Homesickness

From The Exodus Series paintings
Maria Lago

Homesickness

When I was twelve or thirteen, I had two favorite books: Homer’s Odyssey and Thomas Mann’s fourvolume novel based on Genesis 37:1 – 50:25, Joseph and His Brothers.

The epic recounts how Odysseus — the wily hero whose Trojan horse stratagem allowed the Greeks to get inside the walls of Troy and win the war — makes his perilous journey home to Ithaca after the war’s end. He’ll need to surmount one hazardous obstacle after another – the man-eating Cyclops, the sirens whose irresistible singing lures sailors to their deaths, the resentful gods who backed the losing side, and so on.  When he finally arrives home, the local cohort of eligible men is discovered living off his property and vying with each other for the hand of his wife Penelope, whom they mistakenly suppose to be widowed.

In the end, with the help of Athena, his ally among the gods, he kills every one of the suitors and takes back what belongs to him.  It’s a happy ending, all the way down to his first marital reunion with Penelope, to whom Athena lends the restored charm of youth.

The Joseph story is rather different, as you may know.  The Bible does not include happy endings, not unalloyed ones at any rate.  There’ll be no goddess to restore precisely what was lost during the homesick years. 

Joseph is seventeen when his story begins: in the flower of his youth.  He is his father’s favorite, partly for his own precocious charms, partly because of his long-dead mother Rachel, who was the love of Jacob’s life.  When we meet Joseph, he is basking insufferably in his advantages, which include precognitive dreams that announce his eventual ascendancy over his envious and enraged brothers, the sons of less-loved women.

He does not refrain from reporting his dreams to the brothers, as his father would have advised had he been consulted.  Instead he babbles about them blandly, as if his brothers shared his fascination with himself.  At a convenient moment, when all are far from the tents of home and their father’s eyes, the brothers seize and sell him to merchants traveling down  to Egypt.  To their father, they explain that Joseph was killed by a wild beast.  It’s not entirely a lie, if we want to picture sibling rivalry as the wild beast in question.

Meanwhile in Egypt, Joseph learns to make full use of his talents and keep his charisma under control.  After further misadventures, he is finally summoned to the court of Pharaoh.  It’s an opportunity to give that ruler’s dreams an accurate decoding and, by explaining how Egypt should be administered if the dreams are accurate, to get himself advanced to the next-highest post in the land.  In the years of prosperity he had foreseen in the royal dreams, he piles up provisions against the years of famine he has also foreseen.

Eventually, the widespread famine prompts the brothers to journey to Egypt to buy the provisions now available only there.  Joseph has been waiting for them.  He knows who they are.  They don’t recognize him.  He devises ingenious ways to test their intentions and degrees of remorse for the long-ago violence done to him.  Though he speaks to them through an interpreter, he understands what they are saying to each other in Hebrew.  They pass Joseph’s elaborate tests.

The disclosures, the moral reversals, the recognitions and reunions, are as moving as anything one can read anywhere.  I never read it without tears in my eyes.

But it is not a happy ending.  Jacob never gets back the beloved son he lost.  This middle-aged, clean-shaven, glittering Egyptian official is not the same boy he once loved.  Joseph never gets back the years of exile.  The tribe’s relocation to Egypt to wait out the famine and finish this family story will eventually conduct them into centuries of slavery under “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” and his successors.

Why does Homer deliver a happy ending while the writers of Genesis do not?  The Joseph story is more moving than Homer’s tale, more cognizant of the darks and lights of a recognizably complex human reality – but it’s not exactly “happy.”

That said, one can learn – from watching Joseph attentively – how to live out one’s own life story.  No such how-to manual can be gleaned from Homer.  There the obstacles are supernatural, the helps supernatural too.  Odysseus learns nothing he didn’t already know.  He was astute at the start.  At story’s end, he is still astute.

Joseph, on the other hand, learns to overcome his youthful self-infatuation, to find openings for his remarkable range of talents, to wait patiently for the reunion through the years till the whole situation has sufficiently ripened, to find out whether his brothers have changed inwardly before rushing into their arms, and to sustain a disciplined yearning for the home he has lost:

“I am Joseph.  Does my father yet live?”

He doesn’t get it all back.  In real life, nobody does.

When I was closing my parents’ city apartment after they were both gone, I saw all their possessions, so stamped with their originality and brilliance, being carted away for sale, for donation, or memorabilia.  There was such a discrepancy between what they had been when alive, and this empty apartment with its cartons on the bare floor!  I felt utterly desolate.

Then I noticed a small notepad, on which a single line had been penned in my father’s clear and elegant hand:

The future is the past

entered through another door.

The secret that Joseph decoded is to turn our deep homesickness in the direction of the future.

We can only get home

by going on.

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The Fallacy of Misplaced Vagueness

Blind Man’s Bluff
Francisco Goya, 1788

The Fallacy of Misplaced Vagueness

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spotlighted a previously unrecognized mistake in reasoning: “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  It happens when we confuse an abstract concept for something concrete.

Medieval knights set out in quest of the holy grail.  It was a concrete thing, the silver cup from which Jesus drank at his last supper.  If you followed Whitehead, you might say that they were really looking for holiness, which is not a particular cup but a way of conducting oneself over time.  I doubt that the knights would’ve been happy to learn that they were committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, but you see what I mean.

Anyway this kind of fallacy, if that’s what it was, seems to have cropped up repeatedly in recent centuries.  Thus Einstein looked for the laws of nature, which he sometimes referred to as the way the mind of God works.  He was looking to fathom a definite thing, nature itself.  He hoped he had refuted quantum theory when he proved mathematically that, if it were true, the laws of nature – of causality in space and time – would be overthrown.

As it turned out, quantum theory could happily survive the overthrow of causality – of nature itself! — as Einstein understood it.  Take a pair of photons traveling in opposite directions.  The one goes east to the end of the galaxy and beyond.  The other travels west, a short distance, in the form of a wave (or ensemble of probabilities) till it gets measured or observed; then it collapses into one definite particle.  Instantly, the funny part happens: the other member of the pair of photons collapses into a particle too.  The immensities of space and time present no barrier to this twinned collapse, which is called “quantum entanglement.”

Where did external “nature” go, as the ensemble of things and events Einstein was trying to understand?  The only thing we know of that acts like quantum entanglement is thought.  I can think of Paris — and Paris be there as the object of my thought — instantaneously.  But thinking is something we do.  Nature (we and Einstein believed) was a vast other thing – outside ourselves. 

Is this another case of Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness?  Here again, were we thinking that “nature and its laws” were out there — mistaking a mere abstraction for physis, nature — a concrete thing?

Money might be another example.  I’ve been reading a really good book about the history of money and modern finance: Money for Nothing by Thomas Levenson.  Turns out that great 17th and 18th-century thinkers like John Locke and Isaac Newton differed on the question of what imbues money with value.  Locke thought what was valuable about coins were the chunks of silver they were made of, because silver was valuable in itself! 

Newton’s experience was different.  He had been made Warden of the Mint where silver coins were produced.  The production was quite a labor, involving many men, plus horses to provide the horse power.  He was a very good and careful administrator and silver from his Mint was worth what it said on the face of the coin.  But there is more to economics than efficiency in problem-solving.  There is also human whim and wickedness.  Unscrupulous fellows would chip off bits of real silver for their own use, replacing it with disguised alloy.  Seeing that this debasement of the coin could not be stopped, Newton came to the conclusion that money was a medium of exchange, “mere opinion … worth what it could buy.”

Here again, value was thought to be a concrete thing and, by trial and error, finally dissolved into a network of transactions.

Meanwhile philosophy too, at least on its “analytic” side (which tends to favor the sciences), has seen a similar kind of dissolve of concrete things (atomic facts or discrete bits of empirical data) into innumerable complexes of practices in which speakers engage.

Is there no silver cup of knowledge — no holy grail?  Is there no thing?  If not, what were we seeking to know?

On the Victor Zammit blog of December 10th, I watched the video of a panel on Science and Nonlocality.  Participants included a professor of pathology and medicine, professors of cognitive neuroscience and of neurology and a couple of quantum physicists.  One of the quantum physicists, John Hagelin, brought up the subject whose dissolve I’ve been reporting here: the thing, the discrete object, and what a thing is “at the deep level.” 

Take the human body, Hagelin said.  At eye level, it’s a boundaried object in space.  My body is my body.  Yours is yours.  But go down to the cellular level; it’s already a “community of cells.”  Then get a little smaller, down to the biomolecular and then atomic level; then get even smaller, down to the quantum level.  There, Hagelin said, “nonlocality predominates.”  The smaller we go in scale, the more boundaries are extended out.  Until, at the smallest level, we find that “we’re not really individuals.”

So it’s beginning to appear from many sides.  Inanimate things are not definite.  Money’s not definite.  Reference in speech is not definite.  And organic beings aren’t definite either.  In Hagelin’s words, we’re not really individuals. 

Everyone is claiming to be happy about this.  They can’t wait to get all mystical and disappear into the Great Oneness.  But I won’t lie to you.  I don’t like it.  I can live without silver as the measure of value.  I can live without unbreakable atoms and atomic facts.  I can’t live without objects in space and events in time.  It’s a world I can’t picture.  Like Whitehead, I too have discovered a fallacy:

the fallacy of misplaced vagueness.

A good human life, as I understand it, takes place in a set of circumstances permitting one to learn who one is, what one wants and has as one’s purposes and projects.  Coping with reality, one finds reasons to retain those purposes or modify them to accommodate the lessons of experience.  Going along in this way, holding on to the connecting thread of memory, over time one gains a definite life story.  The novels of Dickens invited illustration because each phase of the plot could be pictured.  In our lives too, the lessons are frequent and sometimes dramatic.  The tests are real.  When we share them with friends, we try to give them the picture.

It’s true that you might see the same object or event differently than I do.  Your body is different.  Your circumstances have been different.  But a difference of vantage point doesn’t dissolve truth.  If we put my perspective and yours together, we have more truth, not less.  If I lie about what I have seen or done, we have less truth.  The same goes for you.  Either way, reality does not dissolve.  Our respective stories remain nonfiction.

The distinguished scientists on the Science and Nonlocality Conference seemed generally to welcome the dissolutions they were discussing.  They anticipated flipping the old question — how does consciousness evolve out of primordial matter? — to a new one: how does matter evolve out of primordial consciousness?  This could be a refreshing change, like the one that occurred centuries back, from the Ptolemaic-geocentric to the Copernican-heliocentric astronomy.  But while we pursue these novel and interesting explorations, let’s not forget the main thing in our lives:

our story and the picture of it.

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Eminence?

Cover Design by Jessica Cortes

Eminence?

Nowadays I have been listening to the audio version of A Good Look at Evil (forthcoming on Amazon, early 2021). Jane Cullen, who was my editor at Temple University Press when this book first came out, has a young relation who is an actor, has studied philosophy and is a practiced professional in the production of audio books. 

Who knew?

As one who has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, I myself had never listened to an audio book.  A book, for me, is a visual and tactile experience.  (When I say “visual and tactile” I don’t just mean feeling the paper and seeing the font.  Confessions of a Young Philosopher will have real illustrations!)  But I know that people used to read books aloud.  “Reading” was hearing.  In fact St. Augustine, as I dimly recall, was noted for his atypical propensity for silent reading.

That means that a book – like a poem or a play – used to be enacted.  But how, I wondered, can a philosophy book be enacted?  Isn’t philosophy too abstract to give the listener the experience of suspense or a dramatic plotline?

Well no.  It’s not too abstract to be riveting.  What Matthew Cohn’s audio version is bringing out is what has always gripped me about philosophy.

People live and die by ideas.

Whether these are good ideas or bad ones doesn’t affect the degree of hold they might have on an individual.  We plot our courses in life in terms of what we think reality is like.  We don’t make that up out of whole cloth.  The surrounding culture, where it touches us – filtered first through those who were nearest to us – supplies an initial picture and framework.  Details are filled in as we go along, revising and reframing to fit the successive layers of experience and our own discovered propensities.  Out of it all comes a moving, shaping set of ideas that form the stage set on which the dramas of our lives play out.  These scenes take place in time, forming the plotline of our life story.

Although we can revise these plotlines, adjusting our aims or methods as we learn more about how well they serve us in real circumstances, we don’t do these revisions easily.  And revamping or replacing the background ideas about reality – the stage set – is still more costly.  These revisions, revampings and replacements go to …

the question of who we are

as a culture, as individuals:

identity questions.

The high drama of philosophy is that it tackles directly the terms in which we live: the terms of our stories.  Back of any culture where thinking is encouraged lie philosophic claims.  The dramatic fact is that these claims are not incorrigible.  They can be found to be wrong!

And what is at stake in each such discovery is not only the sustainability of the abstract claims, but also the lives – of persons and whole civilizations – that were staked on those claims.

So philosophic argument can be terribly exciting – totally dramatic and absorbing.  And that, mesdames et messieurs, is how I am finding the audio version of A Good Look at Evil.

I am also rather amazed, nay stunned, to discover that I, the philosophic author, am – how shall I say this? – awfully good!

The reading has intrinsic drama because it makes apparent that the author is entirely sincere in her search for truth.  This is not make-work.  I am not trying to impress anyone or cut a figure or cut competitors down to size.  I really mean every word I put down.  My first and most pitiless critic is myself.  If I am satisfied that all relevant objections have been met, then I think I’m right and am prepared to build on that.

This listening experience has, for the first time, prompted a question for me: Why then didn’t I build a more towering “career” in the profession of philosophy than I did?  There were eminences, at the top of their game in the field, who expressed real regard for work of mine they had read.  At the time I took this for a nice reaction to the fact that I was a nice Jewish girl.  Or possibly a regard they might have had for my parents.  But there are many nice Jewish girls.  And most of the philosophers didn’t know my parents.  I just dismissed it.  Only now does it occur to me that maybe people like that don’t freely give away commendations.

Of course, “eminence” is itself hard work, almost a parallel career.  You’ve got to keep up with the latest from the best, carve out your territory on the professional map and be prepared to defend it.  

Instead, I needed to spend long afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum, or find a rock in a gated garden (like the Guggenheim Museum’s on 91st and Fifth) and lie back on the rock looking up at the leafy tree overhead.  Or stroll around the reservoir.  I needed a lot of time to be alone and think.

I don’t know if I could have done the job of eminence.  I have an excessively receptive kind of empathy that produces porousness to my critics.  The more harshly they might condemn me, the more completely I might see it their way.  At least in the moment, when you have to think on your feet.  Possibly that fatal degree of empathy might eventually have been overcome, with experience.

Is it feminine?  Is it hyper-feminine?  Or was it just not my calling to be eminent?

I don’t know.

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A Woman Friend

Little Women
Illustration by Louis Jambor, 1947

A Woman Friend

To most women, our female friends are of great importance in our lives.  If my mother was right when she said,

“A friend is a witness to one’s life,”

we call in our female friends to witness stuff we would never share with the men.

And yet, the business of female friendship is delicate.  I hesitate to quarrel with a woman friend where I don’t hesitate with a man.  You expect a man “to be able to take it.”  Between women – and that’s the strong and the weak equally – something else is going on:

Desirability.

An objection to a woman friend goes to her desirability.  An objection to a man friend fires up his, often as not.

Maybe for that reason, I have most deeply valued friendships with women who like to think – with or without academic credentials – because, in the realm of thought, differences can be aired in safety.

Long ago, I had a woman friend in Paris, like me an American Fulbright Scholar.  With that friend I could share the sorrows and battering of a first love.  She stepped in unforgettably to guide me over what presented itself as a feminine abyss – a terrain that held no future.

Alongside the drama of that crisis, we also shared the idealism of American young women then: mostly oriented toward the high blue vagueness overhead — the transcendence that would help us to make our futures mysterious and wonderful.  Of course!  What else?

Well, our twenties were hardly that.  My friend had a mother who was, as I noted later, “the coldest being I ever encountered who was still organic.”  After Paris, she married a guy who rescued her from her mother’s home.  He was just short of brutal and eventually left her for a man!

Meanwhile, I was climbing escarpments of a different kind, too intricate to summarize in this column.  (But detailed in Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming.)  Not able to provide help or advice equal to her situation, not confident that she could even visualize mine, it seemed to me then that we should separate our lives.  Two women, each at an edge, unable to rescue each other.

We picked it up again, this friendship, some years later when our lives were on the rails again.  I was established in my life work with the problem of a personal life still unsolved.  She was single, with a lovely young daughter, refusing to be victimized by her early disappointments.  My first marriage, which did not last, and her second, which did, overlapped this period of our resumed friendship.  Our friendship during that time was a success.  Present for each other’s life struggles, we exchanged sage counsels, practical and emotional.  We vindicated for each other the nuances and complexities of a woman’s aims.

She broke it off very bruisingly when I married again.  The reasons she gave (a difference of opinion about politics) were probably not the real reason.  She was a woman who rushed to judge that she’d been abandoned.  Recently I learned that her cold mother had actually beaten her in infancy!  It’s almost unbelievable.  If that’s what happens at the start of your life – almost before the start – what would the project of your life have to be?  Of what would you be in quest?  Perhaps to get back a sense of confidence in your womanly body: its enjoyments, its functional harmoniousness, its dignity.

Up to a point, I believe my friend worked on that very project and pretty nearly recovered her body.  Her second marriage was a good partnership, with many foreign scenes, orchestral sounds and culinary tastes enjoyed together.  I suppose life in bed was pretty good too.

When he died – passing off the stage of her life rather quickly, with little suffering – she probably stood at a crossroads.  With her original aim more or less achieved, now what?  Would there be a different aim or a further realm to explore?  Apart from the practical concerns when you are left alone, I think these are questions that one has to raise seriously.  Her second marriage had been enjoyed with a husband who abhorred all talk of the invisible realities that surround the everyday world.  “Religion” for him was the butt of bad jokes. The openness to transcendence that my friend and I had once shared was casually and colloquially slammed shut every damn day.  

It can happen in a marriage.  Maybe that’s better than a narrow, mean, dogmatic religiosity.  Anyway, it left her without the habit of silent asking and silent listening. 

Instead, she embarked on a further quest for erotic happiness.  I know because she and I have picked up our much-battered friendship again recently.  As yet, we haven’t met face to face.  At first she found reasons to postpone a reunion.  Now the pandemic has prevented it.  So we’ve been telephone friends. 

Lately I’ve been unable to tell whether the stories she confided over the phone were real or part fantasy.  They were breathless, stream-of-consciousness retellings that only required of me that I go-with-the-flow.  I was not her witness but her sounding board.

Her stories lacked coherence.  The main trunk of the story line would sprout digressive branches, and the branches get sub-branches so that, repeatedly trying to understand her, I would go back to the original timeline and ask, “What happened after that?”

The last time we spoke, I wondered even more somberly how much of what she told me was true.  Of myself and the life I now live, she said nothing and asked to know nothing.  After I rang off, I felt erased — almost as if I’d been assaulted physically.  It came to me that I’ve been in the presence of enormous anger, deflected and disguised.

As a tiny child, she’d been treated so unfairly!  We look for justice but the ideal is an abstraction.  In real life, we can never entirely restore what was lost, because we can’t become the person we were before it was unfairly taken from us.

When a woman’s anger leaves no room for help or rescue, she is inflicting on herself the beatings of her infancy, again and again.  Sadly I fear I may have to back away again, if only in self-protection.

If you spoil your story relentlessly,

you will spoil the stories of others too.

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Truth and truths

Truth and truths

It was early in my philosophy major at Barnard College when a professor returned a paper of mine, to which he had given a less than stellar grade, with the comment, “By now you should know better than to write ‘truth’ with a capital T.”

I sure didn’t know better.  At the time, I was a fervent armchair follower of Mahatma Gandhi who had written (perhaps in Young India):

“Previously I said that God is Truth.

Now I have a new message:

Truth is God!”

Gandhi had even titled his autobiography, Experiments with Truth.  I didn’t know what I thought truth was.  But I’d become a philosophy major partly to find out.

Among the concentration camp survivor trial testimonies I’ve read, there was one, from a protestant pastor, that stood out in my memory.

Rebuking the Nazi official who’d just reminded him that he was now the father and arbiter over life and death for the prisoners, the pastor said:

            “Your father is in the World of Truth!  And he sees everything that you are doing now!”

People like Gandhi and the protestant pastor were using the word “truth” with a capital T. Was that just because they hadn’t taken philosophy 101?

Lately I’ve finished reading two immensely long biographies of philosophers who helped to define the field in the 20th-century English-speaking world and beyond: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey.  The books were interesting partly because the two giants were in conversation with each other.  Ramsey died young, on January 19th, 1930 at the age of 26.  Wittgenstein lived another 21 years, dying in 1951 at the age of 62 and may have done the work (in Philosophical Investigations) for which he’s still an influence because Ramsey convinced him that his earlier approach (in the Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus) was wrong.

Ramsey’s disagreement with the early Wittgenstein concerned the nature of truth.  Both men wanted to line up what one can say with how things are: language with reality. The early Wittgenstein thought this was best accomplished by being very selective about what (philosophically) you were allowed to say and – across the distance between the speaker and the objective world – what would count as a fact about reality.   If you weren’t voicing an atomic proposition to describe an atomic fact, you’d best be silent.

Ramsey disagreed.  Silence wouldn’t get the job of being human done.  The whole vague and complex man or woman was the one doing the saying and the doing.  They would have to meet the outside world halfway, using whatever unfinished understandings of the world they could muster.   

Ramsey thought you had to assume that the experiences you were having, as shown by the senses and understandings you had, were trustworthy.  At least until you learned otherwise.  If scientific explanations included entities beyond direct experience — postulated entities like electrons – you were entitled to trust the methods of particular sciences so long as they brought success in action.  Just as you were authorized to revise postulates or method if and when either failed to deliver expected results.

So you didn’t get ideal certainties of the kind desired by the early Wittgenstein, but you got a world in which you could live and work.

It’s clear that each man is aiming at the best account he can get – of truths, not Truth.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Gandhi or that protestant pastor.  But neither would I want a world without Wittgenstein and Ramsey slogging it out with their competing accounts of the truths delivered by the sciences and ordinary experience.

Is there any way of bridging the two sorts of truth?  What kind of bridge would that be? 

What comes to me is this:  for both sorts of men, the linking bridge is just this:

Not lying.

For the philosophers at work on questions of epistemology – what we can know – they need to work earnestly and at the top of their capacities.  They must try each to do his best on behalf of the view each thinks most likely to be right.  And each must be prepared to give up his view if it meets some refuting instance.

For the one who is trying to make the world of action approximate to “the World of Truth,” a different kind of honesty is summoned forth.  That person must set herself in opposition to whatever lie has floated into that person’s human world – the world of real people.

In my experience, there has been a call to fight against any particular falsification that, as I put it, “has my name on it.”  If I try to evade the call to oppose and expose that particular lie, I’ll no longer be … who I say I am.

So there are truths (in the plural) that concern what things are … and there is also Truth (in the singular) that concerns who I am.

For the sake of clarity, one shouldn’t confuse the first kind of truth (of the what and the how) with the second kind of truth —

of the who.

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How to Be Modern

Bust of a Woman
Pablo Picasso,1944

How to Be Modern

I’ve never understood why people wanted to be modern in the first place.  Okay, the dentistry is an improvement.  I’ll give you that.

On the other hand, Victorian people (as in the novels of Dickens) seemed to me to boast more definite outlines and be more fully present than the so-called moderns ever managed to become. 

My parents and their generation, though they came of age at the height of modernity – the 1920’s – were closer to the Victorian type of man and woman.  So also was the apartment building where I grew up, with its lion’s head over the front steps and the castle-like crenelation along the roofline.

Whatever they were or were not, modern people were surely anti-Victorian.  I got a better sense of what it meant to be modern when I heard Queen Victoria herself speaking.  That is, I heard what purported to be her actual voice, as she is now — coming to us from the afterlife — via a medium’s 50-year-old tape recording, which you can hear at the Victor Zammit blog.

         “Oh poo!” the scoffers might object.  “Any actor can imagine how she must have sounded and then produce the voice she has imagined.”

That’s not true.  However it was done, conjuring up a voice that delivers Queen Victoria is amazingly hard to do.  The defining angel of the Age that bears her name?  Try to conjure that and see how well you do.

         “Just call me Victoria,” the recorded voice said, “I’m no longer Queen.”   

Well, you can take Victoria out of her queenly robes but you can’t take The Queen out of Victoria.  She showed a “Victorian” concern for her reputation and was appearing (via the 20th-century medium) in order to remove up some of the misunderstandings still tarnishing it.  There was a certain Scotsman, John Brown, whose presence at her side in the time of her widowed seclusion had stirred gossip.  John Brown had mediumistic gifts  and Victoria made use of his abilities to contact her beloved, departed Prince Albert.  With whom, at present, she is living happily in paradise.

The recording wasn’t very good, so I didn’t strain to listen to the end of the tape.  But I stayed long enough to comprehend what must have motivated the moderns.   She was …

SMOTHERING.

“Walk wide o’ the widow at Windsor,” the Victorian poet said.  Her wide hoop skirts enveloped every mother’s son who stood within range of her influence.  The only thing left for a fellow to do was, sooner or later, to …

GET AWAY.

Hence, modernity.  Pardon me for making a long story short.  What did the change comprise?  If you no longer affirmed that Mother Knows Best, to whose head would Victoria’s all-knowingness be most comfortably transferred?  Why, to one’s own manly head, of course!  A head submissive to no man or woman, to no ranking by established values or institutions — only to the deliverances of fact, as expressed by the modern sciences. 

So, in architecture, the moderns defaced the great cities of Europe and the U.S., erecting straight-line buildings, because straight lines are very mathematical and science is writ in the language of mathematics.  The new buildings stood, free of superfluous sentiment, unadorned and uncompromised by the plazas on which they intruded — plazas that embraced monuments to the past and stately palaces from another time.

So too in psychology, the moderns erased those inner features by which heroes can be distinguished from those who go-along-to-get-along.  They did this scientifically – or so they said, whether crediting their findings to Freud or to the Behaviorists.  Decoding action and motivation, they tracked them down the slope to starting points below the level of conscious understanding and choice.  The psyche began to look as unsightly as the city.

And in philosophy, in Vienna or Cambridge University, the knower acknowledged no principle beyond what he thought that science admitted: observable facts and sentences recording such observations – plus the logical relations obtaining between such sentences and other sentences.

After a time, this principle too would break down, because the principle itself was not an observable fact and also excluded too much of what real talk includes.  But the long climb back has been slow and wary.  When consciousness is allowed in as a factor, it’s with a bit of embarrassment.

On the Continent of Europe, where science did not play the same gate-keeper role for philosophers, one still sees the modern ambition to begin the philosopher’s world anew, ab initio: to lay down methods and insights beholden to no predecessors.

There are noteworthy exceptions of course.  But the modern tendency has, unsurprisingly, led to our present period, with its repudiation of every truth claim except for the one that skepticism makes for the truth of skepticism’s own assumptions.

And all the while, in the Anglosphere and on the Continent, two colossi bestride the waves largely unopposed: Marx and Freud.  The economic and predictive track record of the former, the clinical evidence for the latter, are alike shaky and contestable.  But together they go to show that … once you   dethrone mother and her heaven …

you’ll find something else to worship.

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Miracle Stories

"Daniel in the Lion's Den," Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918

Miracle Stories

We are just back from another of our week-long stays in Riverside, California.  We go there periodically to get treatments only available from the neuropathy clinic at Loma Linda Hospital.

Here’s how we “happened” to learn of this treatment.  We were headed out to Riverside to be part of the graveside service for Jerry’s father, L. B. Martin.  As I recall, it was at the Ontario airport that Jerry requested a wheelchair for me.  By that time, ordinary walking had become perilous.

         “What’s wrong with your wife?” the dispatcher asked.

         “She has peripheral neuropathy,” Jerry answered.

         “Oh, my husband suffered from that for many years but he was greatly helped at Loma Linda Hospital.  The treatment is not available anywhere else.”

No sooner had she said that

than she was gone

and we never saw her again.

At Jerry’s urging, but reluctantly, I made the call for an appointment to see the clinic’s Director, Mark Bussell, that same week — reluctantly, since the ceremony and family reunions would require his full attention.  However, Jerry felt that if this treatment could help, the sooner we learned that, the better. 

The treatment does not involve drugs or surgery, though it does include some dietary restrictions.  It uses a light-touch massage whose effect is to open targeted tiny blood vessels (in the micro-vascular system) that allow nutrient-rich blood to reach nerves previously starved.  This is the “hydraulic” part of the treatment, which induces nerves to regenerate, and it’s the easiest part to understand.  There are other aspects to the treatment, of which I’m less competent to give an account.

In my case, as treatment continued over the next few years, additional complexities peculiar to me were identified and addressed.  The process is slow, but from that first week it was clear that my condition had stopped getting worse and had begun, incrementally, to get better.

I don’t have a stoic bone in my body.  If something is wrong with some physical part of me – unless that ailing part’s been amputated and burned in fire – I don’t get “resigned” to the loss.  If I said I was, the hypocrisy would be an ugly thing to behold.  I’m not saying this is a virtue.  Or a vice.  Only that it’s who I am.  I’ve tried to be someone else.  It didn’t work.

Since you don’t have to be silent during the treatment, I generally find things to talk about with Mark Bussell.  One of the topics we discussed this week was miracles that may have come into one’s own life experience.  By “miracle” I don’t mean supernatural occurrences.  The things that have happened to me that I deem “miraculous” don’t break any laws of nature.  It would be perfectly reasonable to dismiss events that I call “miracles,” seeing them rather as instances of different event-streams, whose simultaneous occurrence had a meaning for me, converging by chance

If however you do see the hand of Providence in such stories, you have to be careful how and when you tell them, because – more often than not – they can be poorly received.  Anyway, in talking with Mark Bussell, it seemed to me pretty safe …

to share a story or two.

Or three.

Or more than three.

Holy Hannah!  I’ve got one miracle story after another!  In fact, if I blended the professionally respectable c.v. that I assembled two weeks ago in “Read it Here First! My Obit!“, with a parallel c.v. listing the miracle stories in chronological order – my word!  We have here a technicolor epic!  Where is Cecil B. DeMille now that we need him?

If my treatment provider, sober and data-driven as he is, hadn’t been willing to hear such a narrative, I doubt if I myself would have grasped the full extent of it.  There are people who have a good ear for classical music.  (I don’t.)  There are people who have a good eye for painting.  (I do.)  But the talent for listening intelligently to miracle stories has yet to be recognized.

For that reason,

I suspect,

most of us keep ours to ourselves.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion

By Bernard Harrison

It’s not common that you see someone with a high degree of philosophic training actually doing something helpful with it.  This book, by a well-regarded British philosopher, sheds a unique light on anti-semitism.

One feature of “the oldest hatred” is spotlighted here that I had never stopped to think about before.  Oddly enough, anti-semitism is an attitude that has been held by intellectuals of the first rank!  That’s a fact I first noticed when I was researching A Good Look at Evil.  I read ten volumes of  transcripts of the trials of Nazi war criminals that were held at Nuremberg after World War II.  To my surprise, many of the defendants were well trained in philosophy!  All were well educated!  They were not brutes.  Could anti-semitism be a malady of the intellectuals?

Harrison faces this question and answers it affirmatively.  Yes !  Over the past two centuries, there have been philosophers, poets, novelists, critics, journalists (and of course politicians) who were filled to the brim with anti-semitic views that have not changed, in the letter or the spirit, in the last two thousand years!

Ladies and gentlemen, this fact is remarkable.  If a visitor from outer space were to tour our planet, it might even be deemed its most striking feature.  An inter-gallactic anthropologist might report it as follows:

On planet earth, the smartest people

believe a delusional fantasy.

What does Harrison’s book do that other excellent books on the subject have not done?  To my mind, it usefully defines anti-semitism, breaking it down into two basic variants: the social and the political. 

The first, social anti-semitism (“we don’t have them to dinner”), is obviously burdensome for the victims: psychologically, professionally and socially.  However, it is not normally dangerous.  What it exhibits is a dislike of the stranger, the Other.  We human beings may be evolutionarily hardwired to feel some kind of animus or recoil when we meet someone who is different from our group.  Jews are certainly not the only ones to encounter social prejudice.  In the course of happier experience with the outsider, social prejudice is sometimes overcome, but there’s nothing new or peculiar about it.

The second variety of anti-semitism has a different dynamic and is very dangerous.  It aims at the elimination of the whole targeted group.  Harrison names it “political anti-semitism.”  It’s an ideology, a cultural formation.  It targets Jews specifically, across millennia, accommodating itself to the Zeitgeist — even as that has changed from one cultural era to the next — yet keeping the same underlying tenets.  Unlike social anti-semitism, political anti-semitism is compatible with having Jewish friends and the most tastefully benign feelings.  It is an intellectual distortion, to which intellectuals have been and are particularly liable.

What are its beliefs?  It imagines Jews (and lately Israel) as instigating a world-wide conspiracy to destroy all that is good, right, peaceful and normal, with the aim of benefitting themselves, the Jews, pictured as a homogeneous and preternaturally powerful group with a single, common, devilish will of its own. 

So, like any theory, it offers an explanation.  What does it explain?  It explains anything that has gone wrong, in the deluded one’s personal life or political views.  It explains the anomalies.  Why didn’t my expectations work out?  The Jews did it!  That explains everything.

This is a feature I myself have noticed in such anti-semites: they have Jews on the brain.  They can’t stop talking about Jews or thinking about them.  Instead of facing their own real-life predicaments and figuring what precisely went wrong, they have a ready-made answer for every unsolved problem.  It’s a syndrome I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  I’ve seen it distort people’s lives and sap their reasoning abilities.  It’s the saddest thing.  It’s horrible.

Unlike me, Harrison keeps his cool as he diagnosis the syndrome.  His remedy?  It’s to show that political anti-semites are self-victimized by a delusion.  In order to argue his case persuasively, he must face the daunting array of empirical claims about Israel, as well as legal claims about free speech – especially in university settings.  He manages this, going into “their own court,” using examples that avoid partisanship and taking up each of the major claims, one by one, on its own terms.

In completing his portrait of this delusion, there is one other task Harrison sets himself.  He must show what Judaism actually is.  This he manages to do, with a precision and nuance that I for one have never seen accomplished by a non-Jew.  He has portrayed Judaism from the inside: its idiom, its background assumptions, its way of being in the world and the way it looks to itself. 

He has done this partly to show how widely its assailants have missed the mark.  But also explained here is a feature I’ve never seen noticed in this kind of book: the attractions of Judaism for a people who have oddly chosen to remain what they are, when it would have been enormously advantageous for them to become indistinguishable from everybody else.

Posted in book reviews, books | 5 Comments

How Hegel Helps

How Hegel Helps

A British analytic philosopher friend read my “Obit” column of last week and noticed that I’d spent some of my professional time with G. W. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century German philosopher.  He emailed to ask what on earth I ever saw in him.  Something like the philosophic equivalent of “What was a nice girl like you doing with that guy?”

Many philosophers in the Anglosphere see Hegel as unintelligible at best – and at worst inspiring utterances like “How good it is to die for the Kaiser!”

My friend’s question inspired me to figure out why, at a certain phase of my own development as a seeker, trying to find her way within the forest of philosophy, Hegel looked to me like the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

*          *          *

Women have to find some way of getting a handle on what’s happening in this man’s world.  If we are to rise above passivity and get some perspective on the goings-on around us, we need advice.  I don’t mean cosmetic advice.  Nor help mastering some saleable skill.  Those supports are already available.

I mean, what’s motivating people?  Why are people doing what they are doing?  Why are they saying what they are saying now, but weren’t saying a decade or two back?

What produces the coloration, the texture of an era?  What sets the boundaries on desire at a given time and place? 

Why did the great 19th-century novelist Henry James come to regret having lived to see World War I? 

Why did European and Anglo-American girls in the 1920’s suddenly decide to show off their legs, their jazz dancing and agree that life was meaningless?

Why did feminism become a viewpoint no eligible male would want to be heard deploring?

Why did postmodernism arise from a tiny circle of Parisian intellectuals to suddenly sweep American universities and cultural platforms?

There is something to be explained here, and it very much concerns any woman who doesn’t want to arrive at the status of groupie for the latest cultural fad, merely repeating what everyone else is saying today.

Where can she go to get that explanation or even admit the question in the first place?  Current philosophy, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, queer studies, psychology, history are, often as not, incompetent to furnish answers because they too are at the mercy of the Zeitgeist.  They don’t necessarily know that.  They may take themselves to be state-of-the-art thinkers.

Yeah.  That’s the trouble.  The “art” of opinion-forming is at the same “state” for everybody that has learned it at the “right places” from the “right people.”  Sincere seekers aren’t likely to get the overview they need from them.

What Hegel discerned is that a cultural era has – is defined by – a certain way of thinking.  It doesn’t just feature a style of dress, or way of communicating, or a channel for power and prestige.  Let me repeat this:

A cultural era is

a way of thinking.

That means, ladies, that you, who can also think, can penetrate to what is going on if you look in the right direction.

So what are the opinion-shapers thinking?  Well, like anyone, they are thinking about their next dental appointments, their next meetings with their editors, their regrets, petty humiliations, muffled hopes, kids, wives, lovers and losses.  That’s private thinking.  It might shake out from the culture-shaping thoughts, but it doesn’t constitute them.

What does “a culture” think?  Can a culture think?

Yes (Hegel says).  Every culture is defined by what it thinks is true.  And true on the highest plane of truth.  True vis-a-vis ultimate things.  To put it in Hegel’s terms:

A culture is defined by what it thinks about the Absolute.

When does a culture go down?  I mean fall from internal causes, not get buried under a typhoon or volcano.

It falls when what it thinks is true can’t be held as truth any longer.  Why not?  Because the culture’s key claims look refutable.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Today’s column is just a Hegel primer.  It tells our reader that Hegel encourages her to look for the thought-forms that define the Zeitgeist and to ask herself to what degree they are really believed. 

Since a culture can also be undermined by shallow arguments and false claims, we should not only ask what people presently claim to believe about ultimate matters – or disbelieve.  The consequential question is the next one: 

Are they right — the latest opinion-shapers?  Have they themselves framed the questions rightly?  Do their questions fit reality as our reader has experienced it?

If we learn to ask questions closer to our lives, we might even get on with the business of women’s liberation.

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Read it Here First! My Obit!

Abbie in Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

Read it Here First!  My Obit!

All this week, Jerry and I have been attending to what I call “Last Arrangements.”  Though we’re not expecting to kick off any time soon, you never know, and one of the chores I’ve set myself was writing my obit.  So here it is!

           *    *     *

Abigail L Rosenthal, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, died [date] after a brief illness.

The “child of interesting parents,” she was the daughter of a philosopher, Henry M. Rosenthal, considered by his classmates of Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, the class “genius.”  Her mother, who could read Thomas Mann in the German, Proust in the French and Dostoevsky in Russian, was the daughter of the eminent rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz (pen name, Rav Tsair), who had been chief rabbi of Odessa and a leading figure in the Hebraist renaissance.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.

Born in Manhattan, Abigail attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art where, as she said, “you got points for being sensitive,” and graduated from Barnard College with Honors in Philosophy.  After her year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Sorbonne and College de France, she wrote her M.A. thesis at Columbia University on “Action and Purpose in Merleau-Ponty.”  At Columbia, she was a Graduate Assistant in the Religion Department and Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics.  Emerging from the examinations at Columbia with doctoral eligibility, she nevertheless took her doctorate at Penn State, with a dissertation on “Hegel’s Humanism.”

Those student years became the subject of her last book, Confessions of A Young Philosopher (2021).  It is a “confession” in the Augustinian sense of a search for truth put to the tests of personal and philosophic experience.  Each phase of the search is animated by a particular worldview, embraced and lived through till its limitations are discovered in episodes that are often searing. The last chapter, “Aftermath,” concludes with the view that inspired everything that she did and wrote thereafter: that a good life can best be seen as a truthful, dialectically self-corrective narrative, whereas an evil life takes the opposed direction, destroying its own story and going on to spoil the stories of others.

Her professional path was consistent with these early concerns.  After the first years as Assistant Professor at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, she accepted a position in the Philosophy Department of Brooklyn College, publishing “A Hegelian Key to Hegel’s Method” in the Journal of the History of Philosophy and “Feminism without Contradictions” in The Monist.  This was the first time a well-regarded philosophic journal devoted an issue to feminism as a topic worthy of philosophic investigation.  Her contribution was anthologized in Morality in the Modern World.  In these articles, she did philosophy in a Hegelian way, rather than approaching the subject as a historian of philosophy.

Her professional life at Brooklyn College included the drama of a seven-year job struggle, which an Arbitrator decided in her favor.  In “God and the Care for One’s Story,” the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil’s expanded second edition, she put that trying time to philosophic use, arguing that key moments of those seven years are reasonably seen as instances of providential intervention rather than as episodes occurring by chance.

In another chapter of A Good Look at Evil, she defended Holocaust victims from the armchair reproach that they had gone “like sheep to the slaughter.”  That chapter is titled, “The Right Way to Act” and has been twice anthologized.

She was the editor of her father’s posthumous book, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, to which she contributed biographical and philosophic introductions.  Her articles, posted on academia.edu, range over a wide terrain, with titles like “Getting Past Marx and Freud,” “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” “Defining Evil Away: Arendt’s Forgiveness,” “Moral Competence and Bernard Williams” and “In Windowless Chambers.”  The last, a defense of introspection, was reading at a faculty seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She considered friendship an intrinsic feature of philosophy and retained friends from the years at Stony Brook, Brooklyn College and — during her first marriage to philosopher John Bacon — from her year as Research Affiliate at Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.

Her second and lasting marriage was to philosopher Jerry L. Martin whom she met in the course of a fight, eventually successful, to save Brooklyn College’s then-outstanding core curriculum.  At that time, Martin had founded an organization based in Washington D.C. to defend academic freedom and the liberal arts. They fell in love over many long-distance phone calls.  The story was written up in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. When they married, Abigail took early retirement and they moved to the little town of Doylestown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Besides continuing philosophic work, she wrote a weekly essay for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.”  Her “non-advice” covered a wide range of topics, but was primarily aimed at women whose actual lives she thought more interesting than is disclosed by the more generic approaches typically taken.

*         *          *

At the end, I think you put in a sentence about how her inconsolable survivors will never forget her, but maybe I’ll leave that for others to append.

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