Thursday, October 15, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Well I was sitting here minding my own business, reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle when I came upon a strikingly sensational passage on the natives of Tierra del Fuego:
From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low, and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, "Doggies catch otters, old women no." This boy described the manner in which they are killed by being held over smoke and thus choked; he imitated their screams as a joke, and described the parts of their bodies which are considered best to eat. Horrid as such a death by the hands of their friends and relatives must be, the fears of the old women, when hunger begins to press, are more painful to think of; we are told that they then often run away into the mountains, but that they are pursued by the men and brought back to the slaughter-house at their own firesides!
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Lesley Chamberlain’s book The Philosophy Steamer, picked up in a cheapie bin a few months ago in our throwaway diamonds and shit culture, reminds me of writers I’ve read [Nabokov, Bunin, Trotsky, Zamyatin], writers I’ve never wanted to read [Lenin], thinkers I’ve heard of, more or less vaguely [Jacobsen, Sorokin], writers I’ve always thought I should read [the Mandelstams, Akhmatova], as well as bringing to my attention such figures as Berdyaev, Frank and Aikhenvald, Russians all, and all profoundly affected by the formation of the Soviet state. It’s much more though than an invocation of names and personalities.
The book is part history, part multibiography, part philosophical meditation. It tells the tale of the forced emigration of a group of intellectuals – writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, academics and activists – in the early twenties, when the hard-headed Lenin briefly held sway after the post-revolution civil war. Most of them were Christians, and that itself seems to have been enough for Lenin, whose materialist ideology was dismissive of all spiritual and metaphysical speculation and argy-bargy. So in the name of efficiency he arranged for their departure from their homeland, the land of their ideals and their reality, an arrogant decision with far-reaching consequences for all of them. Mind you, if they’d stayed, their irrepressible individualism would surely have ‘forced’ the even more ruthless Stalin to knock them over like so many skittles.
There are tragic as well as inspiring individual stories here, but what is most interesting about the book are the larger issues explored. In banishing this small, disparate band of intellectuals, Lenin was seeking to impose a kind of discipline upon his new state, according to Chamberlain’s plausible thesis. As a devotee of Marxian materialism, he seems to have genuinely wished to found a society on ‘scientific’ economic principles, and this would only happen if all those out-dated, spiritually infected bourgeois individuals fell into line. Banishing a few here, imprisoning a few there, and shooting the odd hopeless recalcitrant would surely do the trick. Chamberlain interestingly argues that this ‘anti-metaphysical state’ being pursued by the Bolsheviks was an extreme, and extremely crass, version of what was happening westwards in Europe. She cites Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [published in 1921, and spawning a great deal of interest in the definition and limits of science, and the ruling out of mere metaphysics] as emerging from the same zeitgeist as Lenin’s earlier Materialism and Empiriocriticism [a point she doesn’t push too far]. Both books deal with the nature of reality and how we should understand it, with a particular concern about dividing sense from nonsense. Of course Lenin’s book had a scarily practical political purpose, but the logical positivists who followed Wittgenstein also felt they were engaging in a practical cleaning-up process. The difference being that logical positivism had a mercifully brief heyday, foundering on a multitude of contradictions and methodological problems, and in any case having little impact on the wider cultural community, while Bolshevism turned the Soviet state into a cultural minefield and a political death camp for seventy long years.
The two ‘philosophy steamers’ that sailed from Petrograd in the autumn of 1922 with about seventy intellectuals and their families, formed part of a more general, if trickling, Russian exodus. All they had in common was their Russianness. It wouldn’t even be right to say they had disillusionment in common. Some felt themselves victims of a colossal mistake that would eventually be put right. Others were completely at odds with everything the Bolsheviks stood for. There was plenty of dissension and mistrust amongst them, a fear of spies, rats in the ranks, as well as the usual ideological differences. There was also for some time a sense, heartbreaking in retrospect, that their exile was surely temporary, that they would outlast the ideological nitwits and nitpickers who had hijacked their country. The rise of Stalin no doubt put paid to that dream.
Of course, many maintained and nursed an obsession with the country that formed them. Many had left family and friends behind, and they were generally much more informed about the goings on in the new Soviet Union than were western liberals. Their exasperation at western attitudes was profound, but they suffered the typical fate of exiles – many western intellectuals, especially of the left, simply discounted their views as those of embittered losers in a largely ideological battlefield.
This is an affecting book for anyone who has an appreciation of a lost heritage, and for anyone who has suffered an exile of any kind. It has made me, at least, want to return to the work of two writers I’ve read before, now armed with new knowledge and understandings. They are Vladimir Nabokov, who left Russia with his family in 1919, and Nina Berberova, who left with her poet boyfriend in 1922, though not on the steamer. I’ve just started rereading Berberova’s collection The Tattered Cloak, which I’ll no doubt review later, and I’m particularly interested in reading Nabokov’s The Gift, his last novel written in Russian, and a leave-taking of sorts. The book tells the story of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, who is writing a book about the nineteenth century radical author of What is To Be Done?, Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and his impact. Chernyshevsky was the favourite author of Lenin [who wrote a book with the same title]. Chamberlain quotes this revealing passage from The Gift:
Suddenly [Godunov-Cherdyntsev] felt a bitter pang – why had everything in Russia become so shoddy, crabbed and grey...? Or had the old urge ‘toward the light’ concealed a fatal flaw, which in the course of progress toward the objective had grown more and more evident, until it was revealed that this ‘light’ was burning in the window of a prison overseer, and that was all? When had this strange dependence sprung up between the sharpening of the thirst and the muddying of the source? In the forties? In the sixties? And ‘what to do’ now? Ought one not to reject any longing for one’s homeland...? Some day, interrupting my writing, I will look through the window and see a Russian autumn.
The dependence mentioned here between the sharpening of the thirst and the muddying of the source could well be worth speculating upon, in relation to metaphysics in general. However muddy it all is, metaphysics doesn’t look like evaporating in the near future. Chamberlain opens the third, summarizing section of The Philosophy Steamer with these lines from Barry Stroud’s 2000 book The Quest for Reality:
Sixty years ago metaphysical theorizing was declared meaningless on the sweeping grounds that its results were neither true by virtue of meaning alone nor confirmable or disconfirmable by experience. But metaphysical theorizing of the proscribed kind was involved in reaching that very conclusion. It proved to be essential to philosophy then just as it is today.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this claim, and maybe that’s the point somehow. Something always tantalizingly eludes us....
Saturday, September 19, 2009
I’m not sure how I can switch from human rights to the meaning of life with any easy dance steps so I won’t try, but I want this blog to be primarily about meaning, which is said by some religious folk to be absent from the lives of the non-religious. A theme worth exploring.
Some religious folk even say that God is meaning. The people who say this tend to be monotheists, perhaps because with them the claim has a neatness to it. To say that the ancestor spirits are meaning, or that Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Kali and all the rest are meaning, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. The point, though, is that meaning must come from outside ourselves, according to some, in order to be real. Meaning that’s generated from within, they say, has something arbitrary, shifting and unstable about it. If we invent our own meaning, what’s to stop us from reinventing it according to our own will and whim? Without God to set the meaning agenda, anything is possible.
There are a number of responses that can be made. First, we don’t simply invent our own meaning. It seems to be more a process of discovery than invention. You might even say that discovering meaning is just discovering what it is to be human, to be ourselves. For some, this is discovering our connection with God, or a spiritual connection to a landscape and a set of cultural beliefs and practices, while for others it’s discovering how our human mind or brain works, how civilization emerged, how life has evolved, how the universe came into being. For others again, it’s discovering what it is that gives us our greatest thrill of pleasure, or satisfaction, or contentment.
Second, maybe God itself is an unstable, arbitrary, shifting concept. From our global perspective, this seems particularly likely, because we can do a survey of the hundreds of gods worshipped by humans, most of them extinct, having passed away with the cultures that identified with them. Even the current gods, or supernatural objects of worship, are a diverse bunch, something we tend not to notice, having grown up under the influence of one of the three major, and inter-related, monotheisms. Yet most of us who have travelled or read or seen something of the world know that even Christianity is followed in often bizarrely different ways in different corners of the globe, mixed in with local beliefs and rituals to create exotic hybrid concoctions.
We also note that people who claim to believe in the same god seem to carry away very different meanings from that belief. Some use the belief to justify reaching out to others, regardless of creed, in a benevolent fashion, while others use it to justify hostility to non-believers. In some, belief necessitates a reaching out, while in others it necessitates a more contemplative inwardness. In some, it inspires confidence, while others feel unsettled by it.
In short, we can’t easily see how belief in gods settles or fixes or beds down the issue of meaning. Looking at sacred texts, we find that the deities or their representatives often say contradictory things, or things that seem embedded in a moral system that modern people have long rejected. Many of us instinctively reject deriving meaning from such sources.
Friday, September 18, 2009
not for feeding
So, okay, on the one hand, nobody owes us a living, on the other hand everyone has a right to the basic necessities for survival. How can these apparently inconsistent propositions be reconciled?
My feeling is that both these propositions need to be looked at more carefully. Let’s look at the first proposition, that nobody owes any individual a living. Is this proposition actually true? Is it true in all circumstances?
Clearly it isn’t true in all circumstances. We all agree that children can’t be expected to fend for themselves. The same goes for the extreme elderly, the intellectually and physically disabled, the insane, the very ill and so forth. And around all of these groups there are fuzzy boundaries. There are some obvious questions to be asked – when does a child become an adult, when does an illness become incapacitating, and how much is society willing to expend on the continued survival of a severely incapacitated individual?
Let’s look again at our surfer. Most people would agree that society doesn’t owe her a living because she’s making no effort to fend for herself. That’s to say, we don’t owe all people a living, and particularly not those we feel aren’t playing the game.
Introducing this idea about ‘playing the game’ complicates matters no doubt, and yet it does seem necessary and right. It goes back to what I’ve said about the hidden assumptions in the concept of rights. Rights are provisional, at least in some cases. Certainly the right to food clothing and shelter is.
So what do we mean by ‘playing the game’? The key to understanding this is to recognise the importance of society to individuals. Rights apply to individuals, but all individuals are caught up in a web of relationships, which are in fact essential, not only to their identities, but to their very existence. Those relations involve tacit understandings about co-operation. These understandings can be very complex, as you would accept when they facilitate the construction of languages, religions, cities and business enterprises. None of these would get built if everyone decided to go surfing. It’s the game of social life, interaction, give and take, reciprocity.
It’s probably true to say that describing this reciprocal, interactive, co-operative world, and what we owe to it and what it owes us, is very difficult, far more so than developing a set of human rights for our flourishing. The human rights approach largely assumes reciprocity and co-operation. Often it assumes much more. For example, any claim to a right to education will make assumptions, not only about the benefits of education, but about what an education actually entails. For example, we can talk about a trip abroad being very eye-opening and educational, but trips abroad are unlikely to feature in the kind of education we might feel we have a right to. Often we hear the phrase ‘a right to a basic education’, which is presumably meant to keep the term ‘education’ within reasonable and narrow limits, but again the term ‘basic’ isn’t very clear as a definition.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It’s often said that human rights have no grounding, no empirical backing, that it’s rather amazing how much they’ve caught on in the last few decades, especially since the second world war, so now everybody talks about their rights even in the most dubious circumstances. People have become obsessed about their rights. The concept has become reified, even taken for granted. Yet it has nonetheless become one of the most useful concepts of the last century or so, not only in ethics, but also in jurisprudence. It has been of enormous practical value.
Of course the idea of anyone having a right to something – say, sufficient food or water to survive – is quite artificial, but we all understand where it’s coming from. We recognise that not having sufficient food and water causes suffering, and we don’t want people to suffer, and we don’t want to suffer ourselves. In order to eliminate this suffering, we argue that people should have the right not to suffer, and that therefore the rest of us have the responsibility to prevent such suffering, by ensuring that others have sufficient food and water. In fact, if we take this human right seriously, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that we all have sufficient food and water. So the development and enforcement of human rights should bring us together as a community and as a species, right?
But what of those who don’t play the human rights game in quite the usual way? Imagine a person who decides, all I want to do is surf. I love surfing, its great fun, it beats working for a living, it has its poetry, it’s deeply satisfying. I love the summer, I’ll follow the summer around, from beach to beach around the world if necessary, hitching rides from strangers, whatever it takes.
This person doesn’t earn money, she’s too busy surfing. So what about her right to sufficient food and water? Generally the water’s not a problem for her, but getting sufficient food may well be. Is she therefore entitled to knock on the nearest door and say [politely of course], look, my basic human right to sufficient food to survive is not currently being met, so I’m afraid you have a responsibility to provide food for me.
It’s certainly sounds like an ingenious ploy, and if beggars started using it when accosting people in the street, some people might well be impressed enough to open purses that might otherwise remain firmly closed, but the point I really intend to make here is that the human rights concept contains all sorts of hidden assumptions that need to be brought to light.
In the case of the surfer, most of us wouldn’t want to put ourselves in the position of asking for food, even if we felt it was our right to make such demands. But essentially our discomfort would spring from the feeling that we have no such right. Most of us don’t feel the world owes us a living. In fact, many a libertarian would reject the whole concept of rights because they would reject the implied obligations that go with rights. We don’t owe anyone anything, excepting our children until they reach maturity, and nobody owes anything to us.