Sunday, May 09, 2010

Damned if You Don't

[Update: At least one of the bees in my bonnet here was a hallucination. I read "fit" where John wrote "fix" which changes the meaning pretty radically. Thanks to John for being gracious about it. In his response he also disowns some of the implications I was reading into his post, too, about the validity of mystical/poetic statements. I don't think I made up my impressions completely out of whole cloth, but I'm happy to stand corrected.]

Things were going smoothly there for a while, but I can see that the internet is already beginning to strain under the burden of my absence, as evidenced by the following.

John Wilkins writes, in the course of explaining why Jesus was not a philosopher,  that metaphysics is  "what you are left over with when the facts do not fix the solution." Few blogosophers are better at pithy quintessence than Wilkins, which is one reason his blog is a must-read, but this is just wrong. Metaphysics is partly how we define the facts that fit the solution in the first place, and also how we define "fitting." [See note, above] When we say that "science works," we are making a metaphysical commitment to problem-solving that is, while perhaps preferable to the alternatives, far from unavoidable. Science works in part because we value the kind of solutions it offers, because we have defined our problems as certain kinds of puzzles, because we believe in progress, and because we have faith in the fruits of our own activity.

Making metaphysics contingent on science, rather than the other way around, glazes our philosophical moment in inevitability. But it was not ever thus. Technocracy and naturalism still amount to a brief moment in the human story, and if we want to allow them to continue, we should do so with as full cognizance as possible of what these stances represent compared to their alternates. This is a better exercise in reason than is taking the naturalist world-view as a given. A large part of our modern cultural prejudice is to forget how large a component of reason lies in imagination, and unfortunately I think a position like the one presented here by John maintains a costly division between poets and philosophers (again, all the more ironic given John's gifts with concrete philosophic imagery).

No mystic or poet (Jesus included) will be remembered for ten minutes if there is no reason--coherence, if not outright sense--in her utterances, and neither will the philosopher who cannot paint new pictures in the mind. The roles are unified at the heart, distinguishable far more by emphasis than essence. Today we consider poets, with mild embarassment, as little better than glorified greeting card writers, which is why they remain, in Shelley's phrase, unacknowledged legislators of the world.

John's conclusion is that Jesus is not a philosopher because he "does not reach his teachings via reason." This is also false, based on a very impoverished sense of what reason is, and how it functions (an ongoing injury that dates back to the attempts of the early analytic philosophers to schematize all reason discursively, as formal logic). I'm perfectly happy to agree that Jesus (like any number of "religious" teachers) was not in the technical sense a philosopher, since we have developed very high expectations about the systematic thoroughness of those who take such a name. A professional philosopher needs to protect his turf. A pipefitter is not a plumber, which is important to know when one's basement is flooded.

But having done this, John goes on to argue (implicitly) that as a non-philosopher, Jesus has nothing resonant to say to "the rational hearer" (let's just add "non-Christian," to make the point perfectly clear.) His teachings are just theological dispute, or appeals to authority, or endorsements of traditional values and practices. I'm not sure why this move is necessary. Even to those who don't regard the gospels as infallible there is a great deal within them that is, at the very least, thought-provoking. Most of Jesus' sermons do not actually appeal to divine authority, but to a type of rationally proscribed empirical observation, in the form of parable. This is a much different type of discourse than we see from someone like Moses, who simply passed on God's directives without trying to justify them. Jesus conversed with his disciples, suggesting that understanding was more important to him than obedience.

Nor is it clear that many non-religious thinkers would meet John's definition. I'm not confident that Nietzsche or Wittgenstein would shake out the right way if we applied to them a similar test. In comments John adds this remark:
The very fact that people need to make Jesus a philosopher indicates that they are faintly embarrassed at the lack of status that being, as you say, a simple moralist and religious teacher gives him. 
If that's true, it's hard to see how John's post helps matters any.

1 comment:

John S. Wilkins said...

I think that you are reading me through the gauze of the veils of other people. However, I will say that in general, I think that what you get from mystical and poetic statements is not knowledge, but attitudes. That said, I recognise my complete and total lack of poesy and mysterium tremens. I am also a moral black hole. Not that any of my argument depends upon my own personal failings, not even a failure of imagination...