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John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

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John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on Science, Symbol, and Meaning

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” (1983) is archived at Centenary College as “Houston Talk.” It was the opening address at the Second Annual Space Industrialization Conference of the National Space Society in Houston, Texas. It has been included in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on this image:

The subject of “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” is man’s exploration of outer space and the potential physical instantiation of certain theories about the structure of the cosmos. Corrington sets out to “reconstruct” Western culture, first by defining and describing it and then by diagnosing what he calls its “deformity,” which involves confusion regarding the differences between mythical and scientic modes of knowing.

This essay uses the subject of space exploration as a starting point for recommending remedies to this so-called deformity. Corrington purports to derive his thesis about time and cosmic order from Eric Voegelin, Martin Heidegger, and Giorgio de Santillana. He critiques the “illusion” that scientific thinking displaced mythopoetic thinking in the West because, he says, theological and symbolic thinking has been used to make sense of the data that has been objectively arrived at and disinterestedly gathered. This illusion will no longer stand, Corrington suggests, as the expanse of space becomes more intimately known to us and we begin to acknowledge the role that myth plays in ordering our experience within the observable cosmos.

Rationalism and empiricism are, Corrington suggests, themselves forms of myth about our ability to know the cosmos that we occupy.

Corrington emphasizes the limits of human knowledge and submits that modern science is, however useful, myth; science, he says, is not “co-extensive with the manifold of reality.” Science equips us with symbols that can be manipulated to structure and explain our thinking about the phenomenal universe.

The drive for the enterprise of space exploration, in his view, represents a repressed desire to know and order our experience; it is in this sense a structural element of our psyche, something that is not new to modernity but long felt and expressed. For this reason Corrington believes the “leap into space is the heritage and destiny of Western Man.” Corrington’s prescription, in light of his comments on space exploration, for  the “deformity” in Western thinking is as follows:

We must re-learn and carry to the heart the old verities that existed before the rise of metaphysics and science, the truths that were carried on and carried down through the mythological structure of the psyche: the unity of humanity and the cosmos, the illusory and ephemeral quality of the ego, the one law common to all that penetrates and encompasses the fine structure and the gross structure of reality.

John William Corrington on the Recovery of the Humanities

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote two essays on the recovery of the humanities, both of which are collected in my edition of his work, The Southern Philosopher. 

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The first of these originated as a lecture for the Southern Humanities Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984. Corrington sets out in that piece to define the “humanities” and to explain why he believes they need recovering. He argues that symbolism is essential to the humanities and that symbolism has been under assault since the Enlightenment.

Corrington believes that the Enlightenment ushered in an era of scientism and materialism that led to the rise of Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism, all of which contributed to the “decerebration” of the humanities. The task of recovering the humanities, according to Corrington, involves “the need to re­examine the fundamental experiences and symbols upon which any serious notion of the Humanities must be grounded, and to question our present understanding and application of those symbols.”

Corrington undertakes this task through the paradigms of Eric Voegelin, who frames his analysis in terms of the mythopoetic thought of certain peoples and places, the role of the human psyche, and the nature of divinity and the infinite. Corrington examines the difference between psyche and physis; the former formulates mythopoetic meaning out of the data of the phenomenal world and provides the basis for our understanding of political order. By way of consciousness, the psyche comprehends and organizes logos and thereby structures our understanding of reality, including what it means to be human.

The second essay concerning the recovery of the humanities originated as a lecture at Kansas State University in 1986. It builds on the ideas in the previous essay / lecture regarding the derailment of the humanities in light of the gradual loss of noetic homonoia or sense of like-mindedness among disparate cultures with similar understandings of symbolic order.

Corrington seeks to substantiate the arguments from the previous essay / lecture by consulting T. S. Eliot’s notion of order as experienced through literary texts. Corrington suggests that Eliot’s notion of order “exists initially in the psyche of the poet-critic who represents his experience of truth by way of the symbolism of simultaneous order; it exists secondarily in the collective psyches of those who are capable of reenacting Eliot’s experience theoretically, and who find themselves, as if in Platonic dialogue with the poet, bound to admit the truth of what he says about the order—even as his work continues and extends the order.” Applying Eliot’s notion of order to classical texts, Corrington demonstrates that symbolized experience has a temporal element whereas the psyche, existing independently of any one person, is timeless.

Corrington references the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party), various Marxist-Leninist operations, the French Academy, and the Index Libororum of the Holy Office as examples of practices and institutions that attempted to break down the ideal order that is represented in the continuity of certain canonical texts. Corrington challenges Eliot’s apparent assumption that art and literature are the proper lenses for examining symbolic order. He considers what qualities of a work make it literary as opposed to philosophical—or something else entirely. His point is not to discredit Eliot but to suggest that Eliot’s notion of order in literature is nuanced and complex.

Corrington argues that what drives human culture is “the human psyche in search of itself in the multiplicity of its forms, dimensions, and possibilities—and the loving and fearing tension within that psyche toward the divine ground.” Corrington returns to the idea that studying symbolic orders in different times and places reveals the commonalities between disparate peoples and cultures: “Whether we probe the roots of high civilizations or purportedly ‘primitive’ cultures, the result is the same: the foundations of human order are invariant: The society in question either represents itself as mirroring the order of the cosmos, the society of the gods, or expresses itself as that existential ground upon which gods and men interact with one another, the business of men and gods inextricably fused.” Understood this way, the political order of any given society can be explained as a reflection of metaxy, that state between the human and the divine whereby humans attempt to organize themselves in keeping with their beliefs about the nature of the divine and its order.

The understanding of human place in the world in relation to the divine is, according to Corrington, the humanities. Corrington critiques Eliot’s notion of an ideal order, but credits Eliot for what Eliot’s theory discloses, to wit, the organizing possibility of symbols to convey experiential realities: “Eliot’s earlier critical expression of an ideal order is thus discovered to be an inadequate but evocative symbolism which has, even as a poem might, invited us to probe the experience symbolized and rectify, through analysis of the symbolisms, the precise character of the experience.” Corrington again calls for the recovery of the humanities, not for the sake of any divisive telos or ideological goal, but instead for the unifying potential of an experiential and symbolic understanding of human purpose over time and in disparate places.

John William Corrington on the Academic Revolution

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 31, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington delivered “The Academic Revolution,” which is part memoir, as a lecture at Centenary College in 1969. In this talk, Corrington seeks to develop what he calls his “ontologies,” which he adopted in part while he was a student at Centenary.

Corrington suggests here that our lives are short and meaningless without an ontology and that our purposive acts ought to be guided by essential patterns of history.

Corrington’s conservatism and his belief in canonical greatness are apparent in his recommendation to “enter that vast communion of past, present, and future, of living, dead, and yet to be born that was recognized by the early church and called the communion of saints.” One’s sense of place and continuity, Corrington submits, is requisite to the production of great works of art.

Corrington suggests that academic revolution is paradoxically tied to tradition in that the new necessarily springs from the old. Corrington claims that the current academic revolution is rooted in the rejection of authority and the repudiation of materialism. He is concerned with the transitional ethic of the 1960s and the concomitant widespread questioning of the legitimacy of authority and institutions. He refers to this questioning as the New Politics.

Corrington praises the academic revolution and encourages universities to serve as a matrix for that revolution. He believes that universities study the old disciplines to reveal new ways of forming constructive communities. Championing the drift of the university toward more student-centered objectives, toward more bottom-up rather than top-down power structures on campus, Corrington embraces and celebrates the reforming spirit of his students. He believes this spirit is in fact conservative in that custom and tradition and the complex, organic nature of social development teach that reform is necessary to ensure future growth.

Corrington suggests that colleges and other institutions, to remain faithful to the past, must reform themselves; to be faithful to the past, in other words, colleges and other such institutions must rework and re-energize the past for present purposes.

“The Academic Revolution” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

John William Corrington on Intuition and Intellect

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 17, 2018 at 6:45 am

In my edition of John William Corrington’s essays, I assembled Corrington’s unpublished notes and sections of his unpublished lectures from the early 1970s that he maintained in one document.  Because of the subject matter, I titled this section “Intuition-Intellect.”

This material demonstrates the shift in Corrington’s interests in poetry as a craft to more philosophical concerns that were influenced by poetry, or mythopoetics. His discussion of myth and his references to Eric Voegelin in these notes suggests that he had just begun to read Voegelin and to explore Gnosticism and myth criticism.

Corrington questions here the relationship between science and philosophy and hypothesizes about how the truths generated by science become mythologized to satisfy certain human desires. He proposes that science itself has a “mythic” character and claims that “the aftermath of every significant act of science is its mythologization.” Corrington speculates whether myth is inevitable because it fulfills something basic or instinctive in human nature.

Science amasses data for their predictive value, but asking what these data mean is the beginning of myth, which, properly understood, is another form of understanding and articulating truths about the world. However, myth can also, Corrington claims, have destructive implications at odds with truth. He warns about mismanaging myth, giving such examples as Nazism, Marxism, and free enterprise: ideological constructs that rely on abstract myth narratives to stamp out opposition.

Corrington critiques the scientism that has developed since the Enlightenment because he considers its emphasis on empiricism and rationalism to mask its role in formulating mythic patterns or archetypes for governing the phenomenal world, including the human social order. These patterns or archetypes, despite their mythic nature, are taken as authoritative and valid because they are conflated with or understood as scientific truth; in this manner they are assumed to be separate and apart from myth when in fact they constitute myth.  They are dangerous because they are presumed to be scientific truth subject to certain and definite application when in fact they represent mythopoetic urges to satisfy innate and instinctual human impulses.

Corrington transitions from this discussion of myth and science into a discussion of twentieth-century poetry and its “overintellectualization,” as evidenced by the implementation of supposedly scientific approaches to the study of poetry. Corrington considers the New Criticism to represent such a scientific approach to poetry.

The turn to reason and science, Corrington suggests, has destroyed the aesthetics of poetry just as it has destroyed human civilizations in the sociopolitical context. In both contexts there has been, he believes, a failure to realize the distinction between science and the mythologization of science, a failure that has led certain groups to mistake what is unreasonable and irrational for absolute reason and rationality, to believe, that is, that what is merely a pattern or archetype—a human construct—is something given and definite even apart from human knowledge of it. Those who fail to understand the distinction between science and the mythologization of science embrace a potentially destructive psychic system that mistakes science for its opposite. This essay shows that, as Corrington begins to transition away from the writing of poetry, he is also trying to integrate his interest in poetry with his growing interest in philosophy.

The exact date of this Corrington material is unknown; however, certain references suggest that Corrington wrote these notes in or around 1971. For example, he mentions a “new” album by the Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, which came out in 1971. It is possible that part of this material comes from a lecture that Corrington gave to the South-Central Modern Language Association in 1968. That lecture was titled “Cassirer’s Curse, Keats’s Urn, and the Poem Before the Poem.” Some of the material may have come from the National Science Foundation Lecture that Corrington titled “Science and the Humanities” and delivered at Louisiana State University in 1966. Corrington began the essay with four discursive notes under the heading “Statements and Questions.” Because the ideas in these notes are more fully developed in the text proper, I have moved them to the end of the essay.

“Intuition-Intellect” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Is Ocasio-Cortez Right About Rights?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Civics, Conservatism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 29, 2018 at 8:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review. 

Colin I. Bradford writes fawningly that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, reaffirms “the centrality of the individual, individual rights, liberty, and freedom in which respect, trust, fairness and responsibility loom large.” He depicts Ocasio-Cortez as the embodied union of individualism and collectivism, someone who, in his words, “sees the individual as both a solitary being with certain inalienable rights and as a citizen and member of society.”

There’s much to unpack in Bradford’s frightfully grand statements, but let’s briefly consider some historical context for them.

“Modern Western ‘democracies,’” says John W. Danford, “are actually better described as liberal commercial societies. They rest on principles of individualism and individual rights—especially legal rights—which are more fundamental than democracy, and also much newer.”

Individual Rights Came from Christianity

The belief that humans by their nature possess “rights” against which governments may not transgress has not always been commonly held. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) made the compelling case that natural rights theories are distinctively Christian in origin. He presents the ancient pagans as tribal and patriarchal, characterized by fierce loyalty to kin and clan and lacking conscientious differentiations between public and private life. (The operative differentiation was between public and domestic life.) Inequality was accepted as a given; the notion of rights was practically nonexistent. What mattered was the family unit: secure lineage, child bearing, and glorification of the paterfamilias as the powerful hero. Cities emerged from familial corporate associations around which property relations were structured according to class hierarchies.

Correlated with the rise and spread of Christianity in the West was the proliferation of the concept of the individual as a rights-bearing creature with inherent dignity, which any legal order properly so called must recognize and protect. The teachings of Jesus Christ and St. Paul redirected political thought away from the material, phenomenal world and toward the afterlife, eternity, and the soul. The message that grace through Christ was available to anyone, not just rulers or the highborn, underscored the autonomy of the individual, the self-aware subject. A Christian emphasis on personal moral agency and responsibility, moreover, undercut Greek and Roman aristocratic culture and its attendant traditions of ancestor worship.

Siedentop contends, therefore, that Christianity, not the Renaissance, was the fountain of individualism. If the Enlightenment was the height of philosophizing about the relationship of the individual to society, then it was also the natural outflow of earlier eras shaped by Christianity. This narrative runs counter to the portrayal of medieval Christianity as closed and authoritarian and of the Enlightenment as predominately secular. It illuminates Danford’s description of modern liberal societies as fundamentally committed to individual rights embedded in the law.

Mutual Submission, Similar Ethics

A distinguishing feature of Enlightenment thinking was social contract theory, which is particularly important to the Anglo-American legal tradition as manifest in Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1789–91). These documents enshrine the principles of equality under the law, basic human dignity, rule of law, consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, and natural rights.

The most celebrated delineations of social contract theory belong to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. A simplistically synthesized account of their three hypothetical origins of political society runs like this: humans once existed as free agents in an ungoverned state of nature and eventually banded together in protective social units to enforce claims to property and defend against outside threats; voluntarily entering into these social units required individuals to give up unfettered liberty by consenting to the authority of a superintending body—a government— that exercised only those powers to which the individuals in the society corporately assented, either expressly or impliedly.

The social contract for a mature, successful society involves a collection of individuals wise enough to appreciate the reciprocal advantage of mutual submission and similar enough in ethics and morals to prescribe the proper scope, limits, and structure of the approved ruling authority. The U.S. Constitution, in theory, represents a social contract: a pact between citizens and its rulers that restrains government, divides power, and sets competing interests against one another with offsetting effect.

U.S. Supreme Court “Expansions”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in cases regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, began in the twentieth century to evaluate claims of unremunerated, allegedly fundamental rights in light of the history of judicial safeguards. A purported right was deemed presumptively fundamental if it enjoyed an established tradition of formal recognition by Anglo-American courts. Under this interpretive scheme, when the Supreme Court determined that an alleged right was nonfundamental, the alleged right would not be incorporated (via the doctrine of substantive due process) to apply against the states. The Supreme Court, however, gradually recognized particular suspect rights within broader categories of long-established rights. The so-called right to privacy, for example, that had valid antecedents in the common law was repurposed to include phenomena unknown at the common law.

The tendency of the Supreme Court in the twentieth century to expand (and, in some cases, to limit) the scope of alleged rights reveals, I think, that a privileged group of robed lawyers are inadequately equipped to philosophize about rights. The validity of alleged rights accrues socially, from the bottom up, when they can be traced over time to long-standing, if not immemorial, usage, customs, mores, and traditions, and when their practical applications have been tested by successive generations. Certain rights are natural, that is, prior to government promulgation, but their intelligibility is deeply historical, rooted, contextual, situational, and embedded.

Rights or Privileges?

One could argue, and Siedentop suggests, that Christianity’s institutionalization of rights discourse created the conditions necessary for secularization, in effect that Christianity ushered in a culture that led to its gradual removal from civic society. Siedentop postulates, in other words, that the success of Christianity eventuated its demise in the Western public sphere. The story of rights discourse in U.S. Supreme Court decisions lends credence to this perspective, revealing that prevailing notions of rights have grown to encompass what were once merely privileges.

If institutions follow culture, however, then a constitution that contemplates individual rights is only as good as the people it controls: a populace without extensive virtue will weaken or decline regardless of its organizational governance and administrative framework. Christianity may not have promoted ideas that caused its erasure from our governing institutions; rather, the people of the United States may have drifted away from the Christian ideas that made those institutions effective and stable.

Bradford recognizes that “individualist values of liberty, property rights, freedom and sovereignty worked well in the 20th century as the foundations of competition, free markets, democracy and the nation state.” Yet he sees these concepts as inadequate today, lacking something he believes Ocasio-Cortez can supply, to wit, a form of collectivism that in his representation facilitates community and social harmony. He simply fails to see that the unique individualism that emerged out of Christianity generated the community and social harmony he now desires.

There is no individualism absent the recognition that every human life, anywhere and everywhere, is precious and important. It follows from that premise that no one may violate the rights of others who themselves have not violated another’s rights. This principle, extended to society writ large, creates the conditions necessary for community to flourish. Individualism in Christian societies aided the growth of cities, institutionalized the dignity of the human person as a bearer of rights, and challenged rather than empowered abusive government. Ocasio-Cortez should not hope to eradicate this kind of individualism, for it has accomplished more good for humanity than the socialism she purportedly embraces.

What is Libertarianism?

In Arts & Letters, Economics, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 18, 2018 at 6:45 am

Definitions of libertarianism often convey a sense that this philosophy is total and complete, that its manifestation in the concrete world is immanently knowable. Vigorous debates about the fundamental tenets of libertarianism dispel any hope that the essence or principal attributes of libertarianism can be easily captured in a brief sentence or paragraph.

The central concern of libertarianism, however, is to maximize individual liberty and economic freedom to enable human flourishing. Liberty and freedom involve the ability of human agents, acting alone or in concert, voluntarily to pursue their wants and goals using their earned talents and natural skills, absent the forcible, coercive mechanisms of government and without infringing on the rights of others to so act.

Elsewhere I have said that “[e]xperimentation is compatible with—perhaps indispensable to—libertarianism to the extent that libertarianism is, as I believe, the search for the correct conditions for human flourishing—as well as the cautious description and reasoned implementation of principles emanating from that condition.”[1]

I used the phrase “to the extent that” to suggest that my conception of libertarianism is not definitive or absolute, that it is subject to scrutiny and debate. I emphasized “the correct conditions for human flourishing” because libertarians have propounded disparate and even contradictory theories about how best to achieve human flourishing.

The conditions that have succeeded to that end have proven themselves to be correct, or at least more correct than demonstratively unworkable alternatives.

The word “search” is meant to underscore the primacy of the intellect and knowledge: Human agents must be free to think and freely articulate the content of their thoughts before practices and institutions—the products of thought—may be tested, refined, verified, modified, adapted, or discarded according to their tangible success within physical (as opposed to purely mental or ideational) experience.

The principles that emerge from this process of applied thinking can be described as libertarian if they aspire to generate and actually generate individual liberty and economic freedom without increasing the forcible interference of government with consensually interacting human agents.

 

[1] Allen Mendenhall, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism (Lexington Books, 2014), p. 14 (italics added).

What is Conservatism?

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on March 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

Conservatism in the sense in which I use the term refers to an attitude or disposition that rejects ideology (all-encompassing systems of normative theory and institutionalized practices that drive policy towards idealized or utopian ends) and radicalism or extremism (the quality of holding fanatical, severe, or drastic views).

Conservatives so styled are neither doctrinaire nor absolutist. They tend to be spiritual, or at least recognize in humans a need and desire for spiritual fulfillment and religious order. Change, they believe, is inevitable; it should occur prudentially, gradually, and naturally through civil debate, prescribed political processes, and nonviolence.

Conservatism predicates the necessity for moral order on the imperfectability of human nature and the limitations of human intelligence; its normative values are embedded, historical, local, contextual, and rooted in immemorial usage.

Conservatism views the past as a fund of wisdom and knowledge, not as a brooding evil to be discarded, erased, or escaped. It therefore respects cultural continuities.

Russell Kirk’s various iterations of conservative principles in different versions of The Conservative Mind are, in my mind, the surest expressions of conservatism to date.

What Is Pragmatism?

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on February 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

Pragmatism is difficult to define because it refers to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition.  Figures with little in common, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Isaac Levi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Herbert Mead, have been associated with pragmatism.

C.S. Peirce is credited as the wellspring of pragmatism, in part because he used the term “pragmatism” to refer to his writings and teachings. Yet when his friend William James began identifying as a pragmatist, Peirce sought to rename his mode of thinking “pragmaticism” to distinguish his ideas from James’s.

More recently, Richard Rorty garnered a reputation as a pragmatist despite his deep misgivings about Peirce. James himself claimed to have learned pragmatism from reading John Stuart Mill. He called pragmatism a new name for old ways of thinking. Pragmatism, in this sense, has no fixed origin and is not confined to a single philosophical discipline attributable to any one thinker. It is, rather, a plastic concept describing an instrumental approach to solving concrete problems.

Descriptions of pragmatism are fluid and wide-ranging because of its various iterations by multiple thinkers with disparate interests and backgrounds. Pragmatism is nevertheless identifiable by certain features and qualities.

Pragmatists tend to avoid claims to unqualified certainty or universalism; they resist abstractions, closed schools of thought, and dogma that purport to have all the answers. They are searchers and seekers, never comfortable that the knowledge they have attained is complete or comprehensive.

Pragmatists seek to generate inquiry by systematically and intentionally testing ideas in the material world through practical application and sustained observation, by modifying or adapting ideas when errors are found, by subjecting ideas to a community of minds for verification (rather than leaving them to individuals in isolation), and by examining the habits and tendencies of nature and behavior for recurring, lasting themes or traits. Although pragmatists tend to be tolerant of views that have not been discounted, or open to ideas that have not been disproven, they are also prudently skeptical of ideas that have not won out in the course of history, i.e., that are unrepresented in custom or tradition.

Pragmatism is neither liberal nor conservative in the political sense, but represents a mode of knowing and understanding based on lived experience and confirmed hypotheses. Pragmatism is a constantly modified methodology for acquiring knowledge; it’s not a doctrine. It looks to ascertainable outcomes and proven results as indicia of the truth and workability of ideas.

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