Sunday, 29 October 2017

Personalism and Torture

by Jim Beauregard

In a previous blog, I mentioned bringing to bear of a new resource in the argument against torture: the resource of neuroscience and understanding of what torture does of the brain and how it acts in a manner opposite two what proponents of torture claim is their goal – to obtain information from detainees to prevent future attacks. I noted two recent books that touched on this subject, one by James Mitchell, an American psychologist who helped to design the Bush administration interrogation program, and one by the Irish neuroscientist Shane O’Mara.  I want to say a bit about both of these books in this blog as I think they deserve attention from personalist thinkers as part of a wider argument against the use of torture.  I also want to suggest that thinkers of a personalist bent we put some of their time to good use in arguing against any future use of torture.
There is, of course, a context and history. Torture has been used as a method of interrogation and as a method of punishment for thousands of years.  the 20th century, one of the most barbarous, if not the most barbarous in human history, prompted many nations to come together in the United Nations enter work for a more just and peaceful world. As part of that process, they articulated documents that touched on human rights and on the conduct of warfare.  These documents touch on fundamental issues that personal is have dealt with from the interwar period of the 20th century two today, issues that touch on the nature of the human person, of ethics, of human rights and of human dignity, of politics, and of work toward a just society.
Much of this thinking was prompted by the horrors that were witnessed during and after the second world war, horrors that remain a part of our consciousness – acts of genocide, acts of barbarism, ask that grounded it is vision that reduced the humanity of others. In the wake of the second world war, the United Nations was founded, and it is known that personal is thought, in the work of Jacques Maritain found its way into the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Those international documents serve as a context for the issue of torture.  In the wake of the Second World War United Nations was founded, and several international accords were created and signed preventing the use of torture.  The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was consciously created in response to violations of human dignity during the two world wars, especially the second, and as the document states in its preamble, “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind” (Preamble). Article 5 of the declaration states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” It is an absolute prohibition and there are no exceptions named in the document.
The United Nations Declaration was closely followed by The Geneva Conventions of 1949, which are explicit regarding how prisoners of war are to be treated. Article 13 of the Third Convention states that, “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.” (Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatmentof Prisoners of War of 12 August 1949, Part II, General Protection of Prisoners of War, Article 13, “Humane Treatment of Prisoners.” Geneva, Switzerland:  International Committee of the Red Cross).
The use of torture, then is prohibited in documents to which most of the nations on the planet of signatories. That incidents of torture did not enter no doubt part of the reason that in  mid-1980s, the United Nations published a subsequent document the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 10 December 1984 defines torture this way:
‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.  It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions (Part 1, Article 1).
Spool forward to the early 2000’s, enter the administration of the second George Bush, where the last sentence just quoted was, in a sense, the Bush administration escape clause, since if they could rename torture, applying a euphemism, and bring it under the umbrella of federal law, they could argue that such procedures were not prohibited.
In the next blog in the series, I will take a look at the so-called US torture memos, and how the documents created in the wake of the second world war for the protection and enhancement of human dignity were subverted.

Friday, 27 October 2017

New Book: Looking at the Sun

Vernon Press Presents:

Looking at the Sun
New Writings in Modern Personalism
Anna Castriota & Simon Smith

Every kind of exploration is touched in some way by a philosophy of persons; touched and often vitally enhanced. This collection sets out to mine this rich seam of influence, bringing together authors keen to strike new developments and applications. Together, they have put their philosophy of persons to work in fields as wide-ranging as the moral and the metaphysical, the practical and the political, the cultural and the cosmological. In doing so, they have drawn on and illustrated the depth and breadth of modern Personalist thought, demonstrating its crucial relevance to debates across the entire philosophical spectrum.
     Whether they are familiar with the Personalist tradition or no, readers from every corner of the philosophical world will find much here to challenge and stimulate them. Most importantly, they will find a new and badly needed philosophical perspective. 

1. Are Persons Substances? Some Hints from Robert Spaemann and Edith Stein
by Stefano Rossi
2. Technology: A View from Personalism
by James Beauregard
3. Ricoeur’s Reconsideration of Personalism: A New Perspective
by Dries Deweer
4. Neither Here nor There: Personalism, Poetry and Emmanuel Mounier’s Pluralist Society
by Benjamin Bâcle
5. From Selfhood to Personhood: Personal Flourishing in the Trinitarian Likeness
by Daniel Gustafsson
6. Philosophical Implications of the Concept of the Trinity
by Jan Nilsson
7. Euthanasia: A Persons-In-Relations Perspective
by David Treanor
8. Presencing the Writer: Immanence and Ecstatic Communion in A Clockwork Orange and Naked
by Torgeir Fjeld
9. Missing Solitude: Macmurray, Buber and the Edges of Personalism
by Julian Stern
10. A Convergence of Cosmologies: Personal Analogies in Modern Physics and Modern Metaphysics
by Simon Smith

Looking at the Sun

(10% discount using code 10PCAGNODH on checkout)

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Contemplation: Beyond Mindfulness?

by Denis Larrivee

Germany’s millennial, International Labour Office document, Mental Health in the Workplace, begins with the simple but widely acknowledged personal health reality “Mental health problems are among the most important contributors to the global burden of disease and disability”. The German document goes on to state that the society’s first barrier of defence to mental disease is the family doctor; yet, it also reports that detection rates via this portal are less than 3 in 5 of actual disease instances, with detection rates only rising with the severity and clarity of the symptoms. Depressive symptoms related to ongoing mental stress are, apparently, largely unrecognized by the German medical professional. In Great Britain David Stevenson arrived at a similar conclusion about the demographic impact of mental health for the UK in his report of that same year entitled “Stress - the new British Disease.” Seeking to address this, mostly undiagnosed but broadly evident, health issue some fifteen years later, UK policy makers commissioned its landmark inquiry, “Mindful Nation UK”, into the capacity of mindfulness meditative practice to prevent and/or alleviate stress related factors and offer psychotherapeutic resources for more serious mental health disorders. The inquiry represents the first time that a meditative practice has been considered as a therapeutic measure for national health policy by a modern Western Parliament.
Recourse to meditation to address mental health concerns at this elevated policy level reflects the official acceptance of conclusions drawn from scientific studies, both psychological and neuroscientific, that have been ongoing since the 1970’s, with the onset of extensive social exposure to Eastern religious traditions and their prayer practices. Transcendental meditation, for example, figured prominently as a pacific expression in the 60’s counter culture’s rejection of traditional social mores. Harvard’s Herbert Benson is credited with the first investigation and scientific demonstration in the mid 70’s of the East Asian, meditation induced, relaxation response, an enhanced parasympathetic state that displayed reduced heart rate and a flaccid, bodily tonal condition. Kabat-Zinn’s later, widely cited, 1982, study on the effect of mindfulness practice on chronic pain reduction extended the range of therapeutic applications to include specifically physical ailments, which precipitated the subsequent, extensive exploration of bodily effects, neuroplastic modulation, and underlying causal mechanisms of mindfulness, and which has led, recently, to its consideration for preventative and restorative mental health therapy.
Both Benson’s and Kabat Zinn’s studies were careful to distinguish the physical contribution of mindfulness based events by disentangling the mental practice from its Eastern Buddhist roots. Subsequent studies followed this Westernized and secularized format, defining mindfulness as an open and non-judgmental awareness of self and external events that related the observed phenomenal and physical changes directly to the practice itself. Such neuroscientific studies showed a variety of reproducible brain based, physical alterations that revealed the ability of sustained meditative practice to affect the brain and confirmed the by then generally recognized brain capacity for plastically adapting to the brain’s experiential encounters. Major nerve tracts like the corpus callosum that connects right and left hemispheres of the brain were greatly enlarged as were associative regions like the anterior cingulate cortex. Emotional centres like the amygdala, moreover, showed significantly diminished activity suggesting improved emotional control. Significantly, increased meditative practice was correlated with accentuation of the observed brain changes.
Early scientific speculation that had focused on the brain’s attentional mechanisms as primary mediators of mindfulness induced brain effects has since received considerable confirmatory support. Related to the preceding mindfulness induced changes, for example, were selective increases in the activity of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the presence of frontal midline theta rhythms in the electroencephalograms of experienced meditators. Key neural features thus appear to engage executive and integrating brain networks activated by attention.
What all of these studies appear to be showing, and that appears to have garnered the attention for the Parliamentary inquiry, is the innate capacity for brain mediated, and so the largely, self-mediated influence on the health status of the brain itself that is accessed by mindfulness meditation. In line with this type of thinking Harvard researchers Vago and Silversweig have proposed a Self Awareness Relational Transcendence model that is intended to offer a framework for neuroscientific processes that are engaged by mindfulness practice and that structure the physical events behind its phenomenological expression. Given the below the radar screening of stress factors evidenced in the German system, and the live streaming of successive documentary reports since, the promise of mindfulness as a preventative and alleviative therapeutic measure for social stress impact on mental health and flourishing seems to have acquired a well-documented base of evidence.
Indeed, impelled by the results of the mindfulness studies, recent explorations have considered the possibility of its use for therapeutic, or at a minimum preventative, mental health maintenance. A German study by Holzel et al in 2011, for example, concluded that therapeutic possibilities clearly existed for treatment of attentional disorders, and went on to suggest its use for more acute conditions like that of bipolar disorder.
Whether mindfulness will prove therapeutically useful to the extent hoped for in a more extended range of clinical application, however, remains to be seen; that is, despite its successful and well-argued advertising, there appears to be a caveat in the midst of its prognostications. Over the past 25 years there has also been a growing, and by now substantial, body of neuroscientific studies on the neural contribution to human social behaviours, from parental bonding to monogamous relations, to empathic concerns, and more, such as how humans work together as social groups, now classed together under the theory of mind model. In the context of mental health, significantly, a majority of clinical psychiatric manifestations are linked to social aberrations, particularly in the context of social interaction. John Cacioppo, who has been investigating social neuroscience since the field’s inception, links these to disruptions in the brain’s capacity for social behaviour. Axis I and II disorders, for example, are characterized by a range of cognitive deficits that negatively impact social interactions or social cognition. Stresses introduced by social deficiencies, seem, thereby, beyond the reach of self transformative therapies of the sort that mindfulness appeals to; that is, mindfulness seems to offer only limited or indirect therapeutic resources to psychiatric manifestations that are socially implicated.
Yet, more extended prospects for meditative therapy may not be wholly foreclosed, although they may not involve mindfulness per se. Western Christian meditation, notably, has historically practiced, and evolved its distinctive formulations within an expressed, socially interactive format. Bernhard Haring, a prominent Christian theologian, characterizes Christian meditation this way “the dialogical character in prayer is most fully realized in the so called passive or mystical prayer, in which the divine motion is in the foreground of consciousness, and divine love stirs the heart…” That is, Christian meditation is uniquely dialogical, and while it shares with Eastern religious practice positive dispositional attitudes of good will, it is intended primarily to forge personal bonds that Teresa of Avila has likened to deep and intimate friendships. Does this mean that Christian meditation is uniquely different from mindfulness in the sorts of neural phenomena that are occasioned by its practice? The answer to this question seems to be no and yes.
No, in that Christian meditative practice bears similar regimes and shares similar phenomenological features to mindfulness meditation, as pointed out in a recent article by Larrivee and Echarte in the Journal of Religious Health. Evidence for such similarities has been accumulating in the guise of historical studies of the cognitive exercises performed by ancient Greek philosophers. Pierre Hadot’s extensive study of their training formats, that he has termed spiritual exercises for their expressed intention of inculcating mental discipline and virtuous living, reveal a program for self-transformation that bears much in common with mindfulness. Significantly, Christian meditation seems to have later appropriated these exercise formats through Augustine of Hippo, who used them to facilitate discipline in contemplative prayer. His exercises then greatly influenced the contemplative prayer of succeeding centuries.
Yes, on the other hand, in that Christian meditation additionally evokes a phenomenal and neural repertoire that elicits a 1st and 2nd person dyadic polarity, that is, an intersubjective dimension of encounter. Danish researcher Schoejte shows, for example, that specifically social regions of the brain are activated during personal prayer. Engagement of such dialogical and intersubjective exchange initiates activation of dynamical brain activity related to a distinct awareness of the presence of the other and the initiation of the synchronization of activity loops that are tuned to the intersubjective encounter.
What seems significant for mental health is a neural and phenomenal exteriorization of relations that are both self-formative and outwardly directed. Contemplative prayer, for example, assisted Augustine in his reversion from a narcissistic and hedonistic lifestyle. Significantly both Lacan and Piaget model psychological maturation according to a process of self formation that is elicited and sustained through dyadic and dialogical exchange, that resembles the sort of self-enscription of the Christ Image and self-transformation that Teresa of Avila makes reference to about contemplative prayer.
So where do these sorts of observations place Christian contemplation vis-a-vis mindfulness and psychotherapy in a conflicted and stress filled era? Adrian van Kaam, a war camp survivor, psychiatrist, Catholic priest, and author of more than 600 psychiatric, medical articles in the 60s to the 90s was careful to emphasize in his own psychological models the multiplicity of needs of the human psychiatric spectrum. Van Kaam’s complex but integrated model layered the individual according to an experiential and interactive hierarchy that extended from the biological to the self-engaged, to social, and ultimately, to the existential and divine. Mindfulness, in this framework, seems to fit with the personal need for self-integrative control involved in personal orientation, but does not appear to be engaged in the additional, relational, levels of his model. Intriguingly, Van Kaam’s hierarchy place at its apex the intersubjective dimension needed for existential meaning, specifically invoking God as a source of existential satisfaction, a proposal which seems confirmed in Peterson and Seligman’s observations on the cultural distribution of the character trait of transcendence. The growing quest for personal meaning and the modern evolution of existential psychotherapy suggest that his model was well in tune with human needs and where these were likely to express themselves, now seen in the current spate of existential neuroses. Given the amenability of British health policy makers to meditation inquiry, perhaps next on the docket ought to be Christian contemplative prayer and its address to the multi ordered dimensionality that is the human being.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Personalism in the Spanish-Speaking World: Mexico

by Jim Beauregard

I had not thought, previously, that personalism could be harmful to your health, but as I sat at Logan airport in Boston awaiting my delayed flight to Dallas and then on to Puebla Mexico, I watched Hurricane Harvey come ashore in east Texas with predictions of 40 inches of rainfall and widespread coastal evacuations.  Simon Smith, (he of the BPF) perspicaciously advised me that if my plane went down I should avoid witches, yellow brick roads, flying monkeys, men behind curtains, and ruby-toned high-heeled shoes.  Good advice on all counts. 
The conference, the Fourth Ibero-American Conference on Personalism: Personalism, Justice and Citizenship (IV Congreso Iberoamericano de Personalismo: “Personalismo, justicia y ciudadanía”)  was held in Puebla (México), August 28-30 at the  Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), sponsored by that university along with the Iberoamerican Personalist Association (Asociación Iberoamericana de Personalismo – AIP) and the Spanish Personalist Association (Asociación Española de Personalismo – AEP).  
The conference’s goal statement noted that, “Personalism was born as a movement of social demand and struggle for justice.” Since then many things have changed, but the struggle for justice in society through renewed thinking remains one of its identity traits. The fourth edition of this Ibero-American Congress seeks to become a forum in which the new challenges that our society presents are discussed and analysed: growing inequalities, discarding people, the need for citizen engagement, how to foster intermediate societies, new paradigms for effective and ethical policy action, etc.”  the call for papers indicated that presentations “should be offered within the framework of personalist thinking.”
Present at the conference and people from all over Central and South America, North America and Europe. The keynote speaker was well-known personalist Rocco Buttiglione, who spoke on “Personalist Thought in the Face of the New Capitalism.” (more on specific talks to follow).  Topics covered included persons in community, personalism and education, philosophical, culture and religious phenomena, bioethics, and included reflections on the work of personalist philosophers such as Emmanuel Lévinas, Max Scheler, Xavier Zubiri, Karol Wojtyla, Roman Guardini, Julian Marias, Jan Manuel Burgos, Paul Ricoeur, Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Mounier, the American (USA) personalist tradition, and others. 
So, many countries, and many traditions were represented. I chose to speak on the topic of “Personalism, Justice and Torture.”  While the words torture and personalism don’t obviously go hand-in-hand, but themes that connect personalism, social justice and human rights do. There were some specific distant and recent events that led me to the topic. Here in the United States, after the September 11 attacks in New York, the Bush administration took steps to create what came to be known as “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques) to be used against detained terrorism suspects in secret locations outside the United States. In 2009, the Obama administration published documentation that outline the specifics of those techniques, to the outrage of many, and many of the practices were discontinued e memos in question are publicly available and can be accessed through the New York Times at
I recently read two works that cause me to think about this at some length from a personalist perspective: James Mitchell, one of the two psychologists who had developed the US governments Enhance Interrogation Techniques, publish an apologia for his work which he called J. Mitchell, with B. Harlow, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the minds and motives of the Islamic terrorists trying to destroy America, (New York: Crown Forum, 2016). In that book, Mitchell acknowledged that he was a developer of those techniques and attempted a justification for the development and use in order to protect American citizens from future terrorist attacks.  the combination of seeing the so-called torture memos of the Bush administration and reading Mitchell’s book prompted me to choose the topic I did for the public conference.  I had recently read a second book by the Irish neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).  The combination of these two works prompted me to take a look at the issue from the perspective of personal is him.
O’Mara neuroscientist, as noted raise a number of thought-provoking questions about the entire Bush interrogation program. One of the most damning was the extent to which the program is pushed forward without any sound scientific basis.  in my talk a problem, I commented that one of the most striking aspects of this entire episode was how little rational thought actually took place at the highest levels of government.  The decision to employ torture to attempt to extract information from unwilling captives was grounded in numerous unexamined and unproven presuppositions about the nature and efficacy of torture, as well as the belief that language itself could be co-opted and used to alter reality, through recourse to euphemism and legal argumentation claiming that acts of torture were not, in fact, torture, so that various international prohibitions against torture, such as the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Convention Against Torture could be circumvented, and so that those engaging in such acts could do so with some guarantee of immunity from any subsequent prosecution, based on the argument that their actions had been approved since it had been justified and approved by the executive branch of the United States government. In essence, they could argue that they were acting according to American law.
O’Mara points out in his book that much of the argumentation in favour of the use of torture for interrogation purposes takes a consequentialist perspective – it is based on a presupposition that torture actually works, and that since the outcome/consequence of using it is that information is obtained which can undermine future terrorist attacks, its use is therefore justified.  he then proceeded to take a close look, from his perspective as a neuroscientist, not of the philosophical issues underlying it – he does make mention of the fact that a consequentialist ethics is what is been typically in play in this matter, but asked the question of science – does torture actually work? More specifically, as a neuroscientist, he asked if the claims of efficacy made by the Bush administration regarding the use of torture had any basis in reality.  O’Mara acknowledges right up front that this is only one piece of the puzzle, and also acknowledges literature in which philosophers and legal experts have argued against the use of torture. This perspective is a deliberately scientific one, and in addition to other types of arguments made against torture, it is in the and damning.  He points out again and again that torture does quite the opposite of what its proponents intend. From a neuroscientific perspective, he states that the purpose of torture is to induce individuals to retrieve information from the long-term memory that they would not otherwise wish to divulge. O’Mara examines each of the techniques that James Mitchell outlined in his book and that were reported in the Bush administration memos in light of the neuroscientific literature on insults to the brain, high levels of stress, posttraumatic stress disorder and the basic neurobiological functioning of the human brain, showing again and again that the stated goals of the Bush administration were subverted by their use of torture.
I think that O’Mara brings to the table a new type of information and insight about arguments against torture that deserve a hearing by any personalist thinkers find the actions of the American government troubling. More recently, these concerns are again raised: Donald Trump, during his presidential campaign, talk about bringing back the very methods that Mitchell had helped devise four terrorism investigations. The issue then, is still very much with us, when I argued in my presentation the personalists ought to be taking a close look at it and bringing to bear the resources of personalism in the argument against the use of torture.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

In Remembrance of Realism

by Simon Smith

Many things go through a fellow’s mind when he’s checking the proofs of his book, hunting down the last few typos (nasty little beggars, hiding among the black type and white space). Things like, ‘Is that really how that’s spelled?’, ‘Are there such things as philosophy groupies?’, ‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ and, most significantly of all, ‘Is it lunchtime yet?’
A thing which shambled back and forth across my fevered mind made me grin cynically. It was a reviewer’s comment to the effect that, while the logic of my arguments was perfectly sound, readers would still, no doubt, disagree with the conclusions. I mention this, not by way of criticism. Quite the opposite, in fact; it was an extremely perspicacious remark. It tells us everything we need to know about philosophers, academics, perhaps even real people. (Another important clue to human nature may be the mushroom cloud, which is doubtless hovering over Southeast Asia e’er now.) The reasoning may be fine, but we are not convinced. Perhaps, we’re not as rational as we think. But let’s not get hung up on the supposed rationality of philosophical minds. Academia is home to many a narcissistic sociopath, dipsomaniac, pill-popper, and sex pest; ratio animalis hardly gets a look in.
Another thought, less cynical but more philosophical, concerned something I had forgotten to say about Peter Byrne. I spent the whole first chapter going to work on Byrne’s God and Realism (Ashgate, 2003) in order to show what a load of old toot it really is. Don’t get me wrong, I like Byrne’s book, it’s an excellent resource. Not, perhaps, the very best but representative of a type. God and Realism is a master-class in realist metaphysics and, most importantly, everything that’s wrong with it. Much of the old toot is the genuine article and turns up in every attempt to formulate philosophical realism. To be fair to Byrne, however, there’s plenty of original old toot there too; his contribution to the incoherence of realism cannot be gainsaid.
Having spent no little time dismembering Byrne’s so-called Innocent Realism, however, I forgot to say that, in the end, he’s actually right about something rather important.
Byrne’s point, in case anyone hasn’t read his book, is that theistical language is essentially realist. (This, despite explicitly stating that Innocent Realism is not remotely concerned with language; all he cares about is what actually exists.) We are told that to speak of God is (at the very least, to attempt) to refer to a mind-independent reality: the Creator of Heaven and Earth and all the rest of it.
Just here, the well-brought-up reader may be thinking, ‘Well, of course it is. The logic of theism has to be realist because it’s an attempt to refer to a Reality, which, putatively, is the creator of everything, including what we call “mentality”.’ Fair point. A Creator must be mind-independent, which is to say ontologically prior to, his or her Creation. Hardly an example of reasoning at its most sophisticated, but it’s fine as far as it goes, possibly. The trouble is, it doesn’t actually go very far.
The underlying obsession with things is, frankly, weird. It hints of clammy hands and a sinister glint in the eye. The reliance on necessitarian logic is a more serious problem. On its own terms, realism can be the only possible answer to the problem. Behind the acts and accidents of Creation there must be a Being such that… and so on and so forth. Ontological priority must be the only possible answer because if there’s another, then the inference back from the contingencies of actual existence to Creative Agency breaks down. And it’s not just the inference that’s in trouble; the logic of ‘God-talk’ toto caelo is undermined. To talk of God cannot, after all, be to talk of one contingent being among others, it must, absolutely must, be to talk of a Being whose existence cannot not be.
That’s all very well, except the realist’s overcooked inference is not the only possible answer. Consider the ways in which our intentions, far from being inevitably pre-fabricated, are frequently formed in the enactment of them; consider, for example, the ways in which ideas take shape in their expression, or explanation or, better still, the discussion. How often do our thoughts only really become clear when we talk them through with friends? Isn’t that the point of writing books and blogs and everything else, at least in part?
Let’s not get sidetracked. The point is, Byrne’s right: theism has to be realist; indeed it does. That’s why theism necessarily deconstructs itself. Separating Divine Will from Acts Creative and Providential strips Divinity of all its predicates, so breaks the back of personal analogies. It pushes its own logic to breaking point and beyond. And what does it leave us with? ‘Being-just-being-itself-in-plenitude’, that’s the expression I borrowed from Farrer. What does it mean? Not a great deal.
It’s this, in the end, which leaves theism defenceless against the ‘vulgar empiricism’, as Feuerbach termed it (The Essence of Christianity, Harper & Row, 1957), which persists in asking logically indecent questions like ‘does (really) God exist?’
Tellingly, empiricism, particularly in the guise of the modern sciences, is essentially idealist, as John Macmurray (The Self as Agent, Faber and Faber, 1957) and Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge, U. of Chicago, 1974) have shown. Everyone knows that the demand for sensory experience made science kin to the sense-datum philosophies which flourished at the beginning of the 20th Century. What carried it beyond mere phenomenalism, however, was its commitment to the diagrammatic nature of reality. The sciences present us with maps of the universe, which have, thus far, been extremely useful for finding our way about, as it were. Insofar as they are useful – i.e. as they enable us to control, direct, and therefore understand the universe – we consider them accurate. Whether or not they correspond to a reality ‘beyond’ or ‘beneath’ the maps is hardly relevant and certainly of no concern of the scientist.
The sciences only get into trouble when they forget the diagrammatic nature of their universe and suppose their maps are real in and of themselves. Indeed, the scientist who imagines her epistemic tools are the only epistemic tools an enquiring mind, an enlightened mind, could ever need, has abandoned science in favour of philosophy, and bad philosophy at that. She has committed the cardinal error of aping theism and thinking her discipline a realist one. (Given how very critical of philosophy some scientists are, it’s curious how very eager they are to have a go.) Being somewhat more tidy-minded, the sciences generally get rid of all the mapmakers first, those diagrammatising minds, who lie behind their diagrams. So goes the deconstruction of scientific thought.
In A Science of God? (Geoffrey Bles Ltd. 1966), Farrer referred to the scientist who followed this rocky path, convincing herself that any reality her tools cannot discover is no reality at all, as a ‘small-minded scientist’. Interestingly, the idea that so unscientific creature could actually exist, particularly these days, he laughed to scorn. The ‘small-minded scientist,’ he insisted, was a bit of foolish caricature.


That, of course, is not the end of the story for any kind of enquiring mind. The scientist’s corrective is simple enough: get back to work and stop fussing about questions which don’t concern her. Theism, however, has a more difficult road ahead. The theist, or theistical philosopher, cannot simply ‘get back to work’; not, at least, without wilfully ignoring the logical and empirical disintegration of his metaphysics. Naturally, the philosopher who would choose bad philosophy and worse theology – not to mention a pernicious psychology – over a healthy and inclusivist alternative is, I suppose, as much a caricature as Farrer’s ‘small-minded scientist’. Besides, theism, or more simply, religious faith, is far too important to leave in clutches of that ‘vulgar empiricism’; for lived faith is personality writ large. Where deconstruction occurs, reconstruction will surely follow. And thanks to the likes of Farrer and Feuerbach we have far better tools to work with. That, however, is a thought for another day. 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

New Book: Ricoeur's Personalist Republicanism

New book by Dries Deweer!
Ricoeur's Personalist Republicanism

Published by Rowman and Littlfield.


Moral and political convictions never stand alone. They are always connected to an underlying view of mankind. Liberalism, which currently predominates, is connected to a focus on the free individual. Marxism thinks of man in terms of class struggle, determined by economic relationships. Halfway through the twentieth century a powerful alternative came about, by the name of “personalism”. This term stood for a form of social and political thought based on the concept of the human person. This concept stresses that a human being only becomes human in relationship with others and in a commitment to values that go beyond one’s individual interests. However, the success of personalist philosophy did not last long. After an intensive golden age between the 1930s and 1950s personalists disappeared from the forefront, pushed aside by the new crop of structuralists and poststructuralists. Hence, it would seem that personalism did not make a profound impression. John Hellman, who carried out historical research into the movement, worded his conclusion rather sharply: “The ‘Personalists’ are unimportant in the history of philosophy” (Hellman 1973, 385).

Hellman’s conclusion is way too emphatic. Although the philosophical development of personalism in a strict sense did cool off,[1] it remains remarkable to what extent personalist ideas influence western thought. A personalist movement is still active within the domain of applied ethics, for example in medical ethics or business ethics.[2] More importantly, personalism continues to be the key to Christian democratic ideology (Beke 2008; Norgaard Mortensen 2014; Van Hecke 2008). Hence, in Europe, it is the philosophical background for important political leaders such as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, or the first President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. In the United States, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, for example, were profoundly inspired by personalist ideas (Zwick and Zwick 2005, 97-115). This raises the question what continuing philosophical relevance can be found in personalism, and more specifically in a social ethics and political philosophy based on a personalist view of mankind.
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) is an interesting interlocutor in light of the preceding question. As a young academic he made a name for himself as a public intellectual under the wing of the influential personalist Emmanuel Mounier. Hence, he was considered a representative of personalism in his younger years. Nevertheless he later supported fatal criticisms of personalism.[3] The extent to which Ricoeur succeeded in integrating these two elements – loyalty and criticism – in his work shows us a way to consider personalism so that it still provides us with a tenable philosophical stance and an important input in contemporary political philosophy. Therefore, the question that will lead us throughout this book is: To what extent does the thought of Ricoeur bear a continuing stamp of personalism that allows him to instigate a personalist perspective within contemporary political philosophy?
Although in principle the scope of our question covers the entirety of Ricoeur’s huge oeuvre, we will specifically focus on his political philosophy. His political thought is not restricted to one or more monographs. It is spread over many essays on social ethics and political philosophy, published throughout the years, especially in the journals Esprit and Le christianisme social, but elsewhere as well. Given the fact that these essays are based on an underlying interpretation of the human person, we also have to take into account the relationship of his political thought with his philosophical anthropology. This philosophical anthropology was originally contained in the three volumes of his Philosophie de la volonté (Ricoeur 1950, 1960a, 1960b). However, I will especially focus on Soi-même comme un autre (1990), because this work is the key to Ricoeur’s later thought. My method in the exploration of these works will be to think along with Ricoeur and to follow the development of his thought along evolving social contexts, methodological refinements, and the continuous confrontation with other authors, all the while keeping his relationship with personalism in mind as a continuing thread. This will allow us to gain an insight into the gradual elaboration of key concepts such as personhood, the political paradox, and the responsibility of the person as citizen, leading to a compelling answer to my question and, particularly, to a personalist input that draws our attention to a blind spot in contemporary political philosophy. With this end in view I will go through four stages.
The first stage presents the particularity of the political philosophy of personalism. Personalist thought has been studied quite extensively,[4] but an analysis of the overarching political theory has until now been lacking. The first chapter fills this gap, albeit in a modest way, because I will limit myself to three personalist philosophers who represent the personalist influence on Ricoeur. After an explanation of the social and intellectual context in which French personalism came about, I will focus on the thought of Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) and Paul-Ludwig Landsberg (1901-1944). Maritain was an intellectual heavyweight in his day and the most influential representative of personalism. The aforementioned Mounier and his friend and colleague Paul-Ludwig Landsberg were the main theoreticians of the early Esprit movement, the personalist movement with which the young Ricoeur sympathized. The analysis of the political thought of these three authors shows remarkable overlap, to such an extent that we can talk about a common personalist political theory. That provides us with an insight into the personalist framework in which Ricoeur’s own political philosophy came into being.  
In the second stage, I focus on Ricoeur’s own direct involvement in the personalist movement. Between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s Ricoeur grew into one of the main theorists of personalism, by means of frequent contributions to the journals Esprit and Le christianisme social. Three topics received ample treatment: the relationship between personalism and existentialism, the possibility of a Christian socialism and the perils and promises of politics. These three topics in which Ricoeur succeeded in leaving his mark on personalist thought will be examined in the second chapter. The analysis of the concerned essays will show that the reflection on the paradoxical nature of politics and the subsequent responsibility of the citizen was the spearhead of Ricoeur’s intellectual contribution to personalism. Moreover, we will find that Ricoeur’s reflections build on the political theory of personalism manifested in the first chapter.
The fact that a personalist dimension is present in Ricoeur’s thought during those early years is more or less generally acknowledged. Most secondary literature, however, gives this little or no attention (Monteil 2013b; Muldoon 2002; Simms 2003) or presents it as just a phase (Dosse 2008; Michel 2006; Mongin 1998; Reagan 1996).[5] This last version of the facts is what I will call into question in the third stage. I will look at how Ricoeur indeed supported fundamental criticisms of original personalism, while he nevertheless continued to display a tenacious critical loyalty. The four criticisms that were on the table will all prove to be given a response in Ricoeur’s later work. This key particularly opens a new perspective on Ricoeur’s late main work, Soi-même comme un autre (1990), that is as the expression of an endeavor to bring the core ideas of personalism back into the limelight, but in a more resilient manner. Special attention will be devoted to the criticism that personalism mixes up philosophy and faith. The controversy that surrounds Ricoeur himself in that regard prompts us to abandon for a while our methodology of thinking along with Ricoeur, to engage in the concerned debate in the secondary literature and to reach a conclusion on the extent to which Ricoeur himself remains vulnerable to the trouble of original personalism.
The restatement of personalism brings us to the fourth and final stage, where I return to Ricoeur’s political thought. On the basis of his later hermeneutical phenomenological anthropology Ricoeur took a new look at political philosophy during the last two decades of his life. In the study of the personalist-inspired political theory in his early work (in the second chapter) we will have encountered key concepts such as the political paradox and the responsibility of the person as a citizen in a preliminary form. In the fourth chapter we are going to find out how Ricoeur elaborates these concepts later on. This will allow me to work out how he implicitly uncovers a personalist potential within contemporary political philosophy. In that regard I will look at the attempt to solve the dilemma between liberalism and communitarianism by focusing on the concepts of citizenship and civic virtue. This debate spurred the revival of republicanism in Anglo-American political philosophy. Authors such as Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit and Michael Sandel argue for the understanding of freedom as non-domination, combined with an emphasis on a mixed constitution and a vigilant citizenry. I will first show that Ricoeur’s political thought is on the same wavelength with contemporary republicanism. Eventually I will argue that Ricoeur’s personalist leanings allow him to circumvent problems that haunt more common kinds of contemporary republicanism, namely the blindness for transnational citizenship, the lack of foundation for the required civic virtue and the controversiality of the intrinsic value of self-government.
The final result lies on three fronts. First, there is more clarity in the status of personalism in contemporary philosophy, as Ricoeur’s hermeneutical phenomenology shows that there are still viable means to elaborate the core ideas of personalism, beyond the usual criticism. Second, a personalist kind of republicanism is shown to provide a valuable input into the contemporary philosophical debate on citizenship. This opens the door to further investigation, for the next step that presents itself is to examine how a personalist republicanism can be elaborated in the light of vexed questions with regard to the ethical meaning of citizenship, such as the relationship between justice and solidarity, our collective responsibility for the environment and multicultural coexistence. Finally, the most tangible result is a deeper understanding of the oeuvre of Ricoeur, in the sense that this work shows that personalism is an important and above all underestimated perspective for understanding his thought. 

[1] There are, however, notable exceptions who still try to elaborate personalism as a distinct philosophical system. See for example (Buford 2009, 2011; Burgos 2000; Triest 2000).
[2] For personalism in contemporary medical ethics, see for example (Petrini and Gainotti 2008; Schotsmans 1999; Vanlaere and Gastmans 2011). For contemporary business ethics, see for example (Acevedo 2012; Ballet et al. 2014; L. Bouckaert 1999; Gronbacher 1998; Whetstone 2002).
[3] This is especially clear in the essays Meurt le personnalisme, revient la personne (1983b) and Approches de la personne (1992a), which will be analyzed in detail further on in this book.
[4] For recent overviews, see (Burgos 2012; Norgaard Mortensen 2014).
[5] For notable exceptions, see (Agís Villaverde 2012; Dauenhauer 1998)