Philosophy Bites and Disciplinary Myopia

The Philosophy Bites podcast recently did an interview with Simon Glendenning on “Philosophy’s Two Cultures,” that is analytical philosophy and “continental” philosophy. (“Continental” meaning philosophy somehow characteristic of philosophers who happen to be from mainland Europe, as opposed to the largely English-language, logically-oriented philosophers from, well, England, among other places.)

Glendenning noted that the analytical folks attempted to define themselves in opposition to the continental folks and to purge their work of the wordy, free-range, non-argumentative version of philosophy characteristic of, inter alia, Heidegger, Derrida, Sartre, etc.; that, in essence, the analytical folks made continental philosophers an in-group “other.” It’s an interesting point, and likely has a good bit to it. But it brings up something that nags at me as someone who came to philosophy from religious studies in the late 1990s, when much of the chaos wreaked by post-analytical folks like Rorty and supposed continental heathen like Derrida and Foucault had been done.

The nagging concern I have is that Glendenning’s explanation did not take into account actual cultural differences that may have borne upon the disciplinary divide. What most caught me about this was his laying forth the stereotyped differences between analytical philosophy, with its argumentative focus, and continental philosophy, which supposedly tends to be less so. (For what it’s worth, that seems accurate enough to me for the types who clearly belong to column A or B.) Might this distinction be partly cultural?

I think so. The direction I come from on this is, presently, a result of legal studies. Here’s my thought: compare the common-law, English-language approach to jurisprudence to that of the civil-law approach characteristic of much of continental Europe. As a simplification, the common law takes an adversarial bent: parties are represented by attorneys who handle much of the questioning and eliciting of facts, make arguments to juries, etc. Also as a simplification, in the civil-law world, the judicial model is much more inquisitorial–that is, less focused on disputation of the facts by the parties.

I realize I’m guilty of oversimplification; but sometimes I worry that we get so wrapped up in the myopia of our own disciplines that we miss the implications of the broader cultural contexts in which our disciplines reside.

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Some thoughts on free will

Just a few dribbling thoughts inspired by the history of philosophy podcasts coming from Kings College at the University of London.

First–if you’re not subscribed to this, think about doing so. It’s really a fascinating listen.

To more weighty things, now.

I’ve started listening to the podcast episodes dealing with the history of philosophy in the Islamic world; there’s a ton of great stuff there. The episode I listened to this morning dealt with Kalaam, the Mu’tazilites, and arguments concerning tawhid and free will.

Listening to the discussion of the arguments on how free will can exist–that God’s justice is unique and not particularly readily defined by our own notions of justice, which are necessarily separate–I was reminded of the problem of positing such radical oneness and transcendence while also positing that there are normative results that come from concepts of justice somehow different from yet apparently compatible with human notions of justice.

If you could excise the idea of a moral, commanding God from philosophy and ethics, would it make it easier? I think so–at least in the sense that there would be no need to tie ourselves into knots in reaching any number of ethical and metaphysical conclusions.

Huh. I wonder if there’s an intellectual tradition that allows for that? Oh, right…

Why does philosophy matter to the everyday humanist Jew?

A conversation today has me thinking a bit about why philosophy matters. It doesn’t just matter to humanist Jews, though that’s where I’m situated and it gives me a lever into what I hope to say.

Humanism has, as an underlying principle, the notion that humans bear both responsibility and authority for determining right and wrong action. This means that, however universal the ethical claims one might make, for humanists those claims draw their authority from their makers and the acceptance and acceptability of the ethical claims to the broader community.

Philosophy matters because some philosophies are compatible with this principle, and some are not. There are philosophies that would locate ethics entirely outside of the realm of human creation–dualist systems, for example. Some of these systems would remove any sense of the role of situation in affecting or moderating what ethics demands upon us as persons–that is, they would remove contingency from ethics. Much as we might deride “situational” ethics, what ethics demands of us–that is, what we as a community would say is ethical conduct–is contingent upon the specific situation before each individual.

Even if you don’t “do philosophy,” this matters because it affects how your community views your ethical obligations. The more out-of-human-hands ethics are thought to be–that is, the more a group regards ethics as “fixed in stone”–the less capable ethics may be of addressing new situations, and the less value is placed upon the individual as free to determine their own ethical values. While we may talk about the independence and freedom of individuals as ethical agents, it’s a different freedom to be told that your choice is to do what is right or wrong based upon a set of standards to which one has and can have no input.

Put another way: you are free when you’re given credit for the ability to decide to take an already-prescribed course of action that has been deemed correct externally, but you are a lot more free when you are also given credit for the ability to reason out what is the correct action.

Why does this matter for Jews? Judaism walks an interesting line on the human control of ethics. We are told in Deuteronomy that the Torah is not in heaven, that is, it is not beyond human understanding; yet at the same time, Torah is certainly exhibit one in the history of Western monotheist divine command ethical theory. And the rabbinical encounter with Torah reads and re-reads the text, and admits that its results are novations.

For humanist Jews, the insistence that the written Torah and the oral law as we have received them today are divine commands run counter to what we see in the history of the development of these texts. It also strips both us and our predecessor generations of the greater ethical free agency that allows us to reason our way to what the correct ethical result is, even as the world around us changes.

Why does philosophy matter? Because it’s your responsibility as an ethical agent–as an individual who can think–to determine how free you want to be, and what community will allow you to apply and enjoy that freedom.

Jews and Political Philosophy

Having come from Conservative Judaism, I still feel some affinity for its scholars and institutions, including JTS. Happily, JTS provides a fair amount of podcast material through iTunes U, including a series of lectures from their library about books in the library collection. (Been to the library there by the way–it’s awesome!)

One of the lecturers in the library series was Yoram Hazony, author of “The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures.” This morning, I was listening to the first part of Prof. Hazony’s lecture, where he explained why he wrote the book: namely, that political philosophy, and philosophy generally, has taken a turn since sometime in the nineteenth century where the Tanakh is not a subject of discussion where it had once been quite prominent in political thought. Prof. Hazony was troubled by the absence of a Jewish voice in modern religious and philosophical discussions, which in the popular press is dominated by either a very Christian vision (however defined) or a very secular, almost militantly atheist approach.

Why, he asked, were Jews absent from this discussion when they could freely, in this day and age, come forward with what Jewish texts have to say, and likely be welcomed into the discussion? Prof. Hazony notes that many Jews would not know what the texts say, and there’s quite a bit to that. But also difficult is that I think most Jews would not be particularly pleased with what they would have to contribute to the discussion from Jewish texts.

Prof. Hazony points out that the prophets talk of peace and justice, etc., and of the idea that the Torah (in its narrow and broad meanings) would be an example for other nations. This is well and good, and it is also true that much of what would be consensus “social justice” is incorporated into many of the Torah’s provisions: care for the widow and orphan, care for the stranger, leaving fields incompletely harvested so that the poor may gather, forgiveness of debts, etc. But when it comes to political matters, most modern Jews are or would be uncomfortable announcing the Jewish texts’ positions on these matters. Here’s why:

The Torah essentially posits a theocracy. The former prophets (specifically, the books of Samuel) disapprove of the people’s request for a king, but the narrative eventually provides for a king (and war in the wake of the monarchy). Most of the kings prove themselves to be more or less moral and political reprobates, and in the Biblical text Samuel warns the people that this would be the case. When we leave the sweep of Israelite history as the biblical narrative posits it–with Ezra and Nehemiah–we have returned to something of a theocracy-cum-vassal state.

So, if you’re a modern Jew in a modern democracy, you’re probably pretty uncomfortable with where the Tanakh puts political discourse. It’s unclear that modern Jews would be especially comfortable with later Jewish political thought, either–whether that thought comes from rabbinic texts that expect courts to wield significant political authority at least within the Jewish community (that’s a pretty theocratic position), or from the work of Isaac Abravanel, who argued that the Torah precludes the exercise of a right of revolt against an unjust government.

A significant problem, then, is that Judaism in its more traditional modes has a lot of material that would not prove especially palatable for the telling, and much of it comes from a period when we were not “winners” in the grand political scheme. In that light, I think it’s hard to blame Jews for not being particularly forthcoming with what traditional Jewish texts have to say about politics.

A (not-so-brief) reaction to a Skirball podcast with Neil Gillman

On my drive to work one recent morning, I started listening to a series of interviews with Professor Neil Gillman of Jewish Theological Seminary. The Skirball Center in New York had put out these lectures as podcasts around 2008. (I’m behind a bit on podcast consumption.) Part of the discussion centered on Professor Gillman’s reaction to the storm of “New Atheist” books that had appeared on the market in recent years–works by, e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. Professor Gillman made a statement that struck an odd note for me–that the New Atheist thinkers were making straw-man arguments that were not really reacting to all theists, but primarily to the newer forms of fundamentalist religion. Part of the analysis Professor Gillman offered was that, to his thinking, the New Atheists were actually not all that in-tune with what liberal theology had to say. I suppose we could infer that the New Atheists would have nothing to say to the larger body of liberal believers.

I’m not convinced this is entirely fair to all humanists, thought it is often fair of the positions taken by Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. More troubling, I think, is Professor Gillman’s articulation earlier in that podcast of the “God is when” idea.

The idea is twofold. In modern lives, the divinity is only present when we invite it in, and we most often invite it in at those moments where the usual mental and psychic debris of our lives clears away so that we have something like a pure encounter with whatever it is we are observing/experiencing at the time. So the divinity is brought in when we invite/perceive it to be there–it seems the two would be the same process. Thus, for Gillman, god exists at those times. Or, more properly to his thought, god is present at those moments (Gillman adopts something of the Maimonidean tack that god is so radically other that descriptions of the divinity are somewhat beside the point).

This is an attractive idea for a humanist, as it seems to return to our control the concept of the divine. But Gillman’s approach doesn’t really do this. For as the series of talks goes on, Gillman continues to presume not only the existence of the divine separate and apart from the world, but also that the divinity cares about the world (though he does recognize that this is human language attempting to describe something very not-human). Later, when he discusses revelation, Gillman makes the argument that the Bible’s descriptions of god and the encounter with the divine are necessarily attempts to express that encounter language available to the Israelites at various stages of biblical history.

Gillman takes for granted the existence of a transcendent divine being, one outside of history that cares about what happens to us, and this assumption has normative implications. And that is problematic for a humanist–not necessarily for a naturalist (which is how Gillman describes himself), but certainly for a humanist. For while Gillman’s thought locates some amount of authority in the Jewish people, it stops short of locating all of the authority for Judaism with the Jewish people.

This, I think, is where even a quite liberal theologian like Gillman opens himself up to a humanist critique, for at least two reasons. First, Gillman’s approach is somewhat have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too: there is both divine authority and human authority, and the normative claims ultimately derive from an experience of the divine. Second, as a logical matter, it is difficult to see how Gillman overcomes the no-ought-from-is problem–and this is generally true of all theistic approaches.

To his credit, Gillman recognizes that there is a tremendous shift toward individualism among Jews and others, where individual members of the community take up the obligation of defining their own identities and relationships with Judaism. (A version of this of which I am fond is at punktorah.org, though I don’t quite fit there because I’m just way to square and establishment for that.) His willingness to say, “I need a minyan” is an example of this kind of crafting; but his unwillingness to say that he feels free to redefine very much of Judaism left me feeling that his approach falls just tantalizingly short of something that more secularly-oriented Jews could use as a guide.

Nevertheless, I still find myself looking to Gillman’s work as a valuable resource, if only because it reminds me of where I came from (Conservative Judaism) and where I’m going (someplace where the existence of god is just not that important a question).