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 Clézio

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.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Émile Durkheim

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

Durkheim was born in 1858 in Epinal in the northeast of France. He died at age 57 in 1917. His three most popular books are titled The Division of Labor, The Rules of Sociological Method, L'Anée Sociologique, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. His most popular books were released just before World War 2.

Émile Durkheim is to sociology what Freud was to psychology. Durkheim championed the importance of society: social structures, relationships, and institutions. He saw all enterprises of human life—morals and laws—through their respective social dimensions. Durkheim claimed social facts are more important than the individual. Humans will always belong to the social aspect of life. During momentous social changes in Europe during his time, Durkheim felt science was the only way to properly study a subject.

Durkheim's fundamental principals are:
1. Nature of society is the most suitable and promising subject for systematic investigation.
2. All "social facts" should be investigated by most purely objective scientific method.

He believed religion and morals are inseparable from a social framework—none of these aspects can exist without a social context. No matter where we look for determining causes of religion—the causes invariably turn out to be social. Religion serves as a carrier of social sentiments, providing symbols and rituals which enable people to express the deep emotions which anchor them to their community. He also felt religious ideas may be questioned, but rituals must endure.

Durkheim's theories are similar to other theorists such as Freud, in the manner Freud said a new discipline was required to study people. For Durkheim, this new methodology was sociology. Both promoted special fields of study and both tried to answer what religion was through reductionism. Respectively, Durkheim differed from Frazer in which Durkheim disagreed with Frazer's theory that humanity is marching upward through the ages.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Write language

While listening to today's class lecture regarding "language games," which we analyzed the use of language within each "game." We focused on a quote from Wittengenstein which he stated "Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is." So, I began to ponder: philosophers are namely expressing and defining objects and ideas, not creating them. So, who authorizes the definitions of words and ideas to be "true?" Why are certain dictionaries used with such authority? For example, the Oxford American Dictionary defines "god" as "(a) (in many religions) superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature, human fortunes, etc. (b)image, idol, animal, or other object worshipped as divine or symbolizing a god." So, what if I disagree with their definition? What if I think god is found in ideas, not objects. I think that even when the philosopher tries to describe or define the language of a particular subject, the definitions can still be unstable, especially when dealing with intangible ideas.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


"Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it."
—Milan Kundera, The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting

Kundera gives an example of a boy who cannot swim very well, while his girlfriend is a strong swimmer. The boy struggles to keep up with her as she swims off beyond him, and when she returns, the outraged boy slaps her face. By slapping her, he projects his incompetency as though it is her fault.
"She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments' free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother's overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country land. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face."

Litost is, essentially, a guilt trip through actions; by aggravating someone via verbal actions, physical actions, and sometimes silence. There are layers to Litost. The ultimate form of Litost, Kundera explains is, "circuitous revenge…the indirect blow." Kundera writes, "Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one's own misery."

Kundera writes that love is a remedy for misery, and that all faults are redeemed by love's gaze. "Love's absolute," Kundera says,
"is actually a desire for absolute identity: the woman we love ought to swim as slowly as we do, she ought to have no past of her own to look back on happily. But when the illusion of absolute identity vanishes (the girl loks back happily on her past or swims faster), love becomes a permanent source of the great torment we call litost."

I think this ties in nicely to the (positive) idea of most monotheistic religions, in which no matter your state of being, God is said to be along side you, loving you eternally; God will not try and out-swim you either. However, this also creates a subconscious (or conscious) inferiority, which is apparent that though God is swimming along with the individual, the individual must at one point stop swimming at the risk of drowning from fatigue. This is the flaw, though God will be alongside the individual, the individual knows God, being perfect, can outperform the individual in every aspect of life. Thus, a feeling of litost is brought upon the individual again.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Analyze it to death. Literally.

Anything can happen, however, that is not to say that it will. Anything imaginable can happen, however things that are not imaginable will also happen. Every religion seems to claim an answer for not only what has happened, but what will happen as well; as if religion has known and will know everything in conception and existence. This is why religion is rather interesting. How are these conceptual answers known? In modern day, it seems to be through the application of science to everything—by applying the scientific method to the subject. Do we need to analyze things to death (see previous post)—literally? Do we really need to analyze questions and problems, and sometimes even answers until they no longer matter? Does every explanation, every reason, every process need to be documented and catalogued?

However, when I speak of how religions seem to have an explanation for everything in the past, present, and future, William James claims "nevertheless, at their extreme of development, there can never be any question as to what experiences are religious." However, the surface becomes even more slippery when James continues, "such a definition as this would in a way be defensible. Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?"

Hmm, not sure where that was going, or went for that matter. Just a few thoughts that stemmed from my notes. So, please analyze this post to death, so it dies and we can cut it open and we have an explanation inside it all, thus never having to discuss it ever again. Thank you.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In & Out of Environments with William James

     "Still, you may ask me, if its results are to be the frlund of our final spirittual estimate of a religious phenomenon, why threaten us at all with so much existential study of its conditions? Why not simply leave pathological questions out?
     To this I reply in two ways: First, I say, irrepressible curiosity imperiously leads one on; and I say, secondly, that it always leads to a better understanding of a thing's significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing in wholesale condemnation which we pass on its interrioor congeners, but rather that we ay by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular dangers of corruption it may also be exposed.
     Insane conditions have this advantage, that they isolate special factors of the mental life, and enable us to inspect them unmasked by their more usual surroundings. They play the part in mental anatomy which the scalpel and the microscope play in the anatomy of the body. To understand a thing rightly we need to see it both out of its environment and in it, and to have acquaintance with the whole range of its variations. The study of hallucinations has in this way been for psychologists the key to their comprehension of normal sensation, that of illusions has been the key to the right comprehension of perception. Morbid impulses and imperative conceptions, 'fixed ideas,' so called, have thrown a flood of light on psychology of the normal will; and obsessions and delusions have performed the same service for that of the normal faculty of belief" (The Varieties of Religious Experience, 25-6).
     I am curious why James thinks it so important to study something in and outside of its environment. If something is out of its environment, it is likely not to perform as it was created. If we take a fish out of water, and place it on land, watching it flop around for a few minutes before suffocating, we will learn what a fish does when it is out of water, but why? Yes, we learn many things about the nature of the fish out of its environment—but the fish dies. So, there is a sacrifice. One thing is gained, and another is lost. What if we did this to every fish in the world, we would be out fish. And we would need to do this to every fish to truly know what every fish does when it is out of water, just so we can be sure our hypothesis is true and cannot be proved false. My point is, one, we can't observe everything in and out of its environment. Besides, as soon as the subject knows it is being observed, it will behave differently. My second point is, some things are not meant to function out of their environment: airplanes don't fly underwater.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The annotated post

The public: concerning the people as a whole. How many parts make this "whole?" What percentage does one person make of this "whole?" These are a few questions I ponder when considering who or what the public is. And how did the internet turn into a universal didactic forum, allowing people to voice themselves as experts. (Excluding non-western cultures et al. that allow freedom of speech.)

Finding reliable information on the internet can be as difficult as finding a hypodermic needle in the sand at the beach—which if you live where I do at Ocean Beach in San Francisco—it isn't that difficult. With that being said, here are a few sources that I've been visiting lately.

- is a straight from the source archive website. Their tag line is "Universal access to human knowledge."

- "Television without borders." I haven't watched this station in a while, but if you're watching the telly, you should be watching this.

- A great online symposium. I just discovered this one listening to an interview of Leslie Griffith. She contributes here, and this site seems to filter a lot of fat and sugar one might find on their homepage's "latest news."

- A concoction of modern-day material. Easy to get lost on the site though, so tread lightly.