Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Question of Technology

by James Beauregard
Recently, I have been thinking about the question of technology from the personalist perspective, having given presentations in Madrid, Spain at the Spanish Personalist Association this past May and most recently in York, England at the British Personalist Forum, my first foray into the world of Skype presentation. A comment that I made on both occasions was that personalism has typically not given extended consideration to the issue of technology as it is lived in contemporary society. 
During the 1920s, German Personalist Romano Guardini traveled periodically back to the land of his birth in northeastern Italy, and during his time at the Italian Great Lakes he composed a series of letters, first published individually, then collected into the book Letters from Lake Como.  The letters are a reflection on both the advancement of technology and the human condition. Living in industrialized Germany as he had since a very young age, Guardini was struck again and again by the comparatively rural and agrarian Italian countryside. Nevertheless, technology was clearly making inroads and he noticed without a little dismay the presence of factories that, in his opinion, marred the Italian skyline.
For Guardini, technology is both a useful tool, but also something that separates us from the natural world. Early in the book, he gives the example of a sailing ship, which he observed not infrequently on Lake Como as an example of how sails harnessed the power of nature; at the same time, he saw the beautiful lines of sailing vessels as, to some extent, separating persons from the natural world of water and wind – the bigger the ship, the greater the separation. Ultimately, his view of technology is a positive, and he exhorts the reader to rise to the occasion of our own abilities so that we remain their master and not their servant.
The contemporary Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, in his book The Embers and The Stars, also engages in a sustained reflection on the relationship between ourselves and the technology we create.  While Guardini knew a world of radio and cinema, automobiles and trains, Kohák wrote some five decades later, in a far more advanced technological society. His book, published in the late 70s.  Thus, Kohak’s work predates the Internet of Things. Both authors, however, speak to the danger of dehumanization that technology presents.  Kohák, like Guardini before him, is quite clear that technē is a fundamentally human activity, one that has reduced many of the burdens carried by persons in previous ages.  At the same time, with British Personalist John Macmurray, he traces the long philosophical process by which Western societies’ root metaphors change. The medieval world, even with its philosophical and theological focus on God, was more person centered.  With the Renaissance and the beginnings of the scientific revolution came new ways of thinking about persons and about technology. While Macmurray employees as metaphors in a very practical manner, Kohák is much more explicit about our metaphorical use of language; indeed, his book proceeds largely through successive and recurrent metaphors. 
Macmurray traced the development and change in our root metaphors from the foundations of the scientific revolution, beginning in the domain of physics, in which the foundational metaphor became the material in the mechanical, matter and motion or as Kohák terms it, matter propelled by blind force. The Newtonian vision still holds sway in many aspects of the sciences today, and in the wider culture, at least in the way popular thought is expressed. The organic or biological metaphor came to the center of scientific and philosophical thought during the 19th-century, largely thanks to the work of Charles Darwin. Biology became the root metaphor and human beings are spoken of as organisms. The metaphor expanded into thinking about community, and evolutionary concepts were brought into play not only to address human evolution, but the evolution of societies as well. 
These metaphors continue to hold central place in biology and in contemporary evolutionary theory. If anything, they have become more and more complex in recent decades. The study of evolution, both of the human race and of societies has on the one hand been enriched, though on the other limited, by advances in biology in the second half of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. Evolutionary thinking has become multidisciplinary, and has encompassed the disciplines of population genetics, epi-genetics, biochemistry, embryology, and the more recent advances of Molecular genetics.
We start to run into problems, though, when we sallow these metaphors to stand for our grasp of the whole of reality when in fact they are a part.  Useful in this context is Husserl’s sense of regional ontologies, deliberately circumscribed world views and methodologies in the specific sciences whose purpose is the generation of knowledge and understanding about the way the world works. But there is a problem here. Historically, however, the regional ontology of science has come to be mistakenly seen as a general ontology, the parts mistaken for the whole.  One of Macmurray’s vital insights came in tracing this development through the modern philosophical era, from the mechanical to the organic, and to recognize that we had been stuck in the metaphor of the organic since the 1800’s. Contemporary science continues to attempt to explain persons from the bottom up, employing material and biological metaphors and assuming they are sufficient to capture the whole of what it means to be a person. The process, however, involves an inherent contradiction. It is only as persons, as Macmurray recognized, that we can speak of the organic and the material via a process of subtraction and abstraction. Both Macmurray and Kohák understand that is only from the root metaphor of persons, rather than matter and biology that we can understand ourselves, others and the world.
Over the next few months, when it's my turn in the BPF blog, I will be taking a closer look at Guardini’s letters.  He is read more in Europe than in the English-speaking world, where he is a less appreciated personal list; nevertheless, I think he has some insights to offer to us as we think about the rapid advancement of technology and its impact on the human condition. I will be taking a closer look in the months ahead at each of his "letters" to see what we might glean from them in terms of our contemporary relationship with technology, and to see how they might be brought into conversation with more recent thinking and the philosophy of technology and with personal is him. I invite you to join in the conversation.

James Beauregard is a practicing neuropsychologist and lecturer in the Psy.D. program at Rivier University, Nashua New Hampshire. His philosophical interests include European personalism and the conversation between it and Anglo-American personalism, philosophy of technology and the work of personalists John Macmurray, Juan Manuel Burgos and of, Erazim Kohák. He has coedited, with Simon "mad dog" Smith, the recent book, In the Sphere of the Personal (Vernon Press, 2016).

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Golden Mean: Virtue, Negation and The Real

by Alan Ford

The Golden Mean, the Middle Way etc., in its many forms seems as ancient as philosophy itself. For western philosophy Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, is the luminous example, but Plato and Socrates had said similar things before, and Daedalus had told Icarus to ‘fly the middle course’ between the sea spray and the heat of the sun. The Buddha taught the Middle Way, Confucius taught that excess is like deficiency, Thomas Aquinas argued that virtue observes the mean, and the Koran teaches the Middle Way too: ‘We have made you a balanced, moderate nation’.
It is easy to pick holes in this, especially if one hasn’t read any of the above works, but it is right that the ‘golden mean fallacy’ should be elicited when it is misinterpreted as meaning that one should always seek a compromise, no matter what. This is obvious if one thinks that The Mean means accepting as right and virtuous a compromise between the truth and a blatant lie. Yet this is an epistemological argument and, for instance, Aristotle is arguing about ethical virtues, propensities to act in virtuous ways, in short about character, identity. An oft-quoted example from Aristotle is that courage is a virtue, but an excess of this would lead to recklessness, while a deficiency would produce cowardice: just like Confucius’ notion that excess is like deficiency. I shall show how this happens.
This structure, of too much of a virtue on one hand and too little on the other, in order to describe a virtuous identity, can be transformed and illuminated by examining Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair in his The Sickness Unto Death,(1) where the sickness is at not being able to become oneself. He analyses this in two broad forms: a) where he describes the ‘factors’ from which a self is composed: and b) from the point of view of consciousness. The former describes the parameters of the self from which we begin, (genetic makeup etc.), our raw individual potential, and, perhaps, our initial environment. Here we are pre-cognitive beings, potential persons, with rudimentary minds and bodies: a mere “negative unity”.(2)
It is only when true cognitive consciousness dawns that we can begin to become persons, and only then can choice and responsibility for oneself arise: when the self begins to be aware of the Other and consequently of itself.

So, to examine despair as viewed under these factors of the synthesis.
The factors of this synthesis of the self are, according to Kierkegaard, the opposing notions of Infinitude/Finitude, Possibility/Necessity. The self can lose itself in pursuit of one side of these syntheses. But we’ll talk in terms of Freedom and Necessity, for brevity and clarity’s sake. You will notice that, as in Aristotle’s analysis above, the faults in identity are couched in terms of too much and too little, but Kierkegaard takes these further.
The despair of too much freedom is where necessity is suppressed in a fantastic bid for freedom, where action in the real world is put on hold, where contemplation becomes lost in the infinitude of thought and logical possibility, where imagination reigns and facts are evaded. Feelings become lost in great abstractions, like ‘love of the masses’, the perfectibility of man etc. The only castles ever built are in the air. For if one is totally free, a possibility only within imagination, one cannot be free, for freedom depends on action, and one cannot act if there is no resistance, which this ploy of escape into ‘freedom’ is designed to avoid. I can jump only because the floor resists me. Freedom, like action is not an abstract absolute. Outside action for some worthwhile and realisable scheme knowledge becomes an expansion of itself, or thought doing no work, as Wittgenstein once put it.
In the opposite kind of despair, despair of too much necessity, (too little freedom) a person might avoid becoming a person in losing himself in everyday ‘reality’, suppressing imagination and thus possibility. He merges with the crowd as if a thing with no freedom and hence no responsibility to act as a person, a perfect citizen in a totalitarian state, fitting neatly into the party machine, paradoxically free from the responsibility to act as a person. Above we saw expansion into impotence and oblivion, here we see contraction into narrow-mindedness and meanness of spirit. Yet both obey a paradoxical dialectic where too much freedom flips into no freedom, since freedom depends on the ability to act to a purpose; and too much necessity flips into freedom from responsibility by evading action. Both in fact evade the real. For one all is possible, for the other nothing is possible: which comes to the same thing. If all is possible, then nothing is possible.
This dialectic of the detached self is spelled out in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (3) at 5.64 where he writes:

Here it can be seen that solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of philosophy shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.

But this must also operate in the opposite direction since there is no identity, no sense of self that could prevent this! A being without identity is in the state as illustrated in these two ‘equations’. Too much freedom and too much necessity ends in deep flaws in personhood and identity, and 5.64 shows the impossibility of identity if based on mere subjectivity and objectivity, that seemingly fundamental distinction upon which Descartes placed true knowledge and the nature of the self, spawning the mind-body, fact-value problems. We shall return to these after we examine despair from the point of view of consciousness.

*       *       *
But then for Kierkegaard :

…despair must be viewed under the category of consciousness: the question whether despair is conscious or not, determines the qualitative difference between despair and despair. (4)

Consciousness is involved in the notion of despair, although the person involved need not be conscious of his despair. He goes on:
Generally speaking, consciousness, i.e. consciousness of self is the decisive criterion of self. The more conscious, the more self, the more consciousness the more will, and the more will the more self. (5)
So, after the initial pre-reflexive synthesis, where the person is merely casually aware of the Other, he becomes aware of himself. He is capable of being something more than an organism. This comes through cognitive consciousness, where the person becomes intentional and therefore capable of real action, with a real self in a real world.
For Kierkegaard there are several categories of despair under the aspect of consciousness, which is simplified here, beginning with despair that is unconscious of despair, through consciousness that is conscious of despair and in which there is both despair at avoiding responsibility of becoming oneself, and one in which despair wills despairingly to be itself. The last, the ‘highest’ form and the most dangerous is ‘the despair of defiance’, on which we shall concentrate in a moment. Yet the model remains the same: from the virtually unconscious to those highly conscious of despair. Those feebly conscious can be seen as those who evade, retreat from the real: Aristotle’s deficient side of virtue. Those highly conscious can be seen as excessive, who, in their egotism, defy the real. Both are forms of unreality and irresponsibility.
Fully conscious despair consists of two possible outcomes.

A)    One might become aware of one’s self in all one’s freedom, finitude and necessity, relating to oneself but also to that infinitely greater context that Kierkegaard calls “the power that posits me”. This might be likened to ‘maturity’, or the awareness of one’s real faults and virtues, where one comes to terms with the real. For Kierkegaard the power that posits is God, but to avoid the thickets of theology I would suggest this power could also be seen as the personal and cultural contexts of the person in relationships with others. Yet, for Kierkegaard, other persons as such seem forgotten.
B)    The Despair of Defiance: the highest but most extreme form of despair, which refuses to come to terms with the real.  

The Despair of Defiance relates itself to itself in the most merciless way, but refuses to relate itself to the power that posits it: the personal and impersonal other (or God). The enterprise of self-knowledge is taken on but dependence is refused, the ego is inflated and pride becomes devilish!
So, such a person although capable of relating to himself, refuses to lose himself in his essential dependence upon the power that posits, however understood. It’s so close to an identity, but an abuse of it, and thus infinitely remote from it. He relates to himself but refuse relationship to the other, the real, in the pride of his inflated ego.
The self now becomes an abstraction, unable to love, bereft of boundaries that the other would provide. It moves into infinite freedom and possibility: the illusion of Lucifer at the Fall. The arrogance is devilish, the consequent charisma seductive!
Kierkegaard adds:

He is not willing to attire himself in himself, nor to see his task in the self given him; by the aid of being the infinite form he wills to construct it himself”. (6)

Although searching for significance, despite his ‘magnificence’, and because of his detachment, he is fundamentally lacking seriousness, since meaning, seriousness, is dependent on a context, a form of life that makes sense of action, and must in large part be other than one’s self.
Since all is possible for this self, nothing is possible, for:

…just at the instant when it seems to be nearest to having the fabric finished it can arbitrarily resolve the whole thing into nothing. (7)

The ultimate indignity for such despairers is that God’s world, or the Other, is not as perfect as his abstract one, which he sees as a great injustice. He clings to his hurt so he can put God/the Other in the wrong: he plunges, Satan-like, from the dizzy heights of infinite possibility, to the depths of necessity. Since he can’t be God, he will put existence in the wrong, making God an unjust tyrant or life a mistake, even evil. In this way he still remains special: this pain marks him out. To relinquish it:

… might rid him of his … infinite advantage over other men…

He clings to it:

… in order with this torment to protest against the whole of existence. (8)

One thing is clear, both those who evade the real and those who feel superior to it are morally wanting.

*       *       *
What now seems striking is that these two kinds of escape from reality have the same form as the seemingly fundamental, Cartesian, distinction between subject and object, with the infinite self as the former, and those bound in necessity the latter, resulting in the necessary instability remarked upon at Tractatus 5.64. Too much necessity (deficiency) escapes responsibility by becoming like a thing with no freedom: ‘I was only following orders’, or ‘it’s my genes that made me a murderer’ etc. Too much possibility (excess) escapes into vast possibility and when the other refuses to conform to this, responsibility is projected on an evil, meaningless world ruled by a wicked demiurge, ending in millenarian groups like the Cathars, who saw themselves as too pure for this world (9), Nazi Germany, for a while, fell into this dialectic without a synthesis when Hitler became the all-knowing Subject to the people’s Collectivist Object, The former, true to type, found the German people wanting because they’d failed him. Both sides were in retreat from the real: that middle way where identity can separate fantasy from reality.
But how can these ungovernable reversals be checked? By creating a more adequate theory of the identity of the self. But, since this paper is too long already, we shall have to await another posting.

(1) Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling & Sickness Unto Death, translated by W. Lowrie. (Princeton University Press 1968).
(2) Ibid p146
(3) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, (Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1961).
(4) Kierkegaard op cit. 162.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid 202.
(7) Ibid 203.
(8) Ibid 206.
(9) Norman Cohn The Pursuit of the Millennium (Paladin 1970)

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Conference Report

by Richard Allen

14th International Conference on Persons
University of Calabria, Cosenza-Rende, Italy, 24th- 27th May 2017

This Conference, the 14th in the biennial series begun in 1991 and alternating between the USA and Europe, was organised by Giusy Gallo, a member of the Forum, and was held in the campus of the University, which is in the newer and larger part of Rende and is a northern extension of Consenza.
Nearly 50 people attended (probably the largest number so far), including 6 invited speakers. Only Randall (‘Randy’) Auxier, the unofficial leader of the unofficial committee which arranges these conferences, represented the mostly American ‘Old Guard’ connecting the conferences to the original stream of American Personalism descending from Borden Parker Bowne, at the end of the 19th C.
5 plenary sessions and a wealth of individual papers meant that the latter had to be accommodated in sessions of 3 parallel groups of 2 or 3 speakers and their papers, with 2 groups of 2 speakers. Hence we all had to make choices, sometimes difficult ones, as to which to attend.
The only real disappointments that I experienced were a panel of 3 invited speakers on ‘The Multilayered Person’ who turned out to be not to be personalists at all. But the members of all societies devoted to a particular person, group or movement of thought, too often simply talk to each about their common interest, instead of developing it and talking to outsiders. The other disappointment was the definitely impersonalist location of the final sessions on the morning of the 27th. It consisted of 2 long, uniform 5-storey buildings built solely of metal and glass, and linked by a wide metallic walk- and road-way at the level of the 3rd storey, and was like a scene out of some science-fiction film which would have been populated by robots and robotic humans. Even the furniture in the rooms was made of metal.
An unexpected bonus were the pastries, cakes, fruit and drinks serve at the mid-morning and afternoon breaks, and also, with something hot, at lunchtime, all included in the Registration fee.
Several papers were historical, persons and themes such as Hume, Locke, Aquinas and Scholasticism, Augustine, Aelred of Rievaulx, Socrates in the Republic, Confucius in relation to Christian Personalism, and ancient Egypt. Others dealt with a variety of contemporary persons and themes. Those by members of the Forum were: Daniel Gustavson (from Sweden but resident in York) on ‘The Language of Being: Divine and Personal Hiddenness’, followed very appropriately by Henrieta Serban on ‘Lucian Blaga: the Human Being destined for Mystery, Creativity and Knowledge’, with myself as chairman; Ferenc Mújdricza (Hungary) on ‘“The Leap of Courage”—Death, Anxiety and Social Trust’; James Beauregard (USA, by Skype) on ‘’Forgetting and remembering Ourselves: Techné and the rule of metaphor’; and, in a plenary session on Michael Polanyi, with Randy Auxier on aesthetics and Polanyi, Endre Nagy (Hungary) on ‘A Concept of the Self based on the Theory of Michael Polanyi’, and myself on ‘Why Personalism needs the Free Market’. Also present was our Swedish friend, Jan Olaf Bengtsson who did not offer a paper but rejoined the Forum; Diane Prokofyeva from Russia, who came to our Conference last year in York, and who spoke on ‘Modern Human and a Problem of Existential Estrangement’
Of particular interest were Michele Marchetto (Italy), ‘“Selfhood” and Person: John Henry Newman compared with Paul Ricoeur’, and Eleanor Godway (in the USA, a former member of the Forum who will rejoin) on ‘John Macmurray on the “Personal” as involving a “Practical Contradiction”’. I was disappointed that Anna Jellamo (Italy) was absent and so did not give her paper on ‘The Concept of Person in the Thought of T. H. Green’. Aelred of Rievaulx, Green and Newman should be added to our incomplete list of British Contributors to Personalist Philosophy. I’ll contact the authors about this. Several people, including a post-graduate student at Keble Coll., Oxford, took our leaflet and said they would join. I shall gently remind them, if necessary.
Altogether, it provided a varied and interesting programme, and friendly company from at least a dozen countries, but, as with all good things, it was too short.

Outside the Conference itself, on the last evening some of us went down to the old part of Cosenza with narrow streets and a mediaeval cathedral. I arranged with Fr Terence Kennedy, from Australia, a Professor Emeritus, who lives and teaches at the Accademia Alfonsiana, a part of the Lateran University in Rome, and a former member of the original Convivium group and subscriber to Appraisal, to meet me at Ciampiano airport, on my arrival on the evening of the 23rd, and then in the morning of the 28th and to show me around the oldest parts of the city It is unlikely that we shall meet again. But he will join the Forum and we shall keep in touch. The long journeys by train from Rome, via Naples to Cosenza and return, were very cheap and well worth the chance to see something of the Italian coast and countryside.

R.T. Allen, BA, BD, MEd, PhD, has taught Philosophy of Education at Colleges in England and Nigeria, and at The University of the West Indies (Trinidad). He has published 6 books on philosophy, edited or co-edited 3 others, and translated one from the Spanish. His main interests are Michael Polanyi, R.G. Collingwood, Max Scheler, St Augustine and Personalism generally. His current work is a summary and extension of previous work on axiology, ethics, poltics, and philosophical theology, which uses Collingwood's 'scales of forms' applied to types of wholes, for a metaphysical structure of an active and relational ontology and cosmology, culminating in the radical uniqueness of the individual person, and a thoroughly personalist theology of Christian theism.