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Tony Fahey's Philosophy Blog

In this forum I have posted some of the 'big ideas' of those thinkers that have most influenced the way we think today. From the various postings you will see, notwithstanding the esteem in which their 'philosophies' are held, that these thinkers do not always hold corresponding views. It is important to realise that the philosophy does not ask you to surrender your beliefs:your own 'worldviews', only to ensure that those you hold so dear are worthy of esteem in which you hold them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ayn Rand's Objectivism

Ayn Rand (1905-1982), née Alissa Rosenbaum, was a Jewish immigrant to America, who extolled what she called 'the virtue of selfishness'. In perhaps her best known novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, the main protagonist of the novel, persuades America’s 'prime movers' to go on strike, 'to stop the motor of the world,' thus proving how indispensable they are to the millions of leeches who thrive off their work and ingenuity. ‘We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who have always been the givers,’ Galt complains. ‘We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you'. The novel ends with Galt’s 60-page paean to capitalism and tirade against collectivism. When Rand’s publisher suggested she cut the speech, she replied, ‘Would you cut the Bible? Indeed. A 1991 survey for the Library of Congress found Atlas Shrugged to be the second most influential book in the US, after the Bible. Tens of millions of copies have sold throughout the world since 1957, and several hundred thousand still sell annually in the US.

Rand called her philosophy ‘Objectivism’ and in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, she details the essence of her ‘virtue of selfishness’ by quoting from John Galt’s speech in the above mentioned novel when she says:

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universes existence or nonexistence – and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative; the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.

According to Rand’s ‘Objectivist Ethics’ the actor must always be the beneficiary of his actions and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to so do is derived from his nature as man, and from the function of moral values in human life – and therefore is applicable only in the context of a rational objectively demonstrated and valdated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a licence to ‘do as he please’ and it is not applicable to the altruists image of a ‘selfish’ brute nor any man motivated by irrational emotions, feeling urges, wishes or whims.

According to Rand, man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and his own happiness is the highest moral purpose in his life.

Rand’s philosophy, ‘Objectivism’, centers on four principal tenets: The first is that everything that exists has an identity. This identity does not depend on how people think about it or talk about it. This is also true for things like feelings or ideas. It says that a thing is the thing which it is perceived to be. What people learn about the things that exist comes both from the identity of the things themselves and from the way that people observe (see) and think about what they have observed. The second is that reason is how a person knows that what he thinks or believes is true. A person cannot make something true just by wanting it to be true or by mysticism. Only rational, logical thinking can produce the best outcome. This means recognizing that a thing is the thing it is, and to not confuse it with things which it is not. The third concept is that it is good to be happy, and it is good for a person to try to be happy. People should always try to improve their lives and be happy in the long term, so that they are happy now and in the future. People should not hurt others to try to be happy, but they also should not hurt themselves to try to make other people happy. People should also not make themselves less happy to help something like God. Ayn Rand called this ‘rational self-interest’. Finally, the fourth concept holds that if governments or criminals take things away from people, or try to make people do things they do not want to do, it does damage to everybody. Rand thought that governments should only be able to protect people from violence, theft, fraud, and other actions that go against people's rights. This includes laissez- faire capitalism and is sometimes called libertarianism.

Generations of American youths have devoured Rand’s books, which cloak a philosophy of self-reliance in steamy romance. A 1991 survey for the Library of Congress found Atlas Shrugged to be the second most influential book in the US, after the Bible. Tens of millions of copies have sold throughout the world since 1957, and several hundred thousand still sell annually in the US. Rand followers are deemed to be something of a cult, which worships the almighty dollar. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt makes the sign of the dollar ‘over the desolate earth’ from his mountain top in Colorado. Ayn Rand wore a gold dollar sign as a brooch, and when she died, a six-foot floral dollar sign was placed beside her casket.

However, as history shows, this type of rationality has the tendency to turn one's focus inwards, leading to the individual becoming little more than a reasoning solipsist homunculus detached from the real world. Ayn Rand herself became such a person when she attempted to justify her affair with her colleague, Nataniel Branden, husband of one of her disciples, as being 'rational behaviour' – rational behaviour, it should be pointed out, that made a cuckold of her own husband and, in turn, destroyed both her own and Branden’s marriage. Not surprisingly, Rand's small band of devotees, including Branden, eventually abandoned her and her objectivist philosophy leaving her to end her days isolated and lonely and yet, at the same time, still holding frim to her Objectivist ideals. Indeed, as we see, in an interview given towards the end of her life, Rand, in a somewhat Cartesian fashion, held that not only was her existence was the only thing of which she could be absolutely certain, but it was also the only thing that mattered, leading to the most extraordinary statement that rather than dying, she would live on and the world would end.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Plato, Socrates, and the Sophists

Sophists were professional teachers. Socrates is the very antithesis of the Sophists in that he never accepted payment arguing that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake. The Sophists claim to have knowledge which they can transmit to others, Socrates claims only to seek knowledge, not that he is the possessor of it. Socrates' principal method is called in Greek elenkhos (or elenchus) which means “refutation”. One of the dialogues in which this method can be seen is Meno. At the beginning of this dialogue, the youth Meno poses a typical sophistic question: Can virtue be taught? (Sophists would hold that it could). Socrates does not accept the sophist approach and responds to Meno by asking: what is virtue? The philosophical point of this question is that before you answer the question of whether virtue is capable of being taught, you must first be able to recognise what virtue is. Meno responds by saying that virtue for a man is different than virtue for a woman or a slave (71e). Socrates replies that Meno has given a “swarm” of virtues rather than a definition of one which corresponds to the single name of “virtue”. To illustrate his point Socrates draws a parallel with health. In the same way that health is the same for a man as it is for a woman or a slave, so too must virtue consist of a single characteristic that is inherent in each of and makes them good. Meno then offers the view that virtue is the ability to rule over men. Socrates now responds to this offering in typical elentic fashion by examining its hidden implications. He draws attention to the fact that since a slave cannot rule his master, this definition does not cover the virtue of the slave. Secondly, he raises the question as to whether the definition implies ruling justly, as distinct from unjustly. Meno replies that by virtue he means ruling justly, but he does not realise that by defining virtue as justice he is defining it as a whole, rather than a part of virtue. However, this mistake is not immediately obvious and it takes a number of further examples to make this clear. In the same way that there are different kinds of virtue, so are there many different kinds of shape. In order to define shape it is necessary to find a form which is common to all of them. Thus, shape can be defined as that which always follows colour. When Meno offers the rather frivolous answer that he does not know the meaning of colour, Socrates compares him to a clever debater who is trying to win a contest, rather than engaging in a friendly dialogue for the sake of learning. Implicit in this remark is a criticism of the Sophists who are more concerning with the use argumentation to win a debate rather than using it in the search for knowledge.

In order to help Meno understand what is required in a general definition, Socrates gives him two sample definitions of shape and colour. Shape, he says, is the limit of a solid; colour is the “effluvium” (that which flows out) from shapes which fits the sight and is perceived. Meno is delighted with the definition of colour because it contains terms like “effluviam” which are familiar to him from the physical theories of Empedocles. Encouraged by this, he now offers another definition of virtue as the desire for beautiful things and the power to acquire them. Socrates challenges this by asking whether people desire only good things or whether some people desire bad things, while knowing they are bad. This question is prompted by Socrates belief that it impossible for a person to desire a bad thing for him or her self, if he or she recognises them to be bad. Meno grudgingly concedes that people can only desire bad things if they are under the illusion that they are good. So all people are alike in desiring good things, and the desire for beautiful things does not distinguish the good from the bad. Since this distinction must depend on the second part of Meno’s definition, virtue is reduced to the power of acquiring good things.

This definition reflects the Sophists view that “good things”, that is “payment”, in exchange for knowledge is a virtuous pursuit. Socrates exposes the inconsistency of this approach by raising the question as to whether there is a difference between the acquisition of things justly or unjustly. Meno admits that it does make a difference and redefines virtue as the power of securing things justly. However, since this means that the acquisition of goods must be accompanied by justice in order to qualify as virtue, this definition is also seen to be false. Yet again, Meno has made the mistake of defining virtue as a whole in terms of one of its parts, that is, justice. By this stage in the dialogue, Meno has become confused and, jokingly, compares Socrates to a torpedo fish which has stung him into silence. Socrates responds by saying that he too is numbed into puzzlement, since he dose not know what virtue is. This concession causes Meno to ask: How can we search for something if we do not know what it is? By way of a response, Socrates draws attention to the myth about the immortality of the soul, which he has heard from priests and priestesses, as well as from the poets. This somewhat unusual digression from Socrates’ more rational form of argumentation is an acknowledgement by Plato that this form of enquiry has become exhausted. One implication of this myth is about the immortality is that the soul has already seen such things in a previous existence. Thus, for Plato, we already know the answers to such as questions as “What is virtue?” since we have been acquainted with them in a previous existence.

Ultimately, the Meno dialogue is designed to establish the possibility of learning through recollection. In Meno, Plato shows how learning something is possible through questions that stimulate recollection. In the same way that Socrates’ questions stimulate recollection of geometrical forms for the slave-boy, so should it be possible, by the same method, to lead the questioner to an understanding of forms of virtue which are already known from a previous existence.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Giambattista Vico's "Endgame"

The influence of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico on James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is well documented. What is not generally recognised, however, is the influence of the same philosopher on the work of Joyce’s friend and contemporary, Samuel Beckett. That Beckett was familiar with Vico’s magnum opus the New Science is indubitable, for his very first published work, written at Joyce’s request, was an essay entitled “Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce” (the dots between the names signifies the difference in centuries between the different authors). In this essay Samuel Beckett goes to some lengths to summarise Vico’s New Science and to show this work was taken by Joyce as a structure for his Work in Progress. (see Beckett, Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. 1983, p. 19. John Calder Publications Ltd. London) However, one can go further than to say that Beckett’s interest in Vico was not simply to explain his influence on Joyce, and argue that in his own work it is also possible to see how Beckett borrowed from the Italian philosopher to present us with a vision of a postmodern and post-nuclear world – a world, that is, that bears a striking resemblance to Vico’s period of dissolution.

For Vico the history of humankind is not lineal: it is not a process in which each phase succeeds the other in as a gradual but ever improving process which culminates in the ideal, rather it is a cyclical process, a corso-ricorso, which inevitably dissolves in chaos before returning to its original, barbaric state. At which point the entire process begins anew. The beginning of the end, that is, the point or phase in history where regression begins – what might be called Vico’s “Endgame”, is during the age of men, which is also the age of reason. In this age, which begins with such faith in the power of reason to know and control not only the natural world but also the self, religion is gradually replaced by secularism and communal responsibility by egoism. During this period societies become fragmented and, in time, people develop a sense of isolation, alienation, apathy, and fear – Vico calls this state of human existence “rational barbarism” or “barbarism of reflection”.( Giambattista Vico, New Science. trans by David Marsh, 1999, para, 1106. Penguin Books. London ). In short, the age inevitably moves towards a state of chaos and dissolution. In his play Endgame Samuel Beckett, borrowing from Vico, presents us with such a concept of the state of the affairs of men. That is, he presents a scene in which the protagonists, Hamm, Clov, Nag and Nell, are not only isolated from the world, but also, for the most part, from each other. In other words, in their world they too have been reduced to exist in a state of fear and alienation – a state of chaos.

For Giambattista Vico mythical gods and heroes such as Jove, Hercules or Achilles were not simply literary devices “employed to impress in coded form the teachings of philosophers on such subjects as ethics, physics, or politics”, (Peter Burke, Vico, 1985, p. 45. Oxford University Press,. Oxford. New York. Toronto) nor were they once real men upon whom these myths were built. Rather, for Vico, these “poetic characters” were concrete manifestations of abstract ideas. (see ibid) That is, they were mythical characters or heroes, constructed by ancient poets which represented true “examples of a primitive, concrete, anthropomorphic modes of thought” (ibid): poetic embodiments of the values, customs and beliefs of primitive communities. In Beckett’s Endgame, we see that in the same way that Vico’s ancient poets used poetic characters to represent the customs, behaviour and beliefs of the people at a particular place and time in the ideal eternal history of humankind, so too do Beckett’s “poetic characters” represent the nature, customs, and behaviour of human beings in the post-atomic age.

By concentrating his gaze primarily on the interplay between Clov and Hamm, an interplay in which the protagonists represent two opposing kings during the ‘endgame’ in the game of chess, each countering the other’s moves, neither gaining sufficient advantage to make that final incisive move that would allow one to gain mastery over the other, Beckett draws attention to the sense of fear and anxiety that, for Vico, is an integral part of the human condition during this period of dissolution. The depth of feeling of anguish is reflected in Hamm’s fear that, ultimately, Clov may abandon him – an anguish which is compounded by the fact that Clov may find within himself the strength to make a life for himself in the outside world. For even in their present state, with Nell and Nag, there remains the, albeit dying, fragments of a community. For Clov the feelings of anxiety and loneliness manifest themselves in the gnawing fear that outside the room there is nothing but a void. Vico, describing people of this phase in the history of humankind, says of them:

… like beasts [they]… are accustomed to think of nothing but their personal advantage, and are prone to irritability, or rather pride, so that they are fitted with bestial rage and resentment at the least provocation. Although their bodies are densely crowded together, their intentions and desires are separated. Like wild beasts, no two or three of them agree, because each pursues his own pleasure or caprice.(Vico, op.cit)

In the play Endgame we see how Beckett, echoing Vico, presents us with such a scenario: a scenario of a world in which the aged and infirm (Nag and Nell) have become little more than living corpses whose continuing existence is both an irritation and an inconvenience to others. An age too when human beings succumb to a Hamm and Clov mentality and engage in petty, whimsical, and self-gratifying mind games in which each attempts to gain control over the other. An age in which the acts of violence and injustice perpetrated by “men of reason” surpasses even those of the giants of antiquity.

What to look for as the Vico connection in Endgame:

1. Notice how the play opens with Clov moving from window to window in a skull-like room in an attempt to see what is happening in the outside world. In this scene the room is the head or skull of a human being, the windows are the eyes and, Clov is the Cartesian essential self, the detached homunculus, peering through the windows of the body. The set represents Beckett’s critique of Cartesianism. As Keith Hopper explains:

[Beckett]… was notoriously sceptical about the claims of rationality as an all-governing discourse. He had himself after a careful study rejected the account of human existence given by the Western philosophical tradition, especially as it based itself on Descartes, who had asserted cogito, ergo sum: I think therefore I am”. (“Samuel Beckett, Working Through the Media” 1998, DCU. Dublin).

Like Vico, Beckett while initially attracted to Descartes, turned against the Cartesian concept of a reasoning homunculus that contemplates a priori “clear and distinct ideas” (Vico would say that it was a “conceit”).

2. Look for the dialectic that takes place between the two principal characters, Clov and Hamm. This dialectic represents Vico’s view that the age of reason, which in time descends into chaos, begins when plebeians come to believe that they are the equals of their masters.

3. Notice too the preoccupation of the characters with themselves. It is this egocentricity: this preoccupation of oneself at the expense of others, says Vico, that leads to the dissolution, disintegration, and fragmentation of society.

4. Look at the suggestion that the end, or “finish”, which Clov, towards the opening of the play (film), feels must be near, may not after all be imminent, but, as indicated by the figure of the “small boy”, the “potential procreator” whom Clov spies through the window, that a period of regeneration is about to begin.

5. Finally, notice how, by emphasising the tension between what Al Alvarez calls the “lost world of feeling” (Beckett. Second Edition. 1992, p. 99. Fontana Press. London) and the present world of dispassionate reason, Beckett exploits Vico’s view that the breakdown of the community arises from the failure of educators to develop, in the young, the feeling faculties of imagination and empathy before the development of faculty of reason. What might be said is that what is explicit in Vico is implicit in Beckett. That is, that paradoxically, right reason has as much to do with being able to feel, as it has to do with being able to think.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thomas More 1478-1535

A Man for all Seasons?

In 1501 the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, just sixteen years of age married the English prince Arthur, just one year her junior. One year later, Arthur, who was always a sickly child, died and his younger brother Henry, then now twelve years of age became heir to the throne. In 1503, Henry VII, in order to maintain the Spanish alliance that he had sealed with the marriage of Arthur, promised to Catherine his second son Henry. However, because canon law forbade a brother to marry the widow of his dead brother, the marriage required a papal dispensation. The Catholic Church’s rule rested on an obscure biblical text, Leviticus 20:21, which proclaims, “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impiety. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless”. Interpreters of this text reasoned that penalty for disobeying this rule should not be merely a prohibition of marriage between a man and his sister-in-law, since the penalty for adultery was not childlessness but death by stoning.

The Pope, as Vicar of Christ, claimed the right to dispense with some decrees of canon law when it was deemed prudent to so do. Moreover, it was generally agreed that some parts of canon law were less important than others. Thomas More wrote that canon law was only a collection of decrees and were subject to a greater authority. If any rule of canon law had been made originally for some practical reason or any reason peculiar to the time in which it was made, the pope or tradition could dissolve the rule and replace it with some other practical reason, or if the rule was no longer relevant to the time. However, it was held that the pope could not dissolve that which was believed to be a direct divine command that was intended to stand for all time. A pope, for example, could never sanction blasphemy.

But the book of Leviticus was of a different order from the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus or St. Paul. In addition to commands about marriage and adultery, Leviticus issued injunctions to Jewish priests about how to ring the necks of chickens, how to detect leprosy, and how to avoid “unclean” animals, including rabbits. And it forbade priests to touch a dead body, even those of their fathers and mothers. If any book of the Bible did not seem fully binding on Christians, it was Leviticus. Thus, for Thomas More, secretary and legal adviser to Henry, there seemed to be no reason why the pope should not dispense with any rules about marriage that rested on the authority of this one book alone.

The dispensation was granted by Pope Julius II, elected to the papal office towards the end of 1503. Julius had two passions: art and politics. He was responsible for engaging Michelangelo to paint the frescos in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The greatest political desire of Julius was to drive the French out of Italy, where they had been coming and going with plundering armies since 1494. Julius needed armies, and both England and Spain were habitual enemies of France. A marriage treaty between these two countries perfectly suited the pope’s interest, and so, after some delays to ensure that everything was done properly, Julius II gave his consent to the marriage of Catherine and Henry.

Henry VIII was scarcely eighteen years of age when he ascended to the throne. He had spent his early years in relative isolation and neglect, trotted out from time to time to play supporting role to his elder brother, Arthur. When Arthur married Catherine, it was Henry who led the bride into St. Paul’s Cathedral and afterwards to the great ceremonial dinner. When Arthur died, while Henry’s father did bring him in from the cold, he was so closely chaperoned that a Spanish envoy compared him to a Spanish virgin.

When Henry became king, Thomas More welcomed him a savior. Catherine, he believed, was the perfect mate for Henry. “She was descended from great kings”, he said, “and she will be the mother of kings as great as her ancestors… [y]our fruitful queen will give you a male heir in a short while, a protection in unbroken line who will be supported on every side”.

Robert Bolt, in his preface to his play, A Man for all Seasons, reminds us that for some years the marriage of Henry and Catherine was successful; they were respected and they liked one another. However, as Catherine grew older she grew increasingly plain and intensely religious. Although Catherine was devoted to Henry, he, who had always craved drama and excitement, had become infatuated with a young handmaiden whom, he believed, could satisfy both these needs, but also provide him with an heir. The words from Leviticus seemed to be suddenly accommodatingly prophetic. For Henry, it was as though they represented the word of God, eternal and unbreakable. Rather conveniently, his conscience told him that he had sinned, and that h had sinned not only of his own volition but through the alliance concocted by his father and Pope Julius II. Moreover, it was Julius’s fault that he was living in sin. If one pope could err Henry decided, another could put that error right again. Thus, in 1527, Henry began to channel his energy into persuading the then pope, Clement VII, to dissolve his marriage. However, Clement realized that if he were to grant the divorce, Europe would be treated the spectacle of one pope admitting that another pope had erred. Such an admission, he held, would damage the papacy fatally, and he refused to grant Henry’s request. Despite this, Henry decided to divorce Catherine and marry his new love, Anne Boleyn. Thomas More, a devout Catholic, was so bitterly opposed to the divorce that he resigned from his position as chancellor, and when the king invited him to the wedding, More refused to attend. In 1534, Henry persuaded Parliament to pass the Act of Supremacy, declaring him, not the pope, head of the Church of England. Under this act, anyone refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, were indicted for treason on charges of praemunire. Holding fast to the ancient teaching of papal supremacy, More refused bless Henry’s marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, and was sentenced to a traitor’s death. This meant being gruesomely hanged, drawn and quartered. Whilst More’s refusal could be construed as a misprision of treason: that is, treason by concealment of knowledge, it should not have warranted the death penalty. However, since it was shown, by very circumspect evidence, that More had said that Parliament could not make Henry head of the Church of England, he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, although Henry, in his infinite mercy, commuted the sentence to beheading.

More the Renaissance Man?:

Whilst renowned as a devout Catholic, Thomas More is also deemed by many to warrant the title of Renaissance Man, or as Robert Bolt calls him, “a man for all seasons”. The period of history we call the Renaissance began in Italy around 1400 AD. The founder of this movement was the poet Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch was a bibliophile – a lover of books with a particular fascination with literature of the ancient Romans. In fact, he found their literature to have more relevance to “real life” than the literature of his day, and infinitely more real than that of the long dark age of ignorance (the Middle Ages) that separated them. It was through the rediscovery, or re-birth, of ancient texts that Petrarch initiated a movement the reverberations of which would resonate, not just through the kingdom of Henry VIII, but through the Western world of literature to this day. Many of the feelings and ideas which we associate with the Renaissance period were implemented by Petrarch. Things such as a sensitivity to nature, an unashamed love of power, physical love, the cultivation of friendship, and above all, a close rapport with classical literature – all qualities and principles believed to be represented in the character of Thomas More.

Central to this spirit of renewal was humanism: the belief that the potential of human nature was something to be developed as a thing in itself. Throughout the Middle Ages the point of departure had always been God, the humanists, however, took their point of departure from man himself. Humanism can be defined as ‘an intellectual movement which promotes the notion of the individual as an entity, responsible for his/her own moral, intellectual and political development”. The world of the humanist is the world of potential – a realm in which the individual is free to create his/her own identity – his/her own “self”. Humanists held that human beings were born incomplete. The aim of humanism was to change the individual’s perspective of him/her self – to produce the “complete human being” – the uomo universale. Fundamental to humanist education was reading and eloquence, virtues imperative in preparing the individual for public life. It was believed that Thomas More represented such a man. Educated in Lincoln’s Inn, More studied the liberal arts under the common belief that all human knowledge about creation had been set down long ago and that study meant learning for oneself that which had been known by someone else.

In parenthesis, it should be said that although most early humanists, including Francesco Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, and Thomas More, displayed an allegiance to Christianity, towards the of the end fifteenth century and early part of the sixteenth century many came to view Christianity as an obsolete system, and drifted towards values that heretofore were deemed to be heretical or pagan. Thus, whilst Christianity remained fundamental to the lives of ordinary people, both socially and spiritually, for humanists, the view that ‘man is the measure of all things’ together with an uncertainty about whether the gods or a God exists or not, and the absence of a universal standard of morality, generated a culture in which groups came together to discuss philosophical issues and questions from a non theological perspective in a more open and progressive atmosphere. However, this openness to innovative and progressive ideas was not shared by the Church authorities and even as late as the eighteenth century people paid dearly for their involvement in such discussions.

Thus, whilst More may have embodied many of the characteristics associated with early humanists, it certainly cannot be said that he is representative of that which we call humanism today. Moreover, whilst he is often portrayed as a Renaissance man, or “a man for all seasons”, it cannot be said that he represented the type of open mindedness that we associate with that term today. Likewise whilst he is often described as a philosopher, for More, philosophy was always the handmaiden to religion - and orthodox Catholic religion in particular. More could not envisage how anyone could live in a civilized society without believing in the immortality of the soul. If we did not believe in punishment after death for sins committed whilst alive, we would all live in sin. His approach to reason is perhaps captured by Anselm who spoke of the use of reason in religion as “faith seeking understanding”. The Christian receives faith from the tradition of the Church and through experience with God revealed by the Church. For More, the Christian does not acquire doctrine through reason alone – logical deductions do not reveal the mysteries of God. Christians, he held, must first accept what tradition tells about Christ and only then can reason assemble propositions that make faith possible and systematic.

According to Thomas More, a certain religious consciousness is an immediate perception of human nature and unless we have it, we are not truly human. From it we can know the soul is immortal, though we may not be able to explain immortality by “philosophy” – that is, by reason. It is rather knowledge that arises from intuition, from our very being. More believed that all human beings, including pagans, have religious consciousness – the perception or intuition that there is some greater entity that is responsible for creation. God had worked with special power in those who came before Christ whose observance of natural law purified their lives so that religious consciousness had the freedom to guide them. As a devout Christian, he held that the Catholic Church, with its centuries of tradition and its hosts of saints, was a natural development of the fundamental religious consciousness in all human beings. For More, the truth of faith was proven by consensus, and consensus arises from the kind of beings we are – religious beings whose religious consciousness is a valid and natural way to God. Once questions began to be asked about the worth of religious consciousness any intelligent, impartial person, he believed, would understand how difficult; how nigh impossible, these questions were to answer in any way that would not signal the collapse of religious belief when threatened by rational argument. For More, when Henry turned against Rome, he turned against centuries of tradition upon which the very foundations of Christian life depends – to take an oath which would give precedence to his loyalty to Henry over that to the Pope was never an issue to More’s conscience.

Thus, as adverted to above, whilst oft portrayed as a “man for all seasons”, More might more accurately be described as a “man for one season”, and that season was the season of persecution of those who turned their backs on Rome. Thus, rather than being the “new man”, the “Renaissance man”, More was a backward looking religious bigot and one of the most cruel inquisitors in history ranking right up there with the likes of the notorious Bernard Gui, Torquemada, Philip II, bloody Mary, and Judge Jeffries. Whilst most renowned for his opposition to Henry, his single most consuming passion was to apprehend Willaim Tynadale, the translator of the Bible into English, and burn him at the stake. However, before he got to Tyndale, he sought out and put to death four others whose beliefs, he held, could also put the Catholic Church in mortal danger. The first of these victims was Thomas Hitton who, in 1530, was arrested near Gravesend as he was making his way to the coast where he would take a ship to Antwerp. He had fled to join Tyndale and other like-minded exiles in the Low Countries after becoming a convinced evangelical. He had returned to England to make contact with supporters of Tyndale and to arrange for the distribution of banned books, including the first English psalter which had been published in Antwerp in January of that year, as well as Tyndale’s Pentateuch. He was burned at the stake at Maidstone on 23rd January, 1530.

More’s second victim was Thomas Bilney who, although having been arrested and convicted of heresy by Bishop Nix of Norwich in March 1531, had his sentence “relaxed” to secular power – which, in effect, meant that sentencing was given over to the relevant officer of the sovereign who, in this instance was the Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, who had no hesitation in ordering for Bilney the same punishment as that given to Hitton. Amongst those who suffered similar fates at the hands of More were Richrad Bayfield, Thomas Tewkesbury, and James Bainham. Tyndale was the last of More’s victims, and presumably the one whose death caused him the greatest satisfaction.

Historians have been long divided over More's religious actions as Chancellor. While biographers such as Peter Ackroyd have taken a relatively tolerant view of More's campaign against Protestantism by placing his actions within the turbulent religious climate of the time, other equally eminent historians, such as Richard Marius have been more critical, believing that persecutions - including what he perceives as the advocacy of extermination for Protestants -- were a betrayal of More's earlier humanist convictions. As Richard Marius writes in his biography of More: "To stand before a man at an inquisition, knowing that he will rejoice when we die, knowing that he will commit us to the stake and its horrors without a moment's hesitation or remorse if we do not satisfy him, is not an experience much less cruel because our inquisitor does not whip us or rack us or shout at us… More believed that they (Protestants) should be exterminated, and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Postmodernism, Lyotard, and Derrida

Although the term ‘postmodern’ is a nebulous term that can appear to mean many different things, it is fair to say that amongst the features most identifiable with a postmodernist approach are: the deconstruction of metanarratives or grand narratives; the unapologetic use of other, often unacknowledged but blatantly plagiarised, sources (intertextuality); a ludic or playful approach to writing, and the treatment of all narratives with a sense of ironic detachment and/or with healthy circumspection. A search for a more precise definition of the term succeeds only in confirming the features mentioned above. For example, it is defined alternatively as ‘a cultural development… which resulted from the general collapse in confidence of the universal rational principals of the Enlightenment’, as ‘… any work of art made after the Modernist era’; as an attempt ‘… to address the sense of despair and fragmentation of modernism through its efforts at reconfiguring the broken pieces of the modern world…’; as ‘a belief that individuals are merely constructs of social forces, that there is no transcendent truth that can be known; a rejection of any one world view as well as a rejection of the reality of objective truth. It is also said if Descartes is seen as the father of modernism, then postmodernism is any position which rejects the major features of Cartesian modern thought. Whilst, with good reason, such references should be treated with some circumspection, in this paper I will show that these definitions are consistent with the definitions given in the writings of recognised postmodern thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida.

Jean-François Lyotard and the ‘Postmodern Condition’

Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), in his influential book The Postmodern Condition (1979) defines the term ‘postmodernism’ as ‘the deconstruction of the metanarratives of modernity’. By ‘metanarratives’, or ‘grand narratives’, Lyotard means the belief systems or worldviews that underpin the legitimacy of a commitment or activity. That is, the values, judgements, laws and beliefs that are the very fabric of civil life: Christianity, Marxism, Islam or any other narrative that alleges to give a comprehensive account of a teleological process that ultimately leads to some idealised state of affairs. For Lyotard, the ‘postmodern condition’ is that which no longer accepts metanarratives as absolute givens. Rather it sets out to develop new sciences that can decipher, ‘deconstruct’, and demystify them so that they may be seen for what they are: narratives made by men for men.

According to Lyotard the postmodern condition should not be seen as one that necessarily follows the modern. Indeed, he says that ‘[a] work can only become modern if it is first postmodern’. What Lyotard means is that a narrative can only be accepted as ‘modern’ if it has first been analysed, dissected, demystified and deconstructed by postmodern scepticism. Modernity, says Lyotard, ‘in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without the shattering of belief and without the discovery of the “lack of reality” of reality, together with the invention of other realities’. While by ‘reality’ Lyotard means narratives which claim to represent reality, it should be said that he was not against narratives per se, in fact he recommends a society that is tolerant, pragmatic and pluralist, but against narratives that claim to be total explanations of human nature and history. Narratives, that is, that masquerade as absolutes unpolluted by worldly experience. Rather than setting up pan-national narratives, he maintains, each society should construct its own ‘petit récit’, its own ‘small narrative’ which resists the closure of totality. In order to ensure that these petit récits do not themselves become grand narratives they should be held open to the charge of falsifiabilty by deconstruction.

Postmodernism, for Lyotard, is inextricably linked to the modern: it means treating all that is new with circumspection. Postmodernism, thus understood, says Lyotard, ‘is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant’. Borrowing Ihab Hassan’s definition, one can say that for Lyotard, ‘modernism and postmodernism are not separated by an Iron curtain or Chinese Wall; for history is palimpest and culture is permeable to time past, time present, and time future’. Following Heraclitus, it seems that for Lyotard, the only thing constant is change. This concept of constant change is reflected in Lyotard’s view that human history is ‘inevitably and relentlessly cyclical’. A recurrence, maintains Lyotard, that recommences when the ‘grand narratives’ of modernism are repudiated by postmodern circumspection.

One of the issues that concerns the later Lyotard is that of the sublime. The sublime, he maintains, is ‘an aesthetic of denaturing’ that ‘breaks the proper order of the natural aesthetic and suspends the function it assumes in the project of unification’. It is experienced ‘when the imagination fails to represent an object which might, if only in principle, come to match the concept’. For Lyotard, the sublime is the striving of the imagination to present ‘[t]hose … [i]deas of which no presentation is possible’. This experience arises, he says, in virtue of a conflict, a contrario, of the pain and pleasure the imagination suffers in striving to ‘figure out that which cannot be figured’. In short, for Lyotard, grand narratives arise from the sensation of the sublime that mind experiences in its attempt to present ideas for which no presentation is possible.

Postmodernism and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Lyotard’s view that small narratives should be constantly revisited, amended or reformed, is a view shared by his contemporary, and fellow postmodernist, Jacques Derrida. Like Lyotard, Derrida holds that there are no such things as narratives that remain constant throughout history. Since language is always metaphorical, he maintains, we cannot go beyond language to reach some kind of truth that lies outside our own immediate history and culture. Moreover, because language is a human creation it can never generate stable and total certainties. Language, he holds, is always inadequate: it can never fully communicate meaning. According to Derrida, Western culture’s preoccupation with logocentrism, the belief that the meaning of a word exists a priori, is erroneous. The interpretation of texts should be regarded as a process rather than something which is fixed. Deconstruction is a method of textual analysis applicable to all writing, philosophical and creative, which seeks to expose the inherent instability and indeterminacy of meaning. All narratives, says Derrida, should be held at an ironic distance and repeatedly exposed to the deconstructionist glare. Thus, postmodernism, as a philosophical position, is characterised not simply as a rejection of the idea of objective truths, but of the rejection of objective truths in tandem with an ironic detachment from any narrative that holds itself to be a fixed entity.

For Derrida, deconstruction demonstrates the instability of language upon which narratives are built. As rhetoric, language is employed to construct the alluring narratives that govern our lives. Following the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Derrida understands language as a system of signs whose meanings cannot possibly be fixed. For Saussure, signs consist of two constituent parts: a signifier and a signified (that is, the word as it sounds or is written, and the concept or thing to which the word refers). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is both arbitrary and differential. That is, there is no innate reason why the signifier is related to the signified. Derrida also takes from Saussure the idea of ‘différence’, an idea developed by the latter to draw attention to the arbitrariness of signs. Although sounds or signs are used to identify objects, each object is only identifiable because it relates to a different sound or sign. That is, they are marked by difference. For example, the word ‘dog’ differs from the word ‘log’ not because it is innately connected to the object, but because it was arbitrarily chosen to represent the object. In the French language, the term ‘différer’ not only means ‘to differ’ but also ‘to difer’: to ‘put off’ or ‘postpone’. Because Derrida decides that Saussure has shown that no one sign has any meaning until it is related to the next sign and so on, he decides that meaning is always deferred by the text. Derrida spells ‘différence’ with an ‘a’: as différance, coining a neologism to signify both difference and deferral. Différence, then, for Derrida, means the way in which meanings are produced through a process of self-differentiation and deferral which means that there can never be a full presence of meaning: never closure in what the text signifies. By invoking différance, Derrida’s ambition is to show that all texts are engaged in a process of referral and contamination of meaning that prevents the possibility of total explanation and total description.

For Derrida, language does not reveal truths but versions of what people believe or imagine to be true. The truths that are central to Western tradition are not unquestionable truths, but truths made by people themselves that have become absorbed by tradition into the historical process. It should be noted that Derrida does not deny the existence of such realities as beauty and goodness, but rather that these exist as transcendental realities. It is perhaps possible to relate to this by considering that what is often considered beautiful or morally acceptable in one culture may be considered quite the opposite in another.

Deconstruction is primarily concerned with encouraging people to re-examine the grounds upon which their worldviews are built. As Professor Stuart Sim reminds us, ultimately deconstruction should ‘be regarded as a very thoroughgoing form of philosophical scepticism that calls our unexamined assumptions into question’. For Derrida, the view that philosophy, religion, or any other human institution can reveal meaningful and lasting paradigms is an illusion. Since all worldviews are marked by the operation of différance, none can claim to have a greater authority than the rest.


In this paper we have considered some of the definitions of postmodernism. We have seen that postmodernism is represented by the collapse of confidence in the universal principles of the Enlightenment. We have seen that, historically, it can also mean any work that follows after the modernist period. We have seen that, since modern philosophy is deemed to have its foundations in Cartesianism, postmodernism is a rejection of the major features of Cartesian modern thought. We have seen that postmodernism holds that human consciousness does not contain a priori ideas or concepts, and that there is no transcendental truth that can be known.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Existentialism, Sartre, and Bad Faith

The first thing that should be said is that the term ‘existentialism’ is not specific to any one thinker, or to any specific school or system, but a rather movement that includes a diverse range of philosophers with diverse backgrounds in philosophy. For example, there is Heidegger who, for a time at least, was a Nazi, Kierkegaard, a devout Christian, Nietzsche, an atheist, and Sartre, a communist and later a Marxist. However, notwithstanding such a mixed bag, it can be shown that central to each of their philosophical approaches was the view that existence precedes essence. That is, first we exist, and after that our essence, our nature, is defined by the choices we make.

In relation to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, it is in his treatise Being and Nothingness that the Sartre presents his version of existentialism. According to Sartre being human consists of two modes of existence: being and nothingness. A human being exists as an ‘in-itself’ (en-soi), an object or a thing, and ‘for-itself’ (pour-soi), a consciousness. The existence of an ‘in-itself’ is ‘opaque to itself… because it is filled with itself’, whereas the ‘for-itself’, or consciousness, has no fullness of existence, because it is no-thing – its essence is determined by the choices it freely makes whilst it exists.

More than anything Sartre wanted to endorse the existentialist view that one is what one chooses to be, that one has no essence, no human nature, and no character that that on did not confer on oneself. To believe that one’s essence – one’s nature, is either given at birth or formed in some way from one’s early environment is to fall into what Sartre calls ‘Bad Faith’ (mauvaise foi). Bad Faith is a state of self-delusion: the condition of pretending to oneself that one has no option than to be that which one has become. According to Sartre, the function of Bad Faith is that it allows one to abdicate one’s responsibilities. Some examples of bad faith include: a clergyman who, in his heart, knows that he has lost his faith, but continues to behave as though he were still a believer; a wife who no longer has any affection for her husband, but continues to behave as though she is a devoted wife; a business man or academic who convinces himself that his role is of such importance that he is obliged to work a ten or twelve hour day six or even seven days a week, or a defence lawyer who, notwithstanding the fact that he knows, beyond a shadow of doubt, that his client is guilty, continues to plead his innocence. In each of these cases each person refuses to face the fact that the situation in which each of them find themselves can be other than it is.

According to Sartre then, because consciousness is ‘no-thing’, we become aware that we are free to choose that which we desire to be. In other words, we accept that we are responsible for who or what we have become – and for who or what we can become in the future. This is the condition of human freedom – of fee will. To move forward, to perform an action, we must be capable of detaching ourselves from the world of existing things and so contemplate that which does not exist. The choice of action is also the choice of oneself. In choosing oneself one does not choose to exist: existence is given, and one has to exist in order to choose. It is from this that Sartre derives the phrase that encapsulates his understanding of existentialism: ‘existence precedes and commands essence’. Turning Descartes’ famous cogito on its head, rather than ‘I think, therefore I am’, for Sartre it is more the case that ‘I am, therefore I think, and because I think, I am free to choose’.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Arianism is a theological doctrine that developed in Alexandria Egypt around 320. It is named after Arius (c.250-c.336), a presbyter in Alexandria, who, for his doctrinal teachings, was exiled to Illyria in 325 after the first ecumenical council at Nicaea condemned his teaching as heresy.

The central theme of Arianism is that since Christ was created by God his nature could not be the same of his Creator, who is the Supreme Being. That is, since there was a time when Christ was not: when there was only God, it follows that Jesus was part of the created order. It seems that Arius was indicted because he had specifically condemned the use of the homoousios, which means of the same substance, to describe the relationship between Jesus and God. The issue of the true nature of Christ was formally settled at the First Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical held by the Church, which was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 AD in an attempt to put an end to the controversy raised by Arius concerning the true nature of Christ. It is important to remember that up until this time there was no orthodoxy – no stated church position, on the issue of Christ’s divinity. However, in the fourth century most Christian theologians rejected the Arian stance. By a substantial majority the decision of the council was that God the Father and God the Son were consubstantial and coeternal and that the Arian belief was heretical. As a consequence of the council’s finding Arius was branded an infidel, excommunicated, and exiled. The decision of the council was formalized in the Nicene Creed, the earliest dogmatic statement of Christian orthodoxy.

However, in 336 Constantine, in a spirit of reconciliation, recalled Arius to Constantinople with the intention of readmitting him to communion. Unfortunately for Arius, the day before this was due to happen, he died rather tragically when his bowels burst whilst going to the toilet. For many Nicene Christians this was a sign from God that Arius's views were indeed heretical and that Constantine’s decision to rescind his excommunication was a mistake. Indeed, one of those who stood against Arius held him in such distain that he arranged for a statue of him built where he had died and invited people to use the spot to relieve themselves in the manner intended by Arius before his rather nasty accident. However, whilst Arius died his beliefs did not die with him and from the seventeenth century onwards a number of important writers, including philosophers such as John Locke and Samuel Clarke, are said to have held Arian beliefs. Today, many writers, far removed from the event, suspect that Arius may have been poisoned by those who saw his reinstatement as a reawakening of a controversy that had proven such a threat to the Church and its teachings.