Theodore Dalrymple & Bari Weiss-Some Links On Speech, Atheism, & Identity

Theodore Dalrymple at The Epoch Times: ‘Surrending Freedom Of Expression To The Monomaniacs Among Us

We live in an age of bad temper…’ (behind a paywall).

As posted:

So, You’re Telling Me What’s Cool?-Theodore Dalrymple At The City Journal: ‘Banksy In Neverland’Repost-Theodore Dalrymple And Roger Scruton-Don’t Judge Me

I’ll write what I damned well please:’

I’d also add, ‘now if you can’t even read the book nor respond to what I’m actually saying, fuck-off.

Such a brave stance to take:  Six writers apparently know what is acceptable speech and what isn’t, and thus didn’t think the folks at Charlie Hebdo engaged in acceptable speech.

Theodore Dalrymple In The City Journal: Atheism’s Problems.

Skeptics and aesthetics are best in small doses. Try and gather group dynamics around (R)eason, (S)cience and Religious skepticism, and be prepared to run into the problems with which religious groups are all too familiar.

Bari Weiss at Tablet: ‘Stop Being Shocked: American liberalism is in danger from a new ideology—one with dangerous implications for Jews

It’s all fun and games to indulge in liberation (sexual, moral, ‘the personal is political’), while embracing one’s identity as a group. It can be exhilarating to endlessly theorize, plan and rationalize the new society to come, but, Dear Reader, don’t forget human nature.

Many of the same judgments, in and out group dynamics, and minority vulnerabilities caution against full-throated liberatory politics.

See Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic: That Party At Lenny’s for a rich account of the 60′s liberation.

It’s rather enervating to watch ‘radical chic’ devour the minds of reasonable people leaning upon a still-functioning Republic, dismantling existing institutions without necessarily providing suitable replacements (often caught advocating presumedly universal human ideals, reasonable/[unreasonable]tribal political idealism, and negotiating with radicals).

This brought me back to Frenchman of The Left Bernhard Henri-Levy’s piece before the 2008 election:

“And one of the reasons I am so much in favor of [Senator Barack] Obama is that his election might be, will be—because I think he will be elected—a real end to this tide of competition of victimhood, and especially on the specific ground of the two communities, Jews and African Americans, who were so close in the 1960s.”

…”The Obama election would reconstitute the grand alliance.”

Hail the grand alliance!

Samuel Bronkowitz may have gotten there first to celebrate the black-Jewish Leftist alliance in Hollywood.

It seems to me you’ve got a few options once you’ve become a member of a favored identity group, as like pretty much all of life, the clock is ticking.

  1. Game the identity system by using it to full personal advantage to try and escape its orbit (understandable, but maybe not the most honorable because of the bad people and the bad in people which come to lead, even if you just want a leg-up because you actually are poor and oppressed).
  2. Play the identity game and pursue your ambition within its orbit. After all, there’s meaning and purpose in treating enemies as evil in a War and the game of politics as rigged. Retreat to the ideological purity of your group when attacked and advance upon the enemy positions whenever possible. Until larger failures and/or the money runs out, rinse and repeat.
  3. Wait around long enough until the same underlying logic is used against you and/or your group, religion and/or ethnicity (Jewish folks seem to be on the outs lately, Muslims in—Asians being disfavored at elite schools). The identity politics game marches onwards towards utopia, against the oppressor. Being forced to choose between model failures or seeing the world anew outside your model, generally choose to project your personal and group failure onto your enemies, because after all, you’re Human, all too Human.

Repost-Edward Feser on the Swinburne Affair

This quote stuck out, as such tactics have been used often to evoke sympathies and sway public sentiment in the direction some people want to see it go, without always providing reasons nor respecting rules that allow for the pursuit of truth:

‘Sophistries and ruthless political pressure tactics of the sort just described succeed only when people let them succeed – when they let themselves be intimidated, when they acquiesce in the shaming and shunning of those who express unpopular views, when they enable the delegitimization of such views by treating them as something embarrassing, something to apologize for, something “hurtful,” etc. ‘

Comments are worth a read.  Outbursts can damage a lot of decent work.

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

Postmodern Conservatism, Celebrity As Currency, Protest Art, Politics And Some Bad Prose

Dear Reader, lately I’ve been lurking in the shadows, strolling from streetlight to streetlight, leaning and loitering. I feel like the character you confront while skirting the edge of the park, dimly established, on your way home.

Well, no, not really. Life is often boring, full of work and loved ones, and what’s good.

True tales from my twenties, while on brief vacation: I remember lying on a hotel bed in Vienna, restless with the euphoria of travel, the sounds of a foreign city alive in my ears. I remember arising, standing at the window and staring at the moon and the mansard rooves across the street.

I had seen the same rooftops in the changing light of late afternoon and dusk; the clotheslines swaying and the water stains on the walls, my eyes darting from small detail to facade to vast, unfamiliar horizon.

Life is so strange!

Now, in the middle of the night, I was with unlit cigarette (one or two a day for a year as I was very, very, cool). I remember striking the lighter and my eyes catching a flash of light from across the street. From the mansard rooves.

I flashed the lighter again. One flash.

One flash in return came from the mansard rooves. Fourth floor. Dormer window.

I gave two flashes.

Two flashes came from the window.

I held my flame for about five seconds, about chest-level. I heard the sounds of a few cars down below.

I finally saw a light and the face of girl with dark hair, much younger, bigger nose, nice eyes, olive skin.

Was she alone? Was she a Muslim immigrant? Why is she awake? Is she too young? Am I a creep? Should I try morse code?

If I have drawn your interest, I will say I remember that after a few more flashes and some rather innocent, thrilling moments of communication across the darkness under a strange moon in a strange city, I eventually found my way back to bed and to sleep.

I hope she’s well, and now too has a happy life.

As I’ve been called a ‘postmodern conservative’ (not so sure about that…), here’s an interesting piece from Matt McManus at Quillette: ‘Understanding Postmodern Conservatism: A Response To Aaron Hanlon:

‘…I do not believe postmodern conservatism emerged in a historical or ideological vacuum. It is not just the product of contemporary postmodern culture, which provided the necessary but not sufficient conditions for postmodern conservatism’s emergence. Rather, certain strands of conservative thinking that—while not in themselves postmodern—have nevertheless recently mutated into postmodern form. The two most prominent of these are Burkean historicism and De Maistrean irrationalism.’

and:

‘Theorists of postmodern culture…argue that the emergence of postmodern skepticism indicates a broader cultural shift within developed societies. What Jameson calls ‘postmodern culture’ is characterized by growing social skepticism about the stability of truth claims in general, but particularly truth claims related to identity and values.’

Personally, I remain open to much skepticism and many critiques of many parts of the ‘modern’ project. I find myself interested in people providing reasons to support various traditions (music, art), religious faith (wouldn’t call myself a believer), patriotism (haven’t served, but necessary to the survival of our Republic) and rule of law (even more necessary to the survival of our Republic).

I think all of the above deserve a fair hearing.

On that note, Jesus Christ already

Yes, there’s nudity, and it’s not nearly so unappealing as a lot of art-activist-nudity out there.

The shock for shock’s sake, childishness, and resemblance to political protest arguably demean without much reward. I doubt this ‘artist’ has reached the sensibilities of any pilgrims nor nuns (the foolish and childish, the mature and wise). In fact, this isn’t really art, nor even political protest nor does it reasonably address the various matters of deep disagreement for which people can end up killing each other.

Go learn how to sketch, draw and paint. Appeal to truth, pleasure, or beauty.

Or get paid for being naked and become an artist’s model.

‘In a statement to Hyperallergic, the artist has questioned Christianity’s exploitation of female figures like the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, who are often portrayed on opposite sides of the stereotypical spectrum of female chasteness: virgin or whore.’

Admittedly, I don’t think the Virgin Mary above displays as shamelessly little talent as did ‘Mattress Girl,’ who after the hysteria and histrionics of lugging a mattress around NYU [correction: Columbia] campus, eventually did ‘classy’ pornography a disservice.

Thanks for the memories, Mattress Girl:

I do think that nowadays, art pieces can include whatever the artist desires, and in this performance art piece, it utilizes elements of protest, because that is what’s relevant to my life right now.’

Why should I, you, he, she it or they care?: ‘Mattress Girl’ got a ticket punched to the State of The Union by Kirsten Gillibrand, a U.S. Senator from the state of New York. It seems worth asking what the people making our laws believe and what they are saying they believe.

What do they do? How do they behave?

Liberation is next!

Previously on this site,

Interesting piece here.

What is modernism, exactly?

This blog is still trying to work towards a definition:

‘Like many scholars of modernism, I’m often asked two questions: What is modernism? And why is modernist studies, it seems, all the rage right now? I don’t have a good, succinct answer to either question — and I’ve no doubt frustrated plenty of friends because of that — but the reasons why I don’t are pretty telling.’

From the comments:

‘The most useful definition of modernist fiction I’ve encountered comes from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction. He says modernist fiction tends to “foreground epistemological questions” such as “How can I interpret the world I’m part of? What is there to be known?Who knows it? What are the limits of that knowledge?” In contrast, postmodernist fiction tends to “foreground ontological questions” such as “What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there and how are they constituted? What happens when…boundaries between worlds are violated?’

As previously posted:

-Daniel Dennett: ‘Postmodernism And Truth’

Repost-‘Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?’

Land Art Links Along A With A Quite Modernist W.S. Merwin Poem

William Logan At The New Criterion: ‘Pound’s Metro’…Monday Poem: ‘A Pact’ By Ezra Pound

Of some note:

James Lileks responds to an Atlantic piece

‘There is no morality in art. There is morality in religion; there are philosophical objectives embedded in politics. The two are intertwined in a society and reflected in its art. When you sever art from its cultural moorings and make “newness” the overriding criterion by which the merits of a work are judged, then anything is possible. This results in crap. Not always’

James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, the Bauhaus, the imagists, the futurists etc. Some of those influences have morphed into post-modernism or where such currents have flowed and keep flowing. Were they the best models, or has much been lost in translation?

Lileks’ take:

‘The primary urge of the revolutionary and the modernist and the adolescent: impatience.’

So, do we aim for maturity? Reverence? Good old Longfellow? Sonnets? Rhyming couplets delivered by higher powers to monks in haylofts?

Perhaps there is a growing body of intellectual and cultural pushback against the ‘-Isms’ (environmentalism, feminism, utopian political idealism) as these ideals and idealists continue their contact with current institutions, Nature and human nature.

It’s tough to get an education in the arts and humanities these days, moving through the postmodern landscape, without running into pockets of ‘-Isms.’

Results vary:

It’s not that the sciences, nor even the social sciences, don’t contain valid truth and knowledge claims.

This isn’t worrying so much as the cults of rationality and irrationality out and about; the reefs of radical discontent and group-thought hardening into new rules.

It’s not that change doesn’t need to happen, nor that what’s true remains even if we don’t want it to be so, rather, it’s the inability of many moderns to provide deep enough wisdom, truth and understanding so as not not slip into the same old problems with authority and hierarchy.

I think for some people, there’s an appealing critique of liberal rationalism contained within nihilism, but also something deeper which draws folks to seek out other ideas: An instinctive defense of the arts, myth, music, and tradition; the complexities of the human heart and mind, the long sweep of history, the wisdom contained within religious texts.

Defending tradition, even perhaps having been influenced by Nietzsche to some extent, has become heretical in parts of the academy and the media.

Merely pushing back against the influence of Foucault and Lacan in the academy, or perhaps questioning the motives of student radicals during Paris ’68, can be enough to torpedo an academic career:

Before modernism, there was the Romantic break of the individual artistic genius driving all this change forward on his own. Isaiah Berlin had some thoughts about this (as well as the horrendous totalitarianism which emerges when you start-out thinking the Ends Of Man are already known).

Thanks, reader. Probably worth revisiting:

Related On This Site:Appeasement Won’t Do-Via A Reader, ‘Michael Ignatieff Interview With Isaiah Berlin’

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”…

Repost-Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-‘Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

Anyways, let’s enjoy a poem:

Cousin Nancy

Miss Nancy Ellicott
Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them—
The barren New England hills—
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law.

T.S. Eliot

A Few Links And Thoughts On Same-Sex Marriage

I think Richard Epstein, classically liberal/libertarian law/economics thinker, gets a lot of this right:

‘It doesn’t take a weatherman to tell which way public opinion blows. The huge uptick of support for same-sex marriage has been described as swift and broad, to which we can add, in all likelihood, lasting.

In my view, every time the defenders of the traditional view of marriage speak in public on behalf of a ban, they lose the support of neutral third parties. The problem is that they are trying to tell other people how they should lead their own lives, and are using the power of the state to do it. Their justifications are far from compelling. They talk about the need for procreation in marriage, though many straight married couples use contraceptives. They talk about the risks to parenting, when there is no evidence that suggests that gay and lesbian couples are worse parents, especially when compared to dysfunctional couples in traditional marriages or single parents of limited financial means. Their arguments against same-sex marriage thus fall flat to modern ears, so that the basic support for same-sex marriage only grows.’

Perhaps I’m more amenable than Epstein to laws stemming from the moral authority of those who remain principled actors upon religious belief (a less influential cohort in the higher rungs of American society these days).  Like Epstein, however, I find many of the reasons such folks give lacking, and falling on deaf ears.

While I may not agree with the Catholic view of homosexuality and really would prefer a live and let live attitude with more freedom for more people, I also think when it comes to how people actually behave, the importance of limiting principles regarding power and authority and having well-reasoned laws etc., the religious view of human nature can be quite accurate.

This may well stem from my own flaws, so naturally, take such paragraphs with a grain of salt.

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If I understand Michael Sandel at the end of this video as part of his online Harvard lecture series ‘Justice’ correctly,  perhaps there is no way to ultimately separate the teleological arguments (ends) from the practical ones:  Questions about justice, law, civic duty and obligation to future generations; questions about people’s beliefs examined and unexamined, reasons carefully reasoned and reasons blindly followed, all will contribute to the kinds of laws we have on the books.

Personally, I don’t know anyone who isn’t full of ‘oughts’, guiding principles, things they know that ain’t so, cherished beliefs and conflicting commitments in life.  To some extent, we’re all subject to sharing the prevailing opinions and ideas of the people we live around, even if those opinions aren’t enshrined in law nor shared by the majority.  Ideas have a logic and consequences of their own.

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Two reasons put forward in defense of traditional marriage are as follows (part of a smaller religious minority at Harvard, it seems):  For the sake of procreation and for the purpose of forming a union between man and woman.

Click through for the rest of the debate if you have the time.

As I suspect we’ve seen during the last few generations, the Catholic and more broadly Christian religious ideas woven into American culture, laws and institutions are much less woven than they have been.

Americans keep being assured of other teleological ends (progress, increasing tolerance and inclusion, ever-expanding freedom and rights etc.) but when it comes to how to live and be free, I’d rather observe what people do, not what they say, especially when they want/have power and authority.

Some Links: Dealing With Ebola, The Scottish Enlightenment & Feminism

From The New Yorker: ‘The Ebola Wars’

Pretty much a straight-up account of how the virus is spreading and some of the people encountering it.

But, this being the New Yorker, ebola coverage is also geting political, as it’s clearly the other side making it political, not many folks at the New Yorker.

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Many reactions to the market are moral ones, from the anti-corporate, romantically primitive, ideological collectivists on the Left to the biblically inclined, revelatory faithful who clearly see in the teachings of Jesus Christ reasons to doubt:

And Larry Arnhart looks at a Straussian: ‘Joseph Cropsey’s Straussian Attack On Adam Smith:’

‘Thus, Smith showed how the opulence and liberty of a commercial society would provide philosophers like Hume and himself with the intellectual commerce, the individual liberty, and the leisured independence necessary for living a philosophic life with their friends.  Cropsey ignores all of this because it contradicts his argument that there is no place for the intellectual virtues of philosophy in Smith’s commercial society.’

Worth a read.

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From an emailer: Revisiting Martha Nussbaum’s paper on Judith Butler: ‘The Professor Of Parody

‘These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodernist thought. Many young feminists, whatever their concrete affiliations with this or that French thinker, have been influenced by the extremely French idea that the intellectual does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways. Such feminists therefore find comfort in the idea that the subversive use of words is still available to feminist intellectuals. Deprived of the hope of larger or more lasting changes, we can still perform our resistance by the reworking of verbal categories, and thus, at the margins, of the selves who are constituted by them.’

Perhaps way too much in the weeds for many regular readers, but there’s real work done in the piece.  Have a go, oppressor.

Related On This Site: Cathy Young At Minding The Campus: ‘The Brown Case: Does It Still Look Like Rape?…The Personal Ain’t Political-Holding The Line Against Rape Ideologues-Conor Friedersdorf On George Will

Christina Hoff Sommers (wikipedia) is trying to replacing gender feminism with equity feminism. She also wrote The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men.

Are You Man Enough? Nussbaum v. MansfieldFrom The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’

Defending Eliot Spitzer…as a man who ought to be free of prostitution laws…but didn’t he prosecute others with those same laws?: Repost: Martha Nussbaum On Eliot Spitzer At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A very Harvard affair: The Spelke/Pinker debate-The Science Of Gender And Science

Repost-Revisting Larry Summers: What Did He Say Again?

From FIRE.org-’Federal Government Mandates Unconstitutional Speech Codes At Colleges And Universities Nationwide’

Greg Lukianoff At FIRE.Org: ‘Emily Bazelon And The Danger Of Bringing “Anti-Bullying” Laws To Campus’

Surprise! Sex Sells, But Do We Need Legalized Prostitution?

Reihan Salam at Slate: ‘It’s Time For Legalized Prostitution:

Apparently, it’s not time:

‘So will Americans soon start clamoring for legalized prostitution? I doubt it, because it’s going to be very hard for people to stop looking down on those who buy and sell sex.’

Along the knife’s edge of sexual revolution can be found many an ideologue to whom the idea of liberation (sexual and otherwise) goes hand-in-hand with ideology. To them, your freedom to buy and sell sex would be part of a much larger project of ideological liberation from opposing historical forces and foes such as the Catholic church, the Puritan roots of America, the ‘Patriarchy,’ the squares, the bourgeoisie etc.

Apart from actual radicals, activists and ideologues, however, everyone’s got thoughts on prostitution. I’m guessing the idea of legalized prostitution is more popular amongst liberals and some libertarians, artists and the avant-garde, the younger generation and a steady band of older goats and ‘sex-positive’ types (my sympathies on your diagnosis).  Perhaps feelings run highest amongst those with a personal stake in the matter, after all, dear reader, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

It’s a complicated issue.

This blog remains open to empirical arguments from the data, and well-reasoned debate, with a lot of skepticism.

Some years ago, Martha Nussbaum tried to bail-out Eliot Spitzer after he was caught visiting a prostitute while also being in charge of prosecuting prostitution laws:

She writes:

“Spitzer’s offense was an offense against his family. It was not an offense against the public. If he broke any laws, these are laws that never should have existed and that have been repudiated by sensible nations.”

Maybe the U.N. could have drafted a hooker human-rights charter to trump local laws?

As usual, this blog is concerned with the potential for Statism, the deployment of not just science but scientism, not just reasonable arguments but a lot of rationalism as well, with a slavish devotion to experts, a trendy desire to be like Europe, brochures and bureaucrats to fill the hole (ahem).  Many secular humanist ideals are claimed to be universal ideals, which is enough to back our way into a lot of illiberal institutions.

There’s none quite so moralistic as those who’ve fought to overthrow some other forms of moral judgment.

On that note, here are some related videos for your viewing pleasure:

Did the 60’s counter-culture and the conservative counter-counter culture both win, in a sense?

Christopher Hitchens, William F. Buckley and Peter Robinson discuss below, including the sexual revolution:

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Here’s a good cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer,’ which includes the lines:

‘Asking only workman’s wages I come looking for a job…but I get no offers…just a come-on from the whores on 7th avenue…’

Turns out Paul Simon was reading the Bible a lot while writing the lyrics.

Larry Arnhart At Darwinian Conservatism Reviews E.O. Wilson’s ‘The Social Conquest Of Earth’

Full piece here.

NY Times review here for contrast.

E.O. Wilson is a popular biologist and naturalist, known particularly for his work with ants.  Arnhart reviews:

‘To answer these fundamental questions about our human place in the cosmos, Edward O. Wilson suggests in his new book, we need to unify all our knowledge of nature by combining the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  Traditionally, we have looked to religion, philosophy, or the creative arts to answer these great questions.  Wilson argues that these three ways to understand the human condition have failed.  This leaves science–in its quest for a complete knowledge of nature–as the only way to understand the human story.’

That sounds extremely ambitious.  Who needs religion, philosophy, or the creative arts when they don’t yield the same standard of knowledge Wilson is proposing?

Arnhart’s suggests looking to…philosophy:

‘If Wilson’s project for a Darwinian unification of knowledge is to succeed, it must revive that Aristotelian tradition of natural philosophy that includes Thomas Aquinas, Hume, and Adam Smith.  Darwin understood himself as part of that intellectual tradition, particularly in adopting ideas from Hume and Smith about the natural moral sentiments.  Even Darwin’s fundamental idea of the evolutionary emergence of life as an unintended order was derived from Smith and other Scottish philosophers’

So isn’t there a tension between Aristotelians and Platonists?  If neo-Platonists give-up the World-Of-Forms as a source of transcendental knowledge, will they slip into the modern problem of nihilism?

Is Darwinism nihilism?  If you are a Platonist, yes.  If you are not a Platonist, no.
Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists—people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal in conforming to Plato’s intelligible realm of eternal Ideas.  If everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism. Darwinism is “true but deadly” (as Friedrich Nietzsche said).  And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.’
As always, worth a read.  Below is Wilson briefly discussing the book on Charlie Rose:
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**Martha Nussbaum has used Aristotle’s natural philosophy.  On this site, see: Bryan Magee Via Youtube: ‘Martha Nussbaum On Aristotle’

***In the realm of political philosophy, for what it’s worth, many libertarians and liberaltarians in lieu of tracing the moral source of the laws back to a transcendent God (thus creating daylight between themselves and religious and often social conservatives), instead turn to the ‘classical’ liberalism of the Scottish Enlightenment:  Hume’s empiricism and atheism, Smith’s invisible hand, and later Hayek’s adoption of Hume’s principle that the propositions of ethics cannot be proven.

In addition to putting daylight between themselves and religious conservatives, this tends to put a lot of daylight between these classical liberals and the increasingly progressive Democratic party in the U.S.  See this position fleshed out: Classical Liberalism Via Friesian.Com-’Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray’

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-Steven Pinker, Harvard experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist wrote a piece in the New Republic, entitled: ‘Science Is Not Your Enemy

-Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic since the 60′s, responded at The New Republic:  ‘No, Science Doesn’t Have All The Answers.

-Ross Douthat, conservative Catholic columnist at the Times jumped in the fray: ‘The Scientism Of Steve Pinker’ 

-Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist, responded to Douthat.

-Wieseltier jumped back in with: ‘Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the humanities.  Don’t let it happen.

-Now Daniel Dennett, philosopher, cognitive scientist, one of the New Atheists and Boston-based secularist responds to Wieseltier:

‘Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds.’

Related On This Site:  From The NY Times Book Review-Thomas Nagel On John Gray’s New ‘Silence Of Animals’From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Repost: Martha Nussbaum On Eliot Spitzer At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Full article here. (updated)

Thought this would be timely with Eliot Spitzer now back in the news running for NYC comptroller (after that, the world). I’m not much of a feminist nor a Main Line (Philadelphia) liberal:

Martha Nussbaum writes:

“Spitzer’s offense was an offense against his family. It was not an offense against the public. If he broke any laws, these are laws that never should have existed and that have been repudiated by sensible nations.”

Well, Spitzer did use the laws to zealously prosecute sex rings as attorney general (an elected position) and was then caught using a sex ring and breaking those laws.  Spitzer could have chosen not to violate the laws, or sought to amend them, but he did not.  I agree that his family is suffering the most, but I’m not so sure that this didn’t constitute an offense to the public.

“What should really trouble us about sex work? That it is sex that these women do, with many customers, should not in and of itself trouble us, from the point of view of legality, even if we personally don’t share the woman’s values”

From the point of view of legality, I agree.  Morally, that’s a different matter.

Generally, I think a libertarian defense of prostitution is a good one, which tries to open up our moral thinking into a net that would include sex as “work.”  Nussbaum is urging a consideration of laws and ideas that focus valuable energy away from addressing other problems she defines quite well.

Personally, I’d like to think it’s possible to consider prostitution without the moral absolutism of Christian doctrine, but perhaps also without some of the limits of Nussbaum’s feminism and “value” speak she employs here.

Many prostitutes, for example, seem to have free will enough to choose to manipulate the lust and stupidity of their johns for their own gain.  The instinct of disgust may be deeper than Christian moral doctrine, but also deeper than some of Nussbaum’s thinking as well.

Addition:  One of the moral arguments for legalizing abortion was that it already was occurring anyways, in back alleys, and in some ways shares similarities with the idea of legalizing prostitution.  Once legalized, there is some moral concern attached to the act of prostitution itself.

See Also: For a paler copy of Nussbaum’s arguments, see Natalie Angier’s Spitzer piece, which somehow uses science to justify its claims.

Update On LACMA, Michael Heizer And The ‘Levitated Mass’-Modern Art And The Public

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Originally, I had posted a piece on LACMA’s Levitated Mass, by the rather reclusive land artist, Michael Heizer.  The installation is a 340-ton rock (‘megalith’) in front of the museum, suspended over a carved slot which is deepest below the rock, and which the public can pass under as they notice the many supposedly metaphysical contrasts it inspires (the tension between weight and lightness, nature and culture, solid and line etc).  See the video above.

Presumably, your mind can think these thoughts, or it can think other thoughts.  You can be in your own individualized space during this process, or you can consciously be in the space of others as people mill around in front of the museum, gathered around a large, suspended rock.

What did Heizer intend?  What did he achieve technically?  What role does the Levitated Mass have to play in the public life of Angelinos?  Was LACMA’s presentation for commerce or contemplation?

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As Robert Hughes and others have noted, modern art has been trying to compete with radio, T.V. the movies, pop culture and often technology for its role as explainer and interpreter to the people, as central to their lives and to public life in order to pass on the core values of society.   Yet, the artist has been an isolated figure, just outside of society, for much of the past few hundred years of Western Art.  A process of individualization has occurred.

Does art have a role to play in morally improving you?

From LACMA’s site:

‘Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from megalithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.’

That’s a rather bold claim.  It might be better to say that it’s one modern, individualized Western artist’s take on prehistoric stone structures, and other prehistoric projects from a primarily technical point of view, like Stonehenge or the Nazca lines in Peru.

Those old prehistoric structures that inspire him likely came with all sorts of ritualistic purpose, local gods, spiritual and transcendental claims, and potential human sacrifice and other barbarisms.  See Werner Herzog’s “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” for a similar meditation.

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As for Heizer,  he’s been working since 1972 on a sculpture in the Eastern Nevada desert, which was originally called ‘Complex One.’  It’s morphed into his life’s work, called City.  It’s very large. It can’t be moved.  You can’t reproduce it.  It represents a break from traditional sculpture. It can’t be put in a museum and it’s not clear that it has a function.  See more on Hughes take on it from his series, “Shock Of The New” which includes some aerial shots (from 00:45 to 5:30):

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I have to confess that seeing that structure upon the wide open emptiness of Eastern Nevada is comforting for the familiarity it brings.  It’s a little bit of order upon the unknown, and the design, or lack thereof (about which a man may wonder), within Nature herself.  I think this is why a military installation out in the desert can captivate the imagination as it’s been known to in Hollywood and in the public mind (dreaming of aliens and conspiracies).

To expand on that theme, Wallace Stevens might shed some light.  He was an American poet on the hinge between romanticism and modernism:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens

You’ve changed all of nature with just one jar.

What do you do with an uncivilized, wild land?  Import European learning and literature “atop” it?  Christian tradition and the Natural Law? Import the triumph of the Western mathematical sciences and technology?  Import its movements of the arts and the individual artist?

You can’t help but do this.

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So, is modern art supposed to improve you morally?

What originally drew me to the piece was politics and arguments over the public square, not so much the art itself.  There’s been some negative press about the Levitated Mass due to the spectacle of its presentation.  They hauled the rock in from its quarry outside L.A. on a specially made (and expensive) vehicle and draped it in protective garb.  This probably united people as much as anything else; witnessing the logistics of moving a huge rock such a distance.

With the current California budget crisis and California’s structural political problems, and the ways in which California and all that big dreaming has gone bust of late…does it really need another boondoggle?

What monument or ideas are those folks out in California gathering around anyways?

I think it’s important to highlight the gap between the achievement of the artist and those who would present that artist or his work to the public.  There is harm either can do to the other, as it might make the artist’s work just another forgotten public sculpture or diminish his incentives.  It might put taxpayers on the hook for something of questionable public value.

Trying to morally improve the public is what can give some people (I often think of NPR, many philanthropists, many a docent) a noble, if not righteous purpose in life.  At some point, though, it can become an argument of “shoulds” and “oughts” and what is actually for the good of the public, and which ideals and people lead others in the public square, rather than one of art.

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Related On This Site:  L.A.’s New Public Art Piece ‘The Levitated Mass,’ Or As The American Interest Puts It: ‘A Moving Rock’

Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Denver’s Devil Horse may be flirting with kitsch: From The Wall Street Journal: Denver’s Mustang Or ‘Devil Horse’…and I like his work:…Joan Miro: Woman

From Grist.Org Via The New Republic Via The A & L Daily: ‘Getting Past “Ruin Porn” In Detroit’…Marketplace aesthetics in service of “women”: Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty: Pascal Dangin And Aesthetics… Roger Scruton In The City Journal: Cities For Living–Is Modernism Dead?Brasilia: A Planned City

What are these people doing with art?:  Often combining them with a Left-of-Center political philosophy as they are at NPR for popular consumption.  On this site, see: From ReasonTV Via Youtube: ‘Ken Burns on PBS Funding, Being a “Yellow-Dog Democrat,” & Missing Walter Cronkite’Repost-From NPR: Grants To The NEA To Stimulate The Economy?

From FuturePundit: ‘Low Empathy Response Makes Others Seem Less Human?’

Full post here.

This seemed interesting, as it’s been true in my experience:

‘In order to function in a city a greater level of callousness seems necessary. Being parsimonious about your empathy makes the most sense for those who have a larger list of potential candidates for their empathy…’

Try to help everyone and you’ll get taken advantage of too, and be a sap, or a saint.  Also:

‘The difference between pity and disgust is interesting. An elderly body is the fate of everyone and so far it can not be fixed. Becoming elderly is not seen as a moral failing. But becoming a drug addict (rightly or wrongly) is widely seen as a moral failing. It makes sense that people are more disgusted by those who make wrong moral choices.’

That reminded me of this post put up previously on this site: From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum.

And 1st in the comments was this quotation about living in a city.  It reminded me of my own experience:

‘Having walked the beat several times a week for several years, you begin to recognize faces, and that also changes you. You realize that the problem isn’t lack of resources; the problem is that the people misuse what they have. No amount of giving will fix that, so I no longer give. It’s not cost effective, and often counterproductive.

I think you should be free to give as you see fit, and it’s good to break the ice every now and again once you’ve put on a stoic face or developed a practical hardness because of the realities around you.

I’m a little skeptical of some of the interests potentially lined up at the nexus of psychology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience as regards political philosophy…there’s a case to be made that these fields hold an appeal to many secular moralists and social engineers…but that’s also probably my own bias.

Related On This Site:  From Bloggingheads: Tamar Szabo Gendler On Philosophy and Cognitive Science

Morality in the emotions? Jesse Prinz argues that neuroscience and the cognitive sciences should move back toward British empiricism and David Hume…yet…with a defense of multiculturalism and Nietzsche thrown in:  Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”

How does Natural Law Philosophy deal with these problems, and those of knowledge?

At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes

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