May 28, 2006

Self-interest and self-preservation

By Michael Dirda, May 21, 2006
Surprisingly, the Ethics opens by establishing basic truths about God and nature. Everything that exists is part of the single substance of the deity, who, in fact, is identical with Nature, or as Spinoza invariably writes "God, or Nature." Because everything is inherent in God eternally, there are no goals or ends for man or the universe. As Matthew Stewart says in The Courtier and the Heretic (Norton), a highly recommended new biographical study of Spinoza and Leibniz, "To the fundamental question -- what makes us special? -- Spinoza offers a clear and devastating answer: nothing."
From this rather bleak beginning, the philosopher nonetheless goes on to lay out his Ethics proper. Human psychology, he determines, is based entirely on self-interest and self-preservation, while being largely subject to ever-changing combinations of desire, pleasure and pain. Such domination by the changeable senses and the outside world inevitably results in emotional turmoil: "Like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and our fate." To overcome this "human bondage" to ephemeral passions, we should learn to moderate our desires, live according to reason and ultimately aspire to a kind of intellectual love of God. This acceptance of the universe as it is will create an inner peace of mind, or "blessedness," during life and permit a kind of impersonal immortality after death.
Part of Spinoza's prescription for true happiness may sound familiar. The ancient Greeks advocated a stoic indifference to the world's ills; St. Augustine confessed that our hearts are restless until they rest in God; Buddhists believe that we must free ourselves from the wheel of desire to find spiritual beatitude. Unlike these austere systems, however, Spinoza's doesn't reject the body or the delights of the world:
"It is the part of a wise man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theater, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without injury to another. For the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which constantly require new and varied nourishment." And we should strive to be cheerful too: "Why is it more proper to relieve our hunger and thirst than to rid ourselves of melancholy?" It is just this combination of rigorous thinking and deep, kindly humanity that makes Spinoza such an appealing figure.

Alain Badiou: Philosophy is not in twilight

Significant emerging trends in American academe have helped to raise Mr. Badiou's profile. His philosophy explicitly seeks to unify disparate branches of learning, a tactic that resonates strongly with an increasing interest in working across disciplines in the United States. His books also seek to harness the contemplative strengths of philosophy to love, art, and radical politics.
In his introduction, Mr. Critchley noted that there was a "tremendous thirst" for Mr. Badiou's far-ranging work in a time of "frustration and fatigue with theoretical paradigms." He argued that Mr. Badiou's work is "refreshing, direct, and concise." The increasing popularity of Mr. Badiou's work also can be explained by his public stance, which is strikingly hopeful. Philosophy is not in twilight, he said. Literary studies, psychology, science, and mathematics animate it and inform it.
This month's discussion celebrated the publication of a long-awaited English translation of Mr. Badiou's 1988 book, Being and Event (Continuum). That work is the cornerstone of Mr. Badiou's philosophic project, yet its translation has lagged behind that of other books — such as 2002's Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso), 2004's Handbook of Inaesthetics (Stanford University Press), and the newly published Metapolitics (Verso). Those books build their provocative arguments about morality, art, and politics upon Being and Event's blend of mathematics, philosophy, and literature.
Mr. Badiou's sharply worded attacks on conventional wisdom in his later books — including his close questioning of such concepts as evil and democracy — have gained considerable attention elsewhere in the world. In Metapolitics, for instance, there is a piece called "A Speculative Disquisition on the Concept of Democracy." In it, Mr. Badiou argues that, "in fact, the word 'democracy' concerns what I shall call authoritarian opinion. It is forbidden, as it were, not to be a democrat. ... If 'democracy' names a supposedly normal state of collective organization or political will, then the philosopher demands that we examine the norm of this normality. He will not allow the word to function within the framework of authoritarian opinion."
It is hard to understand Mr. Badiou's later work without recourse to Being and Event. Mr. Critchley led the discussion as a primer of sorts on that book, with Mr. Badiou himself explicating many of its key concepts. Though his ideas are not simple, he insisted that "I want always to be clear. ... You can be simple and confused. It is a philosophic duty to be clear."
Mr. Badiou's aims in Being and Event divide neatly according to the title. First he dissects "being" with the aid of set theory, the mathematical study of abstract groups of objects (sets) and their relations to one another. Then he explains how change occurs in the world, a process that he calls an "event."
As the philosopher himself told the audience, he finds the second issue more interesting. "The great question for me is not really what 'being' is," he said. "My fundamental question is a very simple one — and small. What, exactly, is something new? What is creation?"
To reach that analysis of creation, however, requires the reader to navigate contemporary mathematics. Much of the alleged inaccessibility of Mr. Badiou's work is rooted in his reliance on set theory to discuss ontology, the branch of philosophy that deals with existence. Indeed, Being and Event makes the striking claim that "mathematics is ontology." The book is studded with equations and theorems that may frighten off the scholar who fled to the humanities to escape mathematics.
"It's a phobia," said Mr. Badiou with a grin when Mr. Critchley brought up the topic of some scholars' resistance to the mathematical concepts that Mr. Badiou employs. "My goal is to change a phobia into love," he said. And while the clusters of equations in Being and Event look complicated, his reliance on them is explained with little difficulty. As Mr. Badiou sees it, a central part of the story of philosophy in the past century is the displacement of the notion of "being" as a unitary entity with the idea that it is made up of multiplicities. (At his talk, he cited Nietzsche's statement that "God is dead" as a signpost to what he calls the "ontological death" of the concept of existence as unitary.) Thus, he reasons, if existence is really "pure multiplicity," and those "elements of multiplicity are multiple themselves," then set theory is an ideal way to approach ontological questions.
Love, Poetry, and Truth
Being and Event uses set theory to interrogate philosophers from Plato to Pascal to Heidegger. At his talk, Mr. Badiou observed that it is not merely those in the humanities who are uncomfortable with that tactic. "Mathematicians don't know that mathematics is ontology," he quipped with evident delight.
As the discussion with Mr. Critchley moved from "being" to "event," the French philosopher struck a biographical note. He observed that his thoughts on those questions were stimulated by his experiences during and after the political and cultural upheavals in Paris in 1968. Mr. Badiou, who was swept up in the fierce leftist political debates of the time, remains largely committed to the ideals embodied in the tumult of that year. "I have had a living experiment of something new," he said, "and when something happens that is novelty, you have the birth of a new subject."
Grappling with how Mr. Badiou defines "event" is more complicated, perhaps, than all of the set theory. In essence, an "event" is a clear break with the status quo. That break creates what Mr. Badiou defines as a "truth." The break that creates the truth also creates a "subject," which takes its definition from what the philosopher calls the subject's "fidelity" to that singular truth. It is slippery stuff indeed, but Mr. Badiou offered his audience the metaphor of falling in love as a way to grasp it. Two people meet and fall in love, which is a break from their previous status quo. It creates a "truth" (they are in love), and that condition of being in love (the "subject") is defined by their fidelity to that love.
"Love is an event in the form of an encounter," and it has the effect of forming "a new relation to the world," said Mr. Badiou.He sees those creations of truth as manifesting themselves in four main arenas: art, love, science, and politics. Much of his work since writing Being and Event has been devoted to exploring how the implications of his philosophy ripple through those areas. As a novelist and playwright as well as a philosopher, Mr. Badiou has a keen sense of the interplay between poetics and philosophy. The latter part of the forum involved aphorisms that connect those two disciplines, particularly in his own thought.
"There is always, in every truth procedure, a poetic moment," he said. "The finding of a new name. ... We cannot even know a truth event without a sense of poetry."
Politics and Fable
Much of the discussion between Mr. Critchley and Mr. Badiou eschewed the political in favor of an explication of the philosophical work in Being and Event. But when the conversation was opened up the audience, sparks flew about the implications of Mr. Badiou's work for politics and religion. In response to one question, asking him to link his philosophy to contemporary politics, Mr. Badiou noted that "names in politics are impoverished. ... The weakness of politics today is a weakness of poetry."
The fall of communism, he continued, influenced that impoverishment. "Marxism," he said, "had a constellation of names" for political concepts. "It was a sky of names. We lost the sky." Mr. Badiou also took considerable interest in a question about why religion was excluded from the areas that he identifies as sites for the work of philosophy. He said that the question of why he had limited such areas to four came up often, and "my answer is that I don't find another." He said he had concluded that religion was "a fable about an event, and not an event." http://chronicle.comSection: Research & PublishingVolume 52, Issue 29, Page A20

The Platonic spirit of Spinoza

It's sometimes said that Freud took Jewish mysticism and universalized or secularized it. Is that true in any way of Spinoza?
Yes, I think a strong case could be made. There are these two, very different scholarly traditions in Judaism, the mystical and the Talmudic. And in Amsterdam, the mystical tradition—kabbalah—was very, very important. At least two of the three major rabbis in Amsterdam in Spinoza's time were kabbalists. In the Tractatus Spinoza indicates that he knows the kabbalah and doesn't think much of it. But there are certain preoccupations—why is there something rather than nothing; the meaning of suffering—that are the two ultimate mysteries that kabbalah wrestles with. And Spinoza wrestles with them as well.
Also, the Platonic spirit of Spinoza may have been transferred to him by way of kabbalah. Maimonides is Aristotelean, and Jewish philosophy, to the extent that it was anything, was Aristotelean following him. In the 17th century, what they're rebelling against is Aristotle. But Plato is very much in the air in kabbalah. It's much more a mathematic model. You understand something by grasping the abstractions that it realizes. And there's really a return to Platonism, not explicitly, but implicitly, in Spinoza. Rebecca Goldstein NEXTBOOK FEATURE: INTERVIEW

Anarchic Harmony

Friday, May 19, 2006 Ten Books for a New Auroville In addition to the foundational works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, if I had to choose only ten books, in no particular order, to build a new Auroville, this would be the list:
1. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu Provides a deep spiritual perspective for being in harmony with nature and the cosmos.
2. A Pattern Language – Christopher Alexander Provides a common sense foundation for all aspects of planning and architecture.
3. Permaculture – A Designers' Manual - Bill Mollison Provides inspiration and wisdom for gardening and farming that works in harmony with the natures ecosystem.
4. The Book of Bamboo – David Farrelly Provides a wealth of inspiration for the evolution of a sustainable bamboo based culture.
5. Animal Farm – George Orwell Provides an important story that illustrates human beings dangerous tendancies towards the abuse of power.
6. I Ching - Book of Changes - Anonymous Provides a working tool for living and working in harmony with the forces of the cosmos.
7. Anarchic Harmony - The Spirituality of Social Disobedience - William Murray Provides a very clear illustration of the necessity of the individual to honor his or her inner dynamic above that of society.
8. Shelter – Various Authors Provides a wealth of building inspiration for unprofessional but creative builders.
9. The Photo Collections of Andy Goldsworthy Provides inspiration for a new aesthetic that unites the ecological and the spiritual.
10. Your Inner Being Provides all the wisdom and common sense that you will ever need.
posted by [deleted, Sept 6, 2012]

May 27, 2006

John Stuart Mill became a liberal

Thoroughly Modern Mill: A utilitarian who became a liberal--but never understood the limits of reason. BY ROGER SCRUTON Friday, May 19, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
May 20 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, the greatest exponent of 19th-century liberalism, whose philosophy still dominates jurisprudence in the English-speaking world. Mill was a many-faceted intellectual who wrote on all aspects of philosophy, on law and morals, on political economy, and on poetry and the arts. His home-schooling at the hands of his father, the economist and historian James Mill, was a model of rigor, causing him to read and write Greek aged 6, to master Latin aged 9, and to have acquired a thorough grounding in history and mathematics aged 10, when he began work on a history of Roman government. Mill later developed a taste for poetry, acquired a perfect knowledge of French, and, despite his agnostic upbringing, read deeply in the Bible, which he believed to be one of the two Great Books, the other being Homer.
Mill was never a member of a university, but devoted his life to self-education while holding lucrative posts at the India Office. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown in 1836. This breakdown, described in Mill's remarkable "Autobiography," was in part a response to the hard-headed utilitarianism of his father and his circle of "Philosophical Radicals." The cost-benefit morality that James Mill had inherited from Jeremy Bentham, and which he had instilled into his son, left Mill bereft of all emotional succor.
Utilitarianism ("that action is right which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number") was a philosophy of the head which seemed to make no room for the heart. Mill recovered through reading Wordsworth, found consolation with Harriet Taylor, the wife of a tolerant gentleman who no doubt had good grounds for trusting in his wife's chastity, and subsequently married the widowed Mrs. Taylor to continue in an apparently sexless union.
Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his "Utilitarianism" is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia.
As Mill recognized, the "greatest happiness principle" must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote "On Liberty," perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production. At the time, Benthamite ways of thinking were influencing jurisprudence, and arguments based on the "general good" and the "good of society" appealed to the conservative imagination of the Victorian middle classes. It seemed right to control the forms of public worship, to forbid the expression of heretical opinions, or to criminalize adultery, for the sake of a "public morality" which exists for the general good. If individual freedom suffers, then that, according to the utilitarians, is the price we must pay.
According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority." Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it--for in such circumstances one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual's right to act and speak as he chooses.
This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the "sovereignty of the individual." The problem lies in the concept of harm.
  • How can I prove that one person's action does not harm another?
  • How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs--beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability?
  • How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life's meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms?

These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.

Proust and social science

Finally, in Part VI, "Corrigibility," I will tell you why illusions of foresight are not easily remedied by personal experience or by the wisdom we inherit from our grandmothers. I will conclude by telling you about a simple remedy for these illusions that you will almost certainly not accept.
That is from Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, so far the best book this year. He takes Proust and turns it into social science. Your brain distorts both your anticipations and your memories; we do not know how happy we were or how happy we will be. Here is a short article on Gilbert. Here is a long article on Gilbert. Here is a short piece on why dreading pain can be as bad as pain itself. Or is it...? Was it...? Posted by Tyler Cowen on May 5, 2006 at 06:52 AM in Books Permalink

Polanyi: morphogenetic field

Polanyi on the Membrane: Yesterday I wandered--via Phil Mullins via Peirce's Lectures on Pragmatism via Clark via something more recent by Clark--through the environs of the Polanyi Society. Browsing through some recent issues of the Society's journal, Tradition & Discovery, the idea of the "morphogenetic field" jumped out at me. I'm not able to clarify any issues of debate between Polanyi scholars on how this should be understood; I'm merely discovering (rediscovering, as the case may be) the morphogenetic field for myself, and ruminating on it.
The Society has brought together some of Polanyi's essays, fortunately for me, since I don't have any of Polanyi's books in my personal library. I started with Life's Irreducible Structure, which does indeed touch on a notion of morphogenetic fields. An Excerpt (footnotes omitted):
This missing principle which builds a bodily structure on the lines of an instruction given by DNA may be exemplified by the far-reaching regenerative powers of the embryonic sea urchin, discovered by Driesch, and by Paul Weiss’s discovery that completely dispersed embryonic cells will grow, when lumped together, into a fragment of the organ from which they were isolated. We see an integrative power at work here, characterized by Spemann. and by Paul Weiss as a “field”, which guides the growth of embryonic fragments to form the morphological features to which they embryologically belong. These guides of morphogenesis are given a formal expression in Waddington’s “epigenetic landscapes”. They say graphically that the growth of the embryo is controlled by the gradient of potential shapes, much as the motion of a heavy body is controlled by the gradient of potential energy.
Remember how Driesch and his supporters fought for recognition that life transcends physics and chemistry, by arguing that the powers of regeneration in the sea urchin embryo were not explicable by a machinelike structure, and how the controversy has continued, along similar lines, between those who insisted that regulative (“equipotential” or “organismic”) integration was irreducible to any machinelike mechanism and was therefore irreducible also to the laws of inanimate nature. Now if, as I claim, machines and mechanical processes in living beings are themselves irreducible to physics and chemistry, the situation is changed. If mechanistic and organismic explanations are both equally irreducible to physics and chemistry, the recognition of organismic processes no longer bears the burden of standing alone as evidence for the irreducibility of living things. Once the “field”-like powers guiding regeneration and morphogenesis can be recognized without involving this major issue, I think the evidence for them will be found to be convincing.
There is evidence of irreducible principles, additional to those of morphological mechanisms, in the sentience that we ourselves experience and that we observe indirectly in higher animals. Most biologists set aside these matters as unprofitable considerations. But again, once it is recognized, on other grounds, that life transcends physics and chemistry, there is no reason for suspending recognition of the obvious fact that consciousness is a principle that fundamentally transcends not only physics and chemistry but also the mechanistic principles of living beings.
And a detour. Pierce cites the maxim Generale est quod natum aptum est dici de multis. The version I am using omits Peirce's footnote--quelle horrible--so I'm in danger of losing the source to the principle of In Googlis non est, ergo non est. File under Z for zettel until further notice. The Whole Enchilada.... posted by Fido the Yak at 2:32 PM. 0 comments Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sri Aurobindo University

The Mother's message- "If one reads Sri Aurobindo carefully, one finds the answers to all that one wants to know"- unfolds a world of significance which is reiterated by another of Her declarations- "By studying carefully what Sri Aurobindo has said on all subjects, one can easily reach a complete knowledge of the things of this world." To this She adds an interesting revelation-"It is not by books that Sri Aurobindo ought to be studied but by subjects - what he has said on the Divine, on Unity, on religion, on evolution, on education, on self-perfection, on supermind, etc, etc". To top it all when She was questioned 'Mother, how can one become wise?' She emphatically replied- "Read Sri Aurobindo" (12/208). From these statements of The Mother one gets sufficient indications to enter the gateway of true Knowledge.
The Objective : We initiate this venture with the conviction that the global solution to the problems that confronts the world today, are to be found in Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's writings (books). The objective of the University is to encourage aspiring individuals to participate in Sri Aurobindo and The Mother's Vision of the New World through the study of Their works. Sri Aurobindo University aspires to be the instrument of His Force to propagate Their dynamic message to humanity. A candidate of this university is a student of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. In an attempt to embrace the whole of human existence, and raise it to a higher status, Sri Aurobindo University will spread its illuminating and enlightening activities to different disciplines of education and thereby embrace the entire life.
At present, the University consists of -- Learner, Counselor, Library and the Office. The pattern of working will be that of an open university with distance learning methodology.
Learners : To be a learner of the University one has to apply in a prescribed form which will be available in the office. Those who wish to take up a serious study of life and its activities in the Light of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother will be accepted as a student of Sri Aurobindo and a 'Learner' of this University. A list of subjects is being prepared from which the learner may choose one; or he may take up a subject of his liking, which of course has to be approved by the University. The learner may be at any distance but continue to study the selected topic with the help of the counselor. Once in a year a contact (meeting) of all the Learners and Counselors will be arranged at Sri Aurobindo Shreekshetra, Dalijoda to have a broad based exchange of views on the selected topics. With the instruction and help of the counselor, the learner will arrange all the required study materials.
Counselor: The learner of the Unversity will choose his/her own Counselor or may request the office to select one for him/her.The Counselors of this University are expected to be aware of the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. They should be able to guide the thought process of the learner and mould his perceptions towards the Vision of a New World. Practically it will be a joint venture of the counselor and the learner to navigate through the ocean of Sri Aurobindo's Thoughts.The Counselor should collect all required references on the selected subject and help the learner to write the thesis. He will be in constant touch with the learner through the office. The thesis, prepared by the learner with help of the Counselor, will be sent, by the University for review, to a reviewer who is well versed on the subject. The final acceptance of the thesis will depend on the assessment by the board of the University. Once in a year, all the Counselors will come together at Dalijoda and exchange their views on the purpose and working of the University.
Library : There is a proposal to build a central Library at Dalijoda with all modern facilities This will have collections of all the writings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, the writings of other persons on Them and all references like published papers , articles etc on the subject. The arrangement will be made for the learners to consult the library by staying at Sri Aurobindo Srikshetra, Dalijoda At the same time all the Relics Centres and Integral Schools will be requested to upgrade their library facilities subject-wise. For example a centre will be requested to equip their library with all literature on Human Unity, so that the student who is carrying out his research on Human Unity will get all help from this unit. In this way a decentralized empire of reference libraries will be established throughout the state. Learners can use this facility by producing the Sri Auribindo University registration card of membership.
Office and Functioning: Sri Aurobindo University is a project and unit of Sri Aurobindo Shreekshetra, Dalijoda. Babaji Maharaj and Prapatti always dreamt of a University at Sri Aurobindo Shreekshetra, Dalijoda. With deep regards to their wish the Head Office of the University shall be at Sri Aurobindo Shreekshetra, Dalijoda. It will be gradually equipped with all modern facilities of communication. All Zonal organisers, District Organisers along with special invitees will constitute the prime body of the University. They will ensure and guard the University, against becoming a seat of intellectual superiority divorced from the spirit of Sadhana. Once a year they will come together to pass the audited accounts and discuss lines of further action.The referral person of the University will be called the Convenor who will work by the instruction of the Vice-Chairman. A working group formed by the Vice chairman and lead by the Convenor, will carry out the day-to-day activities of the University. The office will be in contact with the students and guides and help them to solve their problems if any. The Chairman of the University will guide and be the source of inspiration to achieve the aim put before.The University will accept donations from all persons sharing its thought and aspirations.
The Present Project: Members of Sri Aurobindo Study circle, teachers of Sri Aurobindo Integral Schools, students and all others who are interested in understanding Sri Aurobindo's and The Mother's works are specially encouraged to join (in ) this new project of the University. This will be an effective way of breaking away from the shackles of inertia, sluggishness of the brain and dormancy of thought process and liberate an aspiring intellectual to a new dynamism of a globally, all fulfilling, all understanding, all harmonising thought and action in the Light of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
For any querry or for sending any donations please contact the following :
Sri Gadadhar Mishra, Matrubhaban, Sri Aurobindo Marg, Cuttack-753013 Orissa India Phone : 0671-2344338 email :
Sri Dharanidhar Pal Sri Aurobindo Srikshetra, Dalijoda, Kot Sahi, Tangi Dist. Cuttack, Orissa, India Phone: 0671-2873405 email :

May 26, 2006

Plotinus, Eckhart, and Sri Aurobindo

As I have mentioned before, I was little concerned that my book, what with its bird’s-eye survey of history, may have created the false impression that we are “smarter” or better than our forebears. This is not the point I was trying to make. Rather, my point is that only now, at this point in history--especially in the Christian West--do so many human beings finally have the opportunity to achieve their potential. In the past, only a tiny fraction of human beings had that opportunity.
But make no mistake--no human writer, no matter how “superintelligent,” will ever surpass Shakespeare. No musician will surpass Beethoven, or even John Coltrane or Van Morrison, for that matter. No human philosopher will ever surpass Plotinus, or Eckhart, or Aurobindo, or the Upanishads, because knowledge of the ultimate cannot surpass itself, any more than artistic perfection can surpass itself. There is just “perfection.” One either achieves (or approaches) it or one does not...The singularity is already here. So quit complaining and just enjoy it. posted by Gagdad Bob at 7:13 AM

May 14, 2006

Frank Visser on talking back to Wilber

What has been especially interesting for me over the years is to spot cases where groups who have been criticized by Wilber actually start talking back. Surprisingly, this hasn’t happened that much (so whenever it happens, it caught my attention). Where are the Jungians, the feminists, the relativists, scholars of mysticism, the ecologists, scholars of Aurobindo, Habermas etc., the chaos theorists, etc., to respond to whatever Wilber has written about them in his many works? What about cognitive science, Artificial Intelligence, evolutionary biology? P2P Spirituality This entry was posted on Saturday, May 13th, 2006 at 6:33 am

May 08, 2006

Celestine as a spiritual system

May 5, 2006 The Celestine Prophecy Posted by Jay Andrew Allen
I saw The Celestine Prophecy last night with the missus. I haven’t read the book, unfortunately, so I don’t have much to compare it to. My wife, who has read it, said the film was very "light", and didn’t touch on much of the technology and practice covered by James Redfield’s work. Indeed, most of the flick focused on a ludicrous plot line involving the Catholic Church and shady international business interests trying to destroy the long-lost Celestine scrolls, before their "secrets" are spilled to the world. The "secrets"? That we are evolving into energy bodies, and that God is within us.
Let’s get real: if the knowledge of these scrolls were so damn unique, Aurobindo, Huxley, and Wilber would have all been assassinated before their words ever hit the printing press. Hell, even Shakyamuni’s lectures would never have seen daylight.
But the loopiness of the plot shouldn’t invalidate Celestine as a spiritual system. I’ll have to give the book a good read to see if there’s anything new or valuable. The metaphor of "energy", and of "taking" and "giving" energy, only goes so far for me. You can make it a lot less mystical-sounding - and, I suspect, a good deal more permanent - by phrasing the spiritual journey in terms of shedding attachments and transcending ego. There were no references to either concept in the film - no advice on how to recognize grasping behavior and overcome it.
The other problem plagues any spiritual flick: It’s fucking hard to depict a "spiritual awakening" on silver halide. It didn’t help that all Redfield and crew had at their digital disposal was a cheesy energy halo filter. The "awakenings" were too clumsy and on-the-nose to make much of an impact on me. Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Inside Man

By WILLIAM H. GASS Homepage: May 7, 2006
ON May 6, 2006, Sigmund Freud became 150 years old, though he is not yet a threat to Methuselah's record. But this isn't true. He died of cigars in London in 1939.
So who are we honoring with our remembrance, and what are we celebrating? Psychoanalysis is not that ancient and it would be impossible to pin it to a moment. We couldn't fix a date for Freud himself because he was not born the founder of psychoanalysis but became that around the turn of the century. His ideas emerged most gradually from the materialism of his scientific training and, after efforts to apply quantitative methods to the problems of his patients, he appears to have been compelled to look elsewhere for help.
That "elsewhere" was in consciousness itself, always the main problem for materialists since it refuses to have an address in space and time the way other material things do. I am aware of my own body but that awareness is not a body others could be aware of the way they are of mine.
The nervous system and the brain are a nearly certain cause of what goes on in consciousness, but in Freud's time it was scientifically impossible to reach those causes or bridge the gap between mind and matter. Had there been pills and similar potions he might have prescribed them and swallowed the rationale for their use as well. Cocaine, after all, was a chemical solution he used and quite in harmony with psychiatry's present pill pop, hip hop, rub out attitude.
Instead, Freud employed a strategy worthy of Spinoza. He would look for the solution in the same realm where the problem was. Neurology could run its energies around like dogs at a track, while psychology could do the same with trains of thought. If his patients were in mental pain, he would look for a mental cause.
Suppose my father beats me and I am bruised. My doctor can see those bruises and cover them with creams. He can hear me testify to feeling sore. And give me an aspirin for the ache. But what about my knowledge that it was my father who swung the strap, and later made me more confused by taking me, both of us weeping, on his lap?
And what about those ailments that showed up years later like lost uncles without either wives or loose change? What were those uncles doing in the time they were gone, and how did they cause welts to rise on a rump that had not been struck since discipline day?
When Freud began being Freud, the askew corners of our secular Western world had three important supports: Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche — whose views of nature saw only materialism, atheism, and determinism there. Freud completed the porch. Yet that image — in suggesting that a viewpoint was being built — ignores what was being dismantled at the time, because these were subversive, destructive, revolutionary thinkers who cast a cold eye on every customary place of concealment.
The concepts that emerged from Freud's work swiftly seeped into the mindstream of our European culture. They had their origin in the illnesses of the middle class and spread through that class because it made sense of its members' lives. No one else was dealing, in a way we could understand, with our interior world, and Freud drove us ever inward.
We liked being complex; we liked being a little world that had nevertheless swallowed so much of the wider one; we liked it that our "unconscious" never forgot, that our past wasn't past at all but a part of the present; we liked the way Freud paid attention — as the novelists did — to little, ordinary things, and showed us that nothing in our trivial lives was really trivial; we liked it that our illnesses were actually about us and not about the disease; and we liked it that the tyranny that took place in the family was disclosed; that news about our sexual feelings was being broadcast; that the darkness in us was universal.
There were protests, certainly. We complained. We resisted. But down deep, despite Freud's gloomy deterministic message, we doted on this new diet of inside information. The alleged sex life of infants was perhaps polymorphously perverse, and the continuity of man with animal that Darwin and Freud stressed was demeaning, but we learned to be proud of the first, and to shrug at the thought of the second.
Yet how much richer our awareness of the world is because he convinced us — at least for a while — that even our dreams were real; that out of the scraps of our life, the unconscious could make a quilt; that gestures could reveal more than a slit skirt and be even more glamorous. It became fashionable to be neurotic, to be in analysis and to be able to afford it. And we were having such a good time, we scarcely noticed that this therapy — which took so long and cost so much — wasn't curing anybody.
The surest way to destroy a good idea is to organize it. The second way is to use it to make money. The third way is to encourage disciples, which is a part of organizing it, of course. Analysis became an ideology. It didn't burn its heretics, but it would have liked to. It guarded its privileges, its secrets; it tried desperately to remain "professional."
On the theoretical front, as an account of neuroses, it began to multiply self-serving face-saving hypotheses.
But as a philosophy of the every day, the normal (as well as the ab-), it provides an understanding that is much missed. My anatomy doesn't explain me though I may exist as one of its functions. The molecules move and the object they constitute grows hot. But what I feel is warmth — not their jittery dance.
Scientific and philosophical abstractions, as important as they are, do not satisfy at the level of day to day, because they are rarely what I want to know. That is why, at a convention of philosophers (psychiatrists too, I'm willing to bet) you can't tell a positivist from a pragmatist.
But at the poker table, or when I'm trying to understand myself or my children, or why I hate to climb even short ladders, Freud still has a powerful offering to make. He'll help you understand why your dear old dad, dead now a dozen years, still makes you mad. Or why anger is sometimes so satisfying. Or the real reason you are reading this newspaper. William H. Gass is the author, most recently, of "A Temple of Texts."

May 06, 2006

Michael Polanyi

The philosopher Michael Polanyi pointed out that what distinguishes leftism in all its forms is the dangerous combination of a ruthless contempt for traditional moral values with an unbounded moral passion for utopian perfection. The first step in this process is a complete skepticism that rejects traditional “vertical” ideals of moral authority and transcendent moral obligation--a thoroughgoing cynicism, combined with a boundless, utopian moral fervor to horizontally transform mankind.
However, being that the moral impulse remains in place, there is no longer any boundary or channel for it. One sees this, for example, in college students (and those permanent college students known as professors) who, in attempting to individuate from parental authority and define their own identities, turn their intense skepticism against existing society, denouncing it as morally shoddy, artificial, hypocritical, and a mere mask for oppression and exploitation. What results is a moral hatred of existing society and the resultant alienation of the postmodern leftist intellectual. Having condemned the distinction between good and evil as dishonest, such an individual can at least take great pride in their "honesty" and "courage."
To a leftist, the worst thing you can call someone is a hypocrite, whereas authentic depravity is celebrated in art, music, film, and literature. Stephen Colbert was not funny at the White House correspondant's dinner. That's not the point. He's not a comedian but a couragian: he courageously spoke cynical bitterness to power! Few people seem to clearly understand the type of destruction that follows when the moral impulse is detached from its traditional outlets. We can see the deadly combination of these two--“skepticism and moral passion,” or “burning moral fervor with hatred of existing society”--in every radical secular rebellion since the French Revolution. posted by Gagdad Bob at 6:53 AM

Repression and civilization

Freud actually developed two different models of the mind, first the topographical (conscious, preconscious and unconscious), later the structural (id, ego and superego). But in each case, the implicit assumption was that human beings were fundamentally animals with a veneer of civilization on top. In order to be civilized, we had to repress and sublimate our animal instincts (the id), while internalizing the sometimes arbitrary restrictions of civilization (the superego). (I’m simplifying and streamlining things for the sake of moving the argument along.)
Now interestingly, Freud was immediately seized upon by the Marxist left as an adjunct to their diagnosis of human alienation, especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the form of very popular (but now completely irrelevant) thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse (e.g. Eros and Civilization) and Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death). These vulgarizations were not really fair to Freud, who was both a genius and a subtle and hard-headed thinker who would have been deeply skeptical of their left-wing utopian nonsense. posted by Gagdad Bob at 8:18 AM

W.R. Bion

The psychoanalyst W.R. Bion developed a concept he called attacks on linking (perhaps the more elegant "deconstruction" was already taken). Bion is a notoriously abstruse thinker, and yet, his ideas are at their core quite simple and exceptionally fruitful. Once you are aware of the concept, you will see how pervasive it is. Certainly it is something the clinician encounters all day long, for it is one of the primary mechanisms involved in most neuroses and any kind of deeper character pathology.
Bion had an epistemophilic theory of the mind, in that he thought that our minds not only intrinsically seek truth, but grow as a result of "metabolizing" it. (As usual, I’ll have to give the short version in order to move the argument along to its presently unknown destination.) Various exigencies of childhood can derail this process, as there are certain emotional truths that are too painful to bear. As such, our truth-seeking mechanism can become compromised at its foundation, so to speak. “None so blind as he who will not see,” you might say.
Meaning--any meaning--always involves the bringing together of diverse details into a higher unity. In reality, it is a sort of “vision” that sees through the surface to the inner unity of a mass of data. It is very much analogous to those “magic eye” pictures, which look like a bunch of random markings on the page. But when you relax your eyes, out of nowhere pops a three-dimensional image. The image was “there” all along, but was buried amidst the phenomena. You might say that it was a message awaiting a messenger capable of seeing it. posted by Gagdad Bob at 7:03 AM

May 02, 2006

Swadharma: Harvard's Hinduism Journal

Swadharma is a semi-annual publication dedicated to the presentation of Hinduism and Indian philosophy. Swadharma seeks to broaden the knowledge and understanding of Hinduism by serving as a medium of intellectual exchange between scholars, academics, and the global community. Blending scholarly articles, interviews, academic research, and editorials, the journal broadly examines views and perspectives on modern Hinduism with the goal to create better awareness and understanding of the tradition by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
The Inaugural Issue Swadharma was conceived with the following paradox in mind: Hinduism, the world’s third most practiced religion, is one of the world’s oldest continuous traditions, yet it is perhaps the least understood, especially in the Western world. Swadharma seeks to improve the knowledge and understanding of Hinduism among Hindus and non-Hindus, foster dialogue between scholars, academics, and students, and most importantly, raise awareness of a religion whose followers comprise more than 15% of the modern world population.
We begin this issue with Swami Vivekananda’s address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893. As the representative of Hinduism at the world parliament, Vivekananda became the first Hindu teacher to come to the West and share the wisdom and philosophy of the religion. He is thus the forbearer of our own cause and represents our purpose in publishing Swadharma.
Our theme for this inaugural issue is “Defining Dharma.” Traditionally defined as duty or purpose, the concept of dharma is central to Hinduism and indeed, many followers refer to the faith as sanatana dharma (eternal dharma). The articles featured in this issue attempt to refine and extend this definition to a broad range of issues as the term’s complexities merit greater examination.Our first article examines in detail the varying interpretations of dharma and traces the evolution of dharma into the modern world.
Later articles extend these varying interpretations to such topics as gender equality, religious tolerance, economic theory, and the evolution of the Hindu Diaspora, among others. We also explore recent events, such as the ongoing debate on the portrayal of Hinduism in elementary school history textbooks in California, in which Hindus around the United States rallied in support of the textbook edits. As Hindu diasporas around the world begin to question their identity and the image of Hinduism they wish to present to the general public, we at Swadharma hope to provide an opportunity for Hindus and non-Hindus alike to contribute to this discussion.
This publication would not have been possible without the hard work of a very dedicated staff and the support of many faculty and community members. We would especially like to thank Dr. Rabi N. Mishra, Visiting Fellow, Economics Department, Harvard University, whose guidance is heartily and respectfully acknowledged. Professors Michael J. Witzel, Harvard University Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and Francis X. Clooney, Harvard Divinity School also provided invaluable advice and assistance, as did Dr. Kumar Nochur, Chairman of the New England Hindu Temple Association. Additionally, we thank Swati Yanamadala for her tremendous editorial assistance. We would also like to thank our generous contributors for having faith in us and helping us launch this debut issue.