Friday, August 27, 2010

Brand Blanshard on Wisdom -- on His Birthday

Brand Blanshard (August 27, 1892-November 18, 1987), prepared the following entry on philosophy's object for The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by the late Paul Edwards and published by Macmillan in eight volumes in 1967.  It occupies pages 322 to 324 of Volume 8.


Wisdom in its broadest and commonest sense denotes sound and serene judgment regarding the conduct of life. It may be accompanied by a broad range of knowledge, by intellectual acuteness, and by speculative depth, but it is not to be identified with any of these and may appear in their absence. It involves intellectual grasp or insight, but it is concerned not so much with the ascertainment of fact or the elaboration of theories as with the means and ends of practical life.

Wisdom literature. Concern with the art of living long preceded formal science or philosophy in human history. All ancient civilizations seem to have accumulated wisdom literatures, consisting largely of proverbs handed down from father to son as the crystallized results of experience. Perhaps the most ancient known collection of these sayings is the Egyptian “Wisdom of Ptah-hotep,” which comes down from 2500 B.C. The writings Confucius (sixth century B.C.) and Mencius (fourth century B.C.), though more sophisticated, are still concerned with the Tao, the good or normal human life. The early writers of India held views at once more speculative and more disillusioned than those of China; both Buddhists and Hindus found the greatest happiness of man in deliverance from the grinding round of suffering and death and in absorption into Atman or nirvana, where personality and struggle alike disappear. But large parts of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Dhammapada, two classics among the scriptures of India, are devoted to maxims and counsels for the conduct of life.

Of far greater influence in the West has been the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew people, which consists of the more philosophical parts of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Perhaps the most important of these are the books of Job, Proverbs, and Psalms and the apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon. There is no certain knowledge of who wrote any of them; they are probably the work of many men, extending over centuries. They differ strikingly from the writings of Greek and Chinese moralists in the closeness with which morality is identified with religion. The Hebrew sages were all monotheists who held that God fashioned the world but remained outside it; he had made his will known in the law delivered to Moses. This law set the standard and pattern of goodness for all time; the good man will make it his study and seek to conform his life to it. At the same time these sages reduced the miraculous element in Jewish history; they made no claim to being inspired themselves, and inclining, indeed, to assume that the sole motive of conduct was self-advantage, they offered their prudential maxims as not only conforming to the divine law but also as the product of good sense and sound reason. There is very little evidence that they were affected by Greek thought, though Greek influence must have flowed around them after the conquests of Alexander. It is possible that in their cool and reasonable note, contrasting so sharply with the visionary fervor of the prophets, there is an echo of the reflective thought of Greece.

The Greeks had a wisdom literature of their own which long preceded the appearance of their great philosophers. Hesiod (eighth century B.C.) and Theognis (sixth century B.C.) summed up in poetic form the maxims of traditional morality. Pythgoras (sixth century B.C.), a curious combination of mathematician and religious seer, seems to have found in philosophy the guide of practical life. This view was further developed by the Sophists, who, at a time when libraries and universities were unknown, undertook to instruct young men in the arts, theoretical and practical, that were most likely to lead to success. In their emphasis on success, however, there was something skeptical and cynical; the art of life tended in their teaching to become the sort of craft that enable one by clever strategy to achieve place and power.

The Greek conception. The first full statement and embodiment of the classic Greek conception of wisdom came with Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.), who insisted that virtue and knowledge were one, that if men failed to live well, it was through ignorance of what virtue really was. He had no doubt that if men know what virtue was, they would embody it in their conduct. Thus, he set himself to define the major virtues with precision. His method was to consider particular instances of them and bring to light the features they had in common; this would give the essence and true pattern of the virtue in question. He did not profess to be satisfied with the results of his inquiries, but his acuteness and thoroughness made him the first of the great theoretical moralists, and the courage with which he carried his principles into both life and death gave him a unique place in Western history.

The stress on wisdom was maintained by his disciple Plato. For Plato there are three departments of human nature, which may be described as the appetites, directed to such ends as food and drink; the distinctively human emotions, such as courage and honor; and reason. Of these reason is the most important, for only as impulse and feeling are governed by it will conduct be saved from chaos and excess; indeed, in such government practical wisdom consists. In one respect Aristotle carried the exaltation of reason farther than Plato; in addition to this practical wisdom, he recognized another and purely intellectual virtue, the wisdom that pursues truth for its own sake and without reference to practice. In this pursuit, which can be followed effectively only by the philosopher, lay the highest and happiest life.

It was among the Stoics, however, that guidance by reason was most seriously and widely attempted. In the thought of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), both nature and human nature are determined by causal law, and the wrongs and insults that other men inflict on us are therefore as inevitable as the tides. The wise man will understand this inevitability and not waste his substance in futile indignation or fear. He will conform himself to nature’s laws, recognize that passion is a symptom of ignorance, free himself from emotional attachments and resentments, and live as far as he can the life of a “passionless sage.” The account given by Marcus Aurelius in his famous journal of his struggle to order his practice and temper by this ideal of austere rationality has made his little book a classic of pagan wisdom.

Modern philosophers. The opinions of modern philosophers on the meaning of wisdom are too various for review here. But it can be noted of these thinkers, as it was of Marcus Aurelius, that their standing as purveyors or exemplars of wisdom bears no fixed relation to their eminence as philosophers. If their chief work lies, as Kant’s does, in the theory of knowledge, or as McTaggart’s does, in technical metaphysics, it may have no obvious bearing on practical life. Furthermore, by reason of an unhappy temperament, some philosophers of name and influence, such as Rousseau, have been far from notable exemplars of wisdom in either controversy or conduct. On the other hand, there are thinkers who have shown in their writing, and sometimes also in their lives, so large a humanity and good sense that they have been held in especial esteem for their wisdom whether or not they have been of high philosophical rank. Montaigne and Emerson are examples on one level; John Locke, Bishop Butler, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick are examples from a more professional level. Among technical thinkers of the first rank, a figure who has left a deep impression for a wisdom serene and disinterested, though a little above the battle, is the famous philosopher of Amsterdam, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677).

Components of wisdom. Are there any traits uniformly exhibited by the very diverse minds that by general agreement are wise? Two traits appear to stand out—reflectiveness and judgment.

Reflectiveness. By reflectiveness is meant the habit of considering events and beliefs in the light of their grounds and consequences. Conduct prompted merely by impulse or desire is notoriously likely to be misguided, and this holds true of both intellectual and practical conduct. Whether a belief is warranted must be decided by the evidence it rests on and the implications to which it leads, and one can become aware of these only by reflection. Similarly, whether an action is right or wrong depends, at least in part, on the results that it produces in the way of good an evil, and these results can be taken into account only by one who looks before he leaps. Common sense, with its rules and proverbs, no doubt helps, but it is too rough and general a guide to be relied on safely; and the reflective man will have at his command a broader view of grounds and consequences, causes and effects. He will more readily recognize the beliefs of superstition, charlatanism, and bigotry for what they are because he will question the evidence for them and note that when reflectively developed, they conflict with beliefs known to be true. In the same way he will be able to recognize some proposals for action as rash, partisan, or shortsighted because certain consequences have been ascribed to them falsely and others have been ignored. In some activities wisdom consists almost wholly of such foresight. A general, for example is accounted wise if he can foresee in detail how each of the courses open to him will affect the prospects of victory.

Judgment. There is a wisdom of ends as well as of means, which is here denoted by “judgment.” The goal of the general—namely, victory—is laid down for him, but the ordinary man needs the sort of wisdom that can appraise and choose his own ends. The highest wisdom of all, Plato contended, is that required by the statesman, who is called upon to fix both the goals toward which society strives and the complex methods by which it may most effectively move toward them. Unfortunately, at this crucial point where the ends of life are at issue, the sages have differed profoundly. Some, like Epicurus and Mill, have argued for happiness; others, like the Christian saints, for self-sacrificing love; others, like Nietzsche, for power. Many philosophers of the present [20th] century have come to hold that this conflict is beyond settlement by reason, on the ground that judgments of good and bad are not expressions of knowledge at all but only of desire and emotion. For these thinkers there is properly no such thing as wisdom regarding intrinsic goods; knowledge is confined to means.

Whatever the future of this view, common opinion is still at one with the main tradition of philosophy; it regards the judgment of values as a field in which wisdom may be pre-eminently displayed. It must admit, however, that this judgment is of a peculiar kind; it seems to be intuitive in the sense that it is not arrived at by argument nor easily defended by it. One may be certain that pleasure is better than pain and yet be at a loss to prove it; the insight seems to be immediate. And where immediate insights differ, as they sometimes do, the difference appears to be ultimate and beyond remedy. Must such wisdom end in dogmatic contradiction and skepticism?

That it need not do so will perhaps be evident from a few further considerations. First, differences about intrinsic goods may be due to mere lack of knowledge on one side or the other. The Puritans who condemned music and drama as worthless could hardly have excluded them if they had known what they were excluding; in these matters wider experience brings an amended judgment. Second, what appears to be intuitive insight may express nothing more than a confirmed habit or prejudice. Where deep-seated feelings are involved, as in matters of sex, race, or religion, the certainty that belongs to clear insight may be confused with the wholly different certainty of mere confidence or emotional conviction. Fortunately, Freud and others have shown that these irrational factors can be tracked down and largely neutralized. Third, man’s major goods are rooted in his major needs, and since the basic needs of human nature are everywhere the same, the basic goods are also the same. No philosophy of life that denied value to the satisfactions of food or drink or sex or friendship or knowledge could hope to commend itself in the long run.

It should be pointed out, finally, that the judgment of the wise man may carry a weight out of all proportion to that of anything explicit in his thought or argument. The decisions of a wise judge may be implicitly freighted with experience and reflection, even though neither may be consciously employed in the case before him. Experience, even when forgotten beyond recall, leaves its deposit, and where this is the deposit of long trial and error, of much reflection, and of wide exposure in fact or imagination to the human lot, the judgment based on it may be more significant than any or all of the reasons that the judge could adduce for it. This is why age is credited with wisdom; years supply a means to it whether or not the means is consciously used. Again, the individual may similarly profit from the increasing age of the race; since knowledge is cumulative, he can stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. Whether individual wisdom is on the average increasing is debatable, but clearly the opportunity for it is. As Francis Bacon, a philosopher whose wisdom was of the highest repute, remarked, “We are the true ancients.”


For proverbial wisdom see Archer Taylor, The Proverb (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), and—old but suggestive—R.C. Trench, Proverbs and Their Lessons (London and New York, 1858).

For the problems of determining right and wrong, see any first-rate work on ethics, such as Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Chicago, 1962).

For an analysis of reflection, see, for example, John Dewey, How We Think (New York, 1910).

For the place of reason in valuation, se L. T. Hobhouse, The Rational Good (New York, 1921), or Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness (London and New York, 1962).

For some useful popular works see T. E. Jessop, Reasonable Living (London, 948); H. C. King, Rational Living (New York, 1912); and A. E. Murphy, The Uses of Reason (New York, 1943).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Hope for Ultimate Meaningfulness

That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship, 1903.
The question of the ultimate meaningfulness of our lives is a natural extrapolation of our reflection on proximate meaningfulness.  Over the course of our lives we strive to achieve and preserve value.  Even if we have no idea how our achievements will affect others in the future (after we're gone), we know that those effects will be received, however anonymously and remotely.  The physically inevitable (at least according to current physics) and absolute termination of that chain of legacy-leaving (which is what the heat-death of the universe signifies), however, threatens to transmits its nullity to whatever preceded it. 

Suicide is one way some despondent people demonstrate their conviction that their lives have no meaning, that the disutility of their mere biological continuance is greater than any prospective compensating utility they might enjoy.  The heat-death of the universe is temporally remote enough for virtually all people to push the thought of it out of their consciousness and "get on with their lives."  Evasion is just that, however, and if we frankly face the inevitable loss of all the meaning we create, we may not be able to face anything at all.  Some philosophies, however, posit a repository of all value, co-existing with the physical cosmos, which would provide an alternative to dishonest evasion and to honest suicide.  But ethical urgency alone cannot establish the existence of such a repository.
Earlier this year film critic Roger Ebert expressed appreciation when I used the famous Russell quotation in a comment on his blog.  I deemed his appreciation an evasion of my critical point.  One may judge for oneself by going to my home page, where I provide the text of our brief exchange and a link to his blog, where it first appeared.

God Is Not a "Consummated Infinity"

Geoffrey Klempner, moderator of Ask a Philosopher, has just posted this answer of mine:

(11) Dave asked:
I have a question regarding the existence of actual infinities. I've heard theists argue that an actual infinity cannot exist, yet claim that God is infinite. Some then say that an actual infinity cannot exist in 'the physical world' or in 'spacetime,' but outside of the physical world (but still in reality) actual infinities can exist. Isn't this an arbitrary distinction? Or are they using a different notion of infinity for God? The existence of God is such an obvious counterexample to their argument that I feel like I'm missing something. Thanks.
The contexts of metaphysics and mathematics are, as Dave knows, different, and therefore their use of a common symbol, e.g., 'infinite,' does not entail equivocation. Metaphysics explores the intelligibility of self-subsistent being, which finite beings allegedly participate (or, as modern syntax has it, participate 'in'). In the Thomistic tradition that has influenced subsequent philosophical theology to the present day, the symbol of 'subsistent being' is equivalent to 'God.' Mathematical infinity, by contrast, refers to the possibility of adding a member to a series: if it is always possible to add one more, then the series is infinite. The series of natural numbers (or of even numbers, or of prime numbers) is infinite in that sense. It is a metaphysical claim that no series of existents can correspond in a one-to-one fashion to the series of natural numbers, because such an actual or 'consummated' infinity would lead to absurdities.

For example, suppose an infinity of persons stands in a line to your left and each person has one coin. A superhuman being with magnetic powers causes the coin belonging to the person on your immediate left to travel instantaneously from his or her pocket to yours (so that now you have two coins);simultaneously, coins from the third and fourth persons wind up in the second's pocket; coins from numbers five and six go to number three; from seven and eight to four, etc. What such a transfer accomplishes is a doubling of the number of coins by the mere change of the location of existing coins, that is, without the production of new coins. That is metaphysically absurd, and that is why there cannot be a consummated infinity: it bears within it the possibility of absurdity, which is no possibility at all.

In the future, Dave will go further under his own steam to resolve more quickly, if not dispel, a problem if he clarifies who said exactly what (i.e., not settle for 'I've heard...', 'Some then say...'). I wish to assure Dave that what was 'obvious' to him has also been obvious to the intelligent writers who, he seems to have thought, missed the obvious and then contradicted themselves. Which philosopher forgot that he had said that God was infinite after declaring consummated infinities to be impossible? One should document such a self-damning performance before presenting it as an interesting case for the consideration of others. Having said that, I also want to assure Dave that I enjoyed answering his question and hope he will pursue his metaphysical studies.

Anthony Flood

Friday, August 6, 2010

G.E.M. Anscombe's "Mr. Truman's Degree"

On the anniversary of the first two, and so far only, civilian mass murders by nuclear bomb, I would like to call attention to the late Catholic analytical philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe's essay in criticism of Oxford's honoring the murders' prime mover.  The text of her essay has been available on my site for four years.  Today's post consists of my prefatory note. 
Anthony Flood, August 6, 2010

In an effort to make clear that pacifism in no way inspired her condemnation of the mass murders in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and her consequent protest against Oxford's, i.e., her university's, awarding Two-Bomb Harry an honorary degree, the distinguished analytic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe (1919-2001) irritated me in three ways.

(1) She overlooked non-statist approaches to the problem of “restraining malefactors.”

(2) She implicitly affirmed the justifiability of a military draft (although her underlying insight—“in an attenuated sense it can be said that something that belongs to, or concerns, one is attacked if anybody is unjustly attacked or maltreated”—is suggestive).

(3) She further believed the oppression of an ethnic group might be “a reasonable cause of war.” By "war" she almost certainly meant a state’s
(a) militarily extending its reach beyond the territory over which it asserts exclusive control over another state's similarly monopolized territory; and
(b) funding and manning that military undertaking through taxation and/or conscription.
By contrast, a libertarian would introduce, and insist upon, the distinction between a war of aggression and a war of self-defense. Individuals may act militarily and in concert to liberate oppressed people if systematic injustices (e.g., taxation and conscription) do not sustain that enterprise. There is no reason, however, to believe that when Miss Anscombe wrote that "the plight of the Jews under Hitler would have been a reasonable cause of war," she attributed its reasonableness to its having met libertarian standards.

Nevertheless, these defects (which many may not regard as such) neither diminish my enthusiasm for posting this classic essay nor dull the force of her argument, encapsulated in these excerpts:

The Censor of St. Catherine’s [the Oxford college where the President Truman would receive an honorary degree] had an odious task. He must make a speech which should pretend to show that a couple of massacres to a man’s credit are not exactly a reason for not showing him honour. . . . The defence, I think, would not have been well received at Nuremberg.
For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder . . . .
. . killing the innocent, even if you know as a matter of statistical certainty that the things you do involve it, is not necessarily murder. . . . On the other hand, unscrupulousness in considering the possibilities turns it into murder.
August 8, 2006
Updated August 7, 2008

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Antony C. Sutton's "Conclusions"

From time to time I will follow up my July 15, 2010 post on Antony C. Sutton.  Today I provide you with his own summary of his three-volume detailed study of Western technology transfer to the Soviet Union in the days of Revolution, World War, and Cold War.  It is the last chapter of the last volume, but encapsulates his trilogy's whole story. 
Although the policies concerning trade and technical transfers appear vague and often confused, there is one fundamental observation to be made: throughout the period of 50 years from 1917 to 1970 there was a persistent, powerful, and not clearly identifiable force in the West making for continuance of the transfers. . . .
. . . whenever the Soviet economy has reached a crisis point, Western governments have come to its assistance. . . . All along, the survival of the Soviet Union has been in the hands of Western governments.
In this study's closing pages, Sutton would admit only that he “lean[ed] to the position that there is gross incompetence in the policymaking and research sections of the State Department.” He would spend the rest of his life attempting to clearly identify that force, thereby replacing this earlier verdict of incompetence with a more satisfying one.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reflections on the Occasion of Ernst Cassirer's Birthday

Over the years I have collected several short essays on the great morphologist of the human spirit, Ernst Cassirer (July 28, 1874 – April 13, 1945) by very different thinkers whom I also admire and posted them on my philosophical site.  I hope my posting links to them, accompanied by excerpts, will stimulate interest in Cassirer and the problems he wrestled with.

(I wish to record that the day he died--suddenly collapsing after responding to student Arthur Pap's calling out to him near Columbia University's main gate--Murray Rothbard, who would one day influence my thinking considerably, but then all of nineteen years of age, was probably in class nearby, completing his requirements for his B.A.)

In his review of Cassirer's An Essay on Man, Blanshard sounds a note of disappointment:
It is hard not to think, as one reads a book so wealthy as this in historic and scientific erudition, but at the same time so oddly inconclusive, that Cassirer was rather a distinguished reflective scholar than a great speculative philosopher. The learning is not mobilized in the interest of any theory; the book is not so much an 'essay on man' as a series of essays, all suggestive and enlightening, which converge on—what? It is hard to say. Perhaps there is no end, or harmony of ends, toward which all these activities are moving. But then, on Cassirer’s own showing, no philosophy of man would seem to be practicable; there would only be a theory of art, a theory of religion, and so on. This is in fact what he gives us. And an admirable gift it is, for which I, at least, am thankful. Only it is not what he sets out to give, nor all that the reader hoped to gain.
William Schultz, in his Cassirer and Langer on Myth, commented directly on Blanshard's assessment:
Here is the assumption of a continental philosopher that a system must 'converge' on something or lead to an overall unity of experience, an ideal unity. To some extent, the criticism is correct, for the main arguments are not in An Essay on Man, yet Cassirer’s claims about the need for unity should have alerted Blanshard that they were in his previous books, as Cassirer himself said in the Preface to that work written almost twenty years after the three-volume masterpiece [The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms]. Ironically, both Blanshard and Cassirer share some of the same assumptions about what philosophy should do, but Blanshard did not study Cassirer’s work enough to recognize the revolutionary way in which Cassirer satisfies traditional expectations about what a philosophy is and does.
The other subject of Schultz's study, Susanne Langer, the German-American philosopher whose thought was shaped to a large degree by her early absorption of Cassirer's writings in the original as they were published, contributed an essay his theory of language and myth to the Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to him.
. . . myth and language appeared as genuine twin creatures, born of the same phase of human mentality, exhibiting analogous formal traits, despite their obvious diversities of content. Language, on the one hand, seems to have articulated and established mythological concepts, whereas, on the other hand, its own meanings are essentially images functioning mythically. The two modes of thought have grown up together, as conception and expression, respectively, of the primitive human world. . . .
The first dichotomy in the emotive or mythic phase of mentality is not, as for discursive reason, the opposition of 'yes' and 'no,' of 'a' and 'non-a,' or truth and falsity; the basic dichotomy here is between the sacred and the profane. Human beings actually apprehend values and expressions of values before they formulate and entertain facts.
Her preface to his Language and Myth serves as an excellent introduction to his thought: Language, "man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency."

Eric Voegelin, the philosopher of consciousness, had the highest regard for Cassirer the intellectual historian, but in his 1946 review of The Myth of the State, thought Cassirer had mishandled his chief topical concern:
In the present book there is no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly. The overcoming of the "darkness of myth" by reason is in itself a problematical victory because the new myth which inevitably will take the place of the old one may be highly unpleasant. The Myth of the State is written as if it had never occurred to the author that tampering with a myth, unless one has a better one to put in its place, is a dangerous pastime.
Perhaps.  A good way to inspect that alleged "tampering" short of reading Cassirer's posthumously published 1946 book is to read his never-anthologized 1944 essay, "The Myth of the State," written for Fortune's mainly non-academic audience.  In my prefatory paragraphs I give a brief account of how it came to be written.
What we have learned in the hard school of our modern political life [Cassirer writes] is the fact that human culture is by no means the firmly established thing that we once supposed it to be. Modern civilization is very unstable and fragile. It is not built upon sand; but it is built upon a volcanic soil. For its first origin and basis was not rational, but mythical. Rational thought is only the upper layer on a much older geological stratum that reaches down to a great depth. We must always be prepared for violent concussions that may shake our cultural world and our social order to its very foundations.
In 1945, that is, about a year after Cassirer's essay appeared, we meet with a slightly different use of the volcano metaphor.  Just when Brand Blanshard's review of Cassirer appears, his reflections on his two terms as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association are also published.  As his terms of office had "coincided almost exactly with the chief period of" World War II, he offered for the consideration of his audience this question: "In the light of the last few years, is not reason best conceived as a film stretched across the mouth of a volcano?" 

Blanshard's answer, elaborated upon in his address, was, of course, resoundingly negative.  But his defense of reason was also limited, even "slender," and not incompatible with Cassirer's ostensibly severer judgment:
All I am concerned to deny is the conclusion often drawn from these researches [into human irrationality], that the mind is so controlled by pulls from within that it is never under the control of the objective pattern of things, or follows the thread of an impersonal logic. The remarks I have offered, slender as they admittedly are, do seem to me to settle that point in principle.
Cassirer was equally concerned to deny that conclusion.  As Professor Schultz wisely noted, Blanshard simply "did not study Cassirer’s work enough" to see how close they were.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why Does God Permit Evil?

The following answer, a slightly modified version of the one posted in 2002 at Philosophos (originally "Ask a Philosopher") and later on my own site since 2004, summarizes my approach to this vexing problem.  Links to my other efforts may be found here

*   *   *
The question was: If there is God and he is almighty, why then do we suffer evil in the world?

I accept the factual assumption.  We do suffer evil in this world.  (Perhaps some philosophers would argue that evil is an illusion.  But their allegedly veridical grasp of that illusion—which, arguably, would itself be an evil—makes me wonder if their perception of other evil is illusory.)

To the factual assumption is linked a moral presupposition, which we can explicate as follows.  All things being equal, a moral agent who is able to prevent excessive suffering from befalling another—suffering from which good is neither expected to come nor can conceivably come—is morally obligated to prevent it if he can.

The strength of this obligation varies with circumstances.  They include the risk to himself, his loved ones, or his property that the prospective preventive act may expose them to.  (This does not hold for those who profession it is to incur risk in order to rescue others in danger.)  Generally, however, as risk rises, obligation weakens. (We regard as heroes those who perform their rescue obligations without regard to risk, especially when risk is significant.) Obligation is strongest where ability is great and risk is minimal.

In the case of God—at least the deity of classical theism (that of Eastern and Western Christian orthodox theology)—ability is infinite and risk is zero.

And thus the implicit problem.  For the existence of great power alone does not by itself make the occurrence of excessive suffering a puzzle.  Many powerful men have made people suffer greatly, but their victims never wondered how it could be so.  What would have made them wonder, and curse, was that anyone would praise their tormentors for being morally good.  The questioner omitted to mention God’s moral character.

Neither did he specify what he means by “almighty” or even by “God.”  We may ascribe to God great creative power without ascribing to him a monopoly of power, as does classical theism.  In the latter philosophy, beings other than God do have power, but only by his leave.  They have no power independently of God’s decreeing that they have it, which power God can withdraw at will.

There is an alternative theism, however, wherein God exercises the power of persuasion.  God “lures” (Whitehead’s term) other subjects of experience into arrangements that afford more intense experiences for them and for God.  God does that, according to this alternative scheme, by providing each subordinate agent with an initial aim, which the agent may accept or replace with its own.  In such an alternative theism, God is not unilaterally responsible for the metaphysical situation in which each agent (including God) finds himself.  Neither is God unilaterally responsible for the actual cosmic order that results from the decisions and actions of all agents.  God is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient factor in the actual world order.

In the alternative theism, whose ultimate coherence and adequacy to experience we cannot assess here, evil results from the collision of subjective aims.  Collision is perfectly compatible with the existence of a universal end-coordinating God.  Without God, there would not be any coordination of aims.  There would, therefore, be no intelligible world with someone in it asking how evil is possible.  Given a world that God can shape but not unilaterally determine, God cannot obliterate evil any time God wishes to.  The classical theistic God can.  But classical theism cannot satisfactorily explain why God apparently wishes to so rarely and selectively, especially when the demand for God to do so is so excruciatingly urgent.

Given our moral presupposition, then, the God of classical theism cannot be morally good.  Yet classical theism affirms God to be precisely that.  Classical theism is therefore incoherent.  The reasonable person rules out the incoherent.  One theism’s incoherence, however, does not necessarily rule out every other version.  The God of the alternative theism we have been entertaining, in so far as this God is the universal lure to the better, does all within God’s power to promote the realizable good in every situation.  This God is therefore morally good.  What God cannot do, however, is push gross matter around, as we can.  Such pushing is, however, often what preventing excessive and pointless evil requires.  God cannot be morally blamed for that inability.

If some kind of being recognizable as God is necessary for there to be a world, then the occurrence of excessive, pointless suffering does not disconfirm the existence of that God.  On the supposition of the latter, however, we see how there can be “excessive,” “pointless” beauty.

Genocide: A Catholic Dilemma

I composed the following argument about a dozen years ago in response to the claim of a certain priest of my acquaintance, a philosopher whose analytical mind I had expected to make hash of my question, that he was going to deal with it in print, some day, somewhere.  To my knowledge he never made good on that informal promissory note.  I posted it on my site during 2004, its inaugural year. Perhaps a different forum will improve its chances of being paid the courtesy of a refutation.  If anyone reading this would like a crack at solving this specific problem, or can cite someone else's having done so, I invite him or her to post a comment.

*   *   *

1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 105, states that God is the author of Sacred Scripture and that the Church “accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts” because they were “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

2. Paragraph 106 states that God inspired the human authors of the sacred books and that “they consigned to writing whatever he [God] wanted written, and no more.”

3. Paragraph 107 states the inspired books teach the truth, and that “without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wish to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

4. Paragraph 120 lists the Old Testament Book of Joshua among the sacred books.

5. Paragraph 121 states that the books of the Old Testament are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value.

6. Paragraph 311 states that “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil.”

7. Paragraph 2313 states that in war, non-combatants “must be respected and treated humanely” and that genocide is a grave moral evil: “the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.”

8. The eleventh chapter of the Book of Joshua states that God commanded Moses to cause the genocide of various non-Israelite peoples.

In summary, the Catholic Church teaches that the Book of Joshua is divinely inspired, contains all and only what the human author of Joshua was inspired to write, and teaches truth for the sake of our salvation.

Presumably, then, even if a book of the Old Testament was in error about, say, the number of people killed in a given battle, it could not be in error where it speaks about God’s relationship to man: on this matter we can count on an Old Testament book to tell us only the truth.

But in Joshua 11, God specifically relates to man by telling one group of men to annihilate other groups, including their noncombatant women and children.

Did God give a command that “one is morally bound to resist”? Since the command was carried out, does not that make God at least an indirect cause of a moral evil? Can a coherent negative answer be given without giving up one or more of propositions 1-8?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Antony Sutton’s Inconvenient Research: A Neglected Libertarian Resource

I'm not yet an expert on the works of Antony C. Sutton (1925-2002), but I hope to be one day, and this post will explain why.

Deep within the second volume of his magnum opus, Sutton posed the following alternative:

To subsidize and support a system that is the object of massive military expenditures is both illogical and irrational. . . . it calls into question not only the ability and the wisdom but indeed the basic common sense of the policymakers. The choice is therefore clear: either the West should abandon massive armaments expenditures because the Soviet Union is not an enemy of the West, or it should abandon the technical transfers that make it possible for the Soviet Union to pose the threat to the Free World which is the raison d'ĂȘtre for such a large share of Western expenditures. Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development, 1945-1965, Stanford, Hoover Institution, 1968, p. 400.
When I chanced upon Sutton's trilogy at a public library in the early '70s, I was still viewing the world through Herbert Aptheker's red-tinted spectacles. The massive amount of evidence of technology transfer that Sutton had discovered, organized, and published—under the imprint of Stanford University's Hoover Institution—didn't cohere with either the Communist worldview I held then or my anti-Communist one of a few years later. For Sutton proved that for at least fifty years capitalists had sold their supposed mortal enemies helming the Soviet Union much more than the proverbial rope with which to hang them (thereby fulfilling a prediction apocryphally attributed to Lenin).

Sutton followed the logic of his previous research in another trilogy, written in a more popular vein for less prestigious publishers, but no less rigorously researched. In Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution (hereafter WSBR), Wall Street and F.D.R. and Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, Sutton exposed the direct contribution of certain financial houses located on or near Wall Street to the success of the 20th Century's economically centralizing movements, including the New Deal. Sutton argued persuasively that the major struggle among the Wall Street corporate socialists, and the Marxian socialists, and the National Socialist was over personnel, not over socialism, certainly not over the insight that the royal road to riches is paved with governmentally backed monopolies.

To compress the import of these works almost to the point of distortion: but for the actions of these men, the Bolshevik revolution would have to do without certain leaders and critical infusions of cash, and the Soviet Union it spawned would have collapsed from industrial chaos and famine; America would have been spared F.D.R.'s phony "war on Wall Street" (whose creature and tool he was); and Hitler's electoral platform would have lacked not only a key plank (fear of Bolshevism), but also necessary funds.

After having passed briefly through social democracy and conservatism from the mid-'70s to the early '80s, I settled on libertarianism under the primary influence, literary and personal, of Murray N. Rothbard. The persuasiveness of Man, Economy and State and Power and Market was decisive, but he had also convinced me (and as a former William-F.-Buckleyite I needed convincing) that the Soviet Union had never posed any serious threat to the West: the Soviet economy, hobbled by the calculation problem, was doomed: it was a "basket case" that must in the long run lose any political competition with economies that enjoyed private markets for capital goods. In retrospect, however, I feel that Rothbard could, and should, have gone much further.

Ironically enough, before Murray Rothbard's name meant anything to me, I had seen it in WSBR:

Suppose . . . that American monopoly capitalists were able to reduce a planned socialist Russia to the status of a captive technical colony? Would not this be the logical twentieth-century internationalist extension of the Morgan railroad monopolies and the Rockefeller petroleum trust of the late nineteenth century? Apart from Gabriel Kolko, Murray Rothbard, and the revisionists, historians have not been alert for such a combination of events.
If this did not dovetail with Rothbard's own research program, nothing did.

During the years I read myself into libertarianism, however, although I had not entirely forgotten Sutton's thesis, nothing sustained my awareness of it. Rothbard's personal influence is the best explanation, in my opinion.

As his historical revisionism was inspired by his friend Harry Elmer Barnes, Rothbard's disciples consequently know of Barnes' work. But Rothbard was silent on Sutton; and so also have they been. After more than 27 years of reading Rothbard, I still cannot recall his ever having even cited the work of his fellow laborer in the same vineyards.  (If any reader of this post can, I would be grateful for the citation.)  He certainly never did so where one might have expected him to (e.g., The Case against the Fed or Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy). 

Several passages from the memoirs of Herbert Hoover, courtesy of Sutton's WSBR, are most germane to our topic. In them Hoover recounted the circumstance that motivated certain financial interests, headquartered at 120 Broadway in lower Manhattan (the building which housed the law offices of Sargent Shriver’s law firm, where I happened to work – in the mailroom – when I first read WSBR), to withdraw their support from him and throw it promiscuously behind Roosevelt. "Hoover," Sutton wrote,

recognized the Swope Plan [inspiration for FDR’s National Recovery Act, written by General Electric’s Gerard Swope—anarchristian] as a fascist measure and recorded this in his memoirs, along with the melancholy information that Wall Street gave him a choice of buying the Swope plan—fascist or not—and having their money and influence support the Roosevelt candidacy.
This is how Herbert Hoover described the ultimatum from Wall Street under the heading of 'Fascism comes to business—with dire consequences':
Among the early Roosevelt fascist measures [Hoover wrote.—anarchristian] was the National Industry Recovery Act (NRA) of June 16, 1933. The origins of this scheme are worth repeating. These ideas were first suggested by Gerard Swope (of the General Electric Company) at a meeting of the electrical industry in the winter of 1932. Following this, they were adopted by the United States Chamber of Commerce. During the campaign of 1932, Henry I. Harriman, president of that body, urged that I agree to support these proposals, informing me that Mr. Roosevelt had agreed to do so. I tried to show him that this stuff was pure fascism; that it was merely a remaking of Mussolini's 'corporate state' and refused to agree to any of it. He informed me that in view of my attitude, the business world would support Roosevelt with money and influence. That for the most part, proved true.  
Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression, 1929-1914 (London: 1952), p. 420.
Other words of Hoover's shatter the popular myth, enjoying currency as late as our Age of Obama, which casts Hoover as a head-in-the-sand apostle of laissez faire who lacked the guts to expand the government's role in the economy in order to "save capitalism from itself":

Those who contended that during the period of my administration our economic system was one of laissez faire have little knowledge of the extent of government regulation. The economic philosophy of laissez faire, or "dog eat dog," had died in the United States forty years before, when Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Sherman Anti-Trust Acts [1887 and 1890 respectively.—anarchristian].   
Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency 1920-1923 (London: 1952), p. 300.
Sutton's comment on Hoover is gratifying for a Rothbardian to read:
Murray Rothbard points out that Herbert Hoover was a prominent supporter of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party and, according to Rothbard, Hoover "challenged in a neo-Marxist manner, the orthodox laissez-faire view that labor is a commodity and that wages are to be governed by laws of supply and demand." As Secretary of Commerce Hoover pushed for government cartelization of business and for trade associations, and his "outstanding" contribution, according to Rothbard, "was to impose socialism on the radio industry," while the courts were working on a reasonable system of private property rights in radio frequencies. Rothbard explains these ventures into socialism on the grounds that Hoover "was . . . the victim of a terribly inadequate grasp of economics." Indeed, Rothbard argues that Herbert Hoover was the real creator of the Roosevelt New Deal.
Rothbard in turn must have known of Sutton, yet he declined to harness the polemical potential of the research of his near-contemporary. One could only imagine the effect of Rothbard's pen in service of the thesis that the Cold War was essentially a sham, a bloody farce for which tens of thousands died in wars and millions of civilians were deceived into supporting repressive policies against their fellows.

As for the disjunction Sutton posed in our opening quotation: it cannot be taken at face value. He knew that the men whose deeds he exposed were hardly lacking in common sense, let alone ability and wisdom. It doesn't take much reflection to see that all three attributes were needed to play at "fighting" the Soviet Union while rescuing it over and over again.

What the Machiavellian plotters of the "Cold War" lacked was a moral center. They had no qualms about selling to an "enemy" the know-how to produce weapons that would one day be used to kill men who were drafted into military service by their own government, just to "keep the game going."

Those who facilitated the technology transfers that materially benefited the Soviet Union were honored in their day as industrialists and statesmen, while myriads of writers, actors, and singers with pro-Soviet opinions would be hysterically reviled as "un-American" and lose their livelihoods.

Those convicted of selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union were disgraced and executed, but those who had supplied the Soviets with all they needed to become "nuclear-ready" died in bed with their good name intact. They were the real "enemies of the West," because they were the enemies of free markets.

So let us quickly dispel the mystery underlying Sutton's rhetorical alternative. In the minds of diverse captains of industry, "massive armaments expenditures" and "technical transfers" were lucrative enterprises for men without conscience. Through their money and influence, they set the range of permissible policy options in Washington and other Western capitals. There was nothing in the least "illogical" or "unsound" about it.

Those terms better describe the notion that Sutton himself believed that rank irrationality, rather than naked interest, dictated Washington's "save the Soviets" policy for more than a half-century through nine administrations. Sutton's later conjectures on the Order of Skull and Bones, essayed in books that I have not yet studied, suggest otherwise.

Sutton was a self-professed libertarian. He cited Rothbard and Mises frequently and approvingly, and—notwithstanding his employment of a norm of "inefficiency" in his critique of the Soviet economy in a way that would annoy an Austrian—his own economic viewpoint is squarely in the free market camp.

In his 1984 book Survival Is Not Enough: Soviet Realities and America's Future, distinguished Russian history specialist Richard Pipes stated that "Sutton comes to conclusions that are uncomfortable for many businessmen and economists. For this reason his work tends to be either dismissed out of hand as 'extreme' or, more often, simply ignored."

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that libertarians have treated him better.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Blanshard and Lonergan on Religion: An Unexpected Complementarity

In Reason and Belief (1974), humanist philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892-1987) wrote:
Religion is an attempt to adjust one's nature as a whole to ultimate reality. In as sense all human life is that. But whereas the larger part of such life consists of an adjustment to what is immediately around us, religion seeks to go behind the appearance of things to what is self-subsistent, to something which, intellectually and causally, will explain everything else. And it must be conceived as a response of man's nature as a whole. . . . If we may take the old trio of cognition, feeling, and emotion, as covering the field of human faculty, we may say that religion employs all these activities at once and hence engages the whole man. On the cognitive side, the religious man is a philosopher ex officio, whether a competent one or not. Since he is trying to adjust himself to the government of the world, he will inevitably feel some interest in knowing the truth about it, and hence be carried on to form some conception of it. This conception, in turn, will evoke toward its object some attitude of reverence, love, indifference, or fear. Again, if he conceives the world to be governed by a personal being who is wise and good, as Christianity does, he will try to bring his practice into line with what he takes to be the divine will. His religion, then, will not be a function of thought or feeling or will; it will be the joint activity of all three; it will be the response of the man as a whole to what he takes as ultimate true and ultimately good. (434-435)
As though anticipating Blanshard, theistic philosopher Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) wrote in Method in Theology (1972):
To deliberate about x is to ask whether x is worth while. To deliberate about deliberating is to ask whether any deliberating is worth while. Has "worth while" any ultimate meaning? Is moral enterprise consonant with this world? . . . . Does there or does there not necessarily exist a transcendent, intelligent ground of the universe? Is that ground or are we the primary instance of moral consciousness? Are cosmogenesis, biological evolution, historical process basically cognate to us as moral beings or are they indifferent and so alien to us? Such is the question of God. It is not a matter of image or feeling, of concept or judgment. They pertain to answers. It is a question. It rises out of our conscious intentionality, out of the a priori structured drive that promotes us from experiencing to the effort to understand, from understanding to the effort to judge truly, from judging to the effort to choose rightly. In the measure that we advert to our own questioning and proceed to question it, there arises the question of God. . . . [H]owever much religious or irreligious answers differ, however much there differ the questions they explicitly raise, still at their root there is the same transcendental tendency of the human spirit that questions, that questions without restriction, that questions the significance of its own questioning, and so comes to the question of God. The question of God, then, lies within man's horizon. Man's transcendental subjectivity is mutilated or abolished, unless he is stretching forth towards the intelligible, the unconditioned, the good of value. The reach, not of his attainment, but of his intending, is unrestricted. There lies within his horizon a region for the divine, a shrine for ultimate holiness. It cannot be ignored. The atheist may pronounce it empty. The agnostic may urge that he finds his investigation has been inconclusive. The contemporary humanist will refuse to allow the question to arise. But their negations presuppose the spark in our clod, our native orientation to the divine. (102-103)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Anarchristianity: A Personal Synthesis of Many Influences

It's more important for me to resist the temptation to put off launching this blog another day than that its first post be memorable.

All right, then, to anticipate an obvious question: I've had the e-mail handle "anarchristian" since 1996. I have less reason than ever to disown it. My personalist theistic metaphysics and the anti-state libertarian ethics (I believe) it entails are encapsulated in this combination of two Greek roots, anarch- and christ-, whose juncture is the letter chi ("X").

It is my conviction that the theoretical dependency runs both ways: in the interest of achieving the deepest possible coherence (not merely logical consistency), a personalist theist ought to be a free-market anarchist and vice versa. The very thought of it will irritate some in both camps. I hope to provide a balm for them in future posts.

Murray Rothbard, among whose friends I was privileged to have been numbered for the last dozen years of his life, was the greatest libertarian theoretician of the 20th century. We must, however, not only continue to mine his work, but also to criticize it when necessary. One neglected area of criticism was his idiosyncratic use of the natural law tradition.

He had his reasons for uncoupling that tradition from the Christian personalist metaphysics that informed the mind of its classic writers, as though it were dispensable window-dressing. I have not, however, seen much interest on the part of Rothbardians in what those reasons were. It is one thing to say that one can rationally demonstrate a proposition without reference to God. It is quite another to be satisfied with a theoretical life that is agnostic about God at its foundations and in its superstructure and consign, however benignly and tolerantly, God-talk to the private sphere.

Rothbard was so satisfied, and that marked him as thoroughly modern. We are, however, living through "the fag-end of the Enlightenment," to employ the late Fr. Francis Canavan's charming phrase, and any theory that hopes to meet the issues of our day must either transcend modernity's dualisms or join the other flickering embers in history's ashtray.

More on this to come.