Human Nature and Human Person

Human Nature and Human Person (A comment on essence and existence)

            The 1901 Gifford Lectures are arguably the most famous in their august history. In print the next year, William James’ ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ went through dozens of imprints in the next decade, cementing his reputation as the foremost American thinker of his time. I taught this text many times over my own professorial career, and for me, it was one of those books where the sub-title was in fact more profound than the title, for James subtitled his work ‘a study in human nature’. Immediately one is arrested by the scope, the depth, that such a phrase implies. The only hedge is that it is one of a possible number of such analyses, ‘a’ study rather than ‘the’ study. Otherwise, the author of such a book has committed himself to the topic of topics, and for many of us, I think we might shy away from such a responsibility. My own large-scale works have never directly approached such a theme of ‘nature’ and those of the future likely never will. At most, I have suggested that our experience of art ‘glimpses the shared soul’ to slightly paraphrase the publisher’s subtitle for my major work in aesthetics. But James was working in a period where leitmotif statements were not only discursively sanctioned, the readership available seemed to expect such grand gambits of their philosophers. It took two world wars and a genocide to perhaps dissuade the European tradition from overdoing it, and postwar one notes a general stepping back from essential narrative, something that the novelist had moved away from after only the first war. So, while the title of the book remains both intriguing and moving, we tend to at first overlook the real meat of the work, its actual purpose, as revealed in the subtitle.

            And that core thing is, in short, that no matter the diversity of religious experience had by humans in their equal diversity, such experiences, even if we do not refer to them as ‘religious’, are part of the essence of what it means to be human. Even if religion is itself one massive projection of the human ego, as James states in this work, it is a necessary aspect of the wider and originally thrown project which each of is. For James, ‘projection’ was not a psychoanalytic term, but rather an expression of the very character of humanity; a representation, in a word, of our shared human nature. Much of his 1902 work is spent cataloguing the very varieties he advertises in his title, simply to demonstrate that in their existence and exigency, nothing is taken away from their pattern. A vision, no matter its specific contents, remains a vision. A conversion, no matter to which credo, is still a conversion. In the one, the visionary is taken outside of the everyday world and given a glimpse of another. In the second, the convert leaves behind the old world and is inducted into the new. The higher otherworld is, if not perfect, far better than the worldly realm, just as is the new world better than the one previous. In this, the visionary and the convert share both the experience of, and also the ability to, transcend their mundane circumstances, and this is part of the essence of the religious experience, as well as the leverage it uses to convince us of its profundity.

James argues that it is only through the possibility of what we can refer to as ‘irruptive’ events or phenomena, that regular life is livable at all. Such experiences may even be partially calculated, as in creative works of art, but their model is the religious undertaking, often seemingly spontaneous, as if the otherworld were a structural neighbor figure, dipping into our mundanity to aid us in crisis, in an unexpected and radical fashion. It is indeed, James suggests, that human life as lived is livable only due to the idea that there exists another life at hand. In some systems, there is no evaluation in store in order that one may pass on to this other, better life, whereas in others, not all will have the opportunity to do so. Even so, these purely cultural distinctions hail from the realm of existence alone; the presence of the otherworldly, the ‘reality of the unseen’, as James puts it, is of the essence. At this deeper and thus ‘more’ real level, several patterns emerge: one, that an otherworld exists and thus this our world is not all there is to being – this is reflected in the discourse of the child of religion, that of science, through its quantum-predicted multiverse – two, that we can pass through or on to this other realm; hence the idea of spirit or soul which, if not immortal, is at least understood as indefinite – this too is expressed by the sense that the cosmos is not infinite but indefinite in both time as a cycle and space as an expansion – three, that even within the mundane sphere we can catch glimpses of the otherworld; implying that its forces or denizens have a human interest or at the very least, interact with the purely human world – this too may be found in science by way of evolution; ‘we are star stuff, contemplating the stars’.

This trinity of essential character underpins the vast variety of religious experiences that human beings have encountered over the course of both historical time and that primordial. Even if, as James the psychologist is wont to point out, all of this rests strictly in the human imagination, it has become essential by transcending what has remained existential. In this, James appears to counter the modern sensibility that consciousness is historical through and through, and that Dasein is itself a being of history and language, though it too has ‘essentialist’ characteristics shared by every human being; anxiety, resoluteness, being-ahead, and care or Sorgeheit, for instance. But this contrast is an appearance only, at least at the level of discourse. For this aspect of human nature has itself developed evolutionarily; it is this chief manner by which we find a reason to live, and thus reproduce ourselves as a species. In Marxian terms, the religious experience is part of our species-essence, and it is an open question as to whether he and Engels considered the religious experience to be merely a part of religion proper, the notorious ‘opiate of the masses’, or whether it was excerpted from this indictment as an aspect of the authentically human character. In terms Heideggerian, James’ patterns would be expressions of the structure of Dasein’s beingness. Such monumental ‘projections’ certainly reflect our existential anxiety – perhaps overdone in Heidegger, though surely not as Schutz flatly suggested of his analysis: ‘phony’ – but as well and at once, our care or concernful being. They aid us in our resoluteness and keep our focus upon the future, assisting our ‘being-aheadedness’. Religious experience, if not itself an aspect of Dasein’s elemental character, could certainly be understood as the outward statement thereof.

 Both cosmology, our understanding of the universe as it is, and cosmogony, how that same universe came to be over time, its origins, are, as the ultimate discourses of the sciences, descended from religious conceptions. In primordial temporality, such ideas were not necessarily understood as religious per se, for only with the advent of agrarianism did major world systems associated with pantheism, ritual, place, priest and pilgrimage are observed historically. Nevertheless, in all known pre-agrarian beliefs, we can easily identify the three crucial elements of otherworld, of spirit, and of vision. They appear to be human universals, and even though human nature is not any one thing, it is mutable and itself takes on a variety of experiences deemed essential, for James, the ongoing presence of these projected tropes points to there being something within which what it means to be human indefinitely rests. In this, and somewhat surreptitiously, James in fact has altered the very definition of human nature through his study.

Our nature is evolved in the structural sense, developed in that personal. To each her own truest nature, as regards the latter, but in each the basic thrownness which includes the happenstance of birth and the inevitability of death. Life is itself an outcome of cosmogony, but one’s person is an accidental correlate of that life. Therefore, origin narratives take account of Being, of there being something rather than nothing, but cosmological systems respond only to beings, of there being me rather than someone else, or humanity rather than some other ‘intelligent species’. Human nature is thence in turn a response to evolution, human person a response to thrownness. On the one hand, time, on the other, history. Cosmic processes are themselves evidence of a kind of otherworld, anonymous in its forces, dispassionate in its absence of intent, ateleological in its lack of any ultimate purpose. But I as a human person am the very opposite of each of these: I am a being which can be known and can know others, I intend almost everything I do, and I have, over the life course, created a purpose to explicate to myself at least my own presence, my accidental existence. Just so, it is of the essence for each human person to accomplish this trinity in light of the essential one of otherworld, spirit and vision. Discourse and knowledge provide the world other to custom and tradition, intent vouchsafes the sense that I have an ongoingness, a psyche or ‘soul’ by which I navigate the day-to-day work of existing, and finally, an overall or general purpose for an individual human life is the vision necessary to string the whole thing together of a piece.

James sets up this kind of interpretation for our present day by responding to the critiques of selfhood and Being characteristic of the nineteenth century. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, in spite of their radical dismantling of Enlightenment precepts, all reserved their own sense of human nature, as well as the essence of historical or existential Being. James appears to combine all of these insights or even overtake them in an unexpectedly specific manner, by making singular the pattern by which our ‘nature’ is expressed in the world of forms. If history is class conflict, if life is eternal recurrence, if psyche is Eros-Thanatos, then human nature is religious experience lensed by the human person. This essential experience, born of a universal human condition of happenstance and inevitability, is nonetheless borne on the existential vehicle which is my own personal life as lived. And in that life, though meaning is inherited, meaningfulness is made. The ‘religious’ experience, in its widest and deepest sense, that which includes science and art, gift and even love, is a fullest expression of both our nature and our person. This is why it can be referred to as essential and existential at once. It lives but it also needs to live. It is the one joy amongst all sorrows, it is the meaning shadowing all meaninglessness, it is the cosmos within the chaos, the clarity breathing beneath absurdity. It need not be ‘oceanic’, as Freud skeptically disdained, but it is nevertheless the ocean, in all its mystery and power. In recognizing this, James has given us the ability to shrug off specific beliefs precisely in order to hold on to belief itself. And this too can be a talisman for us; that we can endure specific moments and crises in our lives in order to simply continue to live.

G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, religion, health, aesthetics and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Truth-Value of Truth

The Truth-Value of Truth (William James and the unveiled world)

            Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Out thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatsoever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. (James 1907:207-8).

            Nietzsche was not above cheap shots. Kant and cant, the old woman as the old truth about women and whips, and a Nazi favorite, that infamous comment about Polish Jews. But it was his critique of Schleiermacher’s perception of the world, quite literally, as the ‘veil maker’, that interests us just here. For James, perhaps unknowingly, is riffing Nietzsche’s legendary 1872 essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense’, wherein the author is at his youthful best, when James tells us, in his equally famous 1906 public lecture series entitled ‘Pragmatism’, that truth is, essentially, whatever currency that is in use at a particular juncture in human history. And if currency is to be considered legal tender, truth could be said to have accrued to it a ‘moral tender’, which most of us respect. There are sanctioned manners by which one can question the truth, of course, scientific experiment being the most clinical and formal of these, and also, in general, the least threatening. There are ways to question the currency of truth that are in the public interest, as do the whistleblowers calling out corporation or government, church or school. Here, certain elite interests are threatened, but for the most of us, the world looks a little clearer afterwards. We feel we have more of a handle on the truth of things, and there is a little more of that kind of money in our pockets.

            Indeed, James regularly uses the phrase ‘the cash value of truth’ in speaking of its practical effects in the world. “Grant an idea or belief to be true…what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (Ibid:200). James immediately responds to his own pragmatic interrogation of truth-value, by stating that ideas which we can assimilate, corroborate and verify are true, and those we cannot are not. This does nothing to upshift truth into a non-moral sphere, that is, an ahistorical space in which the truth rests and for all time. Instead, truth is known as and through its practical effects, nothing more but as well nothing less. He adds that ‘truth happens to an idea and it becomes true, made true by events’ (Ibid:201, emphasis the text’s). The historical happenstance of truth was one of Nietzsche’s early insights, and the pedigree of this idea can be traced back to the bare beginnings of modernity in Vico, in 1725. For James, the truth-value of truth is basically the same as its use-value. In a word, the truth of truth lies in its utility.

            Nietzsche’s actual title of another early and famous essay, much mistranslated, is ‘On the Use and Disadvantage for Life of History’. The contrast in the title is key. History too, like truth, must mean something to us not only in the present, but it also must present something useful for us. This may but mean, on the shady and impoverished of the street, a political convenience. This spin on truth, attempting to become a new truth but underhandedly, is useful for this or that political desire or institutional gambit. Or it may be a more uplifting sensibility, like the idea that art represences both its original context and the transcendental means by which we today can experience another age. This kind of truth is useful as well, giving us the sense that our ancestors lived as we do, not in their customs or druthers, but rather in their essence, mortal and unknowing of destiny. But at both ends of the use-value spectrum, we encounter what James refers to ‘purely mental ideas’, which are, in addition to those ideas that can be verified by quite specific results in the world, useful in a more abstract sense and include amongst them their own descriptors, such as ‘eternal character’ (Ibid:209-10). But for James, such ‘principles’ are only true insofar as they provide useful leading connections between practicalities. They are the invisible threads from which the tapestry of daily life is woven. Such principles ‘fit’, they have engendered themselves to the ‘whole body of other truths in our possession’, and so on. They are alike to what would later be called Gestalts, the wholes, which take on a different quality than a mere sum of the quantitative parts.

            Half anticipating De Saussure by a decade, James states that names are arbitrary, but he immediately adds that “…once understood they must be kept to.” (Ibid:214). This is so due to their entire imbrication with the context at hand. In Saussure, this mutual use, even usury, is analyzed in detail for the first time. The syntagmatic chain of signifiers, along which meanings differ and are deferred, Derrida’s proverbial ‘difference’, speaks to us of language in use, or ‘la parole’; speech or speaking. But those paradigmatic tell us that there is also a language at stake which is being used; ‘la langue’, or one’s ‘natural’ language. Jamesian truth bears a close resemblance to Saussurean language. Truth is spoken into being through its use and therefore ‘becomes true’. But there is also the entire stock of historical and cultural truths that lie at its back, as it were, ready to be of service to us when necessary. And the truth we have just used could not have been used without this wider landscape from which we had apparently excerpted it. James encapsulates the relationship between truth, history, and language neatly: “True as the present is, the past was also.” (Ibid:215, emphasis the text’s).

            Yet none of this is, to use James’ term, ‘capricious’. We must find, and thence use, truths that will work, he tells us. And part of the working consciousness, present overmuch to any innovator or revolutionary alike, is how, and by how much, does any new truth agree with all of the old ones. Nietzsche’s too-obvious metaphor of woman as truth plays this problem out, and not without resentment. For James, ‘workable’ means both ‘deranging common sense and previous truth as little as possible, and leading to some sensible terminus that can be precisely verified’. (Ibid:216). Durkheim, writing and working in the same generation, was not anywhere near as concerned about the first aspect of useful truth, blithely declaring in 1897 that ‘any time science presents a new truth, it is bound to offend common sense’, and indeed this is an arbiter of its truth-value. James does agree, after a fashion, but not without adding that ‘taste’ is also a function of even scientific truths (Ibid:217). By such devices is truth ‘made’, and through such does it ‘pay’. Once again, the comparison with wealth is front and center, perhaps appealing to the well-heeled Bostonians in his audience. Wealth is merely a name for ‘concrete processes’, and does not refer to a phantasmagorical ‘natural excellence’ (Ibid:221). Just so, truth has nothing directly of nature in it, but only gains its marque by virtue of allowing us to thread nature’s labyrinth and follow our own exiguous threads back out.

            Even so, it is clear that James places a stock in truth that Nietzsche, for one, is shy of doing. More than mere ‘metaphor and metonym’, for James, truth is something that does useful work in the world. It is replicable, verifiable, and assimilable to what has been known to work over time. It has the air of common sense while being in principle opposed to it. In this, truth takes on a kind of user-friendliness which belies its radical prospectus. It directs our view away from the personal and parochial and towards the structural and historical. Its working mechanism is derived from human experience as Humean knowledge, but it also responds to the Kantian question regarding how an experience occurs; pragmatically, experience can be had only when a useful idea is present to consciousness. Though this response begs the question of the first experience, and thus the original truth, it does make useful the enquiry into the nature of experience itself: experience is the conjunction of a new truth assimilating to what has been known as the truth.

            Suppose we take up the critic’s jaded hat and state with derision, Arvo Paart killed serious music, Mariah Carey killed pop, Garth Brooks country, and Wynton Marsalis jazz. How useful would be such a series of claims? But if we instead suggested that each of these musical genres was itself dead before these figures came along, and indeed, speaking of ‘taste’, in addition said that only because the genres had exhausted themselves were such mediocre talents able to fill these respective aesthetic vacuums, we would be closer to the pragmatic vision of the ‘how’ of truth, if only because we had shifted the frame from specific individuals, who come and go, to a more discursive, or paradigmatic sensibility. One could argue reasonably that while Marsalis and Paart are guilty of nostalgic regression and Brooks and Carey of crass commercialization, it remains the case that there was space for them to enter and thence dominate, either dialing back the clock on innovation or narrowing the use of it. However this may be, the truth of the matter is that in each genre, there was a shift towards either the commercial or the nostalgic, and this kind of observation has indeed a use to it. For James, the truth exists only after the fact, as opposed to what he himself critically views the rationalist to be peddling. In pragmatism, it is action that counts, neither habit nor act. Habit, or even habitus, is that which prevents new ideas from becoming useful in the world, and act, rather than action, presumes a history of acts which have themselves become aggrandized as being within the truth due precisely to their usefulness, mostly as either a doxa or a politics. Luke does not entitle his second book ‘Actions’, as he wishes there to be a resonance of what he witnessed in the reader; Paul suffered, both from the habits and customs of those he sought to convert, and from his own bad conscience about once being a persecutor himself. Given that each of us encounters those who resist our own ideas, including our sense of self, and as well, have ‘baggage’ sundry and divers, it is the testifying to the ‘Act’ that counts as having a truth-value, and not the mere observation of an action.

            Such is the world unveiled. Instead of the hermeneutically fraught ‘prose of the world’, as Foucault describes the premodern perception of nature and history alike, veiled over with assignations and autographs, diabolical and divine in tense tandem, we have a world wherein things either work or they do not. If the first, truth is generated, if the second, falsity. This is not to say that what is judged as ‘working’ or ‘workable’ is not shot through with both contrivance and contraption. ‘Perspectivism’, another concept worked through by Nietzsche, following Vico, has of late become the fashionable home of subaltern truths which, by association with a politics of visibility from invisibility, doubles over its assault on accepted truth. In principle, this is always a healthy thing, salutary as it is to the very being-ahead of our shared human character. But James’ disquisition must always be borne in mind; what is stopping any new truth from becoming old, wearing itself out through over-use and customary assumption, and thereby losing its once freshly-minted edges, the everyday pocket tools from which the visionary sword is crafted?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, ad well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Do You Want to Know a Secret? (when the individual ‘trumps’ society).

            At the beginning of his lectures on Pragmatism, William James states, rather coquettishly, that the one thing we are truly interested in with regard to another fellow human is his view of the universe; in a word, her philosophy. The outlook of institutions is, when placed beside this, a trifling matter. This is so because everyone supposedly knows where such edifices stand. Not only does their physical location attest to this position, but also do its policies, its indictments, its edicts, and its collective actions. Similarly, our cultural products and creations. A book may be read, one might say, but not so much a person. And hence the enduring interest in what the other person actually thinks about things, ideally everything. Now this does assume that the other does in fact think at all, or at least a little, from time to time. And not only does she exercise her human intellect which is our shared and universal birthright, but that they do so specifically regarding matters cosmic and profound. If it is up to the philosopher to question after the meaning of life in general, surely it is yet up to each of us to examine one’s own life for any possible or potential purpose.

            But in 1907, when James first published these legendary lectures, there was no internet, a space in which private and public are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, there were not technologies that could, in a matter of a scant few hours, obliterate all life on earth, and there was not in existence a pressing populist sense that only the few both knew the truth, were hiding it from the rest of us, and more than either of these, were conspiring to use it for nefarious ends. Around the same time as ‘Pragmatism’, however, the very first contemporary contempt of the intellect and of that wider truth would appear in print, the so-called ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a Czarist political tract, the contents of which were entirely fraudulent, meant to stir up Anti-Semitism in Russia, and so James’ popular lecture series at once became all the more relevant to any thinking person.

            Its relevance has not waned over the decades. When it was discovered that former president Trump had been storing a multitude of classified documents at his resort, there was an atmosphere of conspiracy in the rarified air of high office. The deeper question is of course, ‘why do such documents even exist in a democracy?’ but one searches in vain for anyone asking after this and speaking of its implications. Instead, we have a political falderal that seeks to hobble a rival’s bid of re-election, nothing more. If many fans see Trump as the fullest expression of their own angst and discontent regarding politics in particular but also authority in general, in projecting in this manner, they have perhaps unwittingly given an individual a larger-than-life persona; in another word, they have made the one into the many.

            Storing what are already institutional secrets secretly, the one has presumed to speak for the many, to safeguard their interests, to vouchsafe their collective trust. But at the same time, we may duly and reasonably inquire, are any of the contents of these myriad if secular missals truly so breathtakingly revelatory that it really matters where they are stored, and by extension, who among us happens to see them? I, for one, seriously doubt both counts. Simmel, writing at the same time as James, famously characterizes the secret as a manner in which to seal a bond between two people. It is a different thing, at least in practice, to use secrets to make intimate the trust between institutions and persons. More realistically, such a device enforces a bond that we might otherwise not ourselves have chosen. I find it almost laughably unlikely that Trump himself actually sat around and read any of these documents, filling to the brim banker’s boxes piled high in bathrooms and home theatres and the like. Aside from sheer boredom, many of these kinds of texts would be written in a highly technical manner, for ‘State secrets’ emanate from a wide variety of specialized bureaus, each with their own attendant bureaucracies in place. One would quickly tire of skimming through them, and their oh-so-important contents, presumably saving some and damning others, at least in the eyes of unelected public servants, would begin to go in one proverbial ear and out the other.

            If one protests at this juncture that all of this is beside the point, I would agree, but only if the point in question centers around the very idea of the secret in the first place. In all serious social contexts secrecy is inadmissible. It has no place in the marriage conversation, it sabotages friendship and love alike, it undermines the social contract, it sullies one’s spiritual beliefs and within such promotes the illusion of solipsism. We are quite aware that the secret should be left to childhood intrigues, where bonds which may be sealed will nonetheless be temporary and contain nothing so inflammatory that empires shall fall and Man alike. Why else would we imagine a Godhead from which one can keep no secrets at all?

            Since our ideal relationship, the one sensed as most noble and honorable the both, is one of perfect transparency – the origin of this idea in Western mythological narrative may be found in the character of the language by which the Gods themselves communicated to one another; Hermes, their messenger, spoke the Logos in such a way that no interpretation was ever required, something we humans manifestly cannot achieve – why then deliberately further depart from this condition in our merely human affairs? Trump is neither hermetic nor a hermeneut. He possesses no arcane alchemy nor does he engage in exegesis. Neither sorcerer nor philosopher, the former president is thus condemned to be a warehouse manager, not even an archivist. Beyond any of this, surely in our digital age all of these secret contents can be found any number of other places, in virtual form. Even the idea of carrying and hoarding actual paper documents seems outlandishly backdated. If there is any scandal to Trump’s actions, it is the sense that he is implying that as an individual, he may himself take on the public trust and make it private.

            But our modern State, as an institution born of, and borne on, that selfsame public trust, has, in its human minions, already committed to doing just that. Trump is a mere extension of the logic of governance and the provenience of government. And the philosophy underlying both is a narrow expression of Pragmatism. Neither idealist nor empiricist – the very use of secrecy departs from our ‘ideal’ social relations, as we have just seen, as well as obscuring a clear or ‘empirical’ view of the facts at hand, if any – a politicized pragmatism bends its sails to what the few imagine the many are feeling. If Pragmatism itself is taken to mean what C.S. Pierce, who introduced the term in 1878, meant by it; that, in a word, only our conduct matters; that the outcomes, the facts, the realities of our ideas count and the origins of such figure much less so, then we can only indict ourselves for being far too generous in our trust of the State itself.

            For the present reality we, in our shared but flawed apprenticeship of sorcery and the relative absence of any interpretive analysis of which that would elevate us beyond being mere inept pupils, have conjured, is one of faux secrets embedded in a true culture of secrecy. The latter constitutes a far more serious threat to general human freedom as well as to our imaginations – distracted and decoyed as they can be by amorphous conspiracy ‘theories’ – and to our intellects than ever does the former. Hitler was elected, Trump was elected, Putin was elected, and so on. If you want to know the secret of our political discontents, look no further than our juvenile tendency to fetishize possession and thus our desire to be the one who possesses. Trump boasted of having secrets, not keeping them. For him, and for ourselves, the secret is simply another commodity, replete with the marque of mysterious status.

            Speaking of alchemical conspiracies, the most interesting thing about the supposed ‘interviews’ of extraterrestrials to be found on the internet is their classification as secrets. There is one recorded as ‘Department of Naval Intelligence 47’; that is, a full forty-seven levels above ‘top’ secret’! We may take this more as a mark of the childhood game of secrecy, of cliques, and of the sealing of bonds amongst juvenile bands of brothers and sisters both. To any mature mind, such things are foolish at best. Pragmatically, however, they create both a sense of expectation and alienation in the outsider, a sense of propriety and entitlement amongst insiders. If the apparent content of such top of the tops secrets wasn’t itself so vacuous and irrelevant, there would be yet more serious social problems afoot. Even so, the decoy effect of such actions of our latter-day ‘Elders of Zion’ is such that it ironically, but perhaps quite purposively, makes the most glaring inequities and indeed iniquities of our contemporary social relations both at home and abroad less ideal and empirical at the same time. That which should never be secret is made more difficult to know due to the fetish of secrecy. Insofar as any of us participate in this pragmatically defined outcome, we should all be, and quite publicly so, behind bars.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.

Parish the Thought

Parish the Thought

            In his legendary set of Gifford Lectures of 1901, William James placed a strong accent on what he referred to as the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’. More than anything else, it is faith that demands this existential oblation, for faith must ultimately forego the act of questioning. And even if, as I have suggested elsewhere, the ability to question may in fact be the ‘residuum of faith’, it is certain that faith alone drives reason outside of all contemplative life.

            But what is the character of such a sacrifice? How does it play out in our contemporary social scene? And what would possess a being endowed with reason and the language to facilitate its ongoing development, to give up what appears to be the essence of its make-up? Could it be that notoriety within reason is simply a difficult proposition, and thence that unreason should call to us the more strongly? Is it simply an easier thing to become something larger than life by depriving that very life of its unique contribution to the consciousness which otherwise might feel small in the face of the cosmos? Human existence, its ‘nature’, though mutable, is yet based upon the faculty of a reasoning intellect. Faith bereft of reason seems not merely counter to our collective character, our ‘species essence’, to speak with Marx, or the ‘Dasein that we are and which I am’, to speak with Heidegger, but as well appears as a kind of limitation, even an historical regression. This said, is it entirely a fair definition of faith that shaves itself of all capacity for critical thought?

            James seems to think that, while religious belief is itself based upon the not idle curiosity about origins – How is it that I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to existence and more pointedly, to my specific existence? – and thus in its own development and proto-doxa, one finds reason at work, that in the end faith only comes into its own as a visceral veridicity when reason is fully abandoned. Akin to the act of love, perhaps, when two separate beings surrender their individuality for a few moments and unite in the bond of earthly rapture, the attainment of a faith undaunted by doubt and freed from any internal critique and self-reflection, surrenders not so much the body but rather the mind. In love, in regaining our distinct senses and thence our specific sensibilities, we realize that we have given ourselves over to the beloved other; this is the goal of human adoration. But in religion, we give ourselves body and soul not to a human other, but to a non-human Being who we imagine to be Otherness uplifted and made transcendent. From the divan to the divine, so to speak, this willingness to forsake our own paltry beings for a greater sense of existence, whether in love or in faith, also marks us as quite uniquely different from all other known forms of life.

            So if reason is necessary to attain an unreasoned faith, why presume such a faith to be no less of an essence to the human character than should reason itself be? For James, it is because faith is itself a mere vehicle for transcendence. If reason is the motive force behind the dynamic of human existence as reflective consciousness and as historical being, then faith is that which is ‘alongside’ reason, providing it with its ahistorical foil and its idealized selfhood. We would like to think that unreasoned faith is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms, but clearly we are faced, in the day to day, with a diversity of types of ‘blind faith’. Such a catalogue might not be worthy of a Gifford Lecture – ‘the varieties of unreasoned experience’, say – but this in fact is part of the core argument James makes regarding religion in general. The key to understanding the chief difference between a mere critical compendia of such misadventures and a reasoned and profound analysis of them can be found in his subtitle: ‘a study of human nature’.

            Now this claim radically upshifts the content from mere contemporary ethnography – you owe yourself a prayer, you owe yourself a soul – into the ontological sphere. It is part of our very being that we have the ability to experience religion. Faith may be ultimately unreasoning in order to preserve its function over against the world and against the history of that world, but it remains the near side of the coin which is consciousness as we have thus far known it to be. To study ‘human nature’, however diverse and changeable – James never claims, in what is still an all too prevalent shibboleth, that this or that is ‘simply human nature’; this type of response itself unreasoned – is to engage that very essence in the process of self-understanding. How does reason understand itself? What is the reason of reason, why does it itself exist and how is it made manifest? Reason is, in short, a gloss for human divinity.

            Until our modern period, reason was understood as a gift. It was what made us the imago dei under the skin, as it were. It is surely yet our most profound gift, Promethean in its scope and daring, ravenous in its Raven-like acquisitiveness; nothing novel can escape its sharp-eyed vision. But is it not as well the case, given the unreasoned tempi of human history, that we must maintain a kind of faith in reason itself in order to enact it, to return to it, to know of its perennial presence? For can we be apodeictically certain that our reason will always come to our rescue in the face of historical or yet cosmic happenstance? It is too trite a dyad to shrug this off with a ‘faith in reason, reason in faith’ kind of nod. For in reminding ourselves of their uneasy partnership, any balance that is struck within our consciousness which asks of both to remain present in the presence of the other presents to us a kind of intellectual miracle. On the one hand, reason in itself does not admit to faith of any kind. It is thought alone that carries it forward and faith, in its uncritical and even unthinking character, is at best an irresponsible diversion, at worst, a temptation. On the other, faith can neither reason itself nor for itself. It floats above the fray of the conflict of interpretations and it takes knowledge to be within the truth of things only when knowing is no longer associated with reason-inspired devices, such as science, method, criticism, and analysis. If reason sees faith as a half-way house for the febrile minded, faith sees reason as the professional artist sees the amateur. In the latter, reason can only take one so far, while in the former, there is no ‘farther’ place into which consciousness can travel. Hence the idiom, making a ‘leap’ of faith.

            Why not instead take one of reason? For James, such reasoning connects consciousness with cosmos, hence his near post-Broca musings about the architecture of the aspects of the brain about which we yet know little enough. Since reason does not itself require faith, but rather thought, and faith requires of us a reasoned appreciation of chance rather than the contrivance of a fetish surrounding risk – and on both counts, mind you; the shill of the thrill and the faux sage that sells to us ‘security’ – the unthinking chestnut that attempts to unite them is both unreasoned and faithless. Instead, we become aware not through philosophical inquiry but rather by virtue of quotidian experience that human life requires a kind of practical wisdom which includes what I would refer to as Phronetic faith. For James, this is one of the hallmarks of pragmatism, and even his most read work works itself into the service of this sensibility. Phronesis is itself based upon a practicality of ‘faith’ that recognizes the simple limitations of human insight and our dependence upon prior experiences which may, or may not, aid us in the nearest future, that which will be and that which can be known in spite of our ownmost presence as a ‘here’ and not a ‘there’. This is the faith by which we live.

            But this simpler and half-calculated faith addresses life only as we know it. It is, after all, reasoned, though in the moment of action reason must depart, even if only momentarily. And just as thoughtless action should not be carried on as if it were a kind of ‘tarrying alongside’ Dasein’s authenticity, nevertheless action requires of thought that it carries within it an element of faith to be discharged in the act, allowing it to occur and thence humanity to make good on its existential thrownness. Seen in this way, the wider faith that is both bereft of and exempt from reason could only take hold in another realm. The essence of unreasoned faith is that there is an object that itself cannot be reasoned, and this object is God or the Gods. For the theist, then, the ‘death of God’ reduces the entire concept of faith to mere guesswork, more or less confident, based upon a biographic quantity of personal experiences and lacking any wider quality. But I think this aspersion is overdone. While there is no reasoned atheism, in spite of the claim that reason has always been godless – God is, after all, the very metaphor of Reason and remains, even in Its afterlife, Reason’s apical ancestor – there is also no reason to sneer at the everyday existence of Dasein’s closest-by and nearest-to. It is its own uniquely human experience and it presents just as much of a challenge to any potential God on earth as the transcendental realm would present to a mere mortal. Immortal being is brought into unreasoned existence by everyday life, just as we imagine mortality to be uplifted by a faith knowing only in itself.

            All this said, the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ is today mostly either a convenience or a contrivance. The marketeer assuages the consumer by her own feigned idiocy, the parish pirate invites the listless into his own fraudulent faith. It is exceedingly rare, in my estimation, to discover an authentically latter day saint. But the ignominious fate of faith in our own time is mimicked by the corresponding downfall of reason, which in its turn is mostly used to calculate social control, warfare, or at best, economic trends. Could it be, for the first time in the history of human consciousness, that both reason and faith, in the face of their respective sacrifices, need one another more than ever, the separated siblings and estranged lovers that they are?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.