Friday, December 12, 2008

And so it goes...

As the semester comes to an end, so does D. Z. Phillpis' Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation. I think his final chapter parallels (however near or far) William James's broad view with religion. Both seem to posit that the hermeneutics of contemplation is the most honest approach at bringing justice to the possibilities of philosophy and religion.

Phillips says, "we have seen how difficult it is, philosophically, to do justice to the world around us. My main concern has been with doing justice to possibilities of the religious sense" (325). Phillips discusses the flaws with the other hermeneutical approaches (suspicion and recollection), as each has an agenda to doubt or prevents opposing values to be themselves. Phillips continues, writing "here, too, clarity would show opposition in a truer light. Both hermeneutics are clouded by their apologetic resolve. The hermeneutics of contemplation strives against this temptation" (325). He follows, describing the force behind contemplation, explaining "its inspiration comes from wonder at the world in all its variety, and the constant struggle to give account of it" (325). I'm glad Phillips said this, because the picture was blurry in regard to what morals and cultures we are dealing with. But Phillips says it isn't a specific culture, rather the "world in all its variety."

So what is the reason behind philosophical contemplation? Philips says, "philisophocal contemplation, in trying to do justice to what it surveys, is not itself an attempt to arrive at a specific moral or religious viewpoint, but an effort to understand the kinds of phenomena we are confronted by in morality and religion." Of course, the problem of personal bias comes into concern, and it is the responsibility of the philosopher to give an honest account. Phillips continues on this concern, saying "that unless different views can be resolved in terms of reasons wider than themselves which they all appeal to, they are reduced to personal preferences and thus lose their imperative" (323). One approach to the solution is to eliminate the boundaries that separate those perspectives is to say different viewpoints are perspectives on the same reality.

This is just a small sliver of the philosophical pie, and Phillips is one philospher serving it up. He concludes that "Old problems keep coming back in new forms, and cultural developments may occasion new problems…And so it will go on" (325-6). And while Phillips is concerned with the authority or high self-worth the philosopher may hold while "hovering over the limitations and indeterminacy of our comprehension, or lack of comprehension" (319). Winch upholds the philosopher's role, saying that the "difference between someone who accepts and lives by a position with clear understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, of where it may lead him, of what the alternatives are, and someone who does not understand these things" (Trying to Make Sense).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Recollecting on the hermeneutics of recollection

Going over some notes I thought I'd recap on the hermeneutics of recollection.

The approach is sympathetic to religion. It assumes believers are in touch with something real. Its task is to recollect and retrieve something for our age, convinced there is a message we must understand. The hermeneutics of suspicion however, denies there is a divine reality in religion. Its conception is said to be the product of illusion. Because there is nothing real to recollect or retrieve, enlightenment consists in rescuing us from religious mystification.

Here is a simple list of the hermeneutics of understanding:

RECOLLECTION: theology/defense/apologetics
SUSPICION: Reductionists (Freud, Marx)
CONTEMPLATION: Wittgenstein, possibly James

Monday, October 27, 2008

D.Z. Phillips on Hume's Hermeneutics


I've selected a few passages from D. Z. Phillips book Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation: Hume's Legacy. Phillips addresses Hume's approach to the rhetoric of religion and the language used to describe and accompany it. Phillips critically analyzes Hume's methodology and dissects the hermeneutics of Hume's theories.

      "This reminds us of the similar strategy adopted by Philo: if a person 'is not antecedently convinced of a supreme intelligence, benevolent and powerful, but is left to father such a belief from the appearance of things…he will never find any reason for such a conclusion. But the philosophical request is not for an antecedent conviction, but to begin with 'the given God' in the sense of beginning by giving attention to the role certain religious concepts play in human life.

Tennesen says that human language can only speak of human standards. This is confused, since in that language there is talk of God or gods…The Greeks cannot be understood anthropomorphically…Relating to the same theme, Marina Barabas says: 'The Moirai, the grim protectors of the frontiers between the human and the divine, are first silenced when men become intimate with gods by loving the same things; now, however the are outraged as god becomes intimate with man, by sharing in his suffering'" (Phillips 63).

Phillips continues, addressing judgement in the mortal aspect: "It is this love, love of beauty of the world, which, in believers, draws them to itself, as well as being that by which they see themselves as judged." Phillips provides an example from a poem by R. S. Thomas

Abel looked at the wound
His brother had dealt him, and loved him
For it. Cain saw that look
And struck him again. The blood cried
On the ground. God listened to it.
And God said: It was part of myself
He gave me. The lamb was torn
From my own side. The limp head,
The slow fall of sad tears—they
Were like a mirror to me in which I beheld
My reflection. I anointed myself
In readiness for the journey
To the doomed tree you were to work upon.


  "In Christianity God and sacrifice become one. Sacrifice being the essence of spirituality:" Through this we begin to question our own methods of judging not only the gods we worship, but ourselves as well. Are we to apply the same standards and forms to all aspects of life? Or ought we be lenient towards certain aspects of life, tangible or spiritual?

Regarding the tangible, ought we judge God as an object? Phillips writes "For [J. L.] Mackie…either God is some kind of object which has to be conceived anthropomorphically, or my use of language is metaphorical, and religion is something else, perhaps mortality, in disguise, as the hermeneutics of suspicion has always suspected. The choice that Mackie provides is simply a conceptual impoverishment of language, since the primary use of language in religion is not factual, idiomatic or metaphorical…If the religious use of language were idiomatic, it could make sense factually, even if that is not what is meant…The reason for saying the primary use of religious language is not metaphorical is that the latter is a use of one kind of language for a certain purpose. But although there are metaphors in religious language, its primary use is to offer us a way of thinking about our relation to the world. It is as though religion says to one, 'Think like this'."

Phillips' explanation of the religious use of language says we use religious language as a compass which guides us through life, and possibly closer to, or alongside to the divine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reflections on James' "Circumscription of the Topic"

I've selected a few quotes from William James lecture titled "Circumspection of the Topic" from his book The Varieties of Religious Experience. I believe these quotes give a gentle, yet concrete example of what James believes religion represents to humans.

"the word 'religion' cannot stand for any single principle or essence, but is rather a collective name. The theorizing mind tends always to the oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested…we may very likely find no essence" (31). Here, James attacks the one who generalizes and over simplifies ideas and concepts in life. James, in his lectures courageously attempts to help us hone our definition of religion. This is quite a difficult task, as the lazy mind rarely wants to work, thus sloppily places ideas into broad categories.

I enjoy James' quote which he says "The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence." James uses the example of government, but I think that theory applies to all aspects in life. James continues, "enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening" (32).

"Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations; and similarly of all the carious sentiments which may be called into play in the lives religious persons" (33). Here, James claims religious awe can be felt similarly to natural environments. However, I'm not sure that religious awe is the "same organic thrill" that we feel in nature. It may be possible that because I've never experienced religion in the same manner James is describing, but that could be my own shortcoming.

"As there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act" (33).

"the question of definition tends to become a dispute about names. Rather than prolong such a dispute, I am willing to accept almost any name for the personal religion of which I propose to treat. Call it conscience or morality, if you yourselves prefer, and not religion—under either name it will be equally worthy of our study" (35)

James continues, suggesting that the "personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism. Churches, when once established, live at second hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine" (35).

"Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (36).

James takes a similar approach to Freud, when he says "For one thing, gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. What relates to them is the first and last word in the way of truth…Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life" (40).

"There must be something solemn, serious, and tender about any attitude which we denominate religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse. It is precisely as being solemn experiences that I wish to interest you in religious experiences.

James concludes "Things are more or less divine, states of mind are more or less religious, reactions are more or less total, but the boundaries are always misty, and it is everywhere a question of amount and degree. Nevertheless, at their extreme of development, there can never any question as to what experiences are religious" (45).

"The essence of religious experiences, the thing by which we finally must judge them, must be that element or quality in them which we can meet nowhere else" (52).

James continues speaking about people who yearn for religious comforting: "what he craves is to be consoled in his very powerlessness, to feel that the spirit of the universe recognizes and secures him, all decaying and failing as he is. Well, we are all helpless failures in the last resort. The sanest and best of us are of one clay wit lunatics and prison inmates, and death finally runs the robustest of us down. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity and provisionality of our voluntary career comes over us that all our morality appears but as a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in" (54).

"If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes" (55).

As James concludes his lecture, he describes a painting in the Louvre, painted by Guido Reni, of St. Michael, with his foot on Satan's neck. James says "the richness of the picture is in large part due to the fiend's figure being there. The richness of tis allegorical meaning also is due to his being there—that is, the world is all the richer for having a devil in it, so long as we keep our foot upon his neck" (57). I like this analogy—it seems to teeter on the teachings of Taoism. The balance is imperative, also in Christian theology.

"In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case in necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill" (59).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Waiting… Waiting… Wait…

"Each life must finish itself and resolve itself independent, and dependent of all, until the ultimate closure comes to fulfill it and give it meaning." Jean-Marie Gustave le Cl├ęzio

E. E. Evans-Pritchard

In this entry I'll be paraphrasing Daniel L. Pals' book Eight Theories of Religion. I'll be discussing the philosopher E. E. Evans-Pritchard and his particular theories of religion in society and its key features.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard was born 1902. He was the second son to an English clergyman in Crowborough, Sussex, southeast England. He attended Oxford Unversity and graduated with a MA in modern history. He surpassed the armchair theorists because his degree actually required an apprenticeship abroad. Bronsilaw Malinlowski, someone Evans-Pritchard looked up to, suggested he do as he did, go abroad and immerse himself in a different land. Evans-Pritchard took the advice and went to the Sudan region of East Africa and studied the natives there between 1926 and 1931. He also served in the British army during World War 2. After, he taught social anthropology at Oxford. His most popular books published are Nuer Religion, Theories of Primitive Religion, and Withcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande.

Evans-Pritchard admired Durkheim, whom he called the central figure in development of social anthropology. He said primitive people were not mentally deficient, or subhuman. They are equally but differently mature humans and intelligent beings. He believed we did not need reductionist theory to explain why people believe in "irrational" thoughts. Evans-Pritchard felt most theorists simply made clever guess work. Those theorists thought primitive people wanted to explain everything in their world, thus settled upon religious beliefs as a methodology of how their world functions. Evans-Pritchard argued, however, when the theorists took the "if-I-was-a-horse-approach," however, the interpreter still does not know how the primitive person thinks, they can only conjecture about the people. Evans-Pritchard believed people of a specific society are shaped by their language, values, and ideas of that specific place. He also said other sociological theorists construct theories that crumble the moment new evidence comes along to show that totemism is different.


Similarly, Durkheim claimed the framework for life is fixed for every person by society before birth, and remains in place through generations. Evans-Pritchard worked during a World War 2, in a time when Freud and Marx were the most impressive thinkers of the age. Evans-Pritchard rejected their modes of thought and took a more sympathetic approach. He differed from other theorists and philosophers because he stated there ought not be lapses in evolutionary thinking because it always places primitive people at the bottom and progressive western cultures at the top.

Karl Marx

In this entry I'll be paraphrasing Daniel L. Pals' book Eight Theories of Religion. I'll be discussing the philosopher Karl Marx and his particular theories of religion in society and its key features.

Karl Marx the German social philosopher was born 1818 in Rhineland in the city of Trier under Prussia rule. He died 1883. He co-wrote the well known Communist Manifesto with Engels in 1848. His other well known book is Capital. He was an aggressive functionalist who discussed the connection between economic needs, social classes, and religious beliefs.

Marx's hierarchy of society looks something like this:
Food, shelter --> sex/reproduction --> family/community --> more desires/demands --> modes of production (i.e. hunt/gather). Foods through divisions of labor are divided into "relations of production."

Marx said it is concrete, actual working humans who create their own alienation, and precisely by attributing to others the very things that properly belong to themselves. That is the real alienation and true source of human unhappiness. Alienation begins once one thinks of the product of labor as an object apart, as something other than the natural expression of personality for the benefit of a community.

Religion is a belief system who chief purpose is simply to provide reasons—excuses—for keeping things in society as the oppressors like them. Marx believed religion is determined by economics and dependent upon one thing: shape of social life determined by material forces in control of it at any given time. Belief in God is an unhappy byproduct of class struggle. Marx also believed man makes religion, religion does not make man. For Marx, if the truth is that there is neither a God nor supernatural world, being religious is no different from being addicted to a drug: pure escapism. He believed people cannot be better off until they are without religion.

Marx's theories are similar to Freud in the sense that Frued believed religion is purely an illusion with evil consequences. Neither Marx or Durkheim care so much about what people have to say about religion, rather what the role those beliefss play in social struggles. Marx's ideas also parallel with Tylor and Frazer in the sense that Marx believed that main religious beliefs are superstitious. We can only find the key to religion once we find its function. Marx and Freud believed religion expressed a false need for individual security. His approach was similar to Freud and Durkheim in the way he investigated beneath the surface of religious beliefs and rituals—he was seeking the hidden cause, which is to be found in something else. For Freud it was psychological need, Durkheim it was society, and Marx was class struggle and alienation.

Marx differs from someone like Durkheim becuase his theory of "traditional" religion makes up a small—not central—part of his thinking. Marx is also one of the only theorists who analyzes religion with such remorse and sarcasm. Freud claimed religion falls on the individual and not the group. Durkheim thinks it impossible to imagine human social life wihtout some set of religious rituals or equivalent.