Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Power of Fiction

by Teresita Pumará

I am bewitched by stories. But aren’t we all? I should certainly like to begin this piece with a universal statement like: “Since its birth, humanity has been fascinated by stories”. But I have neither the courage nor the ability to ignore with peace of mind all those tiny differences of graduation that separate us, the human individuals, sometimes stretching such distances between us that we can no longer understand each other. For instance, I cannot share the passion some people have for cars, but I can well recognize in their passion some of the obsessive traces I myself show when it comes to stories. I do dare say that stories have been with us for a long time. They have taken different shapes. And, like food, cars, or Sauron’s ring, they have the power to bind us.
I can follow this fascination with stories to the farthest corners of my memory. And I love them in all their modus. I can equally fall for a book, for a film or for a series. The better the story is told, the deeper my involvement with it. But I have noticed that this is not enough. I don’t fall easily for a newspaper story, no matter how well written they are. I like to watch documentary films, but to me they are just interesting. I don’t fall in love with them. I have come to realize this fact for a short time. Maybe because I started to seriously ask myself where does the power of stories lie. How does their spell work?

A couple of years ago, Amazon released a series based on a book, both called The Man in the High Castle. The book was written by Philip K. Dick and published in 1962. It depicts a world where the Nazis and the Japanese have won the Second World War. The net that connects the different characters of the story is woven through a fictional novel that depicts a world where the Allies actually won the war, written by a man who supposedly guards himself in a well-protected fortress.
After watching the first season of the series I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that the story had lost its power. The series is well done, it achieves its purpose of hooking you up and making you want to see more, to know what happens next. It develops the characters and events in a different way than the book does. But that is not what bothered me. On the contrary, I believe everyone has the right to variate a story, to tell it again in another way, this is how stories survive. But I felt that this version of the story had washed away the rusty, pointy, unclear and dangerous elements of the book and achieve a more digestible version of it. Nothing new under the sun, one may say, the typical Hollywood problem.

One of my favourite answers to the problem of art in general and literature in particular is the idea of ‘defamiliarisation’ of perception which Russian Formalists brought forward at the beginning of the 20th century. Either by using language in unexpected ways, or by arranging the narrative elements in an unexpected order, or by including the absurd as a matter of fact, a literary work would achieve, in the first place, to disturb the usual mechanism of our perception and in the second place to turn us to those mechanisms and question them, in other words, to discuss what we feel as natural. Across the past century this idea has, in one way or another, drawn the blurring line between art and entertainment. But, then again, some products of the entertainment industry have achieved a powerful and uneasy combination between these two “poles” (which perhaps are no longer such). The differentiation between what is a work of art and what is entertainment is losing its effectiveness. Besides, this industry is also changing, taking other shapes and producing works that deserve to be thought of. Not only because of the number of people who consume them and how they change the world of those people, but also because of their own qualities as cultural products.

I am mainly thinking of this new series-wave. The fascination some of us now experience with series is how I imagine the fascination people in the nineteenth century experienced with the novels published and delivered in chapters by the newspapersBut the spell this series cast is, at least on me, only sometimes effective. Many of them, like The Man in the High Castle, have the charm of a teenage party supervised by parents and teachers. It is probably a silly comparison, but this is how they seem to me: controlled, contained and wanting to make sure that the message is sent, and does not give place to misunderstanding. And then, while reading some articles of Carl Gustav Jung, I came upon this statement:
Concrete values cannot take the place of the symbol; only new and more efficient symbols can be substituted for those that are more antiquated and outworn, such as have lost their efficacy through the progress of intellectual analysis and understanding. (Jung, C. G, “Author’s Preface to the First Edition” of Collected Papers on Analytical Psychology)
A preliminary and very general answer to the question above, then, could be: stories work as symbols, when their spell works well. This symbols, says Jung later, are produced by the individual unconscious and represent something “whose intellectual meaning cannot yet be grasped entirely”. The encounter with this quote helped me think of stories under a different light, no longer constraint by the mainly rational approach of formalism, but neither falling in a purely emotional, romantic point of view. The concept of symbol, its ability to linger in our souls and work in many directions, appeals to me as an unexplored territory.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

A Festschrift for Thomas O. Buford

Vernon Press Presents

Persons, Institutions, and Trust
Essays in Honour of Thomas O. Buford

Eds: James M. McLachlan
James Beauregard
Richard Prust

The papers presented in this volume honor Thomas O. Buford. Buford is Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at Furman University where he taught for more than forty years. Several of the papers in this volume are from former students. But Professor Buford is also a pre-eminent voice of fourth generation Personalism, and Boston Personalism in particular. Personalism is a school of philosophical and theological thought which holds that the ideas of “person” and “personality” are indispensable to an adequate understanding of all metaphysical and epistemological problems, as well as are keys to an adequate theory of ethical and political human interaction. Most personalists assert that personality is an irreducible fact found in all existence, as well as in all interpretation of the meaning of existence and the truth about experience. Anything that seems to exist impersonally, such as inanimate matter, nevertheless can exist and have meaning only as related to some personal being. The Boston Personalist tradition was inaugurated by Borden Parker Bowne and continued by Edgar S. Brightman, Peter Bertocci, John Lavely, Carol Robb, and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Thomas O. Buford, Emeritus, Furman University

Are Institutions Persons? Buford and the Primacy of Social Order
Randy Auxier, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Institutions Supported, Institutions Subverted: Thomas O Buford on the Parables of Jesus
James Beauregard Ph.D, Riviere University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Why Should I Trust?
Richard Prust, Emeritus, St. Andrews College
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Christianity and Intellectual Seriousness
Mason Marshall, Pepperdine University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Trusting to Dance Within the Nexus
Nathan Riley, Independent Scholar
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Prayer, Magic, and the Devil
Christopher Williams, University of Nevada-Reno
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Buford, Kohak, and a Renewed Understanding of the Personal Nature of Time
John Scott Grey, Ferris State University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Death and Self-Importance
John Lachs, Vanderbilt University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Danish Personalism On Democracy and the Engaged Human Freedom for the Common Good
Jonas Norgaard Mortensen
Response by Thomas O. Buford

On Behalf of Poetasters
Charles Conti, University of Sussex
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Persons, Community and Human Diversity
Eugene Long, Emeritus, University of South Carolina
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Buford as Teacher, Mentor, Person
J. Aaron Simmons, Furman University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

The Personalist Response to the Problem of Evil in Brightman, Bertocci, and Buford
James McLachlan, Western Carolina University
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Fourth Generation Boston University Personalism: The Philosophy of Thomas O. Buford
Randall E. Auxier, Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Response by Thomas O. Buford

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Engaged Disciplines: Invocations from History

by Denis Larrivee

The publication of Elio Sgreccia’s weight 4rth edition of Personalist Bioethics testifies not simply to the urgency of bioethics as the discipline for a technological age, but also to the discipline’s enduring effort to come to terms with its modus operandi; that is, to respond to bioethics’ twin queries: what value is being claimed for an ethical praxis that needs evolving, and what existential reality is this value applied to. The text has received the endorsement of the USA’s National Catholic Bioethics Center for its principled approach to and consistency with intellectual tradition. Covering some 830 pages in its paper bound version it serves as more than a primer on the evolution of the discipline, entailing a substantive intellectual effort aimed at linking the discipline’s epistemic development to an objective grounding in the nature of reality. In this vein the text considers not only the rationale for arguments that underpin value and contingency, that is, the twin queries - the text specifically invokes the personalist normative conclusions of the Christian tradition and the Aristotelian-Thomistic insights on what is being sited - but conducts a dialogical praxis with leading contemporary models that have evolved widely outside this framework. Given the ongoing stream of epistemological findings that continue to emerge from the sciences, this is a praxis with considerable potential for variation in trajectory, which Sgreccia considers vis a vis the science of genetics.
A la Sgreccia, bioethics emerged as a distinct discipline no more than a few decades ago with the publication of Van Rensselaer Potter’s seminal article on Bioethics, the Science of Survival. Proposing the unification of the knowledge taken from biology with that rooted in a study of human values, the article reflected Potters perception that the vast panorama of life was placed at risk by the sterile a-value approach of the sciences to life. Coming on the heels of the genetic triumphs of the 1960’s, like the deciphering of the genetic code, Potter conceived of bioethics as a route to preserving the natural world, mediated through the appropriation of value. The claim to invoke human values to this broad dominion, however, the addressing of the second of the two queries, had the normative consequence of flattening an anthropomorphic hierarchy. Indeed, the consequences are now seen in such varied communities and theories as the ecoethicists and actor network theory, where every river and fish is now an end, a revelation in normative outcome, of the otherwise hidden, intrinsic mutual and reciprocal influence of answers to the two queries that were exerted on one another. Faced with this horizontalizing Andre Helleger later proposed to narrow the contingency range by restoring the privileged normative character of the human being in medical intervention and research experimentation. Helleger, thereby, established a disciplinary pattern that has since marked the field’s evolution, clarifying the twin queries and logically deducing their mutual influence.
Sgreccia’s text adheres to this pattern. Grounding is crucial to the text’s conclusions, which thus premises the existential reality of the person as both source and locus of value, revealed through its physical manifestation. This has also meant that in the absence of the physical manifestation there would be no reality for which normative privileging could be accorded. While here reaffirming the generality of the twin query approach to an ethics of biology, like Van Rensselaer Potter and Hellegers, Sgreccia, significantly, substantially reaffirms the centrality of the logical necessity of the physical reality of the human form. Hence, while he underscores the human personalist anthropology as the basis for normative privileging, as a matter of metaphysics, and especially as a pragmatic art, the normative science of bioethics cannot be divorced from the siting of its contingency - implicit in Helleger’s stance. The physical manifestation, in effect, reveals how the physical reality structures the form that can then be normatively privileged. Actions are thereby probative, if and only if they are administered to the physical form, either contravening its nature or its unity.
This is a position similarly advanced by Karol Wojtyla, whose investiture of normative weight specifically inheres in the corporality of the human form (Veritatis Splendor)
…against a manipulation of corporeity which would alter its human meaning...on the grounds that the ...nature of the human person is in the unity of the body and soul ...that stand and fall together...
In other words, like Sgreccia, Wojtyla ascribes to the physicality of the normative terrain the capacity to determine value specifically in view of its human siting. Significantly, in charting this terrain Wojtyla is claiming that the corporal reality specifically assists in the acquisition of its normative valuation. This is a broader claim that stems from the unity of the individual who is epistemically manifest, and has bearing for the current state of bioethics as a normative science, which, once again, is attempting to address the twin queries of normative investiture and value contingency.
In what promises to be a quantitative leap in the new bioethics, that is, from the traditional question of how and why the human anthropology is normatively privileged, the current questioning concerns what a human anthropology inheres in. This is a logical prior for the normative science of bioethics generally, but is peculiarly suited to its most recent evolution in praxis, which is concerned with the biological substrate most intimately linked to human ontology, neuroethics. Wojtyla’s claim is significant for neuroethics for specifically linking the human and personalist meaning to its emergence from the corpus, a point taken up in a lengthy series of lectures given in the early years of his chief office.
Though he originally elaborated this meaning in terms of a reflection on its phenomenal character, he understood it through its intrinsic unity, that is, linked to its physical manifestation. By extension, it seems fair to say that predicated on the unity from which predicable human properties flow, the nervous system of the corpus specifically assists in structuring the personalist reality.
Unsurprisingly, Wojtyla’s presupposition - of an a priori metaphysic structure from which the corporal reality predicates - distinguishes itself from much of current neuroethics, Cartesian inspired, and with a posteriori presuppositions that segregate privileged properties from their ‘source’. Lockean descendants, like Extended Mind Theory, for example, segregate the subject from a defined corporal structure. The rupture, that is also a rupture of the twin queries, significantly, wholly modifies actionable standards that can be applied to intervention. Bad thinking and bad action, so to speak, hand in hand, and a caution on the consequences of the reciprocal character of the twin queries.
Recent efforts to imbue neuroethics with a personalist normative privileging, like that of a recently appearing article in the personalist journal Quien, on the other hand, begin with a welcome premise. Like Wojtyla and Sgreccia they propose to the question of normative privileging the ascription of ‘personalist’ and so, thus, they address the first of the twin queries. Yet in the effort - and perhaps daunted by the complexity of the physical nature at hand, there is the sense of a more ethereal and unbound contingency, that is a phantom of what the 2nd query is beholden to. This question of status, conversely, is unlike Wojtyla and Sgreccia, introducing, perhaps, an unintended plasticity to contingency, which likely will ignore the reciprocity the twin queries seek. Hence, there seems an invocation in trending personalism, intellectually applied more broadly, of a caution embedded in the historicity of the ethical discipline, that what once was may not forever be.