3/18/2006

Logophobia, Alethophobia,Theophobia

When you learn the secret of how good philosophers use language, you start to see how so many of them are saying very similar things in different idioms.

One is raised to view concepts and objects as static, stable. Most of us are realists about the everyday things. A good philosopher allows his words to fluctuate and grow as he develops his argument.

For instance, Descartes tries to begin philosophy anew. Many accuse him of importing old scholastic concepts ready-made into his Meditations. But, if you read him charitably--as all good philosophers should be read--you see that the meanings of his words become increasingly clear and distinct as he progresses.

Spinoza is another great case, my personal favorite. He seems to be philosophizing with a synthetic, geometric (Euclidean) method. He gives definitions, axioms, postulates, and derives all the various propositions in his Ethics therefrom. Many have read this as a sort of cheating; if you grant a philosopher her premises, she's probably already won the battle.

However, Spinoza, as I understand him, is doing something different. He's not saying, "this is how things really are." He is saying, "let's cut the world up like this, and see what we get." Thus, he starts with God, i.e., what we imagine to be the totality of nature. Whatever exists, and is conceived through itself, is God. Thus, God is as surely existant as something like Descartes' Cogito.

One of the lessons I've learned as a philosopher is the potential for language to be highly constraining or highly liberating. If we don't allow our concepts to evolve, if we take our words as if they were things, we stifle thought, we let it ossify.

Like the ladder climbed up and then kicked out from under you, Spinoza's philosophy undermines itself, it leads to paradoxes. Spinoza warns us not to take any discourse as being final or definitive, even his own. His is just one possibility among indefinitely many others.

If we accept this and understand it, we are still not immune to error however. Many of us are in the grips of what I'd call "logophobia", fear of words. Philosophy makes its advances by useful misreadings of earlier figures.

So, for instance, postmodernism takes the traditional concept of truth as correspondence, and deconstructs it. Many of those influenced by this movement will thus be made very nervous about "truth"-talk. Even in an author recognized as like-minded, a postmodernist will see the word "truth" or "objectivity" or "universality" and instantly go on the offensive.

But, if he would only listen to the author, because good authors will tell you how to read their texts, he would not be so quick to read "truth" and understand "correspondence". This is a mistake--although it sometimes works for the better, producing new philosophies with different emphases but similar spirits. The subtle philosopher will undermine a term but then redeploy it, strategically.

Consider Spinoza. He proves that "good" and "bad" are just words that we tack on to the world, that things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. And yet, in Book IV of the Ethics he (re)defines good and bad and uses it to argue for his own ethical stance. If we read this and accuse him of inconsistency, we completely misunderstand what he is doing.

So much of philosophy today is reaction to unpleasant words. No one is immune; we all have our little pet peeves, words and concepts that we abhor and dismiss. For me, God and assorted religious concepts like spirituality, mystical experience, reverence, and so forth have proven distasteful.

I was once a believer, but what now seems like an eternity ago, I quickly reversed my stance. It's not that I believed in an implausible deity; indeed, my conceptions of God were largely influenced by certain mystical thinkers and poets. I was more or less a pantheist. But in the end, even that came to disgust me.

So a part of me fears finding myself on my deathbed, renouncing my atheist ways, and just totally selling out to Jesus. But, thanks to philosophers like Spinoza, I am reclaiming religious terms for my own use, and my fear of such scenarios is waning. (For instance, I almost got hit by a car the other day, and my instinctive response was to yell "Jesus Christ!" [and to try to use my umbrella as a shield]. Interjections and ejaculations needn't reflect one's actual beliefs.)

I've started to think of spirituality more in the sense of the German term, geistigkeit, which has some traditional religious resonance, but which also is a term used to describe intellect, intelligence. Spirituality is metaphorical, ideal, something on top of our day-to-day existence that we struggle for.

Faith has been reclaimed by the pragmatists to take on larger connotations. It's impossible not to take some things on faith. I take for granted that there's an external world, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that I can't walk through solid objects, that other human beings have minds, that my actions have consequences, and so on. Ultimately, we find ourselves having to have some faith in matters concerning the efficacy of human activity. We could not muster the strength to act if we always thought of ourselves as doomed to failure (or guaranteed to succeed).

Now let's take the big one, God. A number of thinkers--Spinoza, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Tilich, Rorty--have humanized this concept. It stands, in Dewey's work, as the imaginative unity of ideals, one which it is up to us to enact--the good is not now realized in some ideal realm, but must be something we struggle for, that is created by our activity.

I do not believe that God was some dude named Jesus, or that God chatted with people like Moses and Mohammed. I do not believe that God loves us, or judges us, or guides us, or tests us, or anything like that. I will use the word God, but only in an impersonal, almost pantheistic sense. And, even then, it's not my word of choice (I'd sooner use nature, or universe).

My belief, which I cannot fully support at the present is that personhood is a complex phenomenon, and one that is fundamentally finite. A self must be able to differentiate itself from other things. If God is all-encompassing, there is no real distinction between "him" and "his creation". (And I don't even like to use the masculine pronoun: I tend to call God an it, unless I'm not paying attention, or if I'm feeling whimsical--maybe trying to piss off a bothersome Christian--I'll use "she".)

Since I deny the theistic coneption of God, I call myself an atheist. And yet I find myself using the term all the time: when I teach, in my seminars, in casual conversation, even when everyone present is a non-believer.

Personally, I find I have nothing against left-leaning and liberal Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths. I'd prefer religion/spirituality be a private matter, but of course I'm always happy to discuss it--just don't expect me to hold back. If you have an absurd belief, I'll tell you and show you why, if I can.

Let me raise one last question, which came to mind only today in my philosophy of religion seminar. Let's say that you grant that God is real, in an impersonal sense. What implications does this have in terms of attitudes and activities?

Can you "worship" an abstract God, can you "pray" to it? Should you? Can it be a source of hope or an object of love? (Here we might consider Dewey's unity of ideals or Spinoza's amor dei intellectualis) Can you have a special relation or connection with it?

Personally, I feel no need for these things, but I imagine that those of such a temperament would never be satisfied by the impersonal Deus sive Natura. I think there's something to Freud's characterization of God as a father-figure who offers security and stability (if not always affection).

But there are exceptions. It seems like theology and divinity students are satisfied with more sophisticated versions of God. And then there are secular-minded individuals who are cultural Catholics or Jews, who take solace perhaps in a faith community or in the comfort of ritual.

And all those are fine by me. I have no special access to truth that I could rule definitively on these matters. All I'd like is that you admit the same: that human beings are fallible, irrational, stubborn--that you just might be wrong. And if you grant that, then it only makes sense that religion should not play a major role in a heterogeneous political community in which people of different faiths and non-faiths must coexist and cooperate.

2 comments:

anotherpanacea said...

Hehe: alethophobia, or fear of not forgetting. As for this other thing, truth, what I and other post-Heideggerians find so disconcerting about the word is that most of the epistemologists discuss it under the auspices of medium-sized dry goods. We have endless argument about tables, trees, and coffee cups, and then pretend like our conclusions should have implications for categories like humanity and citizenship, or the Good and the Just.

Steven said...

I was telling Josh the other day that some American Politics Professor was jerking around a student of his and mine, who is a very good student because she said she was having trouble "grasping the difference between theoretical insight and reality." I sat there lisening to this insane simplification of a couple of millenia of epistemology and I wanted to oh so badly jump in with a discourse on the "ontic and the ontological", but alas I refrained and deferred to my elders (ugh).
I think this relates to the comments above because I think Josh's complaint is aobut our emphasis of the "thnigliness of things" as opposed to the "substance of being". That's something from reading Heidegger that has just completely resonated in me from the very first time I read it.