Could we have a study of meaning in and of itself as well? It seemed to me that we could; this would be the study of interpretation. Its fundamental questions would be about what the meaning of "meaning" is, what happens when we interpret something, is it possible to interpret something correctly, and so on. I decided this was the province of hermeneutics, the study of interpreting language. In short, I delineated the three sciences of language thus: linguistics is the study of words and man's capacity for them, hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of words, and philology is the meeting ground between the two.
So much for them.

Next, I decided to make one final foray and fit the classical trivium into this ramshackle schema. Grammar seemed to share some common ground with linguistics in that both were concerned with principles of language. But whereas linguistics is concerned with man and language in the abstract, grammar is concerned with language in the concrete. That is to say, grammar is concerned with the elements of language, and how they fit together. Grammar deals with conjunctions, declensions, the proper placement of parts of speech, and making the language fit together properly.

Whereas grammar is concerned with the form of the sentence, dialectic's main concern is with the content of the sentence. Dialectic (or logic) is the science of constructing a sound and coherent argument. In other words, in dialectic, one must fit ideas together properly. Rhetoric is the combination of the two: combining the elements of a language to communicate ideas in the most effective manner, or the proper fitting of words to ideas.

At this point, I thought I had weeded away all the negative space surrounding literary theory and was ready to say what it was positively. Then I thought of another text which I had previously assumed was the foundation of literary theory: Poetics. Here was one last distinction I had to make, because poetics had also been a distinct branch of literary study. Could I distinguish poetics from literary theory?

After trying to recall bits and pieces of Aristotle, I thought that a distinction could be made. In the Poetics, Aristotle gives distinguishes tragedy from epic and comedy, defines tragedy, and examines each of its main aspects in detail. In other words, he was trying to classify pieces of writing, say clearly what their elements are, and explain how they fit together. This is different from criticism, aesthetics, linguistics, philology, hermeneutics, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Poetics is the study of what makes different classes or genres of writing what they are: what makes a poem, drama, or novel, what effects each achieve, and how each of their component parts fit together. Poetics is the study of a composition of a work of literature qua work of literature.

Literary theory, by contrast, definitely included the writer in its study, at least if such topics as postcolonialism, queer theory, and gender theory were able to come into play. Accordingly, I revised my definition of literary theory to the following: literary theory is the study of what assumptions and preconceived notions exist in the writer or his environment so that the writer produces a text. To go further, I consider literary theory the humanistic equivalent of the philosophy of science, and I would love it if the subject were known from now on as "the philosophy of literature."

Two final notes. The first is that these distinctions I made are seldom strictly carried out in the real world, even by thinkers whom I respect. There is good reason for this; many of these subjects as defined have much common ground; linguistics, philology, and hermeneutics in particular. It is almost impossible to separate the study of the meanings of words from the study of meaning per se. Also, it is easy to blend literary theory and criticism, since the contemporary writer and the contemporary reader have the same environment. But, even though these distinctions may only exist in speech, I found them helpful if only to try and establish some order for myself, as an aspiring humanist, over the ill-defined mess that "the humanities" is rapidly turning into.

The second is that I recognize I did stop short in my distinction-making: one discipline which I have thus far left undefined is philosophy. I did not hope to come up with a definitive definition to that subject in this blog post, and I do not think I am able now. Yet I would throw this out as a beginning to further discussion: philosophy is the study of giving accounts.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Satire I

Several years ago, as an academic assignment, I wrote an ill-fated paper on the question: What is Satire? The paper was
ill-fated largely because I took several falsehoods as given, the most notable of which was the notion that satire was
necessarily humorous. I no longer stand by this notion. Rather, I wish to develop a new take on satire. I have in mind
the following works:

  1. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, from The Canterbury Tales
  2. Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote

I do not claim that the definition of Satire I offer is final or complete. Rather, I intend this
as an experiment. I begin with the example of Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales.
The tale is a version of the fable of the cock and the fox, present in the fables of Aesop. For
the benefit of those who have not read this tale, I will briefly summarize it.

Chanticleer is reluctant to jump off his perch onto the ground due to a dream he had last night. His favorite hen, Pertolete, questions his manliness. Chanticleer’s response is to offer various learned reasons why he would be wise not to jump off the perch but in the end, he relents and jumps off the perch. The fox captures him and runs off with him. The widow’s dogs run after the fox. Chanticleer suggests that the Fox tell his pursuers to give up the chase. As the fox opens his mouth to taunt them allowing Chanticleer to break free.

The Nun’s Priests tale, available in both Middle and Modern English here ; is a mock epic. The narrative is not entirely faithful to the fable of "the Cock and the Fox"; but the resemblance is obvious. It is with the relationship of the tale and the fable that I wish to begin. The setting in which the tale takes place is an odd one. Animals live like animals and yet are capable not only of speech but of learning. Chanticleer is knowledgeable of both classical and medieval literature. It seems to me that bringing the fable into this environment necessarily changes it. Satire then is a literary environment that necessarily takes something else whether it be a narrative or simply an idea as to how the world works and changes it in such a way to reveal its presumptions.

We see a weaker version of this same pattern in Don Quixote. In this particular case, Don Quixote believes himself to be a knight-errant. While those around him mock him, the reader cannot help but wish that Don Quixote were a knight-errant largely because the reader wishes to be a knight-errant as well. It is important to notice here that this drawing in of the reader, common to all of literature takes on a particular form both in Don Quixote and the“Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. It seems to me that the drawing in effect of literature inevitably has something to do with the human tendency to develop affections for those near at hand, especially in unusual situations. This is somewhat stronger in narratives written in the first person or limited omniscient since the solipsism of the reader merges with that of the literary subject. In the satirical environment though, the reader’s sense of self overlaps with the subject’s sense of the same. This is related to but not the same as their solipsism.

The phrase “sense of self” requires a bit more explication. There are several aspects to it. Permit me a short psychological digression. Firstly we have the ego. The ego is, of course, an abstraction. All the same, it is an abstraction with which we all have first person experience insofar as it is the abstraction that is personal experience. The ego is arrogant in the etymological sense of the term. Something so simple can only understand itself as something more than self-hood by arrogating other ideas to itself, among them status and the sense of right and wrong. The up shot of this is that even the ego’s sense of right and wrong revolves around itself and therefore, from an egocentric (or purely solipsistic) point of view, other subjects deserve certain treatment precisely to the extent that they are like the ego.

Therefore, the sense of self contains the sense of right and wrong as well as the sense of self-importance. Thus, in satire, the afinity the reader naturally develops for the main character ends up taking on a special significance. The pretentions that the satirical environment so mocks are those ideas which the protagonist’s ego has arrogated and also those that the reader’s ego arrogates sympathetically but also autonomously. On the other hand, the reader has the advantage of dramatic irony. In spite of the sympathy the reader feels for the protagonist, the reader still has a sufficiently broad view of the narrative to realize the gap between the protagonist’s view of his relationship to the world and the actuality of that relationship.

It is precisely this tension that teaches the reader. The reader learns from Satire when he realizes that he is laughing at himself. Both the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and Don Quixote mock our more monumental aspirations. Indeed, most men most of the time simply live and do what they do in order to live. In this sense, our daily activities are no different from those of barnyard animals and it is intriguing how little the imposition of human intellect changes the barnyard animals; the only obvious addition is the sense of pride, the aspiration to the monumental.

Now, we turn to the writer or narrator. My conflation of these two is an evasion. I do not wish to attempt the elucidation of this distinction here though comments on the matter are welcome. Precisely because the composition of Satire requires omniscience with respect to the protagnist’s ego, the soul and therefore the ego of the writer aspires to a more universal understanding. This appeal to our sense of the absurd at the expense of a character to whom we have affinity then allows the ego of both the writer and the reader to arrogate to itself omniscient and thus, in a way, universal understanding. The difficulty is universal understanding is necessarily abstract. It achieves its universality merely by defining its universe. It then treats “different” as “same” and turns “same” into “equal”. Then the ego uses the powers of abstraction it derives from being such a thing itself to gain a kind this omnisicience and thus its pride causes it to arrogate this universe to itself. Then, the ego retreats into its own pride and loses its sense of its own lowliness. The wise reader of Satire, if such a man exists, realizes this danger and is humbled by his pride. All the same, it remains true that Satire requires the channeling of the diabolical and is the most arrogant of all literary arts. This makes it extremely dangerous when effective and also extremely ineffective as a partisan weapon. A well written satire will not puncture the pretensions of “them” but not “us”. The arrogance of Satire forces to to mock all men or else collapse under its own grand pretensions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Suspension of Judgment

Yes, my first post has come months after the blog has started, and given the lateness of the hour, it will be a short one. To those seeking a reason why, I direct you to Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 35, and the following sentence from an essay in Albert Camus's Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: "It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time."

The essay in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death that follows the one I just quoted is a remarkable piece entitled "Reflections on the Guillotine." Written in 1957, when the guillotine was still used in France, it is the most lucid critique of the death penalty that I have yet found, and I am in agreement with almost all of the entire essay. There is one page, though, in which I differ from Camus. He writes, "Today when such vile death is administered on the sly, what is the meaning of this torture?...The science that serves to kill so many could at least serve to kill decently. An anesthetic that would allow the condemned man to slip from sleep to death (which would be left within his reach for at least a day so that he could use it freely and would be administered to him in another form if he were unwilling or weak of will) would assure his elimination, if you insist, but would put a little decency into what is at present but a sordid and obscene exhibition." I am not sure what Camus would have thought of lethal injection as it is currently practiced (Camus died in 1960; lethal injection was first used in the U.S. in 1982), but it seems as though he was anticipating it here.

This appears to be a reasonable proposition, that a man sentenced to death should be allowed to die calmly and painlessly, like Socrates. Camus is absolutely right that the death should be painless; prolonging the moment of death in pain would be unnecessarily cruel. Whether it should be calm is another question.

There are many reasons offered for supporting the death penalty; common ones include it acts as a deterrent, it prevents the criminal from repeating his crime and better ensures public safety, it has Biblical precedents, and it satisfies a sense of justice and outrage at an atrocious crime. Camus directly or indirectly addresses all of these. Deterrent? Capital punishment is not guaranteed to put the fear of God into potential murderers; this assertion is not borne out by statistics. Biblical precedent? As in most discussions involving Sacred Scripture, you can pick texts to support what you please; the Bible is often inventively and creatively fudged around. Sequestering criminals from society? This is a stronger reason than the previous ones. In fact, it may be the most valid reason of them all; yet it still will not do. A maximum security prison will remove the criminal from society almost as thoroughly as death. And then there's the satisfaction of justice...

To begin, that depends on what sort of justice we have in mind. To put a man to death for murder presupposes a standard of exact retributive justice: a life for a life. As Camus points out, however, this is also the language of retaliation and revenge. In this case, it is the language of bloodlust. A man is condemned to death because others want to see him die. This, I think, is the reason capital punishment persists. Statistics, the Bible, and poor facilities are not reasons strong enough. If we are going to support capital punishment honestly, we fall back on a reason which we would prefer not to articulate. We would not like to think that bloodlust enters into judicial pronouncements, yet there is an element of it present.

If we are going to be honest in our pronouncements, let us also be honest in our methods of bearing them out. If the public wants bloodlust, let us give it to them, as it is what they want. This is not done. Lethal injection, as it is currently practiced, takes place behind closed doors with relatively few witnesses present. It is quiet, orderly, and sanitized. By this process, execution is made to look comparatively pleasant--if one gets a chance to look at it. But if the public wants satisfaction for an atrocity, let it have a corresponding, reciprocal atrocity for all to see. This was done in the past with nooses, guillotines, and firing squads.

Let us see the moment of execution, but let's also be humane. I stand by the former point: the moment of death should be instantaneous and leave no room for extended suffering. This was one reason for switching to lethal injection, but the other three methods mentioned above work just as well. The guillotine was designed to be a more humane method of execution, so that the dying man would feel little more than "a slight sensation of coldness on his neck." The firing squad brings death even faster. Lastly, if done properly, hanging breaks the neck instantly. Lethal injection has not been shown to be less painful than any of these, save perhaps the guillotine. It may look less painful; for some, that is enough.

Of course, there will always be botched executions regardless of the method. But if it does not decrease the pain, there is no reason to use a "sanitized" method of execution instead of one more grotesque. All lethal injection does for us as a public is make us feel better about putting criminals to death. It is secret and orderly, so we do not have to see it or think about it too hard, and we can have our sense of vengeance gratified at the same time. All the benefits of vengeance without the scruples of conscience or the burden of responsibility. If we are to face the problem of the death penalty squarely, we cannot have this situation persist. As I see it, there are two options. The first and best is to abolish capital punishment altogether. But if we must have it, let's not kid ourselves about what we're doing; rather, let's erect a gallows and return to public hanging.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Religion, Sociology and Science

I certainly cannot claim to be well-versed in the sociology of religion. Every time I look at it directly, or, more frequently, read a summary of recent work elsewhere, I find myself quickly bored. The question is: why?
I think a vast majority of Sociologists would assent to two claims:

  1. Sociology is a Science
  2. Science is value-free; that is science is merely descriptive

I think it probable that some who would assent to the first claim would deny the second. With them I have no quarrel at this time. My question is: What are the consequences of both? The discipline of Sociology was once explained to me as the study of the interactions of various groups within a society.

Scientific thinking is necessarily categorical. I think any science has some kind of “unit of analysis” . By “science” here, I do not necessarily mean a discipline matching precisely with the accepted list of separate sciences but rather a discipline in the more basic sense, a study that demands logical coherence and aspires to logical closure. This raises the question as to what constitutes the Sociological atom. I would guess it differs from study to study, though I imagine the influence of Hobbes and Locke looms large and therefore it is often the individual.

Then, Sociology will tend to regard religion as a reason individuals constitute a group. Religion is understood categorically; that is, all religions have the same social function. Understood this way, the proper question for Sociology is whether or not some group is properly regarded as a religious group. The oberved social properties of a religious group follow from the sociological properties of the religious group as such. It is trite to point out that this abstraction cannot be directly observed for no abstraction can be. This problem is hardly specific to the Sociology of religion. There is a difficulty that applies, if not exclusively to the sociology of religion, than at least is a graver difficulty than for other topics.

To the adherents of some religion, the most important aspect of that religion is its veracity. Thus, the social group forms around this idea. Sociology has no vocabulary to describe such things. Thus, in order to achieve its logical closure it must substitute its own reason for existence for the one held by the group. Then, Sociology cannot understand a religious group in the same way its adherants understand themselves in a group. Thus, either the group or Sociology is mistaken about its ultimate aims. The actual picture is surely more complicated insofar as religious groups, as such, have no obvious social function specific to them but many perform social functions (soup kitchens, youth groups, etc.) that seem to overlap with secular organizations. Yet, I think this gets to the heart of the difficulty. A Sociological Analysis will have difficulty distinguishing these secondary functions of a religious organization as distinct from similar activities that are primary functions of secular organizations precisely because it lacks the vocabulary to describe the function to which the aforementioned functions are secondary and therefore the overarching goal toward which they are oriented.

Yet, the account cannot bear this incompleteness. It must substitute a different reason for organization; one that it can understand. The usual solution to this is a Marxist account of religion as some kind of opiate, though usually in more diplomatic language. Essentially, a religious conviction is a means by which a group distinguishes members from non-members and accords privileges and power. Thus, the opiate is not an analgesic to material deprivation but rather palliative for the conscience. This draws Sociology into a theory of the subconscious (and an oddly Christian one but I digress). The only alternative is to ascribe dishonesty or delusion to the group in question.

This Marxist solution is permissible because it is materialistic and therefore regards human behavior as merely a form of animal behavior. The problem is, a Christian understanding of things rejects materialism as untrue, contrary to revelation, and an affront to the dignity of man. This is a serious difficulty for the claim of Sociology to be value-free insofar as it amounts to an abolition of the question of the good of man and an evasion of the question of values. I mean to imply that Sociology is value free only from its own value-laden point of view . This seems incompatible with the concept of “value-freedom” provided it means logical independence of any moral questions or propositions. It seems in order to attempt a kind of freedom from values, Sociology is compelled to categorically reject value-laden principles. Yet this categorical rejection can only be defended philosophically. Since moral values and religious convictions are an important aspect (I would argue the most important aspect) of how man organizes his societies the Social Sciences must either broaden their scopes and embrace them, thereby becoming philosophical (or perhaps even theological), or deny them and become materialistic and therefore atheistic. Either way, I do not think the Sociology of Religion (or for that matter Politics) can be value-free.

What is usually called the hard sciences can achieve a kind of value freedom because its propositions are logically independent of moral claims. Atoms give no reason for irganizing themselves as they do; indeed, physics would tell us they do not organize themselves at all and rather are organized by impersonal forces. A deistically or theistically minded person might object to the description “impersonal” but the point is that only the form of those physical laws is relevant to the hard sciences. The reason for those laws being as they are is considered outside the realm of a descriptive science. Yet the laws of human organization, some of them explicitly written and justified are understood as purposeful and thus have relevance beyond their formal content.

I do not mean a cetegorical denial of the possibility of human sciences so much as I object to the possibility of value-free human sciences. I would prefer to weaken the definition of “science” to be a discipline with the following to crieria:

  1. It has methods specific to itself
  2. It strives after an improvement of these methods in addition to some notion of truth.

I further conjecture that a science may be regarded as mature once the goals of method improvement and truth are no longer easily distinguished. This seems to imply that a science is born a philosophy and matures into a methodology. I suppose the natural follow up question is: a methodology of what? I admit I do not like this conclusion but at the moment am unsure where to go with it. Comments are welcome.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Welcome to the Numinal Illuminal. This is our inaugural post. In this blog, we intend to write about whatever strikes our fancy though we intend to keep it philosophical. Our interest is true philosophy, or the “love of wisdom”.  The discovery of foundational questions is our primary purpose. We will make attempts to answer these questions, but these are of secondary importance. To this end, political topics will arise but our commentary will be for the sake of philosophy. Thus, we hope that even those who disagree with us will enjoy reading this blog and benefit. Comments are welcome provided they are civil.

Posts will range from short discussions to longer essays and will be polished to varying degrees.  We intend to use this space to review books, post portions of works in progress, and respond to each other’s posts and reader comments we find particularly interesting or insightful. It is our hope that this blog becomes a forum for intelligent discussion and the refinement of thoughts.

All of us have interest in the questions of the rightly ordered society, philosophy and the liberal arts. Beyond that our specific interests vary quite a bit. Ioannes Stephaniades is interested in economics, mathematics, statistics, and the relationship between science and society. Rhetocrates is interested in chemistry, physics, and military sciences. Filius is interested in philology, medievalism, and literature, especially Dante’s Divine Comedy.