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Book Recommendation: Ancient Religions, Modern Politics

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

ancient religion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, by Michael Cook

Charles Cameron recently had a post here at Zenpundit, Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?  Frequent commenter T. Greer recommended this volume in the comment section and I ordered immediately. My copy arrived this morning and I had some quiet time and a bit of commuting time to devote to Cook’s introduction and the first few chapters. This is a very good treatment of roots of Islam and how those roots affect today’s political climate. Cook divides the book into three large parts: Identity, Values, and Fundamentalism. The comparative element is his use of Hinduism and Latin American Catholicism when compared in scope and influence to Islam.

Here are a couple of good pull quotes from the Preface:

I should add some cautions about what the book does not do. First though it has a lot to say about the pre-modern world, it does not provide an account of that world for its own sake, and anyone who read the book as if it did would be likely to come away with a seriously distorted picture. This is perhaps particularly so in the Islamic case—and for two reasons. One is that, to put it bluntly, Islamic civilization died quite some time ago, unlike Islam which is very much alive; we will thus be concerned with the wider civilization only when it is relevant to features of the enduring religious heritage. (emphasis added)

Cook’s emphasis on shared identity is one of the best and most cogent descriptions I’ve found:

“…collective identity, particularly those that really matter to people—so much so that they may be willing to die for them. Identities of this kind, like values, can and do change, but they are not, as academic rhetoric would sometimes have it, in constant flux. The reason is simple; like shared currencies, shared identities are the basis of claims that people can make on each other, and without a degree of stability such an identity would be as useless as a hyperinflated currency. So it is not surprising that in the real world collective identities, though not immutable, often prove robust and recalcitrant, at times disconcertingly so.”

In the same comment thread where T. Greer recommended this Ancient Religions, Charles called Cook’s work his opus. Based on the few hours I’ve spent with the volume and the marginalia, Charles was characteristically “spot-on.”

Published in March of this year, this is a new and important title. With any luck, I’ll complete the book and do a more proper review sometime soon.

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Lind on “the Navy’s Intellectual Seppuku”

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

William Lind had a very important piece regarding an extraordinarily ill-considered move by the Navy brass:

The Navy Commits Intellectual Seppuku 

The December, 2013 issue of the Naval Institute’s Proceedings contains an article, “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity” by Lt. Alexander P. Smith, that should receive wide attention but probably won’t. It warns of a policy change in Navy officer recruiting that adds up to intellectual suicide. Lt. Smith writes, “Starting next year, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with minimal studies in the humanities … As a result of the new policy, a high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for Tiers 1 and 2 (engineering, hard sciences, and math), since CNO guidance specifies that not less than 85 percent of incoming officers will come from this restricted pool.”

….The engineering way of thinking and the military way of thinking are not merely different. They are opposites. Engineering, math, and other sciences depend on analysis of hard data. Before you make a decision, you are careful to gather all the facts, however long that may take. The facts are then carefully analyzed, again without much regard for the time required. Multiple actors check and re-check each others’ work. Lowest-common-denominator, committee-consensus decisions are usually the safest course. Anything that is not hard data is rejected. Hunches have no place in designing a bridge.

Making military decisions in time of war could not be more different. Intuition, educated guessing, hunches, and the like are major players. Hard facts are few; most information is incomplete and ambiguous, and part of it is always wrong, but the decision-maker cannot know how much or which parts. Creativity is more important than analysis. So is synthesis: putting parts together in new ways. Committee-consensus, lowest-common-denominator decisions are usually the worst options. Time is precious, and a less-than-optimal decision now often produces better results than a better decision later. Decisions made by one or two people are often preferable to those with many participants. There is good reason why Clausewitz warned against councils of war.

Read the whole thing here.

Rarely have I seen Lind more on target than in this piece.

Taking a rank-deferential, strongly hierarchical organization and by design making it more of a closed system intellectually and expecting good things to happen should disqualify that person from ever being an engineer because they are clearly too dumb to understand what resilience and feedback are. Or second and third order effects.

STEM, by the way, is not the problem. No one should argue for an all-historian or philosopher Navy either. STEM is great. Engineers can bring a specific and powerful kind of problem solving framework to the table. The Navy needs a lot of smart engineers.

It is just that no smart engineer would propose to do this because the negative downstream effects of an all-engineer institutional culture for an armed service are self-evident.

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Kendzior’s Function

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- yet another example of my funky approach to pattern seeking ]
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Following in the footsteps of St Matthew and Lord Chief Justice Hewart, and like all arts and humanities folk aching desperately for the credibility a dusting of math and sciences might give me, I’ve claimed two functions as my own:

Sarah Kendzior‘s piece Snowden and the paranoid state posted on Al Jazzera a week ago includes what I can only term the plain text formulation (upper panel, below) of Kendzior’s Function (lower panel, below):

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Last time I posted here about my two alleged functions, various ZP readers had entertaining times sharpening my wits — this time my question would be: is Kendzior’s function the same as either (or both) of mine, and if so, can you suggest / show me / prove it / QED?

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On Socrates and his Legacy, Part II: Stone, Socrates and Religion

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

This is the second in a series of posts regarding Socrates and his modern legacy that began with a discussion of the books and authors involved - The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone and Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson . We are also getting some direction from a foremost academic authority on Socrates and Plato, the late Gregory Vlastos in the form of  his last book,  Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher

The greatest divergence between Johnson and Stone is on the matter of Socrates and religion. This is is some importance because one of the charges leveled at Socrates by his accusers Anytus and Meletus was not believing in “the gods of city”and introducing new ones.

The sincerity of this specific charge is an interesting question. As both authors indicated, the century of pre-Socratic philosophers in Athens laid the cornerstone of empirical and rational thought about nature that were the forerunners of both materialism as well as science in the form of natural philosophy. This coincided with the rise of Athens to greatness and empire and a possible change in Athenian civic culture, not so much a secularization but an emphasis on humanism over mysticism in political affairs. This point Johnson was at pains to emphasize as the core nature of “the cultural revolution” wrought by “the Periclean regime” , where Protogoras was prominent sophist. Stone regards the transition to one where religion was “demoted…reduced to venerable fables and metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas” which renders the religious question at Socrates’ trial a “distraction”.  The primitive awe in which the Greek gods were held during archaic times, gave way to a more ritualistic and cultural reverence in the classical period, or so this line of argument goes.

I am not certain this interpretation is correct to that exaggerated degree. It strikes me far more likely as a representation of the beliefs of  educated elite Athenians at the time than those of the middle classes or the thetes, or of Greeks from other cities. Pagan folk religion probably retained the same influence over public and private life in Athens as Christianity does in America in our own times. That is to say there were likely differences in religiosity between the aristocratic elite and the masses in democratic Athens and between political factions (democratic, moderate and extreme oligarchic).

Some contrasting examples: Nicias, whose political reputation with the Assembly was anchored in trust of his admirable piety, brought final disaster upon the Sicilian Expedition and himself with his obstinate, superstitious, deference to religious signs and soothsayers when the path of escape still remained open. Xenophon, in delicately rebuffing calls to accept rulership over the 10,000 in The Anabasis of Cyrus used pious arguments with the soldiers that he himself probably viewed with some degree of cynicism because they were an effective excuse to pass the leadership to a Spartan. Speaking of the Spartans, they were known in this time as “the craftsmen of war” not because of battle art but because of their zealous adherence to military religious ceremonials and divination of sacrificial animals to discern the will of the gods.

That does not sound much like a people for whom Zeus and Apollo were merely enjoyable campfire fables for children, figures of comic sport in the theater or convenient metaphors for chance or the weather.

Stone argued that Athenian religion had been “demoted” but did so for purposes of rebutting the claim of Socrates that decades of comic poets lampooning him in their plays (like The Clouds, by Aristophanes) had prejudiced the jury against him. Stone was also writing  The Trial of Socrates after the time when standards of  “traditional morality” had been challenged culturally and theologically during the sixties and seventies and were rejected by a significant part of the Baby Boom generation:

….As for not believing in gods, the Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and the tragic theater. For two centuries before Socrates, the philosophers had been laying the foundations of natural science and metaphysical inquiry. Their gigantic pioneering in free thought still awes us as we pore over the fragments of these so-called pre-Socratics. Almost all the basic concepts of science and philosophy may be found there in embryo. They first spoke of evolution and conceived the atom. In the process the gods were not so much dethroned as demoted and bypassed. They were reduced to venerable fables or metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas.

These philosophers were rationalists and rarely bothered with what we call “theology”. The very term was unknown to them. Indeed it does not appear in Greek until the century after Socrates. The word theologia – talk about gods – turns up for the first time in the Republic when Plato is explaining what the poets in utopia will not be allowed to say about the divine powers. In his ideal society a Socrates would have indeed been punishable for deviating from the state-sanctioned theologia, but not in Athens.

….Polytheism was, by it’s pluralistic nature, roomy and tolerant, open to new gods and new views of old ones. It’s mythology personified by natural forces and could be adapted easily, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. These were the old gods in a new guise, and commanded a similar but fresh reverence.

Atheism was little known and difficult for a pagan to grasp because he saw divinity all about him, not just on Olympus but in the hearth and boundary stone, which were also divinities though of a humbler sort…..

….It was the political, not the philosophical or theological views which finally got Socrates into trouble. The discussion of religious views diverts attention from the real issues. 

Stone develops this theme further in his explanation of how Socrates might have won acquittal, had the old philosopher not been determined to antagonize his jury:

The indictment’s two counts are equally vague. No specific acts against the city are alleged. The complaints are against the teaching and beliefs of Socrates. Neither in the indictment – nor at the trial – was there any mention of any overt act of sacrilege or disrespect to the city’s gods or any overt attempt or conspiracy against it’s democratic institutions. Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did.

In other words, the charges against Socrates were of a very different character than the ones which had been made during the Expedition to Syracuse against the close associate and student of  Socrates, the ambitious demagogue Alcibiades. The latter had been charged with sacrilege, specifically defaming and vandalizing the Eleusinian Mysteries, forcing his recall as joint strategos over the expedition and summoning him back to Athens for trial. This ill-fated and poorly timed indictment may or may not have been false, but it had certainly been politically motivated and was the catalyst for the subsequent treason of Alcibiades and the military disaster in Sicily, both so damaging to Athens. That charge, unlike the one against Socrates however, was based upon real acts that had taken place, whether Alcibiades had been the culprit or not.

….on the impiety charge, Socrates is as vague as the indictment. He never discusses the accusation that he did not respect or believe in – the Greek verb used, nomizein, has both meanings – the gods of the city. Instead, he traps the the rather dim-witted Meletus into accusing him of Atheism, a charge he easily refutes. But there was no law against atheism in ancient Athens either before or after the trial. Indeed, the only place we find such a law proposed is in Plato’s Laws. In this respect, Plato was the exception to the tolerance that paganism showed to diverse cults and philosophic speculation about the gods.

….it was monotheism that brought religious intolerance into the world. When the Jews and Christians denied divinity to any god but their own, they were attacked as atheos or “godless”. This explains how – to borrow Novalis’s characterization of Spinoza – a “God-intoxicated” Jew and Christian like St. Paul could be called an “atheist” by pious and indignant pagans.” 

We will see later that Johnson takes a normatively very different, but logically complementary view to Stone on “Socratic monotheism”, who concludes:

By trapping Meletus into calling him an atheist, Socrates evaded the actual charge in the indictment. It did not accuse him of disbelief in Zeus and the Olympian divinities, or in gods generally. It charged disbelief in ‘the gods of the city”.

This was in the ancient Greek sense, a political crime, a crime against the gods of the Athenian polis. This is a crucial point often overlooked.

In Athens, Democracy was itself deified and personified, at least to the extent of having it’s own ritual priest in the annual theater of Dionysus – and what was old Socrates in the view of Stone but the teacher of antidemocratic and antipolitical doctrines in a city where the Democracy had been overthrown by the Thirty?

End Part II.

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Steven Pinker on Analogy

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- importance of analogy as an under-developed cognitive skill ]
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There was a interview with five prominent “science writers” in the Guardian a few days back, titled Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable? and one of the writers, Steven Pinker, makes two highly interesting observations:

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There are a couple of things going on here that I’d like to note. One is that without intending to do so specifically, he is in essence formulating a view about a possible, central difference between scientific and religious thinking, since what he says about the humanities in general applies with great specificity to religion and the arts: in both religion and art, the expansive nature of “symbolism” is a key to the experience.

And that in turn prompts me to suggest that perhaps both the arts and religion are geared towards provoking, evoking or invoking an experience — whereas the sciences are geared towards obtaining an understanding.

I’ll have to think about that, and come to some sort of understanding of my own — perhaps expressed via symbolic means.

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My second point of interest is that there’s an analogy to be made between Pinker’s two remarks: each of them has a form I could portray thus in terms of cause :: effect

science : humanities :: simplicity : complexity

Nobody present — the interviewer, Pinker himself, and four other very bright science writers — picked up on the close correspondence between those two statements at the time. And I find that very interesting.

I find it very interesting because the six of them were more interested in seeing what they could say (of what they already thought) than in saying what they could see (in light of the ongoing, immediate conversation).

I think we all tend to do that — which is why David Bohm‘s approach to dialogue is so important: if brings us to speak more into the moment as it surrounds us, not quite so much from the past as it has informed us.

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Then there’s the interesting fact that Pinker’s sense of the difference between modes of thought in the humanities and the sciences as expressed in the top quote translates so directly to the difference between uses of analogy in the second — and his fairly emphatic statement:

one could argue that we understand everything except for the physical world of falling objects by analogy.

Analogy is the central device in our mental toolkit, and yet we know far more about trains of logic than we do about analogical leaps. We know so little, in fact, that distinguishing between “literary metaphor” and “scientific analogy” (both of which are based in the recognition of resemblance) on the basis of one looking for multiple, rich connectivity and the other for a single tight connection is something noteworthy enough for Pinker to bother to point it out. It is indeed a provocative and perhaps essential insight. But it is also pretty basic — dividing a field up into significant chunks, the way anthropology got divided into “cultural”, “archaeological”, “linguistic” and “physical anthropology”…

It’s time we learned to understand and use analogic with the same rigor we’ve applied to learning and using logic — and Sembl is just the tool for this.

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Experience wants to be rich: factual understanding wants to be clear.

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