Against Rationalism, Idealism, and Abstraction

by James Matthew Wilson on August 31, 2012 · 20 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

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Enlightenment Garden

Part II in an ongoing series, Localism and the Universal ChurchRead Part I here.

Where the traditionalist position I have sketched appears weakest is precisely where it speaks most explicitly in response to the cavaliers of unattached gallivanting.  The traditionalist wishes to defend the reverence and deference due to inherited folk ways in spite of their appearances of irrationality, and often does so by taking a stand in defense of the irrational per se.  Such is political romanticism.  And the traditionalist presumes, understandably, that securing allegiance to a tradition will in turn keep in place the essential elements of a localized and intergenerational community.  If one toes the line of spiritual tradition, the body of natural community will be sustained.  If one demands fidelity and solidarity to one’s own as the highest if inexplicable good, one can secure the perseverance of an entire way of life.  Modernity is consequently decried as rationalist, idealist, and abstracting—claims I take to be true, but perhaps not for the reasons the traditionalist critique would recognize.

Surely, modernity is beholden to this triad of fetishes.  I would argue that insofar as modernity is “rationalistic,” it has ceased to believe in reason; insofar as it is idealist, it neglects not simply the body but the idea of reality; and insofar as it tends toward abstraction, it has failed rather than succeeded in being adequately critical of the concrete conditions of human knowledge.

The dream of rationalism is to find methods, measures, and conceptions of what counts as real knowledge that are so simple as to be irrefutable—they must be distinct, clear, and certain, in Descartes’s famous terms.  If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical inspection can be so known.  Since the phenomena of historical experience do not lend themselves to this sort of universal inspection, only those empirical realities that can be disseminated in quantitative terms can fit within this criterion.  It is not difficult to find elements of creation that meet it, of course, but the vast bulk of individual and communal experience does not.

While most rationalist persons will hedge or confide that there is more to life than we can know on this standard, all such surplus is deemed to be pre-rational, irrational, or emotional units not subject to public reason or worthy of escaping the “private realm,” whatever that happens to be.  This hedge swiftly robs everything that cannot be quantified of rational weight and moral force; as Iredell Jenkins marvelously argued decades ago in “The Postulate of an Impoverished Reality,” a rationalistic society is one that resigns itself to reality’s being substantially less than human experience makes it appear.  Jenkins continues that this leads human beings eventually to conform to the “Principle of Experiential Fraudulence,” wherein human beings come to doubt or disregard anything in experience that cannot readily be demonstrated by quantified experiment.  We disregard ourselves whenever we cannot test a hypothesis, or whenever some aspect of ourselves does not fit into an experimental data set.

Rationalism thus appears quite irrational, for it either assumes that the vast majority of reality is unintelligible and of no concern to us, or that reality is very small and its appearance of vastness may be explained away according to a few simple principles (our most popular such rationalizations are those of positivist materialism, historical materialism, or the will to power).  A true belief in reason affirms much more: the general intelligibility of things; the capacity of human reason to participate in, even though it may surely not exhaust, that intelligibility; and the grounding of the intelligibility of things in an intellect causally prior to them.

So impressed do moderns become by the powers of quantity that they tend toward a kind of idealism that has often been denounced—here and elsewhere—as a species of “gnosticism.”  In brief, modern idealists tend to dismiss the importance of matter, of bodies, and other determinate features of reality, because the intelligibility and control fostered by numerical analysis is so powerful as to render the material a mere patient of its will.  We thus tend to think of that as most real which most readily is submitted to our domination.

Anything that limits our control comes to appear as a kind of injustice, an imposition of nature upon the rightly free human spirit.  Since idealism results from rationalism, as idealists, we at once think that what little of reality can be known with certainty gives us immense power and what lies beyond our knowledge—what, in effect, lies beyond our domination—is, not so much evil as, “wrong” (for most modern persons are sufficiently alienated from nature as to have no concept of natural evil).  We then shun all the “wrong” that haunts our reality and deem it rightly subject to our will.  Just as the ancient Manichees thought the body evil and inconsequential, and so left all but their saints to do with the body whatever they pleased, so our modern gnostics seek to render the body superfluous precisely in order to make it available for use by the free spirit.  Thus, the modern idealist simultaneously advocates the abuse of the body for the purposes of a free sexuality and denounces the consequences of such activities for the body—such as the fostering of new life or the spread of incurable or terminal diseases (to wit, life and death)—as a merely technological problem, worthy of solution only to the extent it does not impinge upon the “spirit’s” freedom.  For this reason, the modern age has long been lamented as a city of angels completely given over the pleasures of the senses.

The linkage between modern rationalism and idealism is, of course, the modern belief in abstraction—the tendency traditionalists most lament.  “Let us go in fear of abstractions,” traditionalists say with Ezra Pound, and attend only to the concrete thing: this community here and now with all of its contingent elements is reality; abstraction is deformation.  As Wordsworth said, so they say, “We murder to dissect.”  Sometimes we really do murder to dissect, but I think this clever figure is guilty of some distortion in its own right.  If modern life has become irrational precisely to the extent that it has become rationalistic, and if the proper response to such irrationalism is a more satisfactory conception of reason, then, I suggest, what we must lament above all is not the use of abstract reasoning but the widespread misunderstanding about what abstraction really is.

Those who have read Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man, or who at least have read critical glosses on it, will recall that this great Enlightenment verse letter is deeply informed by an epic of an earlier age, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Where Milton deployed myth and character, the concrete stuff of story, to justify God’s ways to man, Pope would slough off such “incidental details” and reduce the long history of man’s struggle to know himself and his God to the terms of elegant aphorisms, abstractions that live lightly along the lines, unencumbered by this or that historical glut of particulars.  Whatever were the most universal ethical maxims concealed within the Christian deposit of revelation, Pope would reformulate for an age no longer inclined to believe what are called the super-analogies of faith and the economic parables of divine condescension.

However Christian Pope’s poem obviously remains (and I think it is unmistakably a great Christian poem), it expresses not simply a Western but a distinctly modern discomfort with the historical and the concrete.  Hence, what we may now call the Unitarian-Universalist impulse that has gripped almost all modern persons, including most Christians.  The ecumenist looks anxiously for those fundamental ethical affirmations to which all persons may subscribe, regardless of their contingent “faith tradition.”  The secularist, too, looks for abstract universal principles that may bind everyone.  If he is more constrained than the modern Christian, it is only because he usually stops searching for such principles as soon as he has subjectively secured for himself a sense of entitlement to his own individual “rights,” or the basis to demand the state do something in his perceived interest.

The modern belief in abstraction is thus one that opposes itself to the concrete and assumes that anything that does not survive the process of sifting details to establish universal abstract principles must be false.  The early theorists of natural religion, such as Pope, may thus have inclined to believe that only historical revelation must be sifted to discover the universal grain of wheat.  “We cannot believe that Jesus was born to a Chosen People in a backward part of the Roman Empire; that He suffered, died, and was buried; that on the third day He rose from the Dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father . . . but we can believe in the golden rule that Christ mentioned now and again, and, better still, we can give ourselves untrammeled to the universal love such things rather awkwardly if ever so movingly express.”  But the thoroughly modern person has come to find all modes of the particular suspect: the love of country is “philosophically indefensible,” writes Martha Nussbaum; the differences between men and women are rooted in contingent, bodily shapes and not in anything that transcends the flesh, such as its essence or form; communal loyalty and shared traditions are suspect precisely because they are actually shared by actual people rather than being the sort of abstract universalizable propositions that may be implicitly—though not actually—shared by everyone.

As one would expect, the modern person does not merely undervalue the concrete; he positively opposes it as an obstruction to his knowledge of the universal.  One must transcend one’s citizenship to become a “citizen” of the world.  One must get over one’s body and knowledge to recognize the equality-in-identity of all persons.  One must cut through the brush of one’s traditions to reach the promised land of universal, abstract moral maxims readily intelligible to and indubitably binding on everyone.

I perhaps have not painted the modern love of abstraction as vividly as I should have; for I cannot imagine anyone seeing himself personally indicted by this sketch, and yet it is meant to give an image of just what most modern persons actually believe.  Many of my students, for instance, cannot imagine that one’s political community could have serious claims on one’s conscience.  When they read Dante, they cannot understand why he put traitors to country deeper (ever so slightly) into Hell than he did traitors of kin.  After all, a country is just where one “happens” to be born.  Unconscious Lockeans, I am not sure they would judge betrayal to kin very harshly, either, if it were a question between individual satisfaction or familial loyalty.  The modern family, as Tocqueville observed, is a place one goes for emotional comfort but is too weak to serve as a foundation for true moral obligations.  So it is with most moderns.  We may elect as consumer or individual choices our concrete affections so long as they are so inconsequential as not to require a “philosophical defense” before the stuffed throne of Martha Nussbaum.

If men were born disembodied immortal spirits completely immune to the imprint of history, matter, or even the actual individuation those things make evident, then perhaps the abstract universal propositions the modern world claims to find alone compelling might be slightly less inadequate than they are.  But modernity not only misjudges man when it tries to make of him a rather sensual angel, it misjudges its own means of judgment: to wit, it does not understand the nature of abstract reasoning.

{ 20 comments }

avatar T. Chan August 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm

A technical note: the link for the first part needs to be fixed – there’s an extra space which prevents one from opening the proper page.

avatar Daniel September 1, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Isn’t the concept of “universal church” an abstraction akin to the modern type herein berated? Even if it isn’t – and the content of “universal church” indeed refers to the worldwide communion of churches under the headship of the bishop of Rome, then I hardly see how such an ecclesiology that denigrates the local bishopric as such – insofar as it derives its sacramental efficaciousness from the See of Rome alone – can lend itself to localism.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the forthcoming series, to see how you tie it all together.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 1, 2012 at 11:06 pm

If something cannot be known by everyone, it is not knowledge; only that which can be controlled and summoned on demand for everyone’s empirical inspection can be so known.

As a rational (Protestant) Christian, I would offer a slightly different application. If something cannot be known by everyone, cannot be summoned on demand for everyone’ empirical inspection, then it is not a fit subject for legislation and coercion. That still leaves troublesome grey areas… e.g., invading a citizen’s body with mandatory innoculations for the benefit of general public health, or the reliability of expert witnesses in court, but its a workable framework. Quite important, it leaves open individual belief, pursuit, and inquiry into matters outside the comprehension of rational inquiry.

Rational scientific inquiry can establish many reliable approximations of fact… never absolute, but reliable to a very high probability, and testable to see if there is some flaw in the conclusion. Although most of us have some sense of divine presence, this is not subject to any scientific test, nor should it be.

““We cannot believe that Jesus was born to a Chosen People in a backward part of the Roman Empire; that He suffered, died, and was buried; that on the third day He rose from the Dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father . . .”

Whyever not? We cannot PROVE these things, but we can BELIEVE them. Or, as I remarked once to some Pentecostal friends, perhaps none of this can be established as historical fact, but don’t mess with the stories. They were given to us for a reason. God is God, regardless of the concrete details or abstract speculation.

Whether love of country is morally defensible depends on whether it gives rise to hatred or to subjugation of others. Immigrants who arrived in America from Europe threw rocks at each other across wide avenues separating rigid ethnic ghettoes. Now, Americans of Italian descent proudly show off their cooking to Americans in general, ditto Polish, German, French, Spanish… but generally feel no need to spit on each other.

Humans are a social species, but sufficient freedom for an individual to find their own associations rather than be told from birth “these are your associations, whether you like it or not” are beneficial. At one time, the blacksmith’s son would become the next blacksmith. Now, the son can choose to pursue medicine, or go to sea, or take up keeping bees and apple trees, while the sailor’s son my decide to seek apprenticeship as a blacksmith.

In short, both the arguments presented here to be critiqued, and the alternatives offered, strike me as terribly abstract, when the best of tradition, myth, culture, and spirituality, can find plenty of room in a rational frame of human community.

avatar R. Salyer September 4, 2012 at 8:44 pm

The question that may be fairly posed to Mr. Jenkins, and his postulate of—“if something cannot be known by everyone… then it is not fit for legislation and coercion,” is: Why not? Why should not the one-eyed man on the island of the blind be king? Or, rather in fact, why should he not be morally obliged to be king?
Mr. Jenkins offers a very sweeping ethical postulate, and he may be saying a little more than what he meant. Perhaps, his postulate would be better stated, “if something cannot be justified to anyone… given an equal grasp of the empirical realities of the situation, then it is not fit for legislation and coercion.” This is closer to the Reasonable Man standard, and the discursive method endorsed by Liberal philosophers such as John Rawls, and Yale law professor, Bruce Ackerman. It has the added benefit of protecting not only the blind, but small children as well, from their empiricist inadequacies.
However the question still stands at a deeper level to the reasonable mind, why should not the one-eyed man on the island of the blind be king?
A radical retort might be to ask, can beef cattle know empirically that it is right that I eat it? Can grass know that it is right that I step on it? But such are inadequate examples because Mr. Jenkins might be tempted to think of them in terms of a user’s rationalisation to the used, shocking when applied in the human context, and not in terms of the larger implied assertions of cosmic order.
So let us try the more moderate, common sense response: If I am a Mohammedan and “know” that Sharia law is right for all, then to be indifferent to its implementation is morally equivalent to watching my neighbor being assaulted in the street and doing nothing.
Ah… but Mr. Jenkins knows one thing not provable and is quite likely willing to legislate against legislation, and legislate “Man and only Man.” It seems, ironically, that Mr. Jenkins is suggesting this iron law that in itself is not amenable to empirical measurement. Setting forth his postulate of the sacrosanct human individual and conscience, above all else, is simply to set up his own transcendental evaluation and expect others simply to see it as common sense. “I know that human dignity is an absolute, and I know that there is nothing else knowable which can be allowed to trump this.”
To a large extent Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Wilson are simply at logger heads. Mr. Wilson appears not to agree with the Jenkins’ Declaration, at least not as a self-evident, common sense proposition.

Mr. Jenkins has declared a set of assertions that indicate his value preferences that are diametrically opposed to the essayist. One is, ‘only that which is universally demonstrable to persons is that which can be acted upon communally.’ Another might be, ‘conflict avoidance is more important than holding ethnic identity.’
Diversity requires definition, and therefore, exclusion, per se. Everything else is not really diversity; it is mere fancy. Flavouring.
Ironically, the reduction to ‘proudly showing off their cooking’ is in fact one of the normative examples one usually hears to describe the corrosive nature of shallow American consumer society on identity. One is reminded of Flannnery O’Connor’s observations on wingless chickens—bred because, “what good are wings on a chicken” for us mere receptacles of pleasurable fried products.
One way to reduce conflict is to establish justice amongst groups… and another way is to simply deconstruct the value of the group such that the “members” are no longer willing to fight for it. It is no endorsement of ethnic hostility to reject the latter, any more than it is to endorse death by bringing in life. Preferring to sing “Kumbaya my lord,” looking up bobca’s borscht recipe, and painting one’s toenails ANC colours, keeps the peace but one should not kid oneself. It isn’t authentic cultural anything.
As for the radical class/vocation mobility (“anarchy”) advocated by Mr. Jenkins, this seems to be an endorsement of the dog-eat-dog, corporate-industrial-park-society we live in today, of which little positive can be said from the producer’s actual standpoint, especially—again, ironically—if self-invention is one’s real aim.
As it is said, “with rights, come duties,” there can also be said, “with duties, come rights.” For the sailor’s son who is equally free to become an M.D., there is the correlative that he is no more entitled to become a sailor than anyone else. And thus he has no real safe base, no inheritance, and nothing is really sustainable over time, as the personality wheel is reinvented every generation. That is, in the gloried art of self-invention, finding a way to make a living from scratch ends up taking an inordinate amount of life, particularly for the poorer sorts, and tends to dead end the process. Not everyone can be a Mitford sister.
None of this comment serves as a justification for any one thing of course, whether a viewpoint, a transcendental, or whatever. It is rather simply a critique upon the critique upon the essay. Either something is knowable beyond the empirical, or all is nihilism.

avatar Eric Brooks September 4, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I believe that there is a step of self-examination related to this rejection of abstraction that must precede any real love of the local. Before I can love where I am, I must look at myself and see that I am a particular person with particular strengths and limitations, particular parents and other relatives, a particular gender and temperament. I am not the individual of pop-existentialism who is only given distinction by his choices, but could in theory become anything else. I am a particular individual from the beginning. As you’re giving a rather philosophical analysis of this problem, it can be pointed out that the medieval scholastics considered men to be individuals in a way that animals and rocks were not, so much so that in certain cases the problem of individuation even led some writers (wrongly) to suspect that a man must be considered his own species as the angels are.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 10, 2012 at 8:43 am

It has been a week or so since I looked in on this article, thus, I have only now read Salyer’s commentary. It seems the subject has not attracted such extensive attention as to interpose dozens of other opinions between his, and this attempt to respond.

Salyer makes an excellent argument for anarchy. Where I was prepared to place limits on group coercion of the individual, Salyer comprehensively shows that no restrictions whatsoever should be placed on any individual, even to preserve the dignity of another, because, in true Ayn Rand fashion, the contemptuous individual exercising superiority may in fact be superior. On the basis of Salyer’s commentary, we can dispense with all courtesy, mutual obligation, we can settle once and for all that nobody’s word is good, ever, but then, somehow, we are to huddle in little self-sustaining groups that throw rocks at each other because… well… THEY are not part of OUR GROUP, the ultimate tribal identity.

I acknowledge that Salyer was indulging in sarcasm, but sarcasm itself points somewhere, and he ended up knocking down every conceivable law or restraint in his pursuit of the devil across the landscape, indeed leaving himself nothing to shelter behind when the devil turns on him. Or, perhaps there is an alternate set of restraints he believes to be appropriate, but he hasn’t made clear what they are.

Salyer’s reference to Islam highlights nicely for a western audience, whether Christian or atheist, liberal or conservative, why there must be some limits to coercion, even by the self-styled righteous.

If I am a Mohammedan and “know” that Sharia law is right for all, then to be indifferent to its implementation is morally equivalent to watching my neighbor being assaulted in the street and doing nothing.

True enough, granting the compound “if.” Ditto, if I “know” that to attain salvation, every person must be subordinate to the Roman pontiff, then it makes sense to burn at the stake those who would imperil the souls of their neighbors by teaching otherwise. But I can’t PROVE either premise to my neighbor who does not take it on faith. Thus, it is not a suitable matter for coercion.

Why should not the one-eyed man on the island of the blind be king? He probably would be, in the end, because he would actually have demonstrable superiority, without any need to convince a mob. He could also evade any mob seeking to bind and slay him as a presumed sorcerer. In a small way, that is rather like, whether Richard Dawkins believes it or not, if there IS as transcendent, omnipotent God, Dawkins’ disbelief does not detract one whit from that deity’s power, or change that deity’s nature. That this deity may yet be concerned for the salvation of Richard Dawkins’s soul is a somewhat different question. God is God, not because many of us believe it to be true, but because God IS God. Dawkins can continue to run his mouth, because God, assuming there is one, does not choose to indulge in petty demonstrations of power to unbelievers — an example his would-be worshippers might do well to emulate.

In ordinary time, we do not have, as between one human being and another, such unquestionable objective measurements. A Bishop of Rome may proclaim, ex post facto, that Jesus Christ intended for him to reign over His Church, but when all is said and done, I would have to take his word for it, accept Rome’s rather dubious interpretation of Scriptures easily read in other ways, accept that these Scriptures are an accurate record of words actually said, in order to submit. Needless to say, I don’t. However, as long as no coercion is imposed upon me, I have no objection to my neighbors giving deference in their own lives to the Holy Father, finding comfort in veneration of Mary, etc. Similarly, it is of no concern to me if a majority of professing Catholics use contraception.

The Pope does not have a single eye which gives him innate superiority in any empirically verifiable manner. He can neither identify fruit high in a tree that my blind self cannot feel, and deliver it into my hand, so that I KNOW I have received a tangible benefit, nor can he walk boldly up to me and hit me on the head with a club, the blow unanticipated by me unseeing eyes — while I have to feel carefully for the head of my fellow blind person to do the same, giving them significant warning of my possible intentions.

It is true that the sailor’s son who is not bound to his father’s trade has less claim on first dibs to follow that trade. There are middle grounds… e.g., the son might have right of first refusal. It is also true that objectively, one could made a plausible argument for either pattern as more desirable. I once rented a room from a man who emigrated from Ethiopia, who was equally shocked that in the USA, an adult son owes no deference to his father, and that the father is under no obligation to leave his estate to that son (or sons).

One can well postulate that the species, or sub-species, is of paramount importance, and the individual organism merely a dispensible member, of no more consideration than an individual skin cell on my arm. Hitler, Stalin, Timur, the Harrapan civilization of the Indus Valley, and many others have built viable political and cultural entities on that basis. I cannot objectively prove to you that this is wrong. I can only say that I adhere to the premise that each individual is important for his or her self, and then, that these individuals are indeed social organisms.

Liu Shao Chih wrote in On The Cultivation of Communists that communism is the greatest and most arduous cause in the history of mankind. As we know, communist entities have been willing to sacrifice large numbers of individuals to this collective premise. Many committed individuals have been willing to sacrifice themselves, believing they did so for the good of all mankind. I would submit that this is true ONLY if the collective framework of communism, in the end, delivers a better social, economic, cultural and political environment for each individual to thrive. That a collectivist impulse is called communitarian does not relieve it from the same standard.

The market was made for man, not man for the market. Of course, you are free to disagree. When your disagreement infringes my freedom, not out of consideration for my neighbors’ freedom, peace, and quiet enjoyment, but in deference to your empirically unprovable claim to be a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, then I may have recourse to my Second Amendment rights to defend my liberty. But if I use those rights to impose on my neighbors, they have Second Amendment rights too.

The longer I live, the more I appreciate what Ursula Le Guin writes about maintaining balance, even if she is rumored to be an atheist.

avatar JD Salyer September 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

To expect a Sophist to accurately re-present his opponent’s views is, I suppose, too much to ask, but even so it’s a bit much to see

“One way to reduce conflict is to establish justice amongst groups… and another way is to simply deconstruct the value of the group such that the “members” are no longer willing to fight for it”

turned into

“somehow, we are to huddle in little self-sustaining groups that throw rocks at each other because… well… THEY are not part of OUR GROUP, the ultimate tribal identity”

So … where does one get “throw rocks at each other” from “establish justice among groups”? In any event Jenkins avoids the central point, which is that peace at the price of shedding natural attachments to kith and kin is ultimately dehumanizing. It is like suggesting that we eliminate quarrels between jealous lovers, murders of passion, etc., by abolishing monogamy.

I believe it was Siarlys Jenkins himself who made clear in a previous thread that his definition of good Catholics are those “who think like Protestants.”

In other words, Jenkins, being supertolerant, is happy to accept Catholics — provided their Catholicism is as superficial as, say, his epicurean friends’ attachment to their ethnic roots.

To announce such a view and then claim to be anything other than utterly hostile toward the Catholic Faith is simply and plainly dishonest. But then this dishonesty lies at the heart of the liberal project.

avatar R. Salyer September 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Sometimes ruminations, particularly when they go toward extreme examples, are offered to help readers zero in on what is the core moral disagreement in question. Other times, one tries to point out the natural result of a course of action, or a way of thinking.

Or to point to perceived internal inconsistencies, or the illogic of a position.

Since “I can’t PROVE either premise…, it is not a suitable matter for coercion.”

Okay Mr. Jenkins. Prove your syllogism. Why not? I will accept for argument’s sake that you cannot prove your premises, but why is not being able to prove them to another, decisive in any way?

Mr. Jenkins refuses to admit that he too is part of the anarchy he maligns. He believes, or rather “knows,” that he is right (I assume based upon his perception of human dignity’s self-evident inviolable independence.) and is (I also assume) willing to act upon his knowledge, at least to some extent. At least to argue from this basis.

Referring to my allusion to a Mohammedan’s knowledge of the “truth” of Sharia, Jenkins, moving on to Catholicism, writes:

“True enough, granting the compound “if.” Ditto, if I “know” that to attain salvation, every person must be subordinate to the Roman pontiff, then it makes sense to burn at the stake those who would imperil the souls of their neighbors by teaching otherwise. But I can’t PROVE either premise to my neighbor who does not take it on faith. Thus, it is not a suitable matter for coercion.”

Again, why not? “Thus”? Unfortunately for Mr. Jenkins, saying that I know X, but refuse to enforce this knowledge on my neighbour because I cannot empirically prove it to him is usually just a simple way to say that I really am a little unsure that I know X.

There is more here. I have met republicans in England who have told me that they would not have a queen. This is something of a self-deception. What they say is a simple truism, but what they mean however, is that they demand that I have no queen. Mr. Jenkins says he has no problem with persons who look to the Bishop of Rome for guidance. But he doubtlessly expects them to accept communal consensus with persons such as himself, above whatever the Pope says. That simply undermines all his “tolerant” concessions.

Mr. Jenkins is apparently unaware that for some, being locked up in the individualist state he advocates is the devil just as much as is being locked up in a particularist state not amenable to one’s identity. In essence, it seems he has offered a moral calculus that all have the equal right to enjoy life, individually, as he (it appears) would enjoy it, and absolutely nothing more.

Let us for a moment equate Mr. Jenkins’ “legislation,” and especially “coercion,” with “exclusion.” Taken to its logical and inevitable conclusion, Mr. Jenkins’ calculus eventually results in being unable to say “we are,” “we believe,” or “we” anything, at least regarding an objective assertion of value and identity. Because under his calculus, exclusion (the essence of definition and identity) is not justifiable.

No doubt this seems a paradox to Mr. Jenkins, but there is no “we,” no human dignity, and certainly no real moral freedom, without the freedom to exclude.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm

If I thought that either of you had any chance of becoming politically dominant in the USA, I would thank God for the Second Amendment. Fortunately, this is an extremely abstract discussion.

R Salyer, as usual is incoherent at great length, but his verbiage appears to boil down to, “I am so convinced that my view is right that I believe I have the right to coerce those who disgree by force, for their own good, and you can’t prove me wrong, therefore, my opinion is as good as yours.” True in the sense that if you believe that, and see a viable opportunity to employ coercion, you WILL attempt it. Those of us who disagree will attempt to kill you, in self defense.

One must have SOME premise to present an argument. If we cannot agree on a single premise, then we agree to disagree, or we go our separate ways, or we despair, or we kill each other. There is no basis for rational discussion. That is why atheists and theists cannot hold a rational discussion as to whether there is a God, or no.

JD Salyer shows a bit more thought. JD first accuses me of misrepresenting his views. I thought I was taking a rather abstract presentation of a lofty concept, and bringing it down to practical real-life ramifications. But perhaps I mistranslated.

If we are to establish justice “among groups” then what does life organized into these “groups” look like? I can think of two examples. In the Ottoman Empire, major cities, particularly Istanbul, aka Constantinople, aka Byzantium, had its Greek quarter, its Armenian quarter, its Jewish quarter, and perhaps a few others, in which each community, partly defined by ethnicity, partly by religion, existed unto itself with its own authorities, subject of course to the over-all authority of the Sultan. There are worse ways to live, but I wouldn’t choose this as a model.

In American cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a good part of the population inhabited ethnic ghettoes, something of a model for throwing rocks across major avenues at each other. Mike Royko wrote eloquently about this sort of “justice between groups” as it were:

“The neighborhood towns were part of larger ethnic states. To the north of the Loop was Germany. To the northwest was Poland. To the west were Italy and Israel. To the southwest were Bohemia and Lithuania. And to the south was Ireland. … But you could always tell, even with you eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the good stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.”

“The ethnic states got along just about as pleasantly as did the nations of Europe. … An Irishman who arrived hating only Englishmen and Irish Protestants soon hated Poles, Italians, and blacks. … “Go that way, past the viaduct, and the wops will jump you, or chase you into Jew town. Go the other way, beyond the park, and the Pollocks would stomp on you. Cross those streetcar tracks, and the Micks will shower you with Irish confetti from the brickyards… So for a variety of reasons, ranging from convenience to fear to economics, people stayed in their own neighborhood, loving it, enjoying the closeness, the friendliness, the familiarity, and trying to save enough money to move out.”

No doubt your vision is more sublime. Lenin’s vision of revolutionary construction was more sublime than either the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, or the shape of Stalin’s apparat. That doesn’t mean you would subject the United States to either a Gulag or a Spanish Inquisition. But I look at where the concepts you weave seem to have led historically, and I have yet to see a practical program for how your philosophy might govern and distribute humanity.

If the value of a group is such that members are willing to fight for it, how is throwing rocks across avenues not a rational extension? Who are the groups to fight, if not the adjacent non-members? (Or, internal dissidents? Here again we have the makings of a petty totalitarian dictatorship).

One does not get “throw rocks” from “establish justice” but from “willing to fight for it.” Every street gang measures up to that high calling.

As for monogamy, I thought it was a means to diminish jealous quarrels by establishing boundaries… he and she are married, therefore, you may no longer compete for her or his favors… not a perfect boundary, to be sure, but hardly the CAUSE of jealousy. Analogy can be a useful tool for illustration, but also for obfuscation, and seldom offers proof of anything.

Now perhaps by “justice between groups” you mean, Catholics will live under Curia law, Muslims under Sharia law, Protestants under Calvinist law, etc. IF so, you may be familiar with one Michael Schwarz, who wrote a book mis-titled “The Persistent Prejudice,” in which he essentially said anyone who denied the Roman Church’s claim to supremacy, practically and politically as well as spiritually, was indulging in anti-Catholic bigotry. You appear to indulge the same notion. If so, again, we lack sufficient common premises to do anything but dismiss each other, or if the opportunity and necessity arises, suppress or kill each other. There is only one answer to those who think themselves called and justified in trying to subjugate me.

Unlike John Calvin, I am perfectly willing that women who find spiritual comfort in devotion to Mary should do so to their heart’s content. I am perfectly willing that any church should have the right to exclude anyone the body as a whole deems unworthy of membership — so long as there is no CIVIL disability. I’m a true fan of freedom of association, WITHIN the framework that any citizen is free to form or dissolve associations.

My critique of your notion of “justice between groups” is that it appears to demolish the political equality of citizenship, upon and within which freedom of association may be exercised. In fact, it might FORCE me to accept a group identity I don’t care to identify with. I don’t care to live in an ethnic or religious ghetto as my inescapable fate.

I am indeed hostile to the Roman pontiff’s claims to supremacy and suzerainty. I don’t much care about grace vs. good works. I care that only those who freely choose submission to a church may or must submit. If you call that bigotry, then we are sworn enemies. The Know-Nothings claimed that Roman Catholics could not be good citizens of a republic, because they would vote as a bloc, on instructions of their priests, and take over by sheer numbers if allowed to immigrate. Wiser and cooler heads recognized that, freed from feudal states in league with such a church, RC’s could make perfectly good citizens. You now try to reassert a brand of Catholic Identity that would prove the Know-Nothings right.

Or maybe not. Maybe I fear a phantom raised by ill-chosen words. If so, explain what you really mean, offer me reassurance that what you advocate is not a conspiracy against constitutional republican government. Because I suspect that it is — and you have offered nothing to establish that it would somehow be a better way to live.

avatar JD Salyer September 17, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Waving one’s hand in the air and portentously declaring that analogies are sometimes OK, but at other times can sometimes be used to obfuscate is hardly a sincere effort to engage the point. (Somehow one guesses that Siarlys Jenkins’ definition of an appropriate analogy is one that helps his cause.)

The point which Jenkins has attempted to bury is that in this fallen world passionate loves have, of their nature, the potential to cause strife; if one makes eliminating potential strife the end-all be all then one has necessarily opted to eliminate passion.

Jenkins prefers for people not to love their roots and national identity enough to fight for them, because he prefers peace without identity to the possibility of strife with it. My own conviction is that life without roots is not worth living, that something irreplaceable is lost when men lose touch with their historical identity and where they came from.

Restated again and again with solemn invocations of Ursula LeGuin and Mike Rokyo and who knows who else, Jenkins’ response will always be something along the lines of, “Well, I DON’T care about roots, and happily the powers-that-be are on my side.” It is painful to see this presented as if an argument.

Nor does repeating again and again like a broken record that one doesn’t mind ladies venerating St. Mary even begin to address another point raised: He who brags of being tolerant of Catholics provided they “think like Protestants” is profoundly dishonest, and/or has no grasp of what religion even is.

If a man genuinely believes in the existence of global warming he will to some degree try to impose this belief on society, even if there are those who reject his belief. As Jenkins would not accept substituting “God” for “global warming,” we may be forgiven for wondering how strongly he really believes in God’s existence and/or relevance for the world.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 19, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I expected better of you JD. Rambling dismissive sophistry may make you feel good about yourself, but as a persuasive argument, it is preaching to the choir at its worst.

Let’s clear up a few points of agreement:

I do indeed distrust passion, and would rather have a peaceful world without it, than a world of strife rent by it. Passion exists, and it has its place. Passion can drive a person, community, locality, or world to good things, provided it is guided by reason and rational thought. Reason subjected to passion is a recipe for disaster. An analogy, if you wish: sexual passion within marriage is generally beneficial, although it can get out of hand in destructive ways. Sexual passion as raison d’etre for living, as the highest pursuit in life for its own sake, is the essence of lust, considered in many traditions, yours and mine included, to be a sin.

Having often critiqued the analogies offered by others, I have subjected my own to self-criticism as well. I try not to offer analogy as evidence or proof, only as illustration for an argument already made on more substantive grounds. I may not always succeed, being, like yourself, mortal.

I love my Welsh roots, but I wouldn’t fight an Irishman over the difference, nor even an Anglo, especially since my Welsh heritage carries, at this point, a good deal of English blood with it. My friends of African descent are proud of their roots, and I make no objection, unless we have to stop being friends over the difference. By the one drop rule, I too am black, but not by appearance, upbringing, or near proximity.

Now, let my try another tack in response to the more passionate R. Salyer, which will illuminate my further response to JD. I am seeking an objective basis for the assertion that “If something cannot be known by everyone, cannot be summoned on demand for everyone’ empirical inspection, then it is not a fit subject for legislation and coercion.”

Let us begin with the premise of the dignity of each human being. I infer that we can agree on that formulation, even if we will not agree on what it constitutes. If I have my dignity, and you have yours, on what basis may I coerce you, or you me? Only when the individual (or community) exercising coercion is acting to assert the dignity of each human being, against a trespass upon that dignity by another.

Accordingly, there should be some measurement which can be established as having more substantive reality than your (or my) own imagination, some tangible harm done. In the instance of global warming, either it is verifiably happening, or it is not. If it is, those who profit from pumping CO2 into OUR common atmosphere are doing damage to us all, and we are justified in employing carrot or stick to bring the offense to an end. Evidence is prerequisite, but in the presence of reliable evidence, the mere will to deny it will not render compulsion illegitimate.

However, I was not aware that either Ursula Le Guin or Mike Royko were “the powers that be.” Unlike you, I did not cite them as AUTHORITY. I found their material useful to illustrate a point, in Royko’s case, his empirical familiarity with “community” as it played out in Chicago. You, while indulging ad hominem dismissal, fail to speak at all to the accuracy of Royko’s depiction and recollection.

You also tip-toe around the real question as to Roman religious allegiance in a republic:

Do you consider the very existence of the free exercise of religion, and non-establishment of any church, to be an affront to the divine destiny of your own faith? If so, we have a passionate clash between two groups: those who claim supremacy and those who deny it. If not, we can live with each other under the same polity.

One suspects you avoid the question knowing full well that your answer cannot coexist with mine, and that a majority of your fellow-citizens will not grant the legitimacy of your desire.

Indeed, I will not substitute God for global warming. Global warming is a physical phenomenon subject to verification, which human action may change. God exists a priori, whether I know it or not, and is not subject to verification. As James Otis said at the time of the American Revolution, only God is entitled to omnipotence, because only God is omniscient.

avatar R. Salyer September 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Incoherence aside, there were no doubt some points and concepts supra that Mr. Jenkins understood, but has expertly attempted to dodge.

Such as: The freedom TO X is worthless, and in fact nonexistent, without the commensurate freedom FROM Y. To disassociate. To exclude.

And: Artificially capping this disassociative impulse below the level of “civil disability” is just that, an artificial cap. It is Mr. Jenkins’ preference and nothing more.

Furthermore, Mr. Jenkins has attempted to engage in what is sometimes called, “shifting the burden of proof.” He makes the following philosophical assertion or claim: ‘If I cannot prove a position to my neighbour on empirical grounds, then it is not a suitable subject matter for coercion of my neighbour.’

When asked to provide a justification for this assertion—which is not necessarily a challenge to the claim, but rather just an inquiry into the reasoning behind it—he responds immediately by turning the tables. By indignantly demanding that the inquisitor make a proffer of justification for his proposed coercion!

Respectfully, this seems to be a scale from the tune of Orwellian Newsspeak logic. Reverse engineering the question, and putting the onus upon the questioner (and not so subtly leveling an accusation) to prove ‘that it is not so,’ is a parlor trick of debaters. More ominously it was a favoured tactic of Spanish Communists in the 1930s just prior to General Franco’s Crusade, the Pronunciamento of Liberation.

Nonetheless progress has been made in this debate. The seminal points of disagreement seem to have unveiled themselves, hot rhetoric, powder, and shot aside. Mr. Jenkins essentially claims the position that there is a fundamental duty—or perhaps more accurately described as a default position—of CIVIL ENGAGEMENT. “I am perfectly willing that any church should have the right to exclude anyone the body as a whole deems unworthy of membership — so long as there is no CIVIL disability.” This impliedly posits that there is a duty of civility (presumably equal civility) amongst men, at least of the “community” (obviously another question-begged term). That is, everyone in the community has a duty to accord equal civil standing with everyone else in the community, unless there is a justifiable reason to deny it. And for Mr. Jenkins, not sharing in “religion” is not at all a justifiable reason.

Thus the disagreement boils down to the fact that some (many?) men simply do not hold that there is this fundamental duty of civil engagement with others that Mr. Jenkins takes for granted unquestioned (and unquestionable by others).
And perhaps Mr. Jenkins recognizes that this is a question of the burden of proof. One side—his side—posits that there must be an empirical justification before any civil disability occurs—before any “coercion” occurs. The other side posits—AND THIS IS THE POINT—that there must be a common ground underlying civil engagement in the first place, and “religious” (or other) differences may just undermine this common ground for those actually serious in their religion. Indeed, this is exactly what religio signifies.

Effectively Mr. Jenkins simply sets up the duty of civil engagement as greater and overarching mere “religion.” Modern America is in fact a confessional state, just simply one to Mr. Jenkins’ liking.

The second notable point in Mr. Jenkins’ writing is when he graciously concedes that no one is actually advocating a gulag state or the Spanish Inquisition. He goes on to observe, “I look at where the concepts you weave seem to have led historically, and I have yet to see a practical program for how your philosophy might govern and distribute humanity.” Of course, he does not reflect on where his concept (of inviolable individual equality) has led historically (gulag irony).

The fact is that Mr. Jenkins’ concepts… at least lead to the America of today, Lincoln’s Republic, and maybe more. If one is convinced that the American paradigm and its products surrounding us, in moral and social terms, is good and just in a fundamental sense whatever its tertiary problems, then Mr. Jenkins’ American paradigm is the horse to back.

But if so, one might ask oneself, on what basis? To be fair, the same type of question can be asked of Mr. Jenkins’ philosophical opponents: Why the fundamental criticism of this mandated pluralism? Are you just dogmatically using canons borrowed from the Middle Ages? For their part, his opponents (me) see degeneracy and degeneration where he may see progress. On what basis do these critics call this a dystopia?

They might respond: A tree is judged by its fruit, not by how far apart its branches can grow. It is as simple as comparing an organic valuation of culture with a contractarian one.

Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Jenkins opponents do not actually propose to govern and distribute “humanity” at all. Rather, they appear to seek only to say what THEY will do, how they will make judgments, and on what basis.

As such, it is highly ironic that Mr. Jenkins wishes to reach for his firearm, as if he was on the side of those imposed upon, as opposed to those doing the imposing. To force this duty of civil engagement, to force recognition of “rights,” to force equality in participation, the modern so-called pluralist state, in the name of Mr. Jenkins much-vaunted freedom, has used force time and again to break down barriers and traditional authority, sometimes even at the grassroots, from the Vendee to VMI. From the so-called Fair Housing Act to fairy weddings. The Second Amendment, to the extent it has had any efficacy, is more likely to have been an impediment to Mr. Jenkins’ worldview than an ally.

As an aside, as an admirer of the Rev. Ian Paisley—at least of his rhetoric and rhetorical positions—it is my opinion that Mr. Jenkins is not really picking on Catholicism, but on anyone who believes anything at all, any objective belief under the Sun that is not amenable to empirical (i.e., materialist) proofs. Respectfully, his attitudes seem not unlike the juvenile responses issued to the great Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX (e.g., that of Mr. Gladstone), by sawing away at the branches holding themselves up.

avatar R. Salyer September 19, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Now the root of disagreement has finally been unveiled.

I reject Mr. Jenkins’ premise (“Let us begin with the premise of the dignity of each human being. I infer that we can agree on that formulation, even if we cannot agree on what it constitutes.”). This again is the point.

No we cannot agree. Not as a premise. The “dignity of each human being” may be provable, or it may not be. But if there is such a dignity, it must be established, and measured, according to a canon, not premised. If it is premised, then it is nothing more than Mr. Jenkins’ revealed religion, which he seems quite willing to simply foist on others for their decision-making.

That is, he still has not demonstrated why one must ask “on what basis may I coerce you,” is the first question.

And yes, the free exercise of my religion signifies a confessional community. As apparently does that of Mr. Jenkins.

avatar R. Salyer September 19, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Jenkins Doctrine:
Point One: Everything must be justifiable.
Point Two: Point One does not have to be justified.
Point Three: Anything that exists or acts without justification violates Point One, and is therefore damnable.
Point Four: Jenkins Doctrine is not damnable.

Liberalism accuses all other viewpoints of oppression by not being able justify themselves to their objects of “coercion” in empirical terms—a justification requirement that is simply not the internal canon of legitimacy for these other systems, but is the quintessential requirement of the Liberal system. Then Liberalism cannot justify this very requirement, on empirical grounds. That is, it fails on its own principle, and must vanish in a puff of logic.

That is, if you reject all “dogmas” as unproven on substantive grounds, that is fine. But if you reject all dogma, as a matter of dogma, you swallow your own tail.

avatar JD Salyer September 20, 2012 at 9:35 am

I [...] would rather have a peaceful world without [passion], than a world of strife rent by [passion].”

Instead of addressing all Jenkins’ many logical fallacies and rhetorical sleights-of-hand, I will simply note that we have identified one of the fundamental points of disagreement. I also emphasize that a recognizably human (albeit troubled) world is far preferable to a passionless (albeit serene) world. If a “man” is without passion then he might as well not be alive at all.

avatar Zac September 21, 2012 at 4:19 pm

This Salyer groupthink is overwhelming. You guys are ridiculous.

I stopped coming to this site long ago because of this kind of overly-abstract, my-words-are-bigger-than-your-words, pompous mudslinging. Your defensiveness is embarrassing, Salyer 1 and Salyer 2. I hope you guys someday learn the art of respectful conversation. Then maybe people will actually listen to you. This is laughable.

avatar JD Salyer September 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm

I do thank Zac for instructing us all about the art of respectful conversation, and promise that in future I’ll try to find smaller words.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins September 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm

I do sympathize with Zac’s frustration, and thank him for his salient observation. But, as I have consistently endeavored to be rational and respectful in the interest of productive dialog (however much a disinterested observer may think I am casting pearls before swine), I will limit my response to this:

The Salyers have offered the ultimate argument for chaos: There are NO absolutes, NO axioms, NOTHING is a priori, and therefore, whatever The Speaker wishes to enunciate is as good as what any other speaker wishes to enunciate. Further, any human being with sufficient ego to feel self-justified may coerce any other human being as he pleases. To cap this off, they deny ANY duty of civility between human beings, between groups of human beings, or within any community. They begin to remind me of the reason God ordered the Amalekites exterminated, men, women, children, ox, sheep, ass, to make sure such arrogant evil never showed its face on the earth again. Closer to the present time, they offer an excellent justification for chattel slavery.

avatar E.R. Bourne September 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

No, Mr. Jenkins. Their argument is not the ultimate argument for chaos. That I even have to point this out is astounding, or at least provides evidence of uncharitable reading to the highest degree. The argument is that your supposedly inviolable absolute, axiom, etc. cannot be justified and cannot provide for any more of a “rational” civil order than any other one. No one is arguing for some purely barbaric “might makes right” order, rather, Mr. Salyer is attempting (to no avail, apparently) to show you that your axiom, which is the support structure upon which all of liberalism is built, is merely the ideological justification of the liberal order.

The ultimate error that you commit is, and for which you have here been critiqued, is that there is some utterly neutral third standard to which all cultures can be measured, namely liberalism. The truth is that, like the Sharia law of the Mohammedans, liberalism is just one type of civil order, the difference being that liberalism seeks to exclude itself from all others and therefore its adherents are blind to the fact that, instead of being the vanguards of reason and rationality, they are just the newest set of propagandists for the establishes way of things.

avatar J.D. Salyer September 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm

My kinsman and I remind Jenkins of “the reason God ordered the Amalekites exterminated”? How very tolerant of him.

Obviously I deny the substance of Jenkins’ last comment as an outrageous strawman. And yet again, I emphasize that a recognizably human (albeit troubled) world is far preferable to a serene “world without passion”.

I would also add, in case there is some misunderstanding, that while his liberal-utilitarian approach to the world fosters the development of passionless men, I would certainly not accuse Siarlys Jenkins of being such a passionless man himself.

In that respect, at least, he is clearly superior to his philosophy.

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