Sunday, December 4, 2016

Individualism in the Study of Religion

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Here's a simple question: Why did William James take the approach that he did in Varieties of Religious Experience, an approach to that field marked by the individual experiences of believers in some higher power?

There is on one level the 'official' answer: the one that James gives. He told his lectures' audience that he has been invited to give lectures about religion, a wide-open mandate, and that in order to proceed he would have to select "out of the many meanings of the word [religion] ... the one meaning in which I wish to interest you particularly." The selection is presented as an arbitrary one, defining religion only "for the purpose of these lectures" as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."

But no careful student of William James thinks that this is the whole answer. There are at least three not-at-all arbitrary reasons why James proceeded as he did.

First, because he was his father's son. He learned religion from Henry James Sr., the man who "wrote The Secret of Swedenborg and kept it." To a James, depth of religious experience would naturally have seemed coextensive with personal idiosyncrasies. More broadly, he was a product of the America that was also producing or had recently produced Joseph Smith, Dwight Moody, Mary Baker Eddy ... it was a time and place where highly individualized religious experience, pressing against the envelope of Protestant Christianity, was itself collectively valued.

Second, James wrote this way because James saw himself as a student of history, and the notions that (a) individuals matter in history, and (b) that individual action was in his day in danger of being lost in scholarly talk of aggregates and impersonal forces, was at or very near the heart of what all his scholarly endeavors were about. So when he had an opportunity to lecture about religion, it naturally became a exhibit in that broader case. Religion in its ecclesiastical form can of course be treated historically too, and when it does it can lend itself to interpretations that don't really need human names. Clericalism and Sectarianism and 'The Protestant Ethic' are all the sort of aggregating concepts of which James firmly disapproved. So he made the point that if you go beyond the forms to the human heart, forces and aggregates drop away in favor of "him who had it" where "it" is first-hand experience of the divine. Those who had "it" were accordingly often driven "into the wilderness ... where the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, St. Francis, George Fox, and so many others had to go."

Third, James looks to individual experiences for the essence of religion because he is a pragmatist. His pragmatism is of a sort that makes of truth itself a very individual product, a report on some one person's wrestling with the world, and of what has so far worked in that struggle, as the turn to a higher power works for those who have found sobriety through AA (a movement in part inspired by James).

For James, at base, everything in the present and future as well as in the past, is about individuals "in their solitude."

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

Diane and I have seen the Mel Gibson directed war movie Hacksaw Ridge. The photo here isn't a still from the movie (which doesn't use b-and-w cinematography). No, what I've pasted above is a historic (May 1945) photo of an escarpment on Okinawa that got the nickname that in turn became the title.

The movie hardly needs any recommendation from me. It has been out for weeks already (it opened Nov. 4 in the US) and has received rave reviews.

Rolling Stone calls it the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan, and that periodical's reviewer says that Gibson as director "deserves a medal."

Another reason the movie needs no recommendation from me: it has done quite well already in box-office terms. It made $15.2 million on its opening weekend, $10.8 million on the second.

These aren't blockbuster level numbers. Andrew Garfield, who plays the conscientious objector at the heart of the story, also played Spider-Man in a 2012 movie, and THAT film earned $35 million on its first day. Still, Garfield is reportedly gratified that he has moved into the realm of real world heroes. And the numbers are quite respectable for an early November release, when the studios are saving their biggest guns for the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year run.

With all that, as I say, I don't do anyone associated with the film any favors by recommending this movie.

 Still: here it is. I highly recommend this movie. It will move you. You may not understand Doss' religious principles before or after you see the movie. He was not drafted -- he enlisted. And as that fact suggests he did not object to the war effort. He just wanted his part in it to be purely that of a medic, and of one who would handle no rifle.

Still, heroism doesn't consist in having the right convictions, it consists in having the courage of the convictions one has. And this movie strikes that note well.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Philosophy of Henry James Sr

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Louis Menand summarizes the philosophy of Henry James Sr. quite well. Here's the money quote:

"Henry James, Sr. was a Platonist. He believed (following Swedenborg) that there are two realms, a visible and an invisible, and that the invisible realm, which he named the realm of the Divine Love, is the real one. From this premise, the usual conclusions follow: humankind is now separated from the true and the real; its destiny is to arrive at the consummation intended for it by God; philosophers are here to help the rest of us understand what that consummation is. James' particular conception of it was derived in part from his reading of Swedenborg and in part from a writer with whom Swedenborg was often paired in the nineteenth century, the French socialist Charles Fourier...."

From Fourier he took an idealization of the brotherhood of men, and the idea expressed in the title of his own final book, Society the Redeemed Form of Man.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Those Rightward Shoves

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A complete list of the Rightward Shoves in US political presidential history, according to the cyclical theory I described recently.

John Adams elected 1796. One term.

28 years later....

John Quincy Adams, elected (by the House of Representatives) 1824. One term.

32 years later....

James Buchanan elected 1856. One term. Union dissolved on his watch.

Then history does a bit of a stutter step. A civil war and its aftermath messes up the cycles a bit. Grover Cleveland is elected for the first time in 1884, 28 years after Buchanan. On schedule if we consider that the shove. He is defeated in 1888 (due to electoral college arithmetic) and triumphantly re-elected for a non-consecutive term in 1892. The subsequent cycles work out properly if we count the second Cleveland victory as the shove.

So count both 1884 and 1892 as necessary.

28 years later after the latter....

Warren G. Harding elected 1920. Dies in office. Portrayed above, he was the first of three Republicans.

32 years later....

Dwight D. Eisenhower elected 1952. First of two full terms.

28 years later....

Ronald Reagan elected 1980. First of two full terms.

36 years later....

Donald Trump elected 2016.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thoughts on the Death of Fidel Castro

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I have little to add to all the commentary that is flooding the internet on this event.

But I will add something, because to fail to do so might be thought idiosyncratic. Also, because I was born in 1958, the year that ended with Castro's victory. So I have some sort of fortuitous connection with the man, and it would be bad karma to ignore his death.

I think of the movie Godfather 2. And by this route, thinking about Castro will bring us around to William James and pragmatism.

The best scenes in that movie were the Cuba scenes, centering on the Corleone family's efforts to get in on the action in Cuba in 1958. The family was late in its timing, and had to make a hurried exit during the New Year's' Eve festivities that the revolution had so rudely interrupted.

Before the plot gets to that final collapse of the gangsters' friendly regime, though, it shows us that Michael (Al Pacino) has a premonition that Castro will win. He has seen that the rebels are willing to die for their cause, whereas nobody is defending Batista except on a salary or out of cynicism.

Now, if I remember the movie, this premonition doesn't cause any change in behavior. Corleone tells Roth about his suspicion, but then business proceeds. So Corleone gains nothing from this moment of perceptiveness except I-told-you-so rights.

It isn't even knowledge, then, in the pragmatic understanding of the term, because as WIlliam James wrote, "there is no difference anywhere that does not make a difference somewhere else."

Now, if the Corleone's had communicated to a stock broker in New York to sell short stock in Bacardi, or in some other company that was about to be hurt by the revolution (a US based cigar importer?), then we would have had a clear instance of knowledge of the forthcoming revolution that a pragmatist could respect as such.

With that confluence of pragmatism and finance capitalism, I had better conclude. Or rather with this: Fidel Castro, Rest in Peace.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy? A New thing?

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My sometimes random web-surfing has just brought me in contact with what seems to be a thing in the world of psychotherapy. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) apparently takes its name as a mutant of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is well established.

David M. Clark of Oxford was a pioneer in CBT, in the 1980s, merging the already established (but until then adversarial) cognitive and behavioral approaches, originally with the idea of helping people cope with trauma and anxiety disorders.

That much I knew. What I didn't know until recently was that this, too, gets the dialectical twist from the see-saw brigade. Hegelian badness looms over everything.

Just one word: Aaaaargh.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Autumn Statement

On Wednesday, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered what is known as the "Autumn statement" to the House of Commons. This is one of two economics-forecast statements each year.

It was much anticipated. Parliament wanted to know what the government knows, or believes, about the consequences of Brexit.

The Chancellor, and those who work under him at the Office for Budget Responsibility, haven't given many hostages to fortune in their statements, though. They assume that the UK will leave the European Union in April 2019. They guesstimate that the purely administrative costs of departure will amount to GB412 million (around US$511 million).

But on the critical issue of "passporting," they don't take a view. That is: in a "soft Brexit" scenario the banks headquartered in London will be able to negotiate for themselves or with the help of their government "passports" with the EU or constituent nations that will allow them to continue business-as-usual throughout Europe. In a "hard Brexit" scenario passports will be expensive, or unavailable and doing business on the other side of the channel will itself become a good deal trickier. The Exchequer and its OBR have no view on this. "We've not attempted to predict end point of the negotiations."

There will be no shrinkage of imports or exports across the Channel, although growth will slow.

But the most fascinating tidbit to come out of the coverage of the Autumn Statement was the simple fact that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is member of parliament for Runnymede. Yes, Runnymede! Where the Magna Carta was signed. What a great spot of world-historical real estate!