Advent, somewhere between hope and despair

We live between hope and despair, a theme discussed by Claudia Eppert, Sharon Rosenberg, and Roger Simon at great length in their profoundly insightful book Between Hope and Despair. The book is faithful to its title. It holds in tension the concept of hope and despair. After all, can we even have great hope without great despair?

 

The concept of hope and despair is not foreign to us. In one way or another, we have experienced it and can relate to it. We know the feeling of despair. At times life sucks, and it’s difficult to bounce back from setbacks. But we also know the feeling of hope, few and far between as they are.

 

The season of Advent is upon us. Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season by rekindling the messianic expectation. At the heart of Advent is a longing of a messiah – a messiah who will rise above the ashes of despair.

As I think of Advent and the hope it speaks of, I am reminded of the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In Chapter 5, The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky grapples with the future hope associated with the coming of Christ. The thought that one day, in the future, the Advent of Christ will happen, and Christ will recuperate the people from pain and trouble is seen in a new light.

 

The story commences with the arrest of a person who alleges to be the messiah. But before the arrest, he works some miracles. He gives sight to the blind, heals the lame, touches the untouchables, and therefore gives hope to the hopeless wondering crowd.

 

At that particular moment, people start out claiming that he is the one. Our Messiah, our Saviour. He is the one who will save us from the grips of the empire.

 

At that time, the Grand Inquisitor enters the scene and arrests the Messiah.

 

Messiah does not resist or reacts but quietly walks away from the crowd with the Grand Inquisitor and soldiers. Messiah is kept in a prison cell. Not a single word comes out of his mouth.

 

After a while, The Grand Inquisitor enters the prison room. He starts asking questions to the prisoner messiah. In this rather important part of the story the Grand Inquisitor poses some serious questions to the messiah, but again the Messiah holds tightly to his silence; he does not answer a single question.

 

 

In the end, The Grand Inquisitor says: why have you come back, we have been living our life, and at least we have been striving to enhance the conditions of human life?

 

We know that people are not particularly happy, but they have understood it, they have accepted and made peace with their miserable conditions. They know it is their fate, which they must endure without any one’s support.

 

After a brief silence, the Grand Inquisitor continues: due to your arrival, people will start building hope again. They will hope that their messiah and saviour will take away all the troubles of life. But this time, peoples are not imbecile, they have gone through enough pain, and they have pinned their hope and security in their loved ones. And I tell you, tomorrow, the same people will lynch you and kill you in front of the crowd.

 

But as usual, Messiah does not speak a word, due to that the Grand Inquisitor is frustrated. The silent messiah was creeping him out. Finally, he controls himself and tells the messiah to go back and leave us in our condition. He tells Messiah never to return, never to come again. Messiah quietly stands up, he looks at the Grand Inquisitor, kisses him, and disappears from the dark prison cell.

 

For Dostoevsky, this episode is the external expression of concepts he was grappling. A pious Orthodox Christian, Dostoevsky had to grapple with some very unsettling questions about the nature of Christian hope associated with the Advent of Christ. What if Christ truly arrives? Do we realise that his arrival will interfere with our lives, with our hopes, with our dreams? That it may actually cause some disturbance. It has the potential to turn our existing hopes and dreams upside down.

 

 

Throughout the centuries, people have hoped for a saviour who would come and rescue them from their misery. Other times they have pinned their hopes on political ideologies. Not to forget that the Enlightenment was supposed to be a perfect programme for human progress. In our own time the marriage between capitalism and liberal democracy is seen as the endpoint in human progress – for example, the End of History, a book by Francis Fukuyama.

 

I think Dostoevsky conjures up a striking image of Advent and hope associated with it. He informs us that the Advent of Christ is never a straightforward affair. And this shall prompt us – to ask – if we have realized the impact it will have if Christ is really to arrive? It will actually interfere with our lives. Our lives will never be the same again. It would change our reality in ways that we cannot even fathom. What if the Advent of Christ turns our greatest hopes into deepest despair?

 

Dostoevsky was grappling with these existential questions amid political struggle. He was not interested in bland optimism or feeble compromises. I believe that for him hope was more about possibilities, not certainties. He knew too well how quickly our most sincere dreams, when realised, could turn into nightmare.

 

I wonder if Adorno and Horkheimer were mindful of this inherent tension between hope and despair when they wrote: “I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.”

Jordan Peterson on myth as a matrix of meaning

 

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We are all living a story which we do not understand. What if human beings, although not fully aware, are acting out a narrative?

For Peterson the world has a deeply meaningful structure. But it might not be so apparent in this nihilistic postmodern world which claims “everything is subjective”; “everything is relative”.

 

To discover this meaning one must move beyond mere empirical description of the world. The empirical or scientific description, preoccupied with objectivity, strips the world of meaning, of affect, of valance and of drama embedded deeply within its structure. It is not enough to simply know the world as an object but also to know the meaning it carries for human action. The world, therefore, should be construed, not in objective terms, but in phenomenological terms.

 

The phenomenological world is primarily concerned with meaning of the environment in which individuals find themselves. This environment, Peterson claims, should be considered as “what is and has always been common to all domains of human experience, regardless of spatial locale or temporal frame.”[1] of reference. All human being, regardless of time and space that separate them, are united in their experience of the world which is constituted by three key elements: nature, culture and the individual[2]. Nature and culture are on the opposite extremes, representing the domain of unknown and known[3]. What is unknown is the nature. Consequently, what is known is the culture. The individuals, phenomenologically speaking, is the knower who is caught up between the two extremes of nature and culture. The knower must accept the reality of existence and learn to live between the two bipolar forces of nature and culture – known and unknow – by negotiating and overcoming the unpleasant and often unforeseen realties of the contrasting domains.

 

Secondly, each of these categories are characterised as being universally paradoxical, appearing both positive and negative to human apprehension. Navigating through the paradoxical dimensions of these categories is a central challenge that universally characterises human existence. No matter where human beings are in the world, they must face the natural world in all its ambiguities. On one hand, the natural world, Peterson describes, offers “the great realm of beauty and endless possibility that makes up the extended reaches of our being.”, but on the other it is “the eternal susceptibility of the human organism to mortal vulnerability, physical limitation and psychological isolation”[4]. It is creative but also destructive. It can bring forth life but can also cause calamities. It can fill us with beauty and awe but can also induce fear and anxiety. The vagaries of nature mean that its meaning is deeply paradoxical to human apprehension. Equally paradoxical is the social and cultural world – the known world – in which individual have their existence. While the social world offers protection, order and familiarity, it can also descend into tyrannical if the imbalance occurs, [5]. It can be helpful, but it can also hinder individual progress. It can be oppressive, but it can also give rise to creativity. It can give but it can also steal: “Culture takes with one hand, but in some fortunate places it gives more with the other”[6]. The vagaries of nature and culture spills into Peterson’s conceptualisation of individual being. The individuality is both a gift and a curse[7]. While acknowledging that human individuals have great capacity for wrongdoing, Peterson also believes that within each individual person is the image of God and therefore inherent capacity for goodness. Beyond any spatial and temporal frame, Peterson favours a paradoxically shared universal essence of human experience in the world. He outlines that all human beings, across time and space, are experiential being. All human beings experience fear, anger, happiness, disgust, curiosity, lust, jealousy, envy, surprise, etc. The world of conflicting experience means that each individual is faced with the capacity of transcending the social and cultural order but is also limited and bound by the fact of their natural mortality[8]. The world as experienced therefore appears fundamentally ambivalent and paradoxical to human apprehension.

 

Questions remain though regarding the source of these categories. Where does Peterson derives these categories from? What is the root of the three consistent yet paradoxical constituent elements that structure the world?

 

For Peterson this structure of the world manifest itself in a form of mythical narratives. Hence, mythological narratives become the basis for deriving the categories of nature (unknown), culture (known) and individual (knower). The experience of the phenomenological world takes a form of myth within the semantic system of the time. Peterson believes that “Narrative accurately captures the nature of raw experience”[9]. Subsequently, if narratives have the capacity to accurately capture the experiential world then they also become the basis for discovering the inherent meaning of the world.

 

Human being, Peterson maintains, fall under the spell of narrative, of myth as soon as they attempt to attribute meaning to things they experience. In return the attributed meaning shapes behaviour. For Peterson, things are meaningful because they give rise to action in their presence[10]. To demonstrate this point Peterson gives an example of a toddler (the knower) who, out of sheer curiosity and accident, touches a fragile glass sculpture (the unknown). She observes its material characteristics, its color and shine and how it feels to her touch etc. All this is her primary experience of the sculpture. But, then, her mother (known, the cultural voice) interferes. She grasps her hand, telling her never to touch the object.

 

However, the mother is not an isolated being herself. Instead her “being presupposes culture”[11]. In other words, the mother is a product of her culture, through which she has learned that the sculpture, in its unaltered form, is meaningful. Mother’s individual psyche is integrated within the social psyche.

 

What this means is that the human beings, although not fully aware, are acting out a narrative which has been passed down through the centuries in a behavioural form. The behavioural patterns which forms the story is stored in social behaviour. The stored-up behavioural, according Peterson, is the most fundamental definition of the “collective unconscious[12]. Drawing on the theories of Carl Jung, Peterson maintains that the collective unconscious account for the universality of embodied behavioural wisdom. Building on Jung’s work, Peterson claims that the medium through which the collective unconscious is transmitted is culture: Adults embody the behavioral wisdom of their culture for their children. Children interact with adults, who serve as “cultural emissaries.”[13]. For Peterson, even though we do not fully comprehend why we do what we do, we do it anyway. The collective unconscious animates and informs the behavioural patterns of the conscious social beings without the fully disclosing its presence. “We are all” in Peterson’s word, “imitating a story that we don’t understand[14].

 

Secondly, the collective unconscious takes the form of mythological narratives when the behavioural patterns are abstracted and condensed in a form of metaphoric or archetypal images. The archetypal images of human experience of the world – for example of an admirable adult, an identifiable individual, keeps her house tidy and neat, reconciles her warring brothers and learns hard moral lessons when such learning is necessary. The archetypal hero makes order out of chaos, brings peace to the world, and restructures society when it has become rigid and anachronistic[15] – serves as the building blocks for myths. The distilled images, although emerging across different time and space, take form of a story with a universal structure. The universal structure of the narrative is the archetypal representation of the structure of the world, as it is experienced, in narrative form[16].

 

What does this form looks like, though? What form might the (unknown) nature, (known) culture, and (knower) individual take in a mythic universe?

 

 

[1] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE

Jordan B. Peterson, pg. 136

[2] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE

Jordan B. Peterson, pg. 137

[3] Ibid, 137, also Maps of Meaning, pg. 19-30

[4] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE

Jordan B. Peterson, pg. 136

 

[5] Maps of Meaning, pg. 20

[6] 12 Rules, pg. 302

[7] Ibid, 137

[8] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE

Jordan B. Peterson, pg. 137.

 

[9] Maps of Meaning, pg.2

[10] Ibid, 2

[11] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE, Jordan B. Peterson, Pg. 137

[12] Map of Meaning, pg. 93

[13] Ibid, 93

[14] Ibid, 95

[15] Ibid, 93

[16] RELIGION, SOVEREIGNTY, NATURAL RIGHTS, AND THE CONSTITUENT ELEMENTS OF EXPERIENCE, Jordan B. Peterson, pg. 137

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maps of Experience by Jordan Peterson

 

Chapter 1 – Maps of Experience; Object and Meaning

 

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I have been making a slow but steady progress to Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – a book, I believe, is fundamental to understanding Peterson’s take on morality, ethics, and other cultural concerns.

 

Peterson is greatly influenced by Carl Jung and Fredrich Nietzsche. My interest in Peterson is twofold. One, he is a subject of my dissertation (purely intellectual pursuit). Second, as a cultural icon and a popular voice on a range of issues he belongs to a different theoretical universe then mine, and as such I want to understand if there is a theoretical convergence, but also divergence between our two distinct theoretical frameworks.

 

Peterson is a cultural superstar, He rose to fame, becoming a cultural icon, after his interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News. His book 12 Rules For Life has become a bestseller in Australia, US, UK and Canada, and across Europe. But long before Peterson rose to fame, he wrote Maps of Meaning. It’s a substantial book and foundational to understanding his other work, including the 12 Rules For Life.

 

In this post I will offer a summary of Chapter 1: Maps of Experience

 

Imagine that a toddler, out of sheer curiosity and accident, touches a fragile glass sculpture. She observes its material characteristics; it’s colour and shine and how it feels to her touch, etc. All this is her primary experience of the sculpture.

 

But, then, her mother interferes. She grasps her hand, telling her never to touch the object. Through this experience the child has learned two things about the sculpture.

  1. Her primary experience informed the child of the objective sensory properties of the sculpture.
  2. Her secondary experience includes her mother’s intervention leading the child to discover that the sculpture is regarded more expensive, even special, in its current unaltered configuration.

 

In the sculpture, the toddler has encountered (1) an empirical object and (2) its sociocultural status. The status of the object is determined by what meaning it has for the mother. The meaning could be personal or social. Whatever the case be, the meaning of the object has an implication for behaviour – the toddler is not allowed to touch the object. She is told how to behave around the object, to touch or not to touch it.

The sculpture has dual nature:

  1. empirical/objective
  2. sociocultural significance/meaning or emotional, even motivational relevance

 

The dual nature of the sculpture is experienced as a unified totality. The objective is also subjective and vice versa. Human subjectivity or human behavior – to touch or not – is an intrinsic part of the sculpture (of the objective reality of the sculpture).

 

On this basis, Peterson maintains that everything is something (objectively). Secondly, everything means something (subjectively). The meaning or significance is not external to the object, rather assimilated to the object itself. This automatic attribution of meaning to object is a characteristic of mythology, not scientific thoughts.

Peterson divides the word into two categories: pre-experimental or mythical and experimental or scientific.

One finds its expression in the methods of scientific theories and the other in ritual, drama, stories, and mythology.

 

As per JP, we need both categories to develop a complete understanding of our world. In setting one category at odds with another, we risk discrimination based on how those categories are perceived or interpreted by us. For example, a biblical literalist might regard the creation narrative as an indistinguishable from empirical facts, discounting that the creation myth was formulated long before the notion of empiricism or objective reality emerged.

 

Similarly, the modern scientific mind which claims to be rational is in fact not too far from irrational behaviors. Human emotions – anger, frustration, lust, aggression – teaches us how we fail to distinguish our feelings from an object or a person that ends up being the object cause of our desire. The scientific mind is far from objectivity because the object itself falls under the spell of desire. Things – books; phones; cross; tree; table; clothing brand; building – means something for us. Object have emotional and motivational relevance for us.

 

The attribution of meaning to object is a characteristic of mythology, not scientific thoughts.

How does this happen?

Peterson claims that to know something is to know its motivational relevance and its sensory qualities (sensory quality is determined by scientific methods).

 

These two modes of knowing are distinct in their disposition.

 

An object, for example, must capture our gaze and motivate us before we can to explore the object based on its sensory qualities by utilizing scientific methods.

 

Secondly, the sensory properties are meaningful only if they guide us to understand the affectiveness of the object in motivating behavior. What this means is that to understand what things are, it requires that we not only understand what the object is for its own sake empirically, but what that object means in terms of what behavior it will invoke out of us. In this sense, our behavior determines what meaning we give to a thing or an object. How do we behave when we see a politician, a sports superstar, a movie actor, an intellectual idol, the Pope, even a superior at our workplace?

Peterson argues that the affect generated by experience, although subjective in nature, are Real.

The mythical mind understood affect of things as a matter of course. But a modern mind, as it seems, has removed affect from things. Due to this, Peterson claims, that the modern mind does not know what to do when faced with an incomprehensible affect generated by the Thing. For Peterson, we live in a state of loss. For before the arrival of the modern mind man lived in a world saturated with meaning and imbued with purpose. The nature of the purpose was revealed in stories people told each other about cosmos.

 

In contrast to the mythical mind, the modern mind is plagued with rational doubt and moral uncertainties. The modern mind does not believe its own stories. No longer believe that ancient stories served us well in the past.

 

It seems that the mythological perspective has been overthrown by the empirical. And if it is true, if the mythical perspective has truly been abolished, then we could conclude that the morality predicated upon such perspective is also dethroned.

 

But is that the case? Peterson quotes Nietzsche:

 

When one gives up Christian belief [for example] one thereby deprives

oneself of the right to Christian morality…. Christianity is a system,

a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of

it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole

thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.

Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is

good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows.

Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond

all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth—it

stands or falls with the belief in God. If [modern Westerners] really do

believe they know, of their own accord, “intuitively,” what is good and

evil; if they consequently think they no longer have need of Christianity

as a guarantee of morality; that is merely the consequence of the

ascendancy of Christian evaluation and an expression of the strength and

depth of this ascendancy: so that the origin of [modern] morality has been

forgotten, so that the highly conditional nature of its right to exist is no

longer felt

 

According to Nietzsche, if the presupposition of a theory has been invalidated then the whole theoretical edifice has been invalidated. But in this case, Peterson argues, the theory survives. The fundamental tenants of Christian morality, predicated upon Judeo-Christian myth, persist. It continues to govern individual behavior and Western values.

 

To quote Peterson:

The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner—even if he is atheistic and well-educated, even if his abstract notions and utterances appear iconoclastic. He neither kills nor steals (or if he does, he hides his actions, even from his own awareness), and he tends, in theory, to treat his neighbor as himself. The principles that govern his society (and, increasingly, all others15) remain predicated on mythic notions of individual value—intrinsic right and responsibility—despite scientific evidence of causality and determinism in human motivation. Finally, in his mind—even when sporadically criminal—the victim of a crime still cries out to heaven for “justice,” and the conscious lawbreaker still deserves punishment for his or her actions.

 

For Peterson, we believe God is dead, and for that matter, myth is dead, but we still act out the precept of our forebearers. The same mythic rules shape our behaviors. There is a disjunction between what we believe and how we live. Our actions do not live up to our beliefs. It’s not that we claim to believe in God but fail to live as we believe. Quite the opposite, we claim not to believe in God, but still, we live as if we do believe in God.

 

For Peterson, God is synonymous with the mythic universe. And our lives are governed by the same mythic rules – thou shall not kill, thou shall not covet – that guided our ancestors for thousands of years before the arrival of empirical thought. Accordingly, Peterson sees no sense in abolishing myth or prioritizing scientific mind over mythical mind.

Peterson asks: “How is it that complex and admirable civilizations could have developed and flourished, initially, if they were predicated upon nonsense?”

Is fault lies with us the modern wanderers who have failed to make sense of how it could be the case that traditional notions are right, despite the appearance of extreme irrationality?

 

Is this the case of modern philosophical ignorance or ancestral philosophical errors, asks Peterson?

 

At the heart of the chapter is a plea to return to the foundational myths of our civilization. As Peterson would say if it made sense then why would it not make sense now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on “Violence” by Slavoj Zizek

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What is violence, after all? How do we perceive violence? How do we conceptualise it? Why do we categorise some acts as an act of violence while others non-violence? Does the absence of physical violence equate to the absence of violence?

In his monograph Violence Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek reconceptualises the notion of violence. While not an exhaustive review, here is a brief summary of his idea on violence which I find greatly beneficial when reflecting on what happened in Christchurch.

The book opens by noting that when we think about violence we tend to think about criminal acts, acts of terror, civil unrest, and war. This is the first level violence, the most obvious which he calls a “subjective violence”.

On Zizek’s account, if we wish to understand violence we must step back from the “fascinating lure” of this type of “subjective violence,” that is, “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent,” and we must look at the violence in the background that generates subjective violence.

To put it differently, subjective violence, commonly understood as criminal acts and acts of terror, never happen in a vacuum. Zizek emphasises this point by saying that “This is the starting point, perhaps even the axiom, of the present book: subjective violence is just the most visible portion of a triumvirate that also includes two objective kinds of violence.”

  1. The first kind of objective violence is “symbolic violence,” referring to the “violence embodied in language and its forms.”
  2. The second type is “systemic violence,” referring to “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.”

Zizek points out how systemic violence is normalised, and therefore hard to detect. According to him systemic violence is invisible because it is the “normal” state of affairs, the background against which we perceive subjective violence as disturbing. In other words, there is a violence before violence – there is objective violence at the level of systemic and symbolic before it is outwardly manifested in a subjective manner or in the acts of terror and crime etc.

Accounting that “it may be invisible” Zizek adds that “it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence.”

Zizek explains what he means by systemic and subjective violence and how they are linked, with a story from 1922 when the Soviet government forced into exile a large group of anti-communist intellectuals.

The anti-communist intellectuals left for Germany on what became known as the “Philosophy Steamer.” Among them was the philosopher Nikolai Lossky, who “had enjoyed with his family a comfortable life of the haute bourgeoisie, supported by servants and nannies.” Lossky was puzzled as to why the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy his “gentle” way of life aimed at filling the world with high culture.7

Zizek’s answer is:

While Lossky was without doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilize Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systemic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible. We’re talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.

Zizek’s argument is that since the Lossky family was blind to systemic violence (before the communists took over), they could not understand threats of violence directed against them around the time of the Bolshevik revolution. For example, Lossky’s son was taunted by a working class schoolmate with the shouted words, “the days of him and his family are over now.”

To the Losskys, this act was incomprehensible, an evil coming out of nowhere. Zizek however argues: “What they didn’t understand was that in the guise of this irrational subjective violence, they were getting back the message they themselves sent out in its inverted true form.”

Zizek deploys the concept of systemic violence to indicate that the pre-existing social structures and institutional practices, such as political domination or capitalist exploitation, cause people to engage in subjective violence, both individually – theft, fights and murder – and collectively – war and riots and terrorism.

The point is that an act of violence must not be isolated from the wider social and political matrix. For Zizek, social and political arrangements are “systemically violent” and remain cause for subjective violence performed by individuals.

For Zizek, “explosions of subjective violence” appear irrational only if we don’t take into account systemic violence as their “invisible” background. And, it is the failure to grasp systemic violence that leaves us bewildered when confronted with the brutal acts of violence in a subjective way.

Violence, therefore, before subjective is always objective. Objective violence is two dimensional – systemic (socio-economic-politico arrangements) and symbolic (violence in language and rhetoric).

Truth is Accidental

 

 

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Soren Kierkegaard was one of the founding figures of what is now called existential philosophy. Another one was Fredric Nietzsche. Despite their differences, they have a lot in common. While Nietzsche claimed that God is dead, Kierkegaard maintained that the Church is dead, in its institutional form anyway. From the beginning of his writings, Kierkegaard views were always somewhat countercultural, but the Practice in Christianity in 1850 offered direct condemnations of Christendom, as exemplified by the Danish Lutheran Church, which he believed had perverted the Christian message.

 

Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are in some ways anti-philosopher. They passionately opposed the foundations of classical philosophy. In doing so, they offered a different kind of philosophy — one not based on intellectual abstraction, or something that is produced in an academic conservatory. Rather, for them, the truth of philosophy emerges out in the dangers of the world. Truth is what Kierkegaard had in mind when he wrote, “The thing is to find a truth which truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” Truth is also the central concern for Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments.

 

How do we learn the truth? Do we learn it on our own? Can we learn it on our own? Is truth within us or is it external to us? In Philosophical Fragments Kierkegaard kindles a revolution in a philosophical discussion of truth. It is what Kierkegaard calls the existential truth.

 

Kierkegaard was all too willing to take on the intellectual giants of the classical and modern philosophies. The power of rational thinking dominated his intellectual climate. He was part of an epoch where new dawn of reason was breaking through the cracks of the pre-modern edifice. Radiance of it had already enlightened the inhabitants of entire Western Europe. This new age of reason consumed every segment of social life.

 

Much of this is owed to Emmanuel Kant and G. W. Hegel, who left their mark on the intellectual landscape of Western Europe, the impact of which is felt to this day. Both these thinkers chiefly relied on the power of rational thinking which sets the criterion to access the truth. For Kant, the essence of life is accessible only by the application of human reason. In a similar vein, Hegel claimed that ‘the rational was the real’; therefore, reason alone has the power to explain all that is On the other hand, a wave of romanticism greatly emphasised the power of feeling, imagination and aesthetic sensibility.

 

Under such intellectual climate, Kierkegaard begins his inquiry with a Socratic question: “Can the truth be learned?”. What seems to be a straightforward question comes with its own complexity. If learning is seeking than one cannot seek what one already knows, similarly, one cannot seek what one does not know. But what if one does not know what one already knows, what if the learner is not aware that she is already too close to the truth, yet unable to grasp its presence deep within. In that case, the truth-quest begins not outside but within the learner. All learner need is a simple reminder to bring about the kernel of truth from within.

 

For Socrates, this is indeed the case. Socrates associates the process of learning truth with recollecting. In Socratic thought, the learner appears to be in a state of not knowing what is already in her. The learner is neither outside the truth nor in the truth. Rather the truth is in the learner and cannot be introduced to her from the outside.

 

In light of this, the role of a teacher is one of a midwife. Not too dissimilar to midwives, the primary task of an educator is to assist the learner in the process of self-realization, as they give birth to their own truth. The learner who learns the truth realizes that she owes nothing to the educator because the truth was already in her.

 

For this reason, the educator is only an occasion and holds no importance at all in the process of learning. The educator gives nothing new to the learner, and if “he does gives of himself and his erudition”, “he does not gives but takes away” from the learner. For the same reason the moment of learning also loses its decisive value, for the truth is always and already in the learner.

 

Viewed Socratically, each person becomes the source of truth, and the world is centred upon the person and her self-knowledge. In this process, the course of learning is internalized. The search for truth becomes a purely intellectual and reflective exercise between me, myself, and I. If the truth lies within human nature than all we need is to set our intellect in motion to draw it out from within. But if such is not the case then we shall ask the Socratic question once again “Can the truth be learned?” and seek an alternative to the Socratic view.

 

This is precisely what Kierkegaard does. Contrary to the Socratic view, where the educator has no decisive significance, Kierkegaard imagines the alternative where both the educator and the moment in which the truth is learned holds decisive value for the learner.

 

Kierkegaard begins his proposal by suggesting that for the educator or the moment to hold any decisive significance, the learner up to the point of encountering the truth must not have possessed it, not even in the most trivial sense. Otherwise we are back to Socrates and the moment loses its worth.

 

Secondly, the moment holds decisive significance when the learner receives the condition for understanding the truth from the teacher. The learner, on her own, cannot create the condition for the emergence of truth.  For this reason, the learner, up until the point of contact is completely outside of the truth.

 

This view is in sharp contrast with the one of Socrates where the learner is in possession of the truth and can solely produce the condition needed for the learning. As an alternative to the Socrates learner who does not know what she already knows, Kierkegaard’s’ learner appears to not know what she does not know because she is completely and entirely outside of the truth, always departing from it.

 

Also, any attempt from learner to produce the condition of  truth-learning results in the displacement of understanding, for the truth cannot be grasped by the criteria set out by one’s own presupposition. Otherwise one is simply chasing one’s own premise. Before encountering the truth, the learner is in the state of untruth. In this case, a midwife teacher is made powerless because the learner is devoid of truth and cannot produce, on its own, the condition for understanding it.

 

Philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard could be one of the first figures to pave the way for postmodernism. What struck me in Kierkegaard’s writing is his emphasis that truth is not propositional. Instead, for Kierkegaard, truth is existential. In other words, the truth of any proposition is external to it. For example, one might say the truth of love is outside of love. The truth of God is outside of God. The truth of a belief system or a worldview is external to it. Similarly, the truth of science and the truth of beauty is outside of it. Philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard de-essentialized the notion of truth. Postmodernism, isn’t ?

 

Secondly, it seems that the arrival of truth is accidental. One cannot plan for it. It emerges out of nowhere. It cannot be manufactured. Any attempt to manufacture the truth falls on its face. Truth cannot be preconditioned either. It comes with its own terms and conditions that are out of control. No one has a monopoly on truth. We don’t happen to truth, but the truth happens to us. In sum, truth is accidental.

 

Book Review: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism

Weber Max, and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. BN Publishing, 2008.

Image result for protestant work ethic

 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been popular among the scholars of relgion and sociologists in establishing the prominence of ideas over the centrality of material conditions in the making of history. Weber argues that religious asceticism was a central force  in the genesis of capitalism.

 

In The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber sets out to demonstrate a historical connection between the development of capitalism and the rise of the Protestant movement. In his introduction Weber poses a rhetorical question – “What combination of circumstances the fact should be attributed that in Western civilization, and in Western civilization only, cultural phenomenon has appeared which (as we like to think) lie in a line of development having universal significance and value” –  that notices the distinctiveness of the Western culture. According to Weber, only the West has witnessed noteworthy developments in the fields of rationality, science, political order, and capitalism. Weber is clear in distinguishing modern capitalism as a rational system from other traditional economic activities.  Capitalism, for Weber, has two essential characteristics: (1) a systematic disposition of the labour and (2) continuous reinvestment of capital in the capitalistic enterprise. The traditional economies lack of rational and systematic approaches of that is why it was not possible to develop a free labour capitalistic enterprise in the Middle Ages. Against this historical backdrop, Weber sets out to highlight the way protestant ethical maxims are complementary to the development of Western capitalism.

 

The book unfolds in two parts. The first part mostly comprises “The Problem” Weber unpacks and outlines the overarching subject of his inquiry – namely, expression of the old Protestantism, namely Calvinism, behind the rise of modern capitalistic culture. The second section examines the problems by taking a closer looking at the subject of inquiry – the relgious root of Western capitalism.

 

The first chapter begins with a survey of economic disparities in Europe. Noticing a robust Protestant presence amidst economically prosperous areas, Weber considers a causal link between economic advancement and religious leanings. While highlighting that affluent regions were protestant, Weber gives reasons for the underdevelopment of the Catholics. He notices how different pedagogical orientations lead to unequal progress in the accumulation of personal and industrial resources. The Catholics, for example, prioritised learning philosophy and history, along with choosing to go with skilled workforce that included artisans. In contrasts, protestants preferred industry-oriented jobs where through sheer hard work they sought promotion and moved up in professional rankings.

 

Secondly, Weber observes that it’s not that the Catholic Church was overly controlling. Instead, it wasn’t controlling enough, as the reformists contended. Weber is quick to point out the way Catholics and Protestants perceived each other. The Catholics saw the Protestants justification of economic rationalism linked with inner conviction as materialism. On the other hand, the Catholics were criticised for their “other-worldliness”. While there might be some truth here, Weber is quick to acknowledge that there could be a link between other-worldly faith and material success. Yet, he recognises that the “old Protestantism” of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Voet had little to do with what today is called progress. But there is a specific expression of the old Protestantism, namely Calvinism, behind the rise of modern capitalistic culture. Weber concludes the chapter by locating the rise of capitalism in purely religious characteristics.

 

The second chapter is centred on explaining what the spirit of capitalism means. His concern is not the traditional expressions of capitalism that happened in India or China or Middle Ages but modern Europe and America. Therefore, he highlights Benjamin Franklin emphasis on money and credit. At the heart of Franklin’s doctrine is obtaining money and saving money. Franklin advises people to be hardworking and trustworthy. Mutual trust is fostered when people pay their debts as expected. Along a similar line, Franklin’s message to a young tradesman is to live modestly, credit wisely and save and invest carefully is a brief expression of the spirit of capitalism. As a result, Weber argues, one’s work was not merely a duty, but also a vocational calling. In order to flourish one had to adhere to the spirit of capitalism. He stresses the importance of Franklin’s letter as exemplifying the spirit of capitalism.

 

The third Chapter, Luther’s Conception of the Calling” deals with the social impact of the Protestant notion of calling. For Weber, the idea of calling, a sacred ordering principle inspired people to work as if God ordained it. This was in sharp contrast to the Catholicism which understood earthly life as the irrelevant and favoured afterlife. Emerged out of the Reformation, the notion of calling, for the first time, bestowed religious significance on the world activities. Weber notes that it was Luther who first developed the notion of calling. However, it was Calvin who improvised on this notion, by adding that worldly works are the mark of salvation. Wordily success in this sense points to spiritual progress. One’s material success demonstrates one’s spiritual status. Such an idea offered support in seeking material gain. But while Calvin supported material gain, he also was quick to point out that flamboyant display of wealth must be curbed.

 

Before concluding the chapter, Weber acknowledges that his aim is not to examine the Reformation, but only to trace the development of capitalism back to the Reformation. He aims to see the link between religious movement and the development of material culture. Only by doing this, Weber insists, can the attempt be made to estimate the influence of religious forces on the development of modern culture.

 

The Fourth Chapter begins with a survey of Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and the Baptists, to highlight the common thread of worldly asceticism. Weber begins by discussing predestination, an important doctrine of Calvinism. According to predestination only the selected few would go to heaven. And to be sure if one is chosen, one must have the knowledge and confidence in one’s salvation which will result from living an ascetic life in the worldly activities.  According to Weber, such a sentiment puts a strong emphasis in the worldly vocational calling and rejected sacraments associated with Catholic traditionalism. While Luther emphasised the importance of grace in attaining salvation, his doctrine offered little regarding asceticism. But moving beyond Lutheran traditionalism, ascetic Protestants were increasingly rational and methodical in their activities. Calvinism advocated self-discipline and systematic way of living life on a consistent basis, whether it was a personal affair or political or economic responsibilities. It was far more action-oriented, seeking to display faith through worldly activity.

 

Weber also notes how Methodism and Pietism and the Baptists lacked the necessary ingredients in order to establish a consistent form of ascetism. While Pietism offered a rigorous system of organising life in one’s calling, it strongly emphasised the doctrine of predestination which meant that not everyone was predisposed to attaining grace through human activities. Baptists, on the other hand, advocated avoiding worldly pleasures. Methodists were emotionally linked with the ideas of prevenient grace and absolute forgiveness. Human activity in this sense had little to do with one’s salvation. Similar to Pietism, Methodism also lacked the foundational basis for worldly asceticism.

 

In the fifth chapter, Weber seeks to understand the link between Protestant asceticism and capitalism. Weber observers in the writings of Richard Baxter enormous disdain towards wealth. Baxter objected any temptation that keeps one away from pursuing the righteous path. Baxter emphasised the importance of an ongoing mental and physical hard work, associating any kind of laxness with sickness or sinfulness. Drawing on Baxter’s work, Weber points out the attitude toward avoiding worldly pleasures ironically complimented capitalism. Spontaneous enjoyment takes people away from their duty and calling which is essential to capitalistic production. A disciplined hard work is required to sustain a capitalistic economy. Also, the Puritans rejected spending money on worldly pleasures and emphasised the importance of holding onto their wealth, and even increasing it. While wealth is not bad when attained through hard work, the pursuit of wealth in itself must be avoided.

 

Weber concludes the final chapter by admitting that there well might be several other forces behind the rise of capitalism that is not considered in his book. I agree with Weber; it is highly improbable that the Calvinistic doctrine is the sole ordering principle behind the rise of modern capitalism. While there might be a lot of value in considering that Calvinism offered some key ingredients to develop the kind of business ethic associated with piety, it would be too limited, as Weber admits in the end, to attribute the rise of capitalism to Calvinism alone.

 

Carl Jung on Religion

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Jung’s body of work full of discussions on religion. He admits that humans are “by nature religious”. He agrees with Rudolf Otto’s understanding of religious experience as a “careful and scrupulous observation…the “numinous.” that is, a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will.”[1] For Jung, the experience of the numinous is not bound by the creed, dogmas or institutional religion. Institutional religion is an obstacle to authentic religious experiences. The authentic religious experiences, for Jung, is “not caused by an arbitrary act of will. On the contrary, it seizes and controls the human subject”.[2] In this sense, Jung is critical of organised religion. Even though religion designates experiences in consciousness, in truth, it is a phenomenon of the collective unconscious, idea central to understanding Jung’s view on religion.

 

Considering its importance, I shall briefly outline what the collective unconscious is.

 

Jung’s theory of the psyche is concerned with developing a model that can explain its working dynamics. To explain these dynamics, Jung discusses the features of the psychic operation that impacts both conscious and its underlying unconscious mechanisms. To that he outlines his view of the psyche: “By psyche I understand that totality of all psychic process, conscious as well as unconscious”.[3] It is easy to deduce from this that by psyche Jung means an operation that takes place on both conscious and unconscious level of the mind.

 

Jung associates consciousness with the ego, stating the role of the ego in terms of a “complex of representations which constitute the centrum of the field of consciousness”.[4]  So consciousness, for Jung, is constituted by what is perceivable and easily knowable. On the contrary, unconscious realities are difficult to be perceived, because perception is the central component of the consciousness. For this reason, everything in the personality that is not contained in the conscious should be found in the unconscious.

 

However, it is important to note that for Jung there are two dimensions to the unconscious. The first part personal unconscious, it contains forgotten material and subliminal impression. The personal unconscious, for Jung, contains “lost memories, painful ideas that have been repressed….subliminal perceptions, by which are meant sense-perceptions that were not strong enough to reach consciousness, and finally, contents that are not yet ripe for consciousness”.[5] Jung points out that these forgotten or repressed content often come together and create subliminal dis/functional elements, rendering fragmentary personalities. This activity of unconscious mind is what Jung calls complexes, a series of highly fuelled emotions impacting the conscious mind and producing disproportionate outcomes. According to Jung, the ego is nothing but the complex of consciousness.[6]

 

The second part is collective unconscious, a non-personal layer with contents belonging to the broader world. It is a deeper layer of the unconscious in contrast to what he calls the personal unconscious. In Jung’s words: “As to the man’s land which I have called the ‘personal unconscious,’ it is fairly easy to prove that its contents correspond exactly to our definition of the psychic. But – as we define ‘psychic’ – is there a psychic unconscious that is not a ‘fringe of consciousness’ and not personal?”[7]

 

Jung’s rhetorical question points to the non-personal part of the unconscious as well.  For Jung, this impersonal unconscious is an objective prior reality with collective features to it. He categorically employs “collective” to celebrate its universal features in contrast to individual psyche or personal unconscious. He states: “I have chosen the term ‘collective’ because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals”.[8]

 

Furthermore, the idea of collective unconscious takes a new meaning when Jung suggests that in it exists the earliest and most ancient remnants of man’s psychic development, in Jung’s words these are ‘archetypes’.[9] The archetypes are primal motifs that have evolved through the centuries and now present in the collective unconscious. The archetypes may include symbols and myths with universal meanings across cultures or religion. The concept of archetype, rooted in the collective unconsciousness, becomes an essential vehicle for Jung to communicate his ideas on religion.

 

Against this theoretical matric Jung articulates the importance of religion and its function for the human psyche. He posits that the collective unconscious, a deeper layer of the human psyche, is part of a shared humanity where the archetypes (religious symbols/myths/narratives, etc) are to be discovered.

 

The experience of the archetypes is dependent on the individual, but the archetype itself forms universal narratives and images and symbols. For Jung, these archetypes are significant in shaping religious experiences and offers a psychological framework for understanding the unconscious underpinning of the religious phenomenon.

 

When an individual has a religious experience, they are in fact having an experience of the collective unconscious. The religious need, Jung suggests, “longs for wholeness”, and lays hold of the images of the wholeness offered by the collective unconscious, which operates independently in the depths of the psyche, of the conscious mind. [10] The religious images, experiences, and symbols, and narratives are beyond the bounds of the conscious and are present universally across cultures in the forms of archetypes.

 

The archetypal images correspond to and make individuals aware of the religious needs that lay in deep inside the collective unconscious. Perhaps the most prominent concept that Jung used to express his idea of the archetypes is the concept of symbols.[11]

 

It is the concept of symbols that Jung works out his comprehensive views on religion. While Freud saw symbols as wish-fulfillment, for example the totem, Jung saw in symbols a creative energy that is part of the collective unconscious.[12] Jung considers archetypes as a symbolic phenomenon that point beyond itself to the unknown reality. He claims that a word or an image is symbolic “when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider “unconscious” aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained” and “as the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason”.[13]

 

What Jung is saying is that religious symbols play essential role in connecting conscious to the unconscious by drawing out the incomprehensible archetypes from the depth of the psyche into awareness. Even though the individual experience may differ, dependent upon social/cultural/religious settings, but the core of these symbols however different they appear represent the same unknowable reality universally for all people.

 

Despite cultural and religious differences, the underlying meaning of the experience is identical as it arises out of the shared collective source and joins individuals into the archetypal existence.

 

Another feature of Jung’s view on religion is that he speaks of religious myth in terms of symbolic manifestation of the collective unconscious. Once again, Jung’s characterization of unconscious differs from Freud. Jung admits, “I did not reduce them to personal factors, as Freud does, but – and this seemed indicated by their very nature – I compared them with the symbols from mythology and the history of religion, in order to discover the meaning they were trying to express.”[14]  In contrast to Freud, Jung sees a therapeutic quality in religious myths and states that “myths of a religious nature can be interpreted as a sort of mental therapy for the sufferings and anxieties of mankind in general”.[15] Jung saw a connection between myth and religion. He observed that both religion and myth have transcendental qualities to them and are part of the collective unconscious that passed from generation to generation. As Jung puts it: The material brought forward – folkloristic, mythological, or historical – serves in the first place to demonstrate the uniformity of psychic events in time and space and time”.[16]

 

Jung’s positive attitude towards religious myth is formed due to his understanding that myths can be a symbolic expression of the collective unconscious. They are not merely illogical primitive explanations of reality but hold symbolic value. Their “esoteric teaching….typical means of expression for the transmission of collective contents originally derived from the unconscious.”[17]

 

The manifestation of the archetypal symbol in myths throughout the history leads Jung to conclude that “the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious.[18] Jung is convinced that throughout history the symbolic function of the myths is brought out of the unconscious, and functions as the central material for man’s symbol.  After a period of gestation, the symbols emerge out of the unconscious in mythologies. Hence, religious realities are deeply rooted in the collective unconscious.  To be religious is to participate in the collective unconscious that cuts across culture and societies, connecting individuals in collective archetypal images.

 

[1] Jung, C. G. Psychology and Relgion. PDF. Pg. 4

[2] Jung, C. G. Psychology and Relgion. PDF. Pg. 4

[3] Jung, C. G. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 6: Psychological Types. Princeton University Press, 1971. Complete Digital Edition. 640

[4] Moreno Antonio, Jung’s Collective Unconscious. Laval théologique et philosophique 232 (1967): 175–196. DOI : 10.7202/1020110ar. Pg. 177

[5] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Complete Digital Edition. Pg. 101-102

[6] As Jung points out that the ego is psychologically nothing but a complex of imaginings held together and fixed by the coenesthetic impressions……. the complex of the ego may well be set parallel with and compared to the secondary autonomous complex. See The Collective Works Of C. G. Jung,  Vol 2. Pg. 601

[7] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Complete Digital Edition. Pg. 260

[8] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. PDF. Pg. 3-4

[9] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Complete Digital Edition. Pg. 154

[10] Jung, C. G. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. PDF. Pg. 127

[11]  Goering, Jacob D. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Religion. The Mennonite quarterly review, 1982. pg 51

[12] Ibid, 52

[13] Jung, C. G., Joseph L. Henderson, Marie-Luise Von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi. Man and his symbols. New York: Anchor Press, 1964. Pg. 21

[14] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961. PDF. Pg. 330

[15] Jung, C. G., Joseph L. Henderson, Marie-Luise Von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi. Man and his symbols. New York: Anchor Press, 1964. Pg 79.

[16] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Complete Digital Edition. Pg. 295

[17] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. PDF. Pg. 5

[18] Jung, C. G., and R. F. C. Hull. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Complete Digital Edition. Pg.205.