Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.


Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.


Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.


Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.


There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.


Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.


Destre returns from the mists to write this post


Some musings on Social Media

Editorial: In place of an extended discussion this week I am going to summarise some responses which formed a group discussion between us at Noumenal Realm. This discussion was on the topic of Social Media.

Destre on Social Media

Perhaps I might speak of some of the goods of social media. I have been able to network with people professionally and carry on conversations that would otherwise have taken the spaces of seminars, lecture halls or other such private forms of correspondence. I love the capacity to debate issues abstractly through the medium of facebook messaging (although not by wall post discussions). I find a certain democratising element to the medium. Of course like any medium, it is up to people using it to practice it well.

Sinistre on practical applications

I can distinguish my level of contacts by what social networks I am on. Facebook friends are personal people I know or used to know, and a few online friends; Twitter followers are a mix of robots, people I’ve admired in journalism or entertainment or maybe even some people I’ve personally met, but for whom it might be awkward to add on a personal Facebook. For example, I have a great motivational gym class instructor who has quite funny and pithy things to say. It merits a Twitter follow but not a Facebook friendship. For me strict demarcation is neat. I also find it practical to have twitter blasting away and seeing odd little Guardian/Huffpo news/’news’ articles. I also find twitter useful to remind me when my favourite TV is on.

Antisophie on self presentation

If I wanted to greet someone affectionately in person, I would. Social media seems to emphasise the ‘being seen’ aspect of social interaction, without the actual interaction. In that sense it is artifice. We have written on this blog about Goffman and the moral nature of self-presentation, giving a very poor vision of the social-moral animal defined by constructions such as the definition of the situation. To me, media such as Facebook, local forums or even professional/specialist networks are simply about being seen or being heard, and less about things happening, actions being performed. It emphasises the worst of human nature and the populist herd mentality. The emperor has no clothes in the world of social media, and artifice is queen.

Michael on potential utilities

I have been using blogging platforms, tweeting, Facebook and specialised networks, for example: Streetlife and Project Dirt, as ways of connecting with groups and individuals of similar interest. I have found social media and the various showy things about them to promote the community garden project I have been involved with. I have unexpectedly found an odd merging of people I have personally met (through networking or personal friends) following me on the @noumenalrealm account.

I am a sucker for keeping records. I love reading reviews on Foursquare of restaurants. One particularly nice bit of advice was that the tap water costs an extortionate amount in Mr. Wu’s in London’s Chinatown. I have made a few friends of mutual interest when it comes to fitness, from the social network Fitocracy. I think that Fitocracy has had a large part in my interest in keeping active. I am as awkward with social media as I am in real life about sharing anything.

I am painfully self conscious that what one might say reflects some sociogenic aspect of them. Everything is politicised, mediated through social categories like say class. This includes one’s vernacular, the kinds of interests they have, or the things they may consider  to be apt to talk about.

I think perhaps the most disjunctive thing is that the things I tweet are violently different from the things I might talk about in everyday life. Despite having a blog where I like tweeting about music and blogging about books and intellectuals, my actual life surrounded by everything except black metal, or Modern Philosophy texts. The fact is, I hardly read that much, and my music listening is exceptionally varied beyond the things I say that I ‘like’. My (again, another interest-oriented network) shows my true guilty pleasures, the fact that I listen to a lot of non-music audio like audiobooks or podcasts, and that I like listening to music I am unfamiliar with. Social media may be a deceitful way of playing up one’s interests against how one is in the face to face social domain. When most people ask, I really actually hate talking about Kant or Adorno. Perhaps my face to face self betrays my bad faith in a manner that tweeting or Facebook updates cannot

#AMDG , or On the Jesuit Pope

We are living in an age of so many unprecedented things it is too much of an effort to keep track of them all. I thought I would care to mention one unprecedented thing of significance to us, and that is the announcement of a Jesuit Pope, the first ever Jesuit Pope.


There are lots of different things I could address about the most recently appointed head of the Catholic Church: the fact that he is from Latin America; the issue of liberation theology, or the other issues that many in the public and the Church congregation which to have the new Pope address, such as celebacy, scandals in the Church or the role of women. I’m going to do the side-stepping thing of not discussing them for the purposes of this post, and only talk about two issues specifically. Firstly – the question of ‘Why Francis I as a papal name?’ and secondly What significance is there to a Jesuit Pope?. It should go without saying that this is a speculative exploration in the exercise of writing this piece.


Why Francis? 


When I heard that the Pope was named Francis the First. I immediately thought of one Saint. Unlike most of the commentators around the Vatican and in Catholic media, I considered Francis to take after Saint Francis Xavier, who is the patron saint of Goa, known for introducing Catholicism to India and Japan and one of the first Jesuits. We at Noumenal Realm considered it interesting that we have a particularly different relationships to Francis Xavier. For I consider him as one of the founders of the Society of Jesus foremost, while Michael considers Xavier as the missionary who brought Catholic Christianity to parts of Asia.


Many commentators likened the name to an association with Francis of Assisi, better known for love of animals and nature. The question of what’s in a name is a significant one – as one is a missionary going to the edges of the known world spreading values, and the other has more of a conscientious connotation. Perhaps it is like me always to overplay the Jesuit connection with everything!


A Jesuit Pope 


Ah the Jesuits, they live in poverty and obedience to the Pope. The Jesuits are sometimes called ‘God’s Marines’ due to their militaristic nature. The Jesuits have placed themselves in many educational institutions and have taken a large part in mission work historically. I grew up with tales of Jesuit adventure and the very real perils that they faced in their work, including beheadings. I also have memories of the Jesuits claiming that they had their own personal views about homosexuality and women being inducted to the priesthood, but must always submit whatever personal views they had to the authority of the Pope. I always saw that as freethinking within limitations. I also respected such freethought from what appears to be a very authoritarian order.


I’ll always have a bit of a rational blind spot about the Jesuits, as they made me who I am in very large ways: inspiring my interest in Classics, Theology and Systematic thinking. The Jesuits also taught me that you should live by ideals, which included adhering to them. One of the things that has been coming out about Francis I is the way that he enacts poverty to his real life. The way that Francis I takes austerity in his own living conditions and behaviour, dress and actions is embarrassing the status quo of how things are done and have been done in the Vatican. No more custom red shoes, no more elaborate stoles and no more popemobile? This is a Christianity that I was grown up to believe in, not one of rock-star like entourages and fancy clothes, but one where a concern with the poor means identifying with the poor in how one lives, eats, dresses and travels.


Living with a minimum, without too much extravagance, and dressing for simplicity was the way that I was taught by Jesuits, and the ideal that I saw Jesuits live by. I was told about how Jesuit teachers had a ‘common pot’ where they put their wages, which were used for things like food, personal travel and clothing expenses. Even my dress sense has been influenced by the Jesuits. Smart, but universal. Simple and utilitarian. Try not to be too flashy. Try dressing to be adaptable. Wear black.


The Jesuits live with orders to have obedience to the Pope, does that make a Jesuit Pope a contradiction? How is it that an individual Jesuit can have complete obedience to himself? This reminds me of that old saying from Meister Eckhart: Can God make a stone so big that he could not carry it?


Perhaps I am being more deferential than I should. It is also the case that there are many critical avenues that people wish to address the papacy. I choose just for this post to focus on the Jesuit angle, because if he’s anything like the Jesuits who taught me, there is definitely space for reform.


I suppose all one can do is keep eyes open. It’s also amusing to see #AMDG trending on twitter!



On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.


Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.


Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael

On Julian Assange’s allegation

As part of my continuing philosophical education I like to read articles from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and one recent article that I was reading was on the subject of Rape.

In recent news developments and reactions have come around Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange, who, while being infamous/famous for being the head of an organisation which has leaked many documents and other files about the US Government (inter alia), some of which provoke many serious discussions about US foreign policy; Assange is also infamous for a rape allegation.

Among us in the Noumenal Realm Blog, we’ve decided not to talk much about the controversy about Wikileaks, on the one hand about whether government should keep documents and their decisions public against the need for secrecy about any given current military or operational project (such as say, social research or police operations, which when revealed, would undermine the efficacy of those projects). Then the infamy of the rape allegation took place.

I don’t feel that it’s right to keep silent about this issue anymore, and here’s why:

  1. Rape is a serious and devastating act against the victim. One writer in the F-Word pointed out how even if people convicted of rape endure out a criminal sentence, the victim lives a sentence of a different kind, in terms of long term psychological damage, as well as the relationships around them.
  2. The counter-claim of people like Assange and his supporters that this is a government conspiracy, or George Galloway’s claim that this case was a set-up, is deeply harmful and undermines all victims of Rape and sexual assault and the seriousness of these allegations

It’s a bizarre straw man position to be in defence of the act of Rape, but what I will say is that I was not aware until recently about the degrees of harm against women that sexual assault has. Greenfield (1997) points out that 91% of rape victims are female while almost 99% are male. Some feminist perspectives highlight the deeply ideological nature of rape through history, and the difficulties that women have in reporting, conviction and recovering from the incident reflect these challenges. It is also true to say that many women and men have different kinds of responses to having been raped. The long term and cultural impacts are perhaps the most harmful.One thing I didn’t realise is how broad the notion of sexual assault can be. There are many acts that can make a woman deeply uncomfortable and that violate her sense of autonomy.The distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘not rape’ can be less important when we broaden our conception of sexual violence beyond the act of forced penetration. There are behaviours such as verbal harassment or indecent exposure which are harmful to women and their sense of security in public spaces. I have a distinct feeling that whatever will happen with Assange’s case, it will harm women unless he goes through a criminal court for his allegation. There’s a certain political tribalism that is getting in the way of this issue and it has caused a divide of sorts.

Reading about this issue and following many twitter discussions have forced one to think harder about sexual assault. I cannot emphasise how damaging it can be to diminish the seriousness of sexual violence. The diversity of the phenomena is also something that may not be obvious to everyone. Rapists may know the victim, perhaps as a co-worker, relative or friend. There are ways of violating someone’s autonomy through sex, this can include: not using a condom when someone explicitly says to do so, having sex with someone while they are unconscious or asleep with no indication that this is acceptable and using sexual acts as a form of coercion or bargaining with a person in need (such as the transactional behaviour of many women in East Germany during the end of the Second World War).

Bringing countercultural insights to this issue makes the issue of Assange’s allegation all the more difficult. With countercultural movements such as Occupy and leftist type movements rushing to Assange’s defence. I think that the seriousness of Rape is undermined, as well as the cultural and political space that women hold today. On the other side of the Atlantic, there are lots of stories about Conservatives who are outspoken about their views on birth control and on a related subject, pregnancies through rape. The one thing that really upsets me about all of this, is that women seem to be least visible on this issue in US politics and in the media at large. This shows to me that women are not being taken seriously as political beings and conscientious individuals with their own views, while male pundits talk on their behalf.

I really shouldn’t have to say this. Rape is not okay. It’s not okay to have relations with someone that is not in any way out of the agreed terms.


My visit to the St. Paul’s occupy camp

Lately I’ve been reading Adorno on a variety of issues. I’ve also been reading up on theories of history and progress. I found an interesting connection with something contemporary in my reading of the latter. Slavoj Zizek stated in numerous places that pace Francis Fukayama, events such as the Arab Spring show evidence of what Fukayama called the “End of History”.

I’m by no means an expert on the philosophy of history, but the idea of a universal narrative seems to gain currency in the current social and economic affairs of the world. To posit theories of universal history through narratives of progress, peace, or dialectics was seen as metaphysical speculation. Such a programme was presumptious of a notion of a universal history or, depending who you read presuming certain facts about human nature. However, a Globalised economy, news media and globally connected spheres of locality (glocal) seems to make social science and Hegelian thought uncomfortable bedfellows.

Why am I thinking about this? Usually because I read about all kinds of philosophy on a casual basis, alongside more careful readings of Kant and Adorno (and at present, essays by Hitchens). The notion of history, or progress was strongly on my mind because I visited on four occaisions the Occupy St. Paul’s camp in the City of London, which, strangely enough, is an area based, in the city of London (if you don’t understand that last sentence, don’t worry: the City of London is an immensely complicated thing).

I follow lots of people on my personal Twitter account, and follow lots of stories on numerous RSS feeds. If there’s one thing that is widespread today, it is dissent about the legitimate rule of governmental authorities. Lots of people have tried to characterise this movement, one prevalent meme which is coming across (at least initially) was the phrase ‘we are the 99%’. There have been some extrapolations on the more technical side of analysing the datasets relating to economic and social inequalities in the US from blogs such as Sociological Images, however this grassroots campaign is not really motivated by datasets.

So what is motivating the #occupy movement? (n.b. in the age of social media, hashtag [#] is being used outside of twitter contexts in ways derivative of the social media outlet). If there is one thing that can be said to generalise them, perhaps it is that it cannot be generalised. There are mainstream depictions of these protesters around the world as anticapitalists, perhaps socialists. London Mayor Boris Johnson referred to them as ‘Crusties’ (people [usually white] who have dreadlocks, which has other ideological baggage associated with it) in a talk earlier this week. I’ve heard some of these protesters referred to as ‘career activists’. One of the posters in the St. Pauls’ site said “‘Hippie-crits’ go to Starbucks”.

As someone who likes to take a backseat in observing these things, I find it very hard to make generalisations, and then I was reminded of an insight from Adorno that the problem with philosophies before the 20th Century were their ‘totalising’ element. Theories which tried to explain everything, failed. So, instead of trying to write to you some opinion of what I thought characterised it all, I won’t bother.

The invested interests who have come to occupy and put literature and advertisement (sic) are varied. Off the top of my head, i’ll list a few:

  • The RMT (a union) has put a large poster complaining about cuts in public spending
  • The Socialist Worker set up a stall
  • There are posters about Islam, which do not seem to have direct bearing on the site, but are (I think) put there because it will get lots of attention as people like me walk by.
  • There are posters which have a few words about what is going on, and state that people such as the officials of the Church of England and Parliament are liars or hypocrites, and then go on about something which isn’t really relevant to the cause: such as illuminati conspiracies (David Icke posters have been defaced and seen as highjacking the occupy camp)
  • There are religious and spiritual messages, some of which make Abrahamic allegories between current affairs and the character of Mammon or Jesus
  • There are posters about missing persons or people who are in dire need of fundraising for an operation etc
  • There are posters about related campaigns, events, talks nearby: such as an anarchist book fair, talks on feminism
  • There are posters about the cuts to specific public services
  • There are posters which use a heavy amount of rhetoric and are made for the explicit point of raising emotions among people who agree with them already. Many words like ‘plutocrat’ or ‘democratic’ or ‘neoliberal’ are thrown around the camp. I feel something distasteful about when people of political persuasions do not define these terms, but simply assert them in constructing a case for their views. It violates the fallacy of ‘begging the question’.
  • There is a first aid tent, and a ‘safe space’ tent, which I think, is for female protesters and those with children. There is a tent providing counselling, a tent with a piano (I was so tempted to play some blues!). There is a tent providing provisions of food. There is an information tent and that is linked to the ‘Tent City university’, which is a highly organised set of events, talks and discussions.
  • There are posters distinctly about Marxism, or evocative of the old ‘Communism vs. Capitalism’ which reflects an outdated pre 1989 discourse. It is interesting how Marxism/Communism/Socialism are lumped together as an ideological opposite of capitalism. These kinds of terms and distinctions show the lack of rigour or systematic response of alternative points of views to current affairs. Or to put it in another way: it shows a starvation and desparation of ideas.
  • There is a Banksy art work consisting of a monopoly board, very fitting.
  • On one occaision there was a ‘speakers corner’ style moment with a fellow and a large sound system beside him on a trailer

There are lots of very positive things happening as a result of the St. Paul’s camping campaign. There have been ‘satellite’ movements going on around London, such as Finsbury Square and an occupation of the former UBS building. Participation among many disparate groups. How many punks and anarchists have stood beside pensioners and parents with children before?

There is something almost Christian about what is going on. People are united under all kinds of stripes, all kinds of interests, all representing a universal dissent about the status quo. There are many people who support their cause, but for various reasons have no voice, or an opportunity to camp. There is not much discrimination in the sense that for some of the more refined protesters, they pray too for the bankers. Perhaps the real success of the movement is how it has embarrassed the Anglican church in how Christ-like the movement is.

I noticed another deformed irony in my last visit. There was a sign which said something like ‘we are in solidarity with Greece’, and from my angle, there was the beautiful architecture of Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, the Cathedral itself. The Baroque is an advancement of the ideals of sculpture established by Classical Greeks, taking the High Classical to its logical extreme, geometries and patterns, columns of marble evoking piety to a higher power. There’s nothing more allied to the Hellenes than a Baroque building except maybe a Roman copy or a Renaissance building, or it seems, a civil disobedience, a tradition that goes back to times of Solon.


On the announcement of the ‘New College of Humanities’

As many of you will have come to know of late, there has been an announcement of a private college set up by a number of private sector figures to institute a ‘New College of the Humanities’ (NCH), with A.C. Grayling as the master of the college. Certain facts about this announcement have brought much controversy, which include:

  • The college proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduate courses, as a private college they are not obliged to follow the tuition fee cap of £9,000, the controversy of which (inter alia) has brought about this very college
  • The college promises ‘big’ names to join, such as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and Stephen Pinker, all of which are famous public intellectuals.
  • It has also emerged that this ploy of attracting big names to the staff has been slightly misleading in that they are apparently contractually obliged to only 1 lecture a year, many of whom still will hold faculty positions
  • The modus operandi of the college is poised as an ideological statement of criticism to the current and increasingly unstable higher education system in the US
  • The NCH proposes to be more like a US-style system of university college, where private sector investment can cover for bursaries for those of lesser financial means

There have been a great many criticisms of this announcement, naturally. Some range from the obvious (well, obvious to me) to the unusual, and some criticism are outright weird. In a sense, many critics have raised the mast and shown their own colours in their criticisms. Terry Eagleton has been accused for instance, as instantiating the usual critical theory capitalism conspiracy babble against the college, although personally I’ve found it perhaps the only time I’ve actually (at least initially) agreed with his work, despite the difficult language used.

One observation that is particularly interesting is the suggestion that US academics percieve this announcement more favourably than the UK. Brian Leiter’s support of NCH on his ‘Reports blog comes to me as a surprise against the overwhelming UK academic opinion against it. Many criticisms focus on the issues which I would agree as very important worries: this college does nothing for social mobility, which public universities (including even Cambridge/Oxford) vastly help with. This college is a step backwards to an age of financial and social priviledge where old boy networks are unashamedly celebrated. I can only hope that Grayling was reading ‘A Theory of Justice’ by J. Rawls before he made his difficult decision.

Some of the criticisms however, I find interesting, and unfamiliar. One criticism is that NCH isn’t private enough. A private college does not rent University of London resources and is thus parasitic on the public university. One article raised yesterday which was tangentially very interesting was that UL students have to pay to use the Senate House Library, which sounds absurd to me, considering how much fees cost, as well as the necessity it is to use a library for graduate and undergraduate study! Another specific allegation is that NCH borrows course syllabi from the UL collegiate programme. This is a pretty serious allegation considering the certain uniqueness of some courses. For a college that promises a more individually tailored student experience, using borrowed material to teach gives a certain personless anonymity to the feel of an individualist experience. Another very strange criticism is that the NCH steals the title of ‘New College’, from New College (St. Marys), Oxford, which itself is a few hundred years old. I’ll leave that up to the Oxonians to hold that torch of critique..

I think to some extent it is important to employ the principle of charity to Grayling’s College. I personally felt utterly betrayed by the notion, that was my honest first response to this announcement. That a philosopher in such high regard from his popular set of books, as well as his non-philosophical work on China, and the secular movement would commit to such a contraversial action does give me less hope for the HE establishment. That said, if I do take the principle of Charity, perhaps this move Grayling made is some incredibly clever Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias -like gesture which unites all the critics and academic establishment figures to really shake up and change their ways. Or perhaps as some sympathisers say, this project may not really have a negative effect on the HE establishment as there will only be about 100 or so graduates a year from the NCH, or it may lead to a new way of thinking about the university. It is also fair to say that in uniting such disparate groups by the announcement of the college, many people who would be putatively enemies have united against it (from Terry Eagleton, to academics in proper subjects), it would be too easy to join the bandwagon for poorly thought out reasons (see ‘New College, Oxford’ plagiarism allegation).

News like this distracts me, and this blog from what I really want to write about. In a sense, news like this is also a distraction from what should be understood as the ‘real’ underlying problem of the changing nature of government agencies (which in this instance includes Higher Education). Many of the academics who have made a name in recent publications for taking a stand against the changes in Higher Education are not really interested in being campaigning types, many just want to get on with their research. The climate is changing too much and it does look to be a war of ideologies, what is valued in society and governance? The oppurtunity for those of ability to reach as far as they can in whatever industry or endeavour they intend to solely on the basis of their talent and ability? Or a generation of Tim-nice-but-dims reaching the top of the social ladder from the bank of Mum and Dad and their connections? Of course things are a lot more nuanced than this, and the reality is a mix of the two, but this current political and social climate is very conducive for extremes to emerge from the nuance.

What is forgotten is that the changes instituted by government and university administrators come from a generation of British people who enjoyed an age of free education. Were it not for the advantages that the university system of yesteryear gave them, would they have been in the same positions of power today? In this sense their decisions form a betrayal of conscience.

I thought this news story is particularly poignant. As someone who is a graduate from the late 2000s, as someone currently struggling in this economic climate, this announcement makes me feel exceptionally lucky that I at least ended up with a couple of degrees. I probably wouldn’t survive the high selection criteria of today’s university admission bodies, and the fees would have definitely put my parents off encouraging me to go to university as well. This story has been in the back of my mind this week, as I’ve been in talks with getting involved in a social media project distinctly related to this issue…perhaps more on that as things emerge.


Stanley’s “Crisis of Philosophy”

I’ve seen this article attract a great many replies, reactions, disagreements and agreements. Many of my most respected of living philosophers have commented on this issue. The issue, as I see it is this: The reputation of philosophy is being undermined by the anti-philosophical intellectuals that have emerged since the 19th Century.

I thought that I would contribute to clarity on understanding what the crisis is. As such, I am going to address the issue of what is seen as the ‘enemy’ to analytic philosophers, namely, the ‘anti-philosophies’ which can sometimes be called  ‘continental philosophy’. I shall then address a general issue of how philosophy’s history can be potentially misunderstood where anachronism can infect the general reputation of philosophy.

Lastly I would address the reputation of philosophy, where the real ‘crisis’ expresses itself. Philosophy faces a reputation that negatively affects its genuine practicioners and benefits its sophistical demagogues. This affects everything from rants against philosophy in dinner parties to where public academic funding is directed.

The conception of anti-philosophy

The founding figures of the ‘anti’ philosophical tendency usually appeal to the likes of Nietzsche or Marx. I like to invoke the distinction (as do many others) towards Continental philosophy. The anti-philosophical sentiment opposes systematic philosophy. For these anti-philosophical philosophies, there is a distinct sense of opposition to ‘how things previously have been’; the objects of such opposition involve fundamental oppositions to the possibility of rational analysis; where subjectivity seems to take a greater primacy.

This tendency to ‘subjectify’ philosophy takes place through emphasising the role of the individual subject’s experience which cannot be understood by ‘grand theories’ that impose upon persons. The notion of systems and rules of conduct are limiting in favour of other competing ‘anti-philosophical’ accounts.

For anti-philosophies, the analysis of justice, knowledge and understanding natural sciences are seen as fruitless and ‘dated’ notions. Feuerbach’s eleventh thesis concerning the application of philosophy makes any kind of ‘theoretical’ philosophy a derogatory pursuit. Some serious misconceptions are easy to make: for instance; that systematic or theoretical philosophy is distinct from ‘applied’ philosophy.

Anti-philosophies have allied themselves with the humanities such as literary theory, film studies, cultural studies and some of the mainstream social sciences. The popularity and the infection of anti-philosophical theorists has led to the irony of those bodies of thought to establish their own canons of systematicity. Perhaps the temptation of the system is just too unavoidable. While Marx opposed the Kantian-enlightenment vision of the system of nature; his own vision became a system constrained by the process of history. For the contemporary social theorists, much appeasement is needed to the former Gods of post-structuralism or postmodernism. This is the very scholasticism and dogmatism that the Englightenment had tried to dissolve.

Misunderstanding history, and the place of historical figures

There are many cultural factors that lead to such philosophical divergences. Conversation between traditions and cultures has always been part of European philosophy, however we must also acknowledge that the conventional histories of philosophy, if taken as strong and reified accounts; lead to anachronism. It is not the case that Descartes’ knew that philosophers after him would always refer to his work nor would he see that many persons after him from mathematicians to cognitive scientists would see him as one of their founders. The view from the present makes the disjoined and sometimes the initially uneventful seem monumental. That is perhaps reasonable to see considering that we can tell of the real implications of say, a historian from Scotland who never recieved a professorship (David Hume) or a lens grinder (Baruch Spinoza).

My old sociology lecturer warned us not to read too much into the deviants and countercultures of any given time. While it may be the case that one revolutionary can turn into the dogmatist’s prophet; they may be in their own time outside of the mainstream. An analogy may be in place: let us not try to read too much into the emergences of youth cultures when during their infancy; many of the first generations of fans were in a minority. Was everyone into grunge during the late 80s? Was every teenager a punk during the 70s? Probably not: lets not forget the fashion travesties of the mainstream in our plotted cultural history. Most people got on with their lives, and most intellectuals worked within the paradigm of their dominant discourse. Leibniz in his early career was an Aristotelian philosopher; Kant worked within the scholarly german fashion of the Leibniz-Wolffian system and Descartes’. Our misunderstanding of philosophy today is in large part to a general misunderstanding of its history.

The reputation of philosophy

The reputation of philosophy has many dimensions of influence. Let us start off with a negative reputation of philosophy. Here’s a list:

  • Philosophy doesn’t apply to the real world
  • Philosophy (undefined) is no longer relevant, but [x’s philosophy] tells us that that [x’s philosophy] is right and relevant (insert any of the following names: Zizek, Nietzsche, Marx, Butler, Freud, Deepak Chopra, Jesus, some long haired lunatic &c …)
  • Philosophy has been defeated by [x] (insert name from list above, maybe add in Rorty, Wittgenstein, Semiotics, sociology of scientists, ‘science’ genera, and Jesus again)
  • Philosophy doesn’t need much funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t deserve funding
  • Philosophy doesn’t fit into the goals of the new style of academic management: impact, impact impact are the three distinct and all encompassing goals of academia
  • Philosophy has turned too literary/linguistic/logical/mathematical/historical/academic/elitist/scientific
  • Other subjects have taken the work of conventional philosophical concerns to render it obsolete: Sociology, Political Science, Mathematical logic, Cognitive science and linguistics, psychology and the neurosciences, history of science
  • Interdisciplinarity has undermined and diluted philosophy to a buzzword that fits in to some doctrinal quota
  • Contemporary philosophy has detached from theology
  • Contemporary philosophy has too many associations with atheism

I could dedicate a post to each of these issues, but for the sake of parity perhaps I’ll leave them standing as they are. The negative reputation of philosophy consists of various propositions about philosophy that I would largely consider as misapprehensions of what contemporary philosophy is. The contemporary practice of philosophy involves many different kinds of people: borderline scientists; actual scientists; dual-wield PhDs (my favourite kind); academics; non-academics; activists; bourgeois; working class; upper class; post-docs; teachers; politically oriented; broadsheet article writers; podcasters; cultural researchers; humanists; scientists; social scientists and so on. As such, there are many different perspectives on philosophy and many different kinds of ideas. While I could most easily deride some and not others, the fact of the matter is that most co-exist within the same social environment but are affected in different ways. Some benefit by nepotistic and ingratiating research programmes (I’ll name no names); others stand alone and work on substantive issues; other make their way to name drop and draw the lines of factions; others try to establish a sense of community to serve other philosophers and the public.

The reputation of philosophy impacts on future interest in philosophy, the direction of philosophy and in the contemporary light; where funding is allocated and following this, what kinds of philosophical programmes survive. If academia were like Darwinian natural selection; only the best and truest ideas would survive. However, academia is more like social function, and the most socially functioning person (not necessarily the best) finds flourishing. I think that the crisis of philosophy lay in its poor reputation, and the funding and imposed guidelines for research bodies that are more often than not determined by political and bureaucratic influences.

What can be done to save philosophy? We can overcome the misconceptions of philosophy and its history by achieving proper understandings and avoiding second hand readings. Another way to help would be to establish the virtues of intellectual honesty and nobility. Achieve the mindset and ethical mindset not of an oppurtunist and business-like individual which proliferates academic management, but rise above and show that the intellectual caste are much different, much better than the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fashions of political and intellectual orientations. The academic world, if ideal; would allow the freedom of expression for many intellectuals as well as greater liberality of research programme from the bottom up. Would it be democratic? I’m not sure. Would it be populist? Certainly NOT!

Michael (and Destre)

“We do not live in an enlightened age, but we live in an age of enlightenment…”

1804 was the year that the Enlightenment ended. This week came many efforts to reform the UK legal notion of libel, which, in its current situation is far from the Enlightenment values that we so value. The enlightenment values are the values of Areopagus; the organisation which comprises members of the Noumenal realm.

I have become sceptical of such reasoning about a ‘golden age’. Often we are to mention the phrase about “protecting Rome from the barbarians”, but really were the Romans so civilised? Their civility came from their unique ability to organise and establish bureaucratic and administrative systems; and yet this is the very ill that I hate about today’s organisation of hierarchical structures. When was there a more noble time away from the practice of using procedure to mask human stupidity and lack of skill? The tyrants of the polis era were noble in their intentions and political and lawmaking will; but they still used crude means of rule, albeit by comparison to Romans, they were far less brute.

We can find all too much wrong with any of our percieved ‘Golden ages’. It all depends on our values. I’d propose as a crude measure, that these following factors would be crucial; necessary and sufficient conditions for any notion of a ‘Golden age’:

1. Social and national security
2. Good political and economic relations with other states
3. Egalitarian
4. Meritocracy (which has often been associated with Aristocracy for largely historical and contingent reasons)
5. Intellectual freedoms/the autonomy and separation of an intellectual caste

At the moment, the crisis of UK universities and higher education management is undermining the independence and overal research agenda and goals of academics from a level that is ubiquitous. There are also issues concerning the ‘diversity’ discourse undermining the right to criticise. It was those values of free enquiry that brought us to this level of social security and economic and intellectual richness; and yet those very values are being undermined.