February 25, 2018

1. Advice For A Young Academic

Thanks for your e-mail, sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I’m not sure I have any useful advice for you, but I’ll give it a shot.

Philosophers are often controversial in their own time. Rousseau, for example, was considered a radical in his political views, his religious views, his educational views — everything. Mobs threw stones at his house.

Today, however, Rousseau is much less relevant, and much less controversial. Today no one throws a stone for or against Rousseau. If you deal with philosophers like Rousseau, philosophers who are long dead, you can have a good career, a steady paycheck, a nice house in a nice neighborhood. No one will throw a stone at you.

On the other hand, contemporary philosophers will bring you endless trouble, so you should ignore them. Most of their views are controversial, as Rousseau’s views were in his day. Contemporary philosophy will embroil you in quarrels, darken your career prospects, even incite violence.

Focus on process and method, avoid reality and truth. Talk to your students about the process of argument, about the method of research. These topics are un-controversial, and don’t stir strong passions. These topics are perennial favorites in academia.

Contemporary philosophers are far harder to understand than earlier philosophers. Contemporary philosophers are strange and new, in their style as well as their content. Earlier philosophers have been analyzed and categorized, discussed and re-discussed.

So focus on philosophers from the distant past — focus on Rousseau and Plato, Locke and Spinoza. Keep away from the cutting edge, lest you yourself get cut.

Good luck!

2. Against Method: Feyerabend and Koyré

Paul Feyerabend argued that we can’t rely on scientific method to lead us to truth. “Anything goes,” Feyerabend said; he called himself an “epistemological anarchist.” One of Feyerabend’s best-known books is Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge (1975). Feyerabend’s approach reminds me of a remark by Thomas Edison: “Hell, we ain’t got no rules around here, we’re trying to accomplish something.”

Feyerabend was born and raised in Vienna. During World War II, he fought in the German army, sustaining injuries that forced him to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Specializing in the philosophy of science, Feyerabend taught at Berkeley for thirty years.

I find Feyerabend congenial; I’ve always ignored questions of method, I’ve criticized method-oriented approaches to philosophy, and I take a dim view of scientific method. When I wrote about Roman history, I broke the most sacred rules of scholarship: I relied largely on one source — a textbook, not a primary source — and if I consulted another source, it was usually Wikipedia.

Today’s students can graduate from elite universities without knowing anything about Caesar or Napoleon, without knowing anything about Dostoyevsky or the Bible or World War I. Our educational system lacks content partly because we’re preoccupied with method. (E. D. Hirsch is trying to bring back content with his “Core Knowledge” initiative.) Professional scholars consult multiple sources, primary sources, then conclude that Hamlet was written by the Stratford man, who could barely write his own name! The Stratford theory shows that scholarly methods can’t free us from our preconceptions, can’t open our minds to revolutionary theories.

One might compare Feyerabend to Thomas Kuhn; Feyerabend is “Kuhn with an edge.” I’m a big fan of Kuhn, and a bigger fan of Feyerabend. According to one scholar,

Kuhn essentially retreated from the more radical implications of his theory, which were that scientific facts are never really more than opinions, whose popularity is transitory and far from conclusive.1

Unlike Kuhn, Feyerabend is deliberately provocative: “When sophistication loses content,” Feyerabend said, “then the only way of keeping in touch with reality is to be crude and superficial. This is what I intend to be.”

Feyerabend dismissed scientific method, using historical examples to show that scientists use all sorts of methods. Feyerabend challenged the place of science in our society:

Starting from the argument that a historical universal scientific method does not exist, Feyerabend argues that science does not deserve its privileged status in western society. Since scientific points of view do not arise from using a universal method which guarantees high quality conclusions, he thought that there is no justification for valuing scientific claims over claims by other ideologies like religions.

Feyerabend criticized contemporary science for repressing free thought, and rejecting non-Western approaches. He was

especially indignant about the condescending attitudes of many scientists towards alternative traditions. For example, he thought that negative opinions about astrology and the effectivity of rain dances were not justified by scientific research.... In his opinion, science has become a repressing ideology.2

Feyerabend complained that today’s scientists are ignorant of philosophy, and today’s philosophers have withdrawn into a narrow professional shell. He cautioned against the objective study of nature, arguing that we should hold onto our subjectivity, our charm and humor. Feyerabend quoted Kierkegaard with approval, and said, “I believe that a reform of the sciences that makes them more anarchic and more subjective (in Kierkegaard’s sense) is urgently needed.” (In an earlier issue, I discussed Goethe’s criticisms of scientific objectivity.)

Feyerabend wrote a popular autobiography, Killing Time.

Like Kuhn, Feyerabend was influenced by an older historian of science, Alexandre Koyré (Koyré was born in 1892, Feyerabend and Kuhn were born in the 1920s). Koyré argued that science isn’t about experiments, it’s about worldviews; it isn’t about approaching nature objectively, it’s about trying to prove the worldview that we already have:

Koyré was suspicious of scientists’ claims to prove natural or fundamental truths through experiments. He argued these experiments were based on complicated premises, and that they tended to prove the outlook behind these premises, rather than any real truth.3

Koyré’s best-known book is From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe.

3. Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto is a contemporary economist who has the same name as a 16th-century conquistador. Now 76, de Soto was born in Peru; his father was a diplomat, and he attended school in Switzerland.

De Soto argues that many people in the Third World have property, but no formal, written property rights. If their property rights were formalized, they would have an official address, they could use their property as collateral for loans, they could get water and electricity delivered, etc. “The road to economic development,” de Soto says, “runs through the county clerk’s office at the local courthouse.” Without registered property, you can still get water, electricity, and loans, but they’re more expensive; de Soto says that water delivered by trucks is six times more expensive than water delivered by pipes.

Every nation, de Soto says, goes through a period of informal property rights. On the American frontier, for example, there were “tomahawk rights”: property was demarcated by cutting blazes on trees with a tomahawk. There were also “corn rights”: your property extended as far as your cornfield. De Soto thinks that ThirdWorld countries need to make the transition that developed countries have already made, the transition to formal, written property rights. In a recent WallStreetJournal essay, de Soto argues that blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, might enable the recording of property rights, blockchain might become a Town Clerk’s office for the whole world.

One of de Soto’s first successes was in his native country, Peru. Around 1980, a communist group called Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) “won support among the poor indigenous people of Peru by enforcing primitive property rights at the point of a gun.” De Soto managed to formalize these primitive property rights, and thereby reduce support for Shining Path. He was on the Shining Path’s “hit list,” and had to travel in a bullet-proof car. When ShiningPath leader Abimael Guzmán was captured in 1992, he blamed de Soto’s work for the decline of his organization. After de Soto’s success in Peru, he advised numerous governments around the world.

In 1989, de Soto wrote The Other Path [El Otro Sendero]. In 2000, he wrote The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.

If property rights are informal, unwritten, a government or corporation may feel that it can seize property. Such a seizure would anger local people, and perhaps spark an uprising. De Soto argues that the uprisings known as the Arab Spring were not protests against capital, but rather demands for capital — demands for capital that’s registered and secure from seizure. (The Arab Spring began in 2010 when a Tunisian street vendor immolated himself to protest government seizure of his wares.)

When property is informal, unregistered, it’s “dead capital.” De Soto argues that developing countries are sitting on trillions of dollars of dead capital.

In 1990 [de Soto writes] the state-owned Peruvian telecommunications company CPT was valued on the Lima Stock Exchange at $53 million. The government wanted to sell CPT to foreign investors but couldn’t, because Peruvian titles to the company’s assets did not meet global standards. CPT initiated a program... to research title records and formally establish its property rights. Within three years CPT was sold on the world market for $2 billion — roughly 38 times its previous value.

By formally registering its property, CPT brought its “dead capital” to life.

De Soto speaks clearly, with little accent.
8-minute interview
16-minute interview
70-minute talk

4. A Dialogue

A: According to Einstein’s theory, space curves, and time expands.

B: What would Newton have said? Would he have found that as baffling as I find it?

A: Quantum physics shows particles communicating instantly over vast distances. Thus, space doesn’t just curve, it disappears completely. Likewise, telepathy is instant communication over vast distances — space disappears completely. Einstein was baffled by quantum physics, and called it “spooky.” Einstein had said that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. But in quantum physics and telepathy, travel is instantaneous, Einstein’s “speed limit” is shattered, space disappears. For thousands of years, mystics had been saying that space is unreal, space is just a construct of the mind. But rational thinkers ignored these mystics, so they were astonished by the findings of quantum physics. Einstein was too rational, too un-mystical.

B: You think you can take down Einstein? Good luck!

A: But surely you’ll admit that Newton’s place seemed secure in 1700, even in 1800. Back then, no one thought that a scientist would come along and take down Newton. Isn’t every thinker eventually overthrown?

B: So you think you’re going to overthrow Einstein as he overthrew Newton, as every thinker overthrows his predecessor. You better be careful lest you yourself are overthrown. You remind me of someone who notices how other people are aging, but forgets that he’s aging, too. De te fabula narratur, the story is about you. What about that theory of history that you’re always boasting about? Isn’t it going to be overthrown someday?

A: I can only hope that it will be overthrown because the alternative is worse.

B: “The alternative”?

A: The alternative is that civilization will stagnate, or slide backwards. Man will no longer try to fathom the universe. Philosophy will come to a halt. So I can only hope that my theories will be overthrown. I fear that my theories might not be overthrown, that I’ll be the last philosopher.

B: If you’re the only philosopher, no one will understand your theories, and if you’re the last philosopher, no one will care about your theories. Why would someone want to be a philosopher? The pay is bad, the benefits are worse, and everyone thinks you’re nuts! Surely you can find a better job.

A: We haven’t talked about Darwin yet.

B: I suppose you’re going to overthrow him, too?

A: Darwin had the same weakness as Einstein: he was too rational, too un-mystical. Darwin emphasizes random mutation, pure chance. But if a thinker is receptive to the mystical and the occult, he’s wary of chance, he thinks that chance is a shallow explanation. Whenever he hears the word “chance,” he thinks “there must be more to it, something is going on.” There must be some will, some instinct, some fate or synchronicity that drives evolution forward. Just as some sort of fate guides the destinies of individuals and nations, so too some sort of fate must guide the destinies of species. Several philosophers, including Nietzsche, refused to accept Darwin; they knew that something must be driving evolution forward, they knew that chance wasn’t an adequate explanation. They knew that Darwin hadn’t told the whole story, just as Einstein didn’t tell the whole story. It’s time to overthrow both Darwin and Einstein, though both are partly true, both tell part of the story.

B: I still say you could find a better job. Why not try a temp agency?

5. Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis objected to the phrase “lead us not into temptation.” God would never do that, so why implore him not to? Satan leads us into temptation, not God. Pope Francis said “lead us not into temptation” was “not a good translation.” He suggested changing it to “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

If Jung were alive, he would say that the translation is fine, but the conception of God implicit in the Lord’s Prayer is different from the modern conception of God, hence the Lord’s Prayer is troubling to Pope Francis and other modern Christians. The God of the ancient Hebrews was both dark and light, but the modern Christian God is pure light, pure love, Summum Bonum. The God of the ancient Hebrews was “subject to intermittent but devastating fits of rage ever since time began,”4 fits of rage such as the sufferings visited upon Job, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and the Apocalypse.

In the time of Christ, God was beginning to mend his ways, and evolve into the loving father. But in creating the Lord’s Prayer, in imploring God not to lead us into temptation, “Christ considers it appropriate to remind his father of his destructive inclinations towards mankind, and to beg him to desist from them.”5 But Pope Francis can’t fathom an evolving God, a growing God, a God with destructive inclinations, he can only understand a God of pure goodness, pure love. “It must be a bad translation, let’s make a new one.”

The gods of the Greeks and Romans, like the God of the Hebrews, were both dark and light. If Jupiter saw an attractive mortal, he would snatch her up, without asking her permission. The pagan gods had the passions and vices of mortals; they were more like Harvey Weinstein than Jesus Christ.

If God is pure love, pure light, how do we explain the crucifixion? Jung points out “the strange fact that the God of goodness is so unforgiving that he can only be appeased by a human sacrifice!” Jung says that the crucifixion throws a “glaring light... on the divine character, giving the lie to all talk about love and the Summum Bonum.”6

If God is pure love, pure light, then darkness and evil must be expressed elsewhere, there must be a Satan or an Antichrist. What goes up must come down; balance must be maintained. “Psychological experience,” Jung writes, “shows that whatever we call ‘good’ is balanced by an equally substantial ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.”7 One who strives for pure virtue becomes moody. “The imitation of Christ creates a corresponding shadow in the unconscious.... Irritability, bad moods, and outbursts of affect are the classic symptoms of chronic virtuousness.”8

Christianity has always emphasized love and light at the expense of balance and wholeness. Christianity’s function in history was to tame the beast. Jung:

The immediate and urgent problem [during the time of Christ] was not the union of opposites, which lay in the future, but the incarnation of the light and the good, the subjugation of concupiscentia, the lust of this world.9

In the East, the opposites were united in the yin-yang symbol, which blends dark and light:

The phrase “yin-yang” means “dark-light”.

Pope Francis is uncomfortable with a God who’s both dark and light, yin and yang. He’s uncomfortable with a God who unites opposites, a God who has destructive inclinations, a God who might lead us into temptation. In his view, God is pure light, pure love, and he wants to re-translate the Lord’s Prayer to fit this conception.

© L. James Hammond 2018
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1. Wikipedia back
2. Wikipedia back
3. Wikipedia back
4. Jung, Answer to Job, Collected Works vol. 11, par. 652 back
5. Ibid, par. 651 back
6. Ibid, par. 689 back
7. Answer to Job, Prefatory Note 1956, p. ix back
8. Jung, Answer to Job, Collected Works vol. 11, par. 717 back
9. Ibid, par. 743 back