Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

We apologise for the interruption in service last week. This was due to foreseen circumstances. And now, welcome back to the hottest series on the world wide web. The series in which the cosmos gets down and dirty with some seriously sexy symbolism. Oh yeah. Let’s get funky with it. 

Part 3: Birds, Bees, and Dirty Diagrams
To see how this works, consider Huxley on a most potent force of nature. In his discussion of love among the birds and beasts, the many splendoured facets of human love, as manifest in human action and relation, are used as explanatory constructs, a via analogia that illuminates the meaning of animal behaviour and its causes.[1] Huxley’s use of our emotional lives is analogical, of course; we cannot take literally his talk of ardent grebes, great tits, and blackcocks.[2] As Farrer reminds us, he who psychologises animals is himself an ass. With only a ‘very ill-defined’ sense of what other animals’ “subjectivity” might be like, we cannot suppose that having emotions is the same thing for them as it is for us. Thus constrained, we apply the model of our own action and experience, so get the animal’s action and experience into focus by sympathetic appreciation. How else should we even begin to understand animal behaviour or the action of evolution on it? What other interpretative key is there?
Such natural passions figure large among the birds and beasts in my backyard, but the fundamental constituents of the cosmos are energy and process. That is to say, concepts such as ‘process’, ‘energy’, and ‘activity’ are the basic elements of our cosmological maps; and they too are borrowed from the logically primitive experience of being an active agent. For, as Farrer showed, the model of our own activity is essential if we hope ‘to give content to the general idea that it [whatever “it” is] does act’.[3]
Thus, empirical metaphysics learned the lesson of empirical psychology. Before Farrer, the psychologist Jean Piaget, and before him, Feuerbach, found that the notion “object” originates in the child’s conception of “I”, the “I” objectified and projected.
This does not mean that our maps are constructed from simple anthropomorphisms. Rather, Farrer argued, we ‘erect a pseudo-genus of which “thing” and “self” are species’.[4] We construct a model from shared or common factors; the most common being ‘interference capability’. This ‘pseudo-genus’ supplies the framework within which those realities may be understood. Crucially, this analogical erection is dynamic: it may go up or down depending on the nature of the interference. Insofar as any interference resembles my own, I must suppose it to be the expression of an agency like me; but only to the degree that it does resemble my own. Those that are recognisably personal – loving, linguistic, or merely logical, for instance – reveal themselves on the upgrade; the more so as they outstrip my capacity to undertake them. When dealing with birds, beasts, and the basic processes of the universe, however, those “higher” features of personal consciousness are ‘washed-out’ and ‘an indefinable discount’ paid.[5] In seeking to comprehend such forces, that is, we downgrade the analogy accordingly.
As our interactions with, and understanding of, the world become increasingly sophisticated, our application of this graded model must do likewise. Complicated maths, the lingua franca of cosmologists conversing among themselves, is a prime example. Mathematics is a language; its terms as analogical as any other; its symbols, co-ordinates on our cosmological maps. Once again, we are not so naive as to suppose there is anything “out there” that precisely corresponds to them. Moreover, mathematical symbols and their configurations remain grounded in the analogy of our agency. The most basic calculations - on which the most complex ultimately rest - share the operative principle of all languages and substitute symbol for object. The very possibility of symbolising objects depends on being able to identify and re-identify the objects in question. This, in turn, depends on the capacity objects have for exercising ‘disturbance-effect’, to act on me and so distinguish themselves from me. For that, as suggested, is our criterion of real existence, what Buber might call the first ‘category of being’.[6]
However, complicated maths plays a more important role in our story. For it is not merely a symbol system; it is a vitally important one which enables our explorations and explanations to reach into the darkest regions of the cosmos. In so doing, it exemplifies the ampliative extension of consciousness which is to come. This is because the cosmologist’s calculations are not just diagrams of the universe; they are diagrams of a diagram. The cosmologist’s mathematical maps are symbolic representations of a matrix of forces which is itself a symbolic representation constructed from analogies of our own activity.
Farrer described our ordinary conception of “the universe” as resembling a ‘linear diagram of historical developments chalked on a classroom blackboard’.[7] The sciences have brought the image into sharper and, consequently, more poignant, focus. Our most advanced conceptions of “the universe” do not resemble such diagrams, they are such diagrams, mapped out in the hermeneutical imagery of mathematical equations.
Here, in the redoubling of our analogies, we see the defeat of simplistic anthropomorphisms, those lares and penates masquerading as “real beings”. Analogising our analogies elevates the analogising consciousness high above the realist’s household ghosts and gods; most pernicious of all, his Perfect Personal Agent.
Equally, it reminds traffickers in mathematical and other scientific models of the foundations of their own constructs. Moreover, the very “impersonalism” which, we are told, is the true character of the cosmos, is itself such a construct, one rinsed almost clean of any hint of personality; almost, but not quite, since the basic idea of activity must remain. This much we cannot do without; abandon action-concepts and the entire edifice of our understanding crumbles; we make a nonsense of both the diagrams and diagrammatising procedure which is scientific exploration.
“Impersonalism”, then, is an abstraction, a projection that is meaningful only because of the personal action from which it springs; the two cannot be coherently separated.
But this is not the end of the story. To fully understand Farrer’s via analogia, we must turn to philosophical psychology.

And you know what they say: philosophical psychology is the sexiest kind of psychology!
Remember to come back next week – or possibly the week after, given that it’s Christmas – for more wet and wild adventures, of:

Is That an Analogy of a Personal Cosmos in your Pocket or are you just Anthropomorphising?

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Huxley, J. New Bottles for New Wine (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1959), 213-232
[2] It is, perhaps, worth noting here that, while the word “love” roams free about Huxley’s article, unconstrained by parenthetical qualifications, the word “courtship” is more firmly anchored to its analogical origins with quotation marks.
[3] Farrer, The Freedom of the Will, 189.
[4] Farrer, Finite and Infinite, 67.
[5] Farrer, ‘Causes’ in Reflective Faith, 213.
[6] Buber, M. I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 43.
[7] Farrer, Faith and Speculation, 169.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Part 2: In which we put Barry White on the stereo and Physics and Metaphysics Get IT On!

‘Science,’ Martin Rees observes, ‘wouldn’t have got very far with pure thought alone’; especially pure thought about ontologically pure things.[1] Newton, of course, was well aware of this, as his gruesome optical experiments clearly demonstrate. Indeed, any teacher will tell you that learning is a product of interaction; knowledge is earned by deliberate interference with things. Farrer, too, followed this empirical path, devising his ‘causal solution’ to the ontological and epistemological disjunct entailed by classical metaphysics. We know things, he observed, as they impact on our explorations, disturbing and diversifying the field of our activities.[2] The world can be explored because it is ‘the playground of human thews and human thoughts’.[3] 
Thus the ‘great Newtonian fiction’ transformed into ‘a complex of interlocking biographies’: a manifold of interpenetrating patterns, ‘infinitely complicated, minute rhythms of active process.’[4] In the Farrerian’s Latin catch-phrase, esse est operari: real “being” is being-in-action. No ‘solid and stupid lumps of physical matter’, then; at the ‘bottom of substance is ceaseless act’.[5] So Farrer designated ‘[e]nergy, rather than stuff…our ultimate’.[6] Echoes of Einstein.[7] Furthermore, ‘[f]or energy, not to act is not to be’; hence, ‘[t]he notion of energies in a pure or simple state, prior to mutual engagement is physical nonsense’. We cannot coherently conceive of energy in vacuo, ‘that is, action without interplay’;[8] action is inevitably interaction. Being active, therefore, real ‘being’ is also interconnected.
With a Whiteheadian flourish, Charles Conti captured Farrer’s visionary metaphysics like this: ‘[n]o actualities without full and proper integration with other actualities, themselves in the process of becoming’.[9] This applies to the very foundations of the universe. Even space and time are no longer inert, as Stephen Hawking shows. In Einstein’s hands, space and time became, ‘dynamic quantities that influenced and were influenced by events that took place in them’.[10] The patterns of process and energy which constitute our universe have a physical impact on the space-time in which they operate. And little wonder, for ‘process’ and ‘energia’ mean reciprocal interference: actualities disturbing a field of activity comprised of other actualities. Real things, including space-time itself, are in and as the mutual interplay of what Conti dubs ‘interference capabilities’ and Farrer, ‘disturbance-effects’.[11]
Nota bene: in this activist revision of metaphysics, we may discern the contours of a philosophical psychology. Persons are agents, active explorers in that playground of concrete connections. Consciousness is interactively extended, physically embodied, and fully engaged in the mutual interplay wherein the world is and is discovered.
Farrer was not alone in developing this new metaphysical model. Its roots lie in the Thomism which framed his magnum opus, Finite and Infinite. Both Whitehead’s ‘philosophy of organism’ and Bergson’s elan vital of biological and cosmic evolution also pursued such a course. The similarities between these thinkers are clear and important; we shall not gainsay them. No less important, however, are the differences, the most crucial of which is Farrer’s acute awareness of the analogical or diagrammatic nature of our metaphysics. The febrile fantasies of neo-realists notwithstanding, this has become common scientific currency in recent years, if Hawking and Gould are to be believed. Their cosmological constructs are, they concur, merely maps of the universe.
And yet, given the advances suggested here, one might wonder why we must resort to the antiquated doctrine of analogy. It will profit us little to protest that dusty old “being-concepts” have been superseded by a vigorously energetic analogy of doing. The question is “why must we use analogies at all?” Does not our interactionist metaphysics overcome abstract essences, bridge the gap between agents and their objects? Do not interpenetrating patterns of activity carry us right to the heart of real “being”?
In the spirit of Heisenberg, our answer must be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. On the one hand, those processes subject to our interference and control are those of which our understanding will be widest and deepest. But our explorations cannot be restricted to those events in which we directly participate, even collectively as a species. Such a policy would radically restrict the extent of our knowledge. Thus, on the other hand, our explorations reach beyond our capacity to act by deploying inferences and extrapolations.
Admit this, however, and we draw to ourselves unwelcome company. The ghost of David Hume stands hard by, eyeing the inferences and extrapolations in our other hand. We may no longer live in a “billiard-ball” universe, but his critique of casual thinking retains its force. Let science get on with probabilifying the cosmos; we cannot ignore the fact that our physics and metaphysics illuminate a universe of merely seeming effects. For we have, the ghost cheerfully reminds us, no more access to the causal forces “behind” those effects than we have to agencies allegedly “behind” their acts.
Indeed we do not; but it is not quite true to say, as Hume did, that we have no access at all to causal agency; nor that, as a consequence, all our causal inferences must refer to constant conjunctions. As a matter of fact, we do have access to one causal agency and the force it applies to the universe; access which is direct, immediate, and reliable; access which is, moreover, analogically extendable. Our own capacity to act, to interfere with patterns and processes which are not our own, is our standing example of causal agency. It is also the model used in thinking all others.

And that ain’t all, oh no! 
For more hot, throbbing, science-on-philosophy action, tune in next time to…

Thrust While You Think: Adventures of a Black Market Cosmologist
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature 

[1] Rees, M. From Here to Infinity: Scientific Horizons (London: Profile Books, 2011), 134.
[2] Farrer, A. Finite and Infinite (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959), 234.
[3] Farrer, A. The Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 171.
[4] Farrer, A.  ‘Does God Exist?’ in Reflective Faith, ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972), 40.
[5] Farrer, A.  Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967), 166.
[6] Farrer, A.  Faith and Speculation, 82.
[7] Echoes, too, of Whitehead, for whom ‘the actual world is a process, and that process is the becoming of actual occasions’. Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality (Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978), 22.
[8] Farrer, A. Faith and Speculation, 167.
[9] Conti, C. C. Metaphysical Personalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), xxii.
[10] Hawking, S. ‘Einstein’s Dream’ in Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (London: Bantam Books, 1993), 66.
[11] Conti, ‘Austin Farrer and the Analogy of Other Minds’ in For God and Clarity: New Essays in Honour of Austin Farrer, ed. Jeffrey C. Eaton & Ann Loades (Pennsylvania: Pickwick, 1983), 56; Finite and Infinite, 235.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Having graced your delicate eyeballs with the abstracted highlight a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well inflict the entirety of my Farrerian Reflections upon you. Go on, admit it, this is just what you wanted.
This, rather long, conference paper is, of course, yet another demonstration of just how much I love the sound of my own voice, especially when it’s written down. It was presented at the BPF’s 1st International Conference: British Contributions to Personalist Philosophy – Duns Scotus to the Present Day. We were at the prestigious Oriel College, Oxford, those few, sunny days in March 2015. To me, the whole event remains particularly memorable for three reasons:
Firstly, James T. Beauregard flew in from New Hampshire to attend the conference. Yes, his arms were tired. It was a true delight to see Jim in the flesh; it was the first time we’d actually been able to meet up since the Lund conference in 2013 where we had, in fact, first met. It was even more delightful to have the chance to sit with him in, if Guinness-soaked memory serves, the Eagle and Child and get gently sozzled. All in the name of philosophical enquiry, of course.
Second, the accommodation provided by Oriel – accommodation occupied by students during term time, accommodation occupied by students paying upwards of £9k for the privilege, accommodation for which we were paying quiet handsomely – reminded me of nothing so much as a domestic violence shelter. Grimy, cold, and unutterably miserable, the rooms would have provided the perfect backdrop for a suicide attempt.
Third, it was the first, and thus far only, time a fight broke out during one of my presentations. I’ve had things go awry before, but never an actual punch-up. I kid you not.
The aim of my presentation, as per the abstract, was to provide an embarkation point for a grand metaphysical experiment in mapping the physical, epistemological, and psychological outreach of ‘personhood’ (whatever that means). My hope was – and still is – that, by modelling our conceptions of the universe on the dialectical extensions of consciousness, we will be able to overcome the impasse between personalism  and ‘impersonalism’. Such models, as you will discover, provide a better integrated conception of mind and nature than anything the currently dominant, closed-category thinking which dominates speculative cosmology could possibly allow. In so doing, they also supply the conditions for a deeper and more profound rapprochement between scientific and religious belief.
So there you have it; and here, for your entertainment and edification, it is:

The first part of it, anyway. 

Part 1: Persons and Nature
One of the most serious difficulties facing personalist thinkers is how to account for the emergence of persons in a universe seemingly so ill-equipped to host such an event. How, moreover, are we to do so without resorting to either the impoverished superficialities of flattened naturalism or the tawdry theatricalities of over-inflated transcendentalism?
Naturalist reduction has proved highly successful in mapping the universe. And yet, personalists have fiercely opposed what they regard as its illegitimate extension. Personhood, consciousness, is, as Austin Farrer reminds us, a ‘social product’. The begetting of persons is a personal business; it takes ‘I’s and ‘Thous’.
Add to this the literal nonsense of reducing knowledge to sheer physical process and we have some very good logical and psychological reasons for resisting reduction. We are here; surely this much cannot be denied.
And yet, our personalist ‘and yet’ must confront what we are told are the physical ‘facts’: all things shall be explained by underlying physical processes. But we are not quite done with the ‘and yets’ yet. For a number of scientists have sought to communicate their vision of the cosmos beyond the confines of their own field. And yet, in so doing they have – not, I suggest, remotely by accident – been driven to use the language of persons. Instances abound in the writings of Stephen Hawking, Rupert Sheldrake, and Stephen Jay Gould; even Richard Dawkins needed moral concepts to describe our selfish genes. Another evolutionary biologist offers an example more poignant still. In the complex narratives of evolution, Julian Huxley saw a profound ‘one-ness of man with nature, not merely in respect of biological descent and chemical composition, but because nature is the indispensable basis of his material existence, and also the indispensable partner in his mental and spiritual achievements.’[1]
To regard such talk as merely the poetical flourishes of one struggling to convey the complexities of the cosmos to a scientifically illiterate audience would be short-sighted. In this case, it would also be quite mistaken. Huxley’s remarks come from the Royal Anthropological Institute’s 1950 Memorial Lecture for his grandfather, T. H. Huxley.
Even when the intended audience is not so august an institution as that, however, we should be chary of dismissing too lightly such invitations to cosmological intimacy. We must beware, that is, of underestimating writers, readers, and their cosmological concerns. Both the form and content of Farrer’s works offer such a warning. For, as he well knew, it is in those concerns and the personal images which frame them that we shall find the clues to a resolution of our difficulties.
The first clue lies in a rapprochement between science and theology. Huxley’s words set the scene; to fully uncover their transcendental import, let us turn to physical and metaphysical basics.
When Einstein, Friedman, et. al, began to probe deeper cosmological depths, our conception of the physical universe evolved dramatically. The underlying ontology, Farrer saw, would have to do likewise: a new physics demands a new metaphysics. The classical model of discrete ‘reals’ bouncing around mechanically inside a static system proved as metaphysically untenable as it was scientifically inadequate. Farrer agreed wholeheartedly: ‘[t]he old definitions [of reality] accepted by Sir Isaac Newton and his followers were not merely incorrect,’ he declared, ‘they were nonsensical’.[2] Driving the point home – somewhat unfairly, given the role of philosophers in this metaphysical muddle – he said ‘[i]t is not merely that Einstein’s very special and advanced physical observations proved that this isn’t a Newtonian world. You couldn’t have a Newtonian world.’
Constructed from ontologically independent units of existence, the old model offered no insight into the nature of its contents. Newton’s theories mapped the motion of things with a high degree of accuracy; but their underlying ontology retained a clear-cut separation between those things and their activities; in antiquated Aristotelian parlance, between essences and accidents. However accurate the theories, accidents reveal nothing about essences; that is, their reactive or operational properties.[3] This is because the inviolable inertia of things-in-themselves and apart from any activity violates the basic conditions of coherent epistemology. It disconnects knowing subjects from objects known, so puts the world beyond our reach. But if the world is beyond our reach (Wittgenstein and Feuerbach wondered) what possible reason could we have for talking about it?

Good question! Find out the answer in the next heart-pounding instalment of…
Throbbing Passions!
Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature

[1] Huxley, J. New Bottles for New Wine (London: Readers Union Ltd., 1959), 122; my emphasis.
[2] Farrer, A. Saving Belief (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964), 67.
[3] As Whitehead pointed out, in doing so, he left us as unable to ‘ discover the natures of the relata by any study of the laws of their relations’ as we are to ‘discover the laws by inspection of the natures’ Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1948), 135.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Guess who’s coming to dinner: ruminations on the ethics of cannibalism. Dolce.

by Simon Smith

At last, here we are at the final cannibalistic course. Unless, that is, anyone wants coffee. No? Then let’s proceed.
Now I can’t help wondering whether cannibal coffee is anything like civet cat coffee and if it is, whether that makes cannibal coffee better or worse.
I think I’ll stick with a simple French roast. That goes for the coffee too, of course.
When last we foregathered, you may recall, a somewhat unfortunate conclusion impressing itself upon us. Twice, in fact. That conclusion was that ethics may not be terribly helpful when it comes to cannibalism. Well, there’s more than one way to skin a Kate. Let’s dig a little deeper and, taking another cue from Malinowski, consider anthropology. Philosophical anthropology that is, the only kind we’re qualified to dilate upon. After all, moral thinking stands upon philosophical anthropology: our conceptions, explicit and implicit, of what it means to be human.
Whether Malinowski and the Trobrianders would agree with us is doubtful. The Trobrianders are, by all accounts, ill-disposed to windy metaphysical speculation. Similarly, Malinowski was far more interested in praxis than in theoria. We shall not gainsay the point. Except when while we have our own windy metaphysical speculation to pursue. 
Survey that windy metaphysical landscape and it seems Western philosophy ought to be quite relaxed about cannibalism. Realists who follow Descartes (whether or not they admit it) should be positively nonchalant because since they’ve already isolated consciousness from any bodily instantiation. Since mind and body are distinct and separate substances, and the moral and metaphysical weight lies entirely on the mind, then the body isn’t important.
And yes, the metaphysical weight lies entirely on mind for realists. As Farrer points out,[1] Descartes believed the physical universe was constituted by inert stuff; therein lies the motivation for dualism:
The ruthless uniformity of his new physics demanded that the human body should be interpreted as physical clockwork; and to treat clockwork as the actual organ and sphere of the conscious animal soul was a paradox before which Descartes recoiled (14).

So, it’s a theological need – and a distinctly pragmatic one at that – to make room for the soul or psyche which drove Descartes to ontological segregation. In the end, it hardly matters what happens to the physical side since it will inevitably go the way of all flesh: the clockwork breaks down, decays, and eventually decomposes. If someone decides to take a bite along the way, who’s going to mind, as it were?
So much for dualism. Lurch too far in the other direction, however, and we just run into the same kind of problems. And this, by the way, isn’t something that Personalism is immune to, not by a long chalk.
Take, for example, the queso grande of Spanish Personalism, Juan Manuel Burgos. Burgos has argued, not unreasonably, that ‘human person is totally unthinkable without the body.’[2] Ordinarily, I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing. Conceive of persons and we conceive of embodied being or agency (I prefer the latter term). And yet, Burgos goes on to insist on the ‘impossibility of separating the body from the person’. This seems a bit too far, not least because ‘[a]s soon as a part of the body is separated from the person, it ceases to exist as such. A severed hand is not a hand and a dead body is not a human body.’ Very well, but then, what are they? Not simply objects, surely. For if a severed hand and a dead body are just part of the furniture of the world, then, on the one hand, funerary rites and taboos are perfectly incomprehensible; while, on the other, fire up the BBQ: cannibalism is perfectly acceptable.
Somewhat worryingly, not to mention distastefully, it’s just occurred to me that, the foregoing probably applies to necrophilia in the same way. How ghastly.
While we all try to forget we just thought that, the same basic conclusion follows from philosophical behaviourism. Reduce persons to their actions or explicit behaviour and it becomes difficult to see what value the body ultimately has and why one shouldn’t have a bit of a nibble on a stiff, cannibalistically speaking. To the behaviourist, the body only matters insofar as it is a ‘vehicle’ for action; once it is no longer that, i.e. when the ‘person’ or behavioural aggregate is dead and gone, it’s chow time.
That behaviourism ends up in the same place as Cartesian realism is hardly surprising, of course. It is, as Strawson pointed out, little more than an ‘inverted dualism’, a dualism of one ‘subject’ – the body – and one non-subject – the agent or owner of acts performed.
Sadly, there’s no room for smugness here, since this seems to leave our own philosophical position in the sweet and sour sauce. Surely, if, as I have suggested, persons are constituted by their actions, then I’m in no position to cock my snook, or anything else, at any of the aforementioned crowd. Action is all; the body is irrelevant; everybody, grab a fork and dig in.
It may not be quite correct to say that the body is irrelevant. After all, the body is, as Burgos rightly points out, the physical manifestation of personhood. The body is, as I argued in my first great magnum opus – still available from good booksellers and evil empires everywhere – the modus operandi of conscious, personal agency. But this is mere quibbling. Not about my book, that really is very available; and Christmas is just around the corner. The truth seems to be that, even if we acknowledge the vital importance of bodily being to our understanding of persons, still we have failed to endow the body itself with sufficient value to preserve it post mortem.
In sum, we have failed to find sound moral or philosophical justification judging funeral cannibalism either right or wrong.
That might seem a little worrying, but let’s not panic yet. As we suspected, all it really means is, this is not so much a moral issue as a social and cultural one. Consequently, any judgement we make will also be social and cultural. That’s to say, cannibalism is clearly neither acceptable nor desirable in Western society, even in America, even if the corpse is dipped in chocolate and wrapped in bacon. To be fair, the Trobriander’s themselves seemed quite ambivalent about the whole cannibalism thing.
However, judgements grounded in social and cultural norms seems perfectly reasonable. That, after all, is what makes any society cohere: ‘this is how we do things round these parts’ is one of the things that instantiates the ‘we’ in the first place, especially when ‘these parts’ are dead parts. What does not seem reasonable is extending cultural norms to other cultures where they don’t hold good. Just because we do things this way, it does not follow that you must do likewise. That way lies the path of the missionary and the colonialist, both of whom deserve to end up in a cooking pot.
Having said as much, however, one last thought. No matter what the social or cultural context, I would insist that, in my own case, funerary cannibalism is utterly unacceptable. It would unquestionably be wrong for any member of my family to eat me just because I would end up very under-seasoned and very overcooked. And, in the end, wouldn’t that be the greatest evil of all?

[1] In The Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 14.
[2] Burgos, Juan Manuel. Antropología, una guia para la existencia. Translation: James Beauregard. (Madrid: Palabra, 2008), Ch. 2.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Polanyi Conference Call For Papers

 9-11 JUNE 2020

In June 2020, the Polanyi Society will sponsor a conference dedicated to exploring the abiding relevance of Michael Polanyi’s philosophical work, and in particular his social thought. Many of the socio-political and cultural dynamics of the early 21st century invite a reconsideration of the principles and practices that contribute to the maintenance of liberty, solidarity, and constructive pluralism. This conference will explore the enduring relevance of Polanyi’s philosophy for all such efforts, and will also include papers dedicated to other dimensions of Polanyi’s work.
The Society invites proposals for papers that examine Polanyi’s social and political thought, its development, and its relationship to other aspects of his work; comparative studies that examine Polanyi’s thought alongside that of others are welcome. The Society also encourages proposals on any topic related to Polanyi studies; the conference will accommodate presentations on a range of subjects. Initial proposals should be no more than 250 words, and can be sent to Andrew Grosso at The deadline for the submission is Thursday, 31 December 2019; proposals submitted thereafter will be considered only if the conference schedule allows it.
The first day of the conference will be dedicated to discussion of selections from Polanyi’s writings that set forth his thoughts on social dynamics. Senior Polanyi scholars will facilitate collaborative discussions about these texts, and these conversations will provide a framework for the rest of the conference.
There will also be a half-day pre-conference seminar for graduate students and those new to Polanyi studies. This seminar will provide an introductory overview of Polanyi’s life and philosophy, and will focus on Polanyi’s philosophy of science and its roots in his ideas about skills and articulation, subsidiary and focal awareness, and tacit knowing.
In addition to the initial details below, the most current information about the conference will be available on the Society’s website (
The conference will convene at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, WI (west of Milwaukee). The nearest airport is General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) in Milwaukee, about 45 minutes away; Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is about two hours away.
Registration fees include access to all conference sessions and all meals. Early-bird registration is $225 and opens Tuesday, 14 January 2020. Regular registration is $275, and opens Tuesday, 17 March 2020. Late registration will be $300, and opens Tuesday, 12 May 2020.
Registration does not include accommodations; a limited number of rooms will be available at Nashotah House, and there are several affordable hotels within five miles of Nashotah House.
A limited amount of financial aid is available for those unable to meet the cost of registration, accommodations, and travel. For more information about financial assistance, please contact Andrew Grosso at
Additional information regarding the conference will be available on the Society’s website ( and will be published in future issues of Tradition & Discovery. Those interested can also contact Andrew Grosso at

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Guess who’s coming to dinner: ruminations on the ethics of cannibalism. Secondo Piatto.

by Simon Smith
… or, how about the week after?
Halloween has come and gone: zombies shamble back into the night; witches return to their homebrew; ghosties slide, once more, behind the oak panelling in the library; and, without the least flicker of embarrassment, ghoulies are tucked back in. The streets, in short, no longer throng with over-sugared children and other ferae naturae.
Speaking of which, a quick message for any children joining us today:
Those people, they’re not your real parents. Get out of the house. Get out now. 

Last week being the start of the dark season, talk of cannibalism, especially funerary cannibalism, didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, I made this very cool Zombie Meatloaf from Chef John at Everyone agreed that it was the best pretend-living-dead-human-face-with-the-skin-torn-off they’ve had.

When last we met, a curious conclusion was in the offing: moral philosophy, it seems, may not be our best guide when it comes to some of the more outré moral highways and byways.
The philosophical difficulty here is, I suspect, the same one that got us all knotted up back in April 2018 when a certain deeply distasteful sex doll had us on the moral ropes. It comes down to what criteria we use to determine whether or not something is right or wrong.  Whether we’re talking about taking a bite out of Grandpa or dipping your bread in thermoplastic elastomer,[1] Mill’s ‘harm principle’ is too narrow and too vague. Nd if wonky liberalism[2] can’t help, then Kant’s sterile rationalism is no better. Does the Categorical Imperative apply to corpses? That depends on your theological presuppositions, but in and of itself? Not obviously.
The question, then, is ‘what makes us so sure that this is a moral question after all?’ One possible clue might be found in the attitude of those who practice it. According to Malinowski, that attitude is a distinctly double-edged banana. On the one hand, the Trobriand Islanders regard the practice of ‘sarco-cannibalism’ with ‘extreme repugnance;’ having a nibble of your dead relatives is, unsurprisingly, ‘usually followed by a violent vomiting fit (32). That’s your moral clue right there.
Assuming that funereal cookie-tossing isn’t a comment on the cooking, here’s where the ambiguity kicks in. While sarco-cannibalism is clearly a thing of horror and disgust, it is also, Malinowski tells us, ‘a supreme act of reverence, love, and devotion.’ Indeed, it’s actually ‘a sacred duty that among the Melanesians of New Guinea’ (32).
This ambiguity makes me wonder whether cannibalism really is a moral issue for the Trobrianders. Malinowski’s explanation of this mortuary munching suggests it may not be. In such rites, we see both the horror of death and the fear and pain of loss. ‘[T]here is a desire to maintain the tie [between the deceased and the bereaved] and the parallel tendency to break the bond.’ The aim of the ritual is, of course, reconciliation, ostensibly of the living with the dead, but also of the those suffering the crisis with the rest of their society.
Thus the funerary rites are considered as unclean and soiling, the contact with the corpse as defiling and dangerous, and the performers have to wash, cleanse their body, remove all traces of contact, and perform ritual lustrations. Yet the mortuary ritual compels man to overcome the repugnance, to conquer his fears, to make piety and attachment triumphant, and with it the belief in a future life, in the survival of the spirit (32).

The need to overcome fear and keep a firm grasp on the concrete personal connections that make us who and what we are does have its moral dimension, of course. It makes, as Charles Conti has argued, ‘personhood’ an essentially ethical reality.[3] Malinowski might well agree, as he sees religion as a morally cohesive, social force.
To be clear, I understand the reasons for, as Levinas puts it, ethics as first philosophy. After all, persons are constituted by personal actions and personal actions are almost always moral actions. Also, I don’t want to overstate any disagreement with Conti or Malinowski, or even Levinas for that matter. But I do think that there’s more to metaphysics than ethics. For one thing, to say an action is moral or immoral is an interpretation. And yes, all cognition and recognition involves interpretation, we have no access to the ‘real’, ‘unvarnished’, ‘uninterpreted’, ‘truth’ or TRUTH.  However, not all modes of interpretation are necessarily moral. It seems quite possible that the most basic cognition or recognition of something as something, of an event as an act, for instance, while still being an interpretation of some kind is not inevitably a moral one.
Otherwise put, if we want to find the fundamental truth (or ‘truth’, but not TRUTH) of what it means to be a person, we have to account for persons in the round: good, bad, and everything in between. That requires an overarching description, a wider context within which morality can be understood.
More simply and yet at the same time more abstrusely, if your mother loves you, then she loves you, not because it’s morally right to do so and certainly not because she’s compelled by instincts or hormones or what have you. She loves you because she’s your mother, because that love is, in a sense, who she is. Although it’s probably not all she is.
Of course, if she doesn’t love you, well, maybe you’re just unlovable.
But I digress. Again. My point was just that Malinowski’s appeal to fear, piety, attachment, and the hereafter suggests to me that cannibalism may not be a moral matter per se for the Trobriand Islanders. It may be a cultural or religious issue instead. That would, to some extent, explain my immediate relativistic reaction. On reading Malinowski, that is, my first thought was that, here in the West, we would definitely regard these sarco-cannibalistic rites as morally problematic. But is that judgement universalizable (as Kant would insist it should be)? It might be wrong here, in leafy, middle-class Surrey, but does it follow that it’s also wrong in Melanesia?
Okay, my first thought was actually, ‘Ewww! Have these people never heard of ham sandwiches and the mini-quiche?’ And then I thought about the moral stuff.
Oh alright, somewhere in the middle of all this, I was also wondering whether they were cooking the stiff and if so, how.
But I was mostly thinking about moral relativism. 
This, you will no doubt be relieved to hear, takes us right back to the curious conclusion with which this week’s rumination began. Ethics may not be our best guide here. At least, it may not be the best place to start, especially if cannibalism is a cultural rather than a moral issue. 
Does that mean the discussion, such as it is, is at an end? Ha! You should be so lucky. Anyway, who ends a meal without pudding?
Next week, we finally (probably) get to the philosophical pudding. Which hopefully will be more than just a piece of fruit.

[1] Not to mention that siren of the 70s, Inflatable Ingrid; or, for that matter, every teenage life-saver’s one true love, Resusci Annie.
[2] To be fair to dear old J.S., On Liberty was a valiant attempt to do what philosophers, in the Western tradition, have been trying and largely failing to do since Thales of Miletus popped his tackle out and invented philosophy. Mill was trying to reconcile the needs of society with those of the individual: the one cum/contra the many. Like most western philosophers, however, he began with a vastly overinflated sense of the individual’s importance and so banjoed the whole thing. Result: a lot of meandering old toot about dead dogs, and why banging it out on the pavement isn’t actually a legitimate experiment in living after all.
[3] See Conti, C. C. Metaphysical Personalism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Editorial Transition for Tradition and Discovery: The Polanyi Society Journal

Paul Lewis has been Tradition and Discovery editor for eight years. In the next year, he will begin the process of retiring from the role of general editor. Paul has generously agreed to continue serving as the production editor responsible for TAD's relationship to Mercer University and those businesses involved in producing the printed edition of the journal. Inquiries are invited from anyone interested in becoming the next TAD general editor, who will be primarily responsible for the non-business aspect of producing TAD.
At their November meeting, the Polanyi Society Board of Directors will consider a proposal to provide modest financial support to be used for conference and travel expenses of the TAD general editor.
If you wish to obtain further information about the position or to inquire about making a formal application, please contact Gus Breytspraak (, who is chair of the search committee. The search will remain open until the position is filled.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Call for Contributions: Conference at the University of Szczecin, Poland

Alone Together Again

Second International Pandisciplinary Symposium on 
Solitude in Community
16th - 18th April 2020 
University of Szczecin, Poland

‘We must meet; we must communicate with one another; we must, it would seem, be alone together’
(John Macmurray)

We welcome contributions to the second international pandisciplinary symposium on solitude in community: Alone Together Again, which will take place in Szczecin between 16th and 18th April 2020. This is organised by the University of Szczecin (Poland) and York St John University (United Kingdom), under the auspices of the Rector of the University of Szczecin.  All papers and discussions will be held in English.
We welcome papers on any issues related to solitude, silence and loneliness, from any discipline, and from researchers from all over the world. Submissions will be welcome until the 15th of January 2020.

Further information can be found on our website:

Photographs of the first event can be found here.
Chairs of the Organising Committee:
Julian Stern and Małgorzata Wałejko