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Tag Archive: Ideas

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 (1:57 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, September 30th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from an On The Square article today over at First Things, on the inherently epistemologically-limiting nature of intellectual methodology, and the dangers of ignoring that fact:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural.”)

This interesting little aside into the role of methodology in the intellectual life got me to thinking about the role of religion in the academy. It seems to me, when you get right down to it, that the idea of methodology serving as a definition of the limits of knowledge, thus marginalizing thought which falls outside the methodology as non-knowledge (or “un-scientific”, as one hears it imprecisely put today), is essentially a superstition. Superstition, after all, is nothing more than a belief that a methodology (i.e. cult), whether in act or incantation, will cause effects which in reality are quite independent of their alleged explanations, despite appearances to the contrary (superstitions that did not appear to “work” some convincing proportion of the time would, of course, never have been held). This is not merely a conflation or confusion of correlation with causation (though it certainly can involve that), but an actual belief in the power of allegedly explanatory phenomena, which misdirects the intellect away from its proper end, which is the contemplation of truth. That’s a fancy way of saying that people are deceived by their own cleverness, and so take their eyes off of God.

The history of true religion, be it Christianity or the Israelite religion that spawned it, is a history of struggling against and overcoming the superstitions of pagan religions, and of pointing to the one, true, un-manipulable Cause. It’s ironic that the Yahwists of yore could be denounced essentially as atheists for their rejection of the cosmology, cult, and attendant morality of pagan religion, while their modern descendants are reviled as “religious theocrats” by people often calling themselves atheists, who are practitioners of a methodology (cult) believed to be bringing relief (salvation) to the human condition, but which superstitiously claims both to explain things clearly beyond its competence and invalidate ideas beyond its scope, furthermore is based on a cosmology of Original Violence, or intrinsic struggle – with its resounding similarity to pagan mythology – and is producing in its wake a social morality that resembles nothing so much as pagan hedonism.

It’s been said often enough that wisdom depends on an apt understanding of the meanings of words. Our society could benefit greatly from a non-obfuscatory working definition of religion.

Interiorizing Pop Brands

Posted: Saturday, May 17, 2008 (11:12 pm), by John W Gillis


Over the past few weeks, I’ve written several posts related to the challenge of introducing growing children to the ubiquitous pop culture while minimizing the negative effects of the encounter on their moral and spiritual well-being. Given that ubiquitousness of pop culture, and that my primary responsibility toward my children is for their moral and spiritual formation, this is a big deal to me. I suspect this is also a big deal to many others, even to many who think that the moral and spiritual formation of their children is a secondary responsibility after that of their material well-being.

This stream of thought began when I learned that my daughter Abby wanted an iPod for her 10th birthday (which passed a couple weeks ago, with no iPod). I was reluctant to go along with the idea, because I was concerned that giving it to her would quickly become tantamount to throwing her into the pop music cesspool, without having first taught her to swim (and hold her nose), so to speak.

In the last couple posts in this stream, I’ve tried to show that everything we encounter in the world, including pop music, is imbued with embedded ideas, for better or for worse. This is simply to say that everything has an agenda.

Primarily, this agenda is driven by the ideas or messages intended by the authors (or other, behind-the-scenes, producers of the “product”). These messages can be both direct, and/or read between the lines. Although not something I addressed previously, I would add here that these messages are not only lyrical, but also take many other aesthetic forms – the type of clothing the artists wear, for example, often being an important factor in the message sent to young pop consumers about the meaning of the artists’ product, or brand; part of the statement of “what we’re about,” into which the acts (and their corporate puppeteers) try to lure the children.

The embracing of a pop brand (forgive me if I resort occasionally to calling it a shtick), a process which we usually refer to as becoming a fan, entails some degree of identification of the fan with the brand. The “what I’m about” of the artist/brand becomes part of the fan’s “what I’m about,” or even “who I am.” When the degree of identification goes radical (fanatical), we say that the fan has become obsessive, and we get concerned, as we should. But it’s important to understand that the very same process of identification, involving what’s essentially the establishment of an imaginary relationship between the fan and the artist/brand, goes on in lesser degrees the rest of the time. This is simply how pop culture works. It is part of consumer society, and works just like it – except that pop art has more moral baggage than perfume, or multivitamins, or mid-sized cars.

This identification with the brand by the fan is what I call the interiorizing of the product. That sounds like just an overblown way of referring to being influenced by the product, but I think the psychic consequences of pop interiorization goes deeper than influence, in that influencing seems to me to refer to a constructive or additive process, whereas becoming a “fan” of a pop brand strikes me as something that only diminishes the true personality of the afflicted individual. The artist/brand is used as a kind of flag to be waved by the fan/consumer, saying – at least to herself, if not to the world – “this is (part of) what I’m about.” Although always a bit pathetic, this can be a fairly harmless way of making a statement about yourself in simple circumstances, but much of pop culture is not nearly as simple as it might appear.

When young girls embrace tawdry pop stars because they admire the prettiness, or popularity, or alleged “grown-up-ness” of the stars, they end up with the rest of the package as well. They embrace the brand, they identify with the brand, and if there are undesirable elements of that brand, well, they are just part of the package, and they will be interiorized. They may eventually be rejected, but they are packaged compellingly as part of the desirable brand – and I think we can be sure that if the young consumer were inclined to reject those undesirable elements from the outset, they would never have become a fan in the first place. In saying that, I’m not suggesting that these negatives are necessarily positively embraced by the young fan. Rather, they will be largely unnoticed and unexamined, bubbling to the surface only later on.

Consuming music -and other media- through the senses is not very different from consuming items through the digestive system. Some things are good, some things are bad (e.g. poison), and some things qualify as junk. I think there is some good music that falls under the pop umbrella (at least broadly understood); I think much of it is junk, and some of it downright poison. That being said, it’s hard for me to know how to really classify junk beyond saying it’s not good, and leaving it at that. Maybe, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that there is music with one foot planted in the good, and the other in junk, and that I sometimes enjoy listening to it.

Nonetheless, pop music does form an ubiquitous presence in our culture, and our kids will almost certainly end up swimming in it sooner or later. I’ve mentioned previously that I think it is important for parents to both understand why and how certain messages are unhealthy for their kids, and to be able to find a way to convey that knowledge to them. It can be hard enough for a parent to understand the significance of complicated messages or ideas well enough to be able to articulate them, but to be able to translate that into something that can be comprehended by a youngster is doubly difficult. If kids begin listening to music that carries unhealthy messages at an age when they are not yet old enough to understand criticism of those messages, they will simply interiorize those offensive attitudes, like someone learning bigotry on his mother’s knee.

It’s clear that a critical attitude toward pop culture is an essential element in anybody’s toolbox, but it’s also clear that pop culture works very hard to resist criticality, to marginalize it, to suffocate it with the banality of seductive appeasement. It also goes without saying that critical thinking is not a native characteristic of childhood. So, in the light of all I’ve considered so far, it seems to me the next question to consider is the very practical one: How do I keep my daughter from embracing unhealthy messages in her music listening?

The Heart of the Matter (part 2)

Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2008 (11:40 pm), by John W Gillis


My last post ended up focusing on the need to understand the nature of the problem of pornography, but what I’m really trying to get at is seeing how people are shaped by the ideas they encounter and absorb, how this is particularly true of children, and how this generality might be applied to the concrete situations parents find themselves in when confronted with the need to make decisions regarding their children’s involvement in pop culture, with its attendant mores.

I take it for granted that everything we encounter in life, including everything we encounter in pop culture – from the pornography I mentioned, to music, movies, news product, sporting spectacles, etc. – is pregnant with ideas. That’s really not saying much more than that everything has meaning (a radical enough idea these days). I suppose I am pointing to that which is beyond the competence of empiricism to grasp; to what the poet would see in something, even if the scientist were oblivious to it.

Since I’m concerning myself primarily with pop culture, I will use an illustration drawn from it: Almost 35 years ago, the Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco) rock band Jefferson Starship published a song called Ride the Tiger which included the following verse, near the end:

It’s like a tear in the hand of a Western man,
he’ll tell you about salt covered in water.
But a tear, to an Oriental man,
he’ll tell you about sadness and sorrow,
or the love of a man and a woman.

Have a listen: [audio:http://maybetoday.org/wp-content/audio/ride_the_tiger.mp3]

Had this verse come from an Oriental man, I suppose it should have been taken as an insult. But coming from Westerners, it’s just another example of the self-loathing that afflicts liberal society. Either way, it’s a rather silly sentiment: overblown, and lacking any indication of meaningful interaction with either of these cultures. All the same, as clumsy as it is, it makes an important point – and one that is readily discernible.

No, it has nothing intelligent to say about Western and Oriental cultures, but it does say something important about different ways of approaching understanding, reiterating what I said above regarding the limits of empiricism. The dichotomy it posits could actually be pretty reasonably (if much less lyrically) restated as one between modern secularism and traditional society, but if the band had peered within traditional Western culture looking for the deeper meaning beyond the sterile, clinical superficiality of chemical analysis, they would have encountered historical Christianity, which would have forcefully challenged many of the assumptions of their own superficial antitraditionalism – it’s so much less demanding to get romantic over a past that has no claim on you…

So, even in this brief illustration, we can see how several layers of meaning emerge from the encounter with this song – and we’re only scratching the surface of it: examining a short lyrical excerpt, while completely ignoring the aesthetic elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Still, its meaning can be usefully analyzed.

Primarily, there is the meaning intended by the lyricist – which has both explicit and implicit levels. Implicitly, we are being told that things (e.g. tears) carry within themselves meaning that point far beyond themselves, through representation of and association with other things (the details of which we don’t need to delve into). This is profoundly true, and is the important phenomenon called transcendence, which is very much the point I’m trying to make in this post – though I am more interested in showing how it is true of things like songs than of things like tears.

Explicitly, we are being told that Western man is shallow, and incapable of seeing the transcendent meanings embedded in things, but that Oriental man can see them. This claim is not true, although it must be admitted that Western man has been intellectually pursuing this very reductionism, which denies (and hence is oblivious to) the transcendent. Nonetheless, that project, while very popular in the academy, has not (yet) overwhelmed the West. Meanwhile, the Oriental societies that have modernized are at least as bad off as the West in this regard.

Beyond the meaning intended by the lyricist, we can also understand quite a bit about the lyricist himself: by understanding what was intended to be said, what was implied, what was assumed, and how much resemblance any of this bears to reality – as well as how it fits into its historical context. This understanding is contingent upon our ability – and willingness – to think critically about what is being conveyed.

This leads us to the subjective element in the encounter. Regardless of how well we may or may not grasp the author’s intent, we will bring to it our own set of understandings of associations and representations. We will encounter it within the context of our own experiences, and the piece may end up taking on it’s own quite personal transcendent meaning in our lives, depending on how it shapes new associations for us.

My immediate reaction to this particular verse, at this point in my life, is to roll my eyes at the romanticism of it, because I have become sensitive, in my own search for truth, to a much deeper and more complex core to Western culture than is suggested in this caricature. I’m also aware that the tendency toward empirical reductionism, to the extent that it is an influence in Western culture, is driven, in part, by a progressivist worldview that both delights in frivolous novelty, and disparages traditional values (and traditionalism per se). But this progressivism, which produces such culpably sterile empiricism, is also very much at the heart of the rock music culture from which this band seeks to express its criticism of it.

This is why they think they find wisdom in their romanticized view of Oriental culture, and are so enamored of it. It possesses progressivism’s requisite novelty, and allows them to embrace a premodern or traditional perspective without acknowledging it as part of a heritage having an ancestral claim on them – it allows them to embrace it from the position of a consumer, who buys it because he likes it. If, instead, they had plumbed the depth of their own cultural heritage, and seen that their fathers were ready to bequeath them a similar, and even superior, wisdom, their self-righteous rebellious adolescent routine would have come apart at the seams rather quickly.

However, I first encountered this song as probably a 14 year-old, in 1974, not as a grown man experienced (at least peripherally) in the contemporary battles of the culture wars. I was, first of all, quite captivated by the rollicking buoyancy of the music, the infectious backbeat, the crisp work of a guitarist I’d never heard before… I was more than willing to put up with almost any level of lyrical banality. I was certainly not prepared to think critically about the kinds of ideas being transmitted – it was just a cool song.

I can’t really say how much influence the verse in question had on the formation of my early understanding of the nature and character of Western culture. It probably somewhat reinforced pre-existing prejudices against traditional wisdom, but I can’t say for sure. I do know that I was never swayed to the opinion that Oriental culture held some kind of existentially superior position to the West, through a sort of quasi-mystical access to a deeper meaning or state of being, access that had been bureaucratized out of the grasp of entrenched Westerners – and that was not an unpopular opinion, most notably in the form of the Transcendental Meditation fobbed off on young hippie “mystics” by the soon-to-be-billionaire Hindu Yogi who used the Beatles as his shill.

But I was only skeptical, not wise. I might have fallen for it, had I sensed something in it for me. One thing I can say for sure: the image of the tear that can be intellectually reduced to chemistry, or allowed to witness poetically to certain truths about the unfolding of human history, has stuck with me for all these years. It is a resource I can call upon, warts and all, to help explain the transcendent value of ordinary things. It turns out it was more than just a cool song: it was, for better or worse, a tortured worldview seeking souls to abide in. We simply can’t consume without, in some way, becoming.

We always begin our encounter with a piece of music – and its encounter with us – with the objective presentation of the artist. Even when music is intentionally presented so as to have no explicit meaning, it retains implicit meaning from its creator, and before any digestion can begin to take place on our part, it is that objective meaning that we consume (assuming we can tolerate it to begin with!).

Needless to say, it is not all of equal worth, and a lack of discrimination on our part will surely lead to consuming some foul fare. It’s too simplistic to say that all that matters is what we do with it once we’ve consumed it; what “it” is, is determinative for what we can do with it. We are what we eat.

The Heart of the Matter

Posted: Friday, May 9, 2008 (1:30 am), by John W Gillis


Expanding only slightly on the maxim that you are what you eat, I would propose that you are what you consume. People argue over whether or not violent movies or video games promote violence in society, whether pornography has similar effects, etc. I think it is a silly argument, and see no need for anyone to have to empirically prove what is readily discernible by common sense.

You are what you consume, and if this were not true in some meaningful way, there would be no propaganda, no advertising, no equal air time demands, and certainly nobody concerned about the deleterious effects of such childhood trauma as prayer in school. We rightly concern ourselves over the ideas our children are exposed to, because we intuitively understand that they will be, in some manner, formed by what they are exposed to (and I think “ideas” is the proper term to use in this context, rather than focusing on “things”).

Of course, there comes a time when we no longer censor the ideas our children are exposed to, but if we have any clue at all as parents, we will have used the period when we did practice censorship to help our children understand the existence of healthy and unhealthy ideas, and will have guided them to make decisions of their own that reflect the values we believe are most important for them to protect.

Although common practice often belies this, the point, in raising a child, is not to keep them away from deleterious ideas until they reach some magic age threshold, when it somehow becomes OK to adopt such ideas. The point, rather, is to keep error away from them while they are tender enough to be vulnerable to it, and to make sure they become wise enough to not be vulnerable to it, as it becomes more difficult to shield them from it over time. This, I’m afraid, is easier said than done, but it is unquestionably the goal of responsible parenting.

Now, it is true that not all parents have such a clue, at least not all the time, and I won’t pretend otherwise. Very often, what’s obvious on the one hand is, for some reason, ambiguous on the other. I don’t know if this is because some parents fail to consistently apprehend the danger across all genuinely dangerous circumstances, or if they fail to adequately discern the danger out of a lack of understanding the actual nature of the danger, or if they simply lack the fortitude to confront certain dangers (perhaps especially those for which they have their own proclivities). It’s probably a combination of all these things.

I don’t point this out to be uncharitable toward my neighbors (nor do I fancy myself immune to any of these forms of imprudence), but there is simply no mistaking that too many children in our society are exposed to too much harmful trash. Nor can we help but come to the conclusion that parents are failing their children in this respect.

Let’s take pornography as an example. No parents in their right minds would permit their primary school-aged children to be exposed to porn. Anyone that did permit it would be judged by the other 99% of parents to be grossly irresponsible, and quite possibly a pervert. Everyone agrees that exposing seven year-old children to porn is bad for seven year-old children. We believe that there are ideas conveyed in pornography about the human person, about human life, that would be damaging in some way to children exposed to it. However, I think unanimity of opinion would cease right about there.

The first reason opinion would soon divide is because there would not be agreement on what constitutes pornography. This is essentially the question that always gets publicly contested about pornography: what really constitutes porn? In the context of discussing what is healthy vs. unhealthy for seven year-olds, this question is pretty well exposed for the sham that it is – who really has the patience for such pharisaic hairsplitting, when the answer clearly points to whatever it is that a parent feels the need to protect his or her children from? – but an honest assessment of the prevailing situation reveals that, even when it comes to first or second graders, there really is no common understanding regarding what level of commodified sexualization crosses the line into inappropriateness.

Many kids that age are routinely immersed in messages that treat human sexuality in ways that some of us would identify as what’s called soft-core porn. Modesty – especially sexual modesty – has fallen so far off our cultural radar that I fear it will return as a vice (perhaps it already has, in our popular denigration of Muslim traditionalism).

But the question of what constitutes pornography is really a secondary question, which is the biggest reason it is such a waste of time to focus public discussion on it. More important is to understand why porn is bad; how it does its damage.

Again, everyone agrees that exposing seven year-old children to porn is bad for seven year-old children, but does anyone know why? Our answer to this question will establish the grounds for our judgment on related matters in many other circumstances – as well as answering for us the question of what constitutes porn.

If our answer is that a seven year-old is too young to learn anything about sex or sexual behavior, we’re saying absolutely nothing about pornography.

If our answer is that pornography cheapens human sexuality by making it a public spectacle, devours its intimacy, divorces it from its humanizing context of marital love, mocks its creative glory with violent lust, objectifies its actors as means to others’ impure ends, corrupts it viewers with myriad disordered passions, etc., well… we haven’t said much about seven year-olds – which may be astute (there’s little doubt in my mind that porn is at least as damaging to 17 year-olds, or 47 year-olds for that matter, than it is to seven year-olds – even if in different ways), but it still needs to be translated into practical parenting decisions.

Again, if you are opposed to pornography because it is a form of brutal and oppressive subjugation of women by men, where does that leave you vis-a-vis the porn being produced by self-proclaimed emancipated feminists? Would you show it to your seven year-old? Or, are you opposed to porn because, like prostitution, it commercializes sex? OK, would you show your seven year-old free porn? It’s not that either of these reasons are not good reasons to despise porn, they’re just not enough – they don’t get to the heart of the matter.

And what is it about introducing a young child into the equation that can seem to make possibly ambiguous moral questions suddenly so clear? Is it a parental instinct to protect that rises to the occasion? A fear of having to explain the uncomfortable? A little of both? Or, God forbid, is it nothing more than a yucky feeling? A false nostalgia for a romantic idea of innocence? Such groundless sentiments can be easily subverted, as is witnessed to by the clothing and entertainment successfully marketed to so many adolescents and even prepubescents (girls, in particular).

It seems to me there is little more critical for a parent than to work to understand exactly why and how things – and the ideas they convey – are dangerous for our children, so that we can make decisions and set guidelines that are based on sound principles, so they can be applied consistently, and eventually understood rationally by the children, which will allow them to likewise make principled decisions based on a sound understanding of the nature of the threats the world presents to them.

Part of the difficulty is that principled decisions often come across as severe or scrupulous. In that light, it’s true that you have to choose your battles, but there’s little that’s more important for a parent to do, it seems to me, than teaching his children – by example – how to get to the heart of the matter.

Modern Scholar series (part I)

Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 (10:14 pm), by John W Gillis


In the spirit of always trying to look on the bright side of things… One of the advantages to spending two hours or so each weekday commuting to and from work is the opportunity it affords me to listen to audio books. I was in the local public library over the weekend, and noticed that they had a new title from Thomas F. Madden in Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar series. Unsurprisingly, the series overall is a bit of a mixed bag, but, having listened to all of Madden’s volumes so far, I can vouch for the quality of all of them.

These are not actually recorded books, but sets of about seven hours worth of lectures on various subjects – in Madden’s case on the history of Christianity, broadly speaking. Madden’s work is by no means overwhelming – these are survey-level mini-courses, and an overlap in subject matter among his volumes leads to some redundancy, but he does a nice job of walking through the material briskly while still demonstrating the complexities of the historical situations. I was particularly impressed with his agility in avoiding fashionable, oversimple cliches in his surveys of the Crusades and the Inquisitions – each of which he managed to cover fairly comprehensively in what would amount to about three weeks worth of classroom lectures in a traditional undergraduate environment.

I’ve been able to fill some gaps in my knowledge of European history while listening to these CDs, and it struck me a while back just how fundamental this knowledge is to understanding the world we’ve inherited from the ancients, the medievals, and the early moderns. And yet, where is this knowledge to be found in our culture? I know so many people who have absolutely no clue about any of this – including many with college educations. What little previous knowledge I had of this history was almost entirely gained through personal reading over the years. As a product of the public schools, I had almost no exposure to this – beyond, perhaps, memorizing the details of major military skirmishes, and of changing political fault lines. I certainly was offered no clue as to how the set of ideas we call the modern world (if we can still call it that) was forged in the interplay of the ideas of our cultural ancestors.

Maybe teenagers are too young to grasp human history as the story of ideas, but if that is true, then our system of education teaches history to the wrong people. Actually, I think that is true, and it suggests a gaping question regarding how we might rectify the problem of a rampant ignorance of the meanings of ideas. And when the Daily News Product is feeding us political ‘debate’ that tries desperately to find the right marketing mix of ‘change’ branded slogans and ‘experience’ branded slogans – all in an attempt to manipulate the election of the leader of the free world – we’d be hard pressed to show that ideas are not in crisis in our culture. Ideas are packaged for consumption – as trivia.

“For $10,000 and a weekend in Barbados with an upscale hooker: Who was the father of Charlemagne?”

This series is a good place to at least start rectifying the problem – Madden’s volumes are, at any rate.