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The Myth of Romantic Love (and what to do about it)

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Forgive this rant in the true sense of the word – this could all do with much more of a polish but alas time is short. My point here is paramount – take a sword and slash through the thicket of thoughts as they occurred to me and I hope you make it out the other side…

It begins with an Auspicious First Meeting – the first day of class in a busy lecture hall, the new work colleague with the sense of humour, the eyes that meet across a crowded room, the friend-of-a-friend you strangely get along with, that electronic message that pops up all of a sudden. Then comes the hanging out, the spending time, the getting-to-know, the ‘having fun’ that passes for the modern ‘Courting’. Then the Declaration one way or anything, the confession, the question-popping, the quiet even tacit agreement – and exhilaration of Consummation. These are the hallmarks of western romantic love. Indeed, ‘hallmarks’ is not strong enough. These are the dramas, the mysteries, the adventures, the bliss of those fraught but passionate experiences that, for many of us, are the most meaningful undertakings, even the bedrock of our lives.

This idea or narrative is so pervasive and socially conditioned in westerners, more or less explicitly encouraged as the norm through popular culture, religion, art, social structure and, less obviously, law, economics and history. We forget that it is constructed. It is not only an unrealistic fantasy but an incomplete one, a passageway or path leading through a fabricated wonderland which promises transcendence and release but quickly falls apart, abruptly abandoning the gallant traveller in the lurch. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth in our culture and how can we escape it? How might we live happy lives without this inflated fantasy? Where did it all begin?

The European middle ages seems responsible for a great deal although we cannot say so with precision. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition. However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. If you equate love with marriage or family or child-rearing, obviously the concept is far older if not fundamental to human life itself. However, nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of the unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of western romantic love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).” Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”


Tristan and Isolde

Mythologist Joseph Campbell proffers the story of Tristan and Isolde, particularly the versions by Gottfried and Thomas of Britain as the foundation myth of romantic love. In the story, a prince and knight, Tristan, is sent from his uncle’s kingdom in Cornwall to court the princess Isolde of Ireland. Tristan woos her for the king, but Isolde and Tristan fall in love with each other on the journey home. Isolde is married to King Mark who, the tale suggests, hardly knows her personally and has no such passionate connection. The remainder of the tale involves intrigues as Tristan and Isolde make love in various ways as the king tries to and eventually does catch them at it. It becomes clear that the lovers cannot continue this way – their passion remains but the king is getting madder and madder and society has shut them out. Tristan takes a wife to try to get over Isolde. This other wife is simpler and more ordinary, but is devoted to him. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. However, Tristan ultimately rejects her to return to his idealised beloved and eventually dies in her arms.

Campbell interprets the story as a celebration of personal and passionate individual love against the backdrop of shallow obligation-based and prudish conventions of medieval times. However, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson reads the same story as a cautionary tale against the thoughtlessness and self-destruction of modern romantic love. To find a more mature exploration, Campbell turns to another medieval High German myth, the Parzival of Wolfram von Escenbach. However, this tale achieves its playful, mutual love theme through a kind of romantic distance. The lovers in the Parzival myth uphold civil and graceful courtship conventions largely determined through medieval courtly conventions. They meet auspiciously but little is said about their personal connection. You sense the lovers are deeply mutually affectionate and respectful of each other. Their bedroom consummation is loving and mature but hardly passionate. The majority of the tale concerns Parzival’s maturity rather than romantic love. In the end, one gets the impression that the romantic values this tale advocates are merely the conventions which the Tristan tale rejected as shallow and pragmatic. However, in the world of Parzival these conventions have been renewed, relived, rejuvenated so that they can remain the same but with greater awareness of their purpose and limitations. These conventions therefore become facilitators of love and social connection rather than hollow conventions.



The conclusion reached by both Campbell (through Parzival) and Johnson (through critique of Tristan) is that true romantic love, in maturity, involves an acknowledgement of balance, compassion, convention as convention, of lovers as imperfect human beings. The focus of romantic love should not be upon passion or rejection of society, or upon beauty for beauty’s sake, or on perfect achievement of every wish and desire. Instead, the benefits of romantic love are the simple genuine connection between two unique individuals who know neither is perfect but love each other all the same. I can understand and believe this sentiment. However, there are huge problems with this more mature, more positive conception of romantic love as well. These problems concern the mismatch this conception of love has with the popular conception, and its extreme difficulty of achievement.

First, the mismatch – rereading this ‘mature’ formulation, the lovers that come to mind are not the passionate heroes of romance but two elderly people in rocking chairs, dressed simply, living perhaps even in poverty, living the simple life, even perhaps with 2-4 adult children, a cat and regular Sunday church attendance. In other words, this conception simply does not match the passionate lovers of the ‘Tristan’ variety. Trying again, we could say that the more youthful conception of these lovers would be the playful school lovers, innocent and rather naïve perhaps, who take the unimaginative path of holding hands in the school ground, getting conventional jobs at the bank upon graduation, marrying at 19, taking out a mortgage, working full time while popping out kids as an excuse to buy a CRV. This is not a popular conception even if it is a popular reality. That popular reality is blatantly undermined by the romantic conception, however, as we also associate these lovers with unhappiness, frustration, even underdevelopment (having skipped the period of globe-trotting and sexual experimentation celebrated as the proper modern maturation practice of the 20-something). Indeed, this sounds like Parzival without his Grail quest. Perhaps they do go on their globe-trotting – just staidly or only briefly before returning to their matrimonial domesticity. My point is that the image is not one most romantics aspire to.

Second, the difficulty of achieving mature romantic love is immense. The acknowledgement of the imperfection of the lover is the key point here. This realisation is fundamental to mature romantic love yet it is a big ask for most people. We are taught to expect our romantic partners to be at least decently goodlooking, interesting, conversant, employed, happy, healthy, respectful, considerate, social, enterprising, and great in bed. This is naturally unrealistic. All of these things are of course highly possible, but no one can be all of these things all of the time. However, if you thought being this perfect for your partner is impossible, noticing the imperfection of your partner and not being at least somewhat disappointed by it is an even more impossible task. In fact, this even slight disappointment pops the bubble of the romantic myth for most people, dispelling much of the magic of the honeymoon period in the process. This is why most western romance myths end with the point of consummation – “and they all lived happily ever after”, an unbelievably optimistic generalisation masking the complex and very unromantic truth. That love, at least in the romantic passion sense of the myth, never lasts, even if the relationship does. Few of us really aspire to the level of intimate relations between, in the best sense, parent and child, or between your immediate and your extended family. Yet this is the closest match to what a life-long imperfect human love actually is. “Darling, let’s make out – because you would make a great Uncle Jim or Aunt Clarice to have around at Christmas.” This is what we should really be thinking and expecting when engaging in mature romantic love.

There are nicer ways of conceiving of this mature romantic love of course. We’ve reviewed the “conventional loving old couple”, “the boring school-met young couple” and the “Aunty Clarice who lives with me” scenarios. Couldn’t we think of a more positive spin? How about the “open relationship couple” or the “arty alternative couple”? Or even the original conception of beautifully balanced compassionate graceful pairing between Parzival and Condwiramirs in the original myth? These are all distinct and far more positive conceptions of mature romantic love, I agree. However, they are all damn near impossible to achieve. The myth is just that, a fairyland world of magic stones, gracious rulers, and playful tournaments. It does not and never did actually exist. The “arty alternative couple” living a more creative perhaps ‘off-the-grid’ existence often are plagued by exactly the same romantic expectations as everyone else, despite their alternative facades. Another factor is that the pressures of being creative often take their toll in the form of endless anxiety or lesser abilities to function on the everyday maintenance level of existence. The best that can be hoped for is simply a more refreshing less cliché version of the elderly couple – friends or relations that essentially live together (with all the unromantic distance and slight background irritation involved). The “open relationship” variety hardly needs my critique – most people are willing to dismiss this as simply a romantic relationship in decline already or a dangerous breeding ground for jealousy and STIs. This too could work though, except that again it seems to be separating the passion, novelty and forbidden nature of the romantic love myth from the mature personal connection and the “happily ever after” ending. Indeed, the “don’t ask don’t tell” conception of this relationship divides the two versions of the romantic love myth pretty explicitly.

The real difficulty of the mature romantic love myth, I think, resides in the difficulty of being truly happy with the imperfection, not just of your partner, but with existence in general. It may be all very well to love your flawed partner in his/her idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, but another thing to put up with these same flaws when you have just been unfairly fired from a job, or priced out of the housing market, or diagnosed with something unpleasant. And this isn’t all – you also need your partner, since this is what makes a relationship a relationship of course, to feel the same way. So not only must you remain compassionate toward the imperfections of your partner, the popped bubble of romantic love, and the ‘whips and scorns of time’, but also somehow have happened to have partnered up with someone else who can and does do this as well. This, I believe, is highly highly improbable. In fact, this, I suspect, doesn’t ever happen. Instead, what occurs is a constant painful rollercoaster of tacitly, somewhat unsatisfied ‘putting up with’ imperfection interspersed with downright loathing and brief instances of passionate romantic delusions which might still pervade you at certain moments when the sun sets prettily. If you’re lucky, you might also happen to get into the zen-like world-acceptance of mature romantic love – but then your partner probably won’t do so at the same moment, or at all. Your partner may even just up and leave you in the lurch as their anxieties about not having lived up to the love myth, or about life’s imperfections, become too much for them.  I’m not sure those brief moments of transcendence are worth it frankly and it would be much easier to achieve this kind of happiness outside of the obligations and expectations of a romantic relationship.b_n-garnett-and-mandelker

So there we have it – our society is enthralled by the unrealistic and deluded Tristan-like romantic myth, while the Parzival option remains obscure, mostly uninviting and devilishly difficult to achieve. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is, if you think about it, a retelling of these myths in its two main subplots of Anna (Tristan) and Levin (Parzival), with Oblonsky as the confused and adulterous unhappy unenlightened ‘ordinary’ couple. Not surprisingly, Levin’s tale seems to us rather old-fashioned, preachy and unexciting, and is usually edited out of most adaptations of the story. Our passionate romantic expectations remain the most publicised and well-known. So what are we to do about it?

This is where I get personal as I’m sure the myth is so powerful that most of you won’t agree with much of what I’ve just written. Also, everyone will have their own ideas of what needs to be done about it. My own inclinations are to accept part of the mature romantic ideal. The passionate romantic ideal is clearly a recipe for disaster in that the message is powerful but unrealistic, as both Tristan and Tolstoy clearly show us. However, the mature romantic ideal seems to be realistic but all too disappointing. As we’ve seen, the prospect of being tethered to Aunt Clarice or Uncle Jim for eternity, however genial they may be, doesn’t sound inviting at all. However, people need people (loneliness isn’t a good), and these are some aspects of mature romance we can use. The simple appreciation of others as imperfect human beings is one. The mutual respect and bonds formed of personality is another.

It seems to me that what we need to do is to remove the obligations and expectations of romantic love from mature romantic love and keep the central good – the human connection. This is finally the connection of an intimate friend rather than of what we conceive, over-romantically, as a “lover”. We should also keep the longevity and stability of our romantic expectations without the exclusivity. It is the pressure, instigated by passionate romanticism, of “the One”, the exclusive partner, that sours many relationships. However, no one objects to having more than one intimate friend. Indeed, most of us have intimate friends already. I suggest that the reason why we are less satisfied to just leave it at intimate friends is that, in this modern world of urban anonymity, singular living, family disconnection, and transport congestion, we don’t see them often enough. I’m not suggesting we should overstay our welcome with our intimate friends but we need to reconceive of our living situations. The ideal I think is the school playground or the medieval village lifestyle. Both involved seeing your best friend every day but not for more than an hour or so at a time. It was easy to find and get to where your friends lived or hung out and you could call in or depart at leisure, as well as mix with others. We have our own space and our own lives but we have also our friends, our people, our “lovers”. This conception is rather like a sharehouse or dorm with distinctly separate and private but also communal spaces, with respectful rules and conventions for effective


The unlikely inspiration of sit-com “families”.

communication rather like Parzival’s rules of graceful courtly conduct. The setup ideally produces the familiar setup of most sit-coms and TV shows – a group of personalities, all different but much loved, who turn up every day for half an hour or so and express themselves and joke around and get into adventures then venture home again.

And what of sex you ask (as if love fundamentally is about this)? Every other question you ask about conventional married life – sex, finance, law, Ikea shopping, etc. – is answered similarly. Do it under the model of friendship. Playful, intimate, trusting, safe, and conducted under the rules of mutual agreement. Ridiculous you may say? Idealistic? Perhaps. But romantic love with its violent passion and tired marriage with its persistent disappointment is better, is it?

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24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greek Tragedy: A Mythic Hermeneutic

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The last of my Arts Degree essays. This is not so much about Greek tragedy as about all of ancient Greek culture reflected in what it is not. It is a fitting conclusion to my myth theoretic work over the last few years.

What can the history of world mythology tell us about the meaning of death for the ancient Greeks as represented in tragedies featuring human sacrifice?

greek-tragedy-chorusWhile the ancient Greeks are not believed to have practiced human sacrifice,[1] it features in a number of their tragedies from   the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. This raises the question as to the meaning of human sacrifice for the ancient Greeks, its function in dramatic performance, and what it demonstrates about the ancient Greek view of death. While death is always considered a grave and serious issue, a distinct feature of the representation of human sacrifice in ancient Greek tragedy is its overall ambiguity: sacrifice is never wholeheartedly advocated nor fully condemned, is neither entirely good nor bad. I argue that this is like much else in Greek myth and tragedy, but that this level of ambiguity is relatively unique for a post-Neolithic civilisation at this time, which may reveal something about the ancient Greek ethos, particularly regarding religious experience.

There are a number of elements common to most of the extant tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles featuring human sacrifice. The call for human sacrifice usually comes from the gods, whether through an oracle, sage, prophecy or request from the dead.[2] The victim is always a young unmarried[3] person, usually a female virgin. The prospect of human sacrifice always evokes horror, pity, sadness and aggressive protest from the victim, his or her family, and/or the observing chorus. A more elderly relative often pleads to be substituted (Euripides, Hecuba 386-90; Euripides, Children of Heracles 453-67; Euripides, Phoenician Women 967-71),[4] to no avail. In most cases,[5] after much pathos, the victim courageously comes to accept his or her sacrifice[6] for the sake of the greater social good – to ensure a victory in war and/or to uphold the family name.[7] An easy way to escape is offered (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis 1426-30; Euripides, Children of Heracles 540-3; Euripides, Phoenician Women 970-4), which the victim always refuses, with an explicit (Euripides, Children of Heracles 588-9) or implied[8] exoneration of responsibility for the executioners. As is usual for ancient Greek tragedy,[9] the victim is killed offstage, usually with a messenger figure reporting the event.

It is undeniable that these are common elements in the plays. However, their meaning and interpretation among scholars has varied considerably, so much so that there is virtually no consensus as to what sacrificial death means for the ancient Greeks, as represented by the plays. Consider, for example, the most common interpretations and contrary opinions: Scodel argues that human sacrifice is presented as morally evil, cruel, and impious[10] – characters always protest against it; it is never presented comically – while Rabinowitz claims that the ancient playwrights romanticise victimisation and eroticise sacrifice[11] – victims are referred to as youthful beauties, executed in a public way, often for apparently noble causes. Sacrifice is chosen as subject apparently to reinforce the status quo,[12] to advocate the self-sacrifice of the hoplite soldier fighting in the Peloponnesian War,[13] and/or as an outlet for internalised violence.[14] These differing viewpoints are all effected by (a) the interpreter’s exclusive focus upon positive or negative aspects of sacrifice as presented in the plays (more on this later), and (b) the degree to which textual evidence is seen as reflecting (even promulgating) social, cultural, religious, broader historical, or human psychological norms (i.e. the degree to which the text is ‘read into’). Since my interest is in how the presentation of human sacrifice reflects the ancient Greek cultural perspective of death, we must first pause here to consider how the ancient Greeks might have reacted to and interpreted tragedy themselves.

masksThe plays are not obviously primarily political speeches (like those of Lycurgus), nor are they histories (like the work of Herodotus). The fact that the Greeks did not, as far as we know, perform human sacrifice alerts us to the fictional (or at least mythological) nature of tragedy – not only human sacrifice but long-dead, legendary/mythological persons, supernatural events, and gods were portrayed in the theatre by actors wearing stylised masks during a religious festival.[15] Hence we must consider the plays, particularly regarding human sacrifice, as myth. In this regard, as per Rudolf Otto, Joseph Campbell and others,[16] we can expect mythology to primarily promulgate a numinous emotionality, and as per Clifford Geertz,[17] reflect and support a cultural ethos related to and vitiated by the worldview presented in myth.

But while religion reflects the highest, most primary source of meaning, particularly in ancient societies, the peculiar language and dialectic of myth has its own hermeneutic difficulties. The interpretation of a non-mythological source, such as a legal document, is relatively straightforward; provided there are no concerns about sincerity or authenticity, words can be taken at face value, and compared with and/or generalised into contemporary cultural norms, customs and beliefs. Mythological material cannot be reliably extrapolated and generalised into historical data in the same way. Herein lies the value of Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.[18] The revelation in relation to Campbell’s exposition of the more-or-less universal ‘stages of myth’ – such as ‘the call to adventure’, ‘the road of trials’, ‘apotheosis with the father’, etc. – lies not in the fundamental sameness and therefore hermeneutic equivalence of all mythologies worldwide, but in their differences: the divergences, omissions, transformations, and unique realisations of the mythological stages in each particular cultural nexus.[19] In other words, Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ can be used as the yardstick, with the cultural ethos revealed in the manner in which a particular culture arranges and realises the stages, or how a particular element loses or gains value by its position within the schema.

Sadly, the history of human sacrifice as a motif in myth is sketchy but, according to Campbell and others, it seems to make its appearance in early sedentary agricultural village cultures, generally on a ‘complex hunter-gatherer’[20] or Neolithic level of human society, apparently extending into early prehistoric ‘Bronze Age’ societies.[21] The apparent religious attitude accompanying human sacrifice, as attested by our scant sources,[22] is not primarily aggressive, but ecstatic or ascetic; sacrifice appears as a voluntary act of the mythic hero, committed as a means of identification (‘becoming one’) with a god or transcendent principle.[23] Campbell has postulated that cultures to the east of modern-day Iran exhibit more features of this Neolithic sacrificial mythic worldview than those to the west.[24] The ideas of ascetic self-denial or ecstatic absorption in a ritual-religious role are fundamental religious principles of eastern myth.[25] For example, the Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist schools of India all encourage the individual to realise a state of ‘no-self’ or ‘annihilation’,[26] and the Confusion, Daoist, and Shinto religions of China and Japan advocate an absorption in a social-natural order.[27] As a result, myths of the east frequently present human sacrifice as an ascetic or ecstatic calling – death is fundamentally an escape from a sorrowful or deceitful world or a mere playful illusion (cf. reincarnation).[28]

In opposition to this, in mythologies to the west of Iran, the self is not denied; instead, “[it] is … treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics.”[29] One does not ‘deny ego’; one develops it.[30] Campbell has observed that this emphasis on individuality has separated god from man in western myth; connection to the deity is one of relationship, rather than identity, hence human sacrifice is frowned upon, and other forms of relationship to the deity are established.[31] Add to this a further division: in the Near East, god is generally more righteous than man; he is a mighty warrior god with moralistic concerns.[32] Relationship is established via a warrior code, a covenant, sacrament, or koran; Job submits to God with the words: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 46:6).[33] Whereas in ancient Greece, god and man are separate but more equally matched. Humans may coerce other humans, even other gods, to oppose the will of Zeus; “I care less than nothing for Zeus,” cries Prometheus. “Let him do what he likes” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 937).[34] These differing relationships with god may also reflect the respective political systems: autocratic rule, mandated by god (Yahweh, Allah, Marduk) in the Near East, and a huge variety of political systems, democracy among them, in ancient Greece.

Thus we return to Greek tragedy, itself a form of mythmaking that is essentially unique to Europe in its quality of acknowledging “the human sufferer.”[35] Suffering in eastern myth is either dismissed as an illusion (e.g. Hinduism) or presented as a weakness to be overcome in transcendence (e.g. Buddhism); in the Near East, it is essentially punishment for sin (cf. the Fall in the Garden). In Greek tragedy, suffering is apparently presented for its own sake, as an acknowledgement of the way the world is, but also as something to be surmounted – but in worldly, not other-worldly, action, such as war, vengeance, or even (unavoidable) human sacrifice, committed for one of these worldly ends. The unpredictability and diversity of Greek tragedy is a result of multifarious conflicts – between god and man, man and man, god and god, god and man and Fate. The ‘message’ of the myth is difficult to pin down because it is not, as per Near Eastern myth, moral/political ideology in disguise, nor is it transcendental psychology or ‘sympathetic magic’, as it is in the east, and in earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic myth.[36] In fact, a Greek tragedy may closely approximate what we mean today by a work of art, a creative work presented primarily for the story itself and the emotional effect it generates. It is as if the numinous emotional quality has managed to separate itself from the metaphysics, psychology, morality, or ideological strands of myth and religion proper – producing, on one hand, art (the theatre, etc.), and on the other, early science and democracy (philosophy, rhetoric, etc.).[37] Yet the fact that Greek tragedies were presented within a religious festival suggests that the break between religion and art had not fully occurred.

This almost ‘artistic’ expressive-ambiguity pervades tragedies involving human sacrifice particularly. As per above, ambiguity is acknowledged by many commentators.[38] It is difficult to conclude exactly why a virgin such a Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Auris must die. Why tell such a story? It makes no logical sense; there is no clear ‘moral’. However, it certainly is emotionally powerful. As per Wilkins, “The principle rhetorical force of the [sacrifice situation] … is the great desire of the victim to die, against the wishes of the … relatives and friends.”[39] The perverse emotional force of this scenario is actually not ambiguous – ‘ambiguous’ is too flat and unemotional a term. This comes back to tragedy’s proper status as myth. Again, Greek tragedies are not discourse treatises, presentations of arguments as might occur in a law court or philosophical treatise. We cannot arrive at Euripides’ opinion on human sacrifice by merely ‘adding up’ the number of ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments presented in his plays, as many commentators have done to much confusion.[40] Rhetoric in tragedy is primarily emotional, as is appropriate for a mythological (or artistic) presentation of an argument concerning an obviously fictional event. Tragedy is not ambiguous; it is numinous, beyond the bounds of logic and reason.

Epidauros.07The marvel of Greek tragedy is that it manages to be numinous, or, at least, emotionally powerful, without recourse to an explicit and corroborating political ideology, psychological literature, metaphysical revelation, or divine mandate. It is this desire to create a powerful, logically ambiguous, emotionally transcendent experience – an experience which these ancient people might designate ‘an experience of the gods’ – which explains many of the perverse events in tragedy. We see this messy emotional power in the contradictory arguments offered, the strange, seemingly unmotivated prophecies and omens, the ironic fusing of opposites[41] – death with marriage,[42] sacrifice as objectification,[43] as patriotic duty and familial obligation,[44] as horrendous waste.[45] The most courageous motivation for sacrifice is thoroughly complicated by the powerful protests against it.[46] Significantly, the acknowledgement of human uniqueness occurs simultaneously with that of human frailty. The result is a particularly capricious worldview full of powerful conflicts:[47]

… differing fortunes
Follow close upon one another.
Fate brings low those that were high;
The unhonoured Fate makes prosperous.

(Euripides, Children of Heracles 639-42).

To summarise, human sacrifice in Greek tragedy is, I argue, primarily not just ambiguous but perversely powerful and numinous, especially in the mythological context of a kaleidoscopically varied and complex order of gods, humans and fateful powers which forms the ancient Greek mythic worldview. Just as the issue of human sacrifice is grim and complex in Greek tragedy, so too is the ancient Greek view of death. It is clear that death is not spiritually welcomed like in many of the Neolithic and Asian mythic systems. The ancient Greeks’ greater emphasis on worldly, social, and individualistic values meant that death was viewed with more reality and finality. Its necessity for a greater social good was recognised, but not unambiguously advocated. When characters die willingly in Greek tragedy, their sacrifice is linked to worldly ends – dying for the particular institutions of family and city-state. In fact, it is probably the inability of Greek myth to allow the individual to spiritually stand completely separately from these institutions[48] that makes Greek tragedy still appear somewhat alien to modern readers, who, inheriting more recent ideas from the European Renaissance, have a greater, or at least different, sense of the value of human life, of the individual, and his or her relation to society.[49]


Primary Texts[50]
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge, MA, 1926).
Aristotle Poetics trans. P. Murray and T. S. Dorsch (London, 1965).
Euripides Children of Heracles trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Hecuba trans. W. Arrowsmith (Chicago, 1958).
Euripides Iphigenia in Aulis trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
Euripides Phoenician Women trans. P. Vellacott (London, 1972).*
* Due to the layout of this translation, the line references for these titles are approximate only.

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Burkert, W. Homo Necans: the anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth trans. P. Bing (Berkeley, CA, 1987).
Campbell, J. The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1949).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York, 1959).
Campbell, J. Myths to Live By (New York, 1971).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Csapo, E. ‘Theatrical Production, Greek’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Donner, Susan E. ‘Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context,’ Smith College Studies in Social Work 80 (2010), 215-27.
Garrison, E. P. Groaning Tears: ethical and dramatic aspects of suicide in Greek tragedy (Leide; New York; Koln; Brill, 1995).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
Koller, J. M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2012).
Murnaghan, S. ‘Sophocles’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 21/04/14).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pollard, E. A. ‘Sacrifice’ in M. Gagarin (ed.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2010), from (accessed 18/04/14).
Rabinowitz, N. S. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Ithaca, NY, 1993).
Rehm, R. Marriage to Death: the conflation of wedding and funeral rituals in Greek tragedy (Princeton, 1994).
Scodel, R. ‘Virgin Sacrifice and Aesthetic Object’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 126 (1996), 111-28.
Seaford, R. ‘The Tragic Wedding,’ Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), 106-30.
Wilkins, J. ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ plays of voluntary self-sacrifice’ in A. Powell (ed.) Euripides, Women, and Sexuality (London and New York, 1990), 177-94.

[1] At least, not as normal practice, see Pollard (2010); Wilkins (1990), 178.

[2] Wilkins (1990), 177.

[3] Or not betrothed (Euripides, Phoenician Women 943-4).

[4] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[5] It is probably best to exclude Sophocles’ Antigone from this study as her death resembles more of a murder/suicide than a sacrifice to the gods.

[6] Rabinowitz (1993), 35, 39, 42-43, 55; Wilkins (1990), 183.

[7] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179, 190; Roselli (2007), 111.

[8] Rabinowitz (1993), 38.

[9] Murnaghan (2010).

[10] Scodel (1996), 111, 119.

[11] Rabinowitz (1993), 39.

[12] Rabinowitz (1993), 37-8, 56; Roselli (2007), 110, 126.

[13] Wilkins (1990), 177, 179; Roselli (2007), 111.

[14] Girard, referenced in Rabinowitz (1993), 33; Burkert (1987), 62.

[15] Csapo (2010).

[16] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[17] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[18] See Campbell (1949).

[19] Note: in this respect, the key Campbell text is not The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), but The Masks of God (1959-68), a work five times as long.

[20] See Hayden (2003), 122-7.

[21] Campbell (1959), 171-3; Hayden (2003), 200-1.

[22] E.g. the myths of Polynesian head-hunters, the stories of the astonished Christian friars in pre-colonial Mexico, and particularly the accounts of more recent human sacrifices in 19th century C.E. India (the ritual of sati, for instance).

[23] Campbell (1959), 179-83; Campbell (1962), 64-9.

[24] Campbell (1962), 3-9; Campbell (1964), 3-5.

[25] Campbell (1959), 176-83; Campbell (1962), 23-30; Campbell (1971), 65-6, 71-3.

[26] For example, nirvana means literally ‘extinguished’; see Koller (2012), 47.

[27] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[28] Campbell (1962), 23-30.

[29] Donner (2010), 217.

[30] Campbell (1962), 14-5, 21-3.

[31] Campbell (1962), 30-33; Campbell (1968), 346.

[32] Campbell (1971), 175-80.

[33] Campbell (1971), 81.

[34] Campbell (1971), 81.

[35] Joyce in Campbell (1968), 354; cf. “… since no suffering is involved, it is not tragic” (Aristotle, Poetics 14.5).

[36] See Campbell above.

[37] See Cassirer (1946), 97-8 for this idea.

[38] Scodel (1996), 111; Roselli (2007), 124; Rabinowitz (1993), 42.

[39] Wilkins (1990), 183.

[40] This is approach (a) above.

[41] Rehm (1994), 136-40.

[42] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 38, 55; Scodel (1996), 111; Seaford (1987), 108-9, 112.

[43] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 34, 39, 55; Scodel (1996), 111-2, 114, 115; Roselli (2007), 87-8, 130.

[44] Rabinowitz (1993), 33, 36, 38, 56; Wilkins (1990), 185; Scodel (1996), 111.

[45] Rabinowitz (1993), 55; Scodel (1996), 118-20, 125.

[46] Garrison (1995), 129.

[47] One is reminded of the difficult, tumultuous and unrelenting business of maintaining a healthy democracy.

[48] As, for example, in the later mythic/artistic developments of individualistic romantic love, and political-personal ‘freedom’.

[49] See Campbell (1968), 304-8 for a revealing comparison of the Greek ‘Theseus/Phaedra’ story to the Celtic-Medieval ‘Tristan/Isolt’ story.

[50] The book of Job from the Bible was referenced in Campbell (1971), 81.

The ‘mystic psychology’ of Gnosticism

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This is something of a final piece for my Arts Degree. Also, a little more epic than usual. It not only concerns early Christianity and the late Roman world, but how we might go about understanding, interpreting and reconstructing religion.

Gnosticism is often called a more ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ religion by modern thinkers. Comparing Gnosticism to other religious systems, explore how this is or isn’t an appropriate designation.


A collection of soteriological religious ideas which circulated throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries C.E. is generally known today as ‘Gnosticism’. It is often colloquially considered by modern thinkers as a more ‘mystic’ or ‘psychological’ religion in comparison to other religious and philosophical belief systems of its time. I shall in this essay explore why this might be, comparing the Gnostic religion to Neoplatonism and orthodox Christianity. My contention is that most religious systems could be considered as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’, but that Gnosticism has been so characterized mainly as a result of modern misunderstandings of religious thinking.

A number of modern thinkers have linked Gnosticism with mysticism, or detected its “psychological implications.”[1] The extant texts are referred to by Needleman as “the subconscious teachings of Christianity;”[2] Leloup calls them the “unconscious gospels.”[3] Psychologists of last century with something of a mystic reputation are sometimes referred to as “modern Gnostics.”[4] Such associations might naturally centre around a religion preoccupied with knowledge of an elusive or secret kind – ‘Gnosticism’ is derived from the word for ‘knowledge’ in ancient Greek.[5] I will employ the word ‘psychological’ in this essay in a very casual sense: ‘apparently reflecting mental functions and behaviour, particularly with a therapeutic effect’. As I shall detail shortly, despite modern conceptions about religion, most religions could be considered highly ‘psychological’ as they could be said to have some therapeutic aspect, if only in that they recommend a perspective on existence and a way of living, and that they intrinsically involve highly complex interrelations of thought and feeling functions, most of which operate unconsciously or at least indistinctly. The casual conception of ‘mysticism’ reflects this ‘psychological’ underpinning of religion – the word is used to refer to a religious mindset that is contemplative or self-surrendering, with a rejection of doctrine, intellect or even moral values. While both terms could fairly apply to Gnosticism, I shall argue shortly that they could very well apply to virtually all truly religious experience.

Understanding Gnosticism

There are two principal problems we encounter in attempting to construct a meaningful understanding of the Gnostic religion: the general difficulty of properly comprehending how religion operates psychologically, and the problem of understanding the everyday culture and thinking styles of people living nearly 2000 years ago. Even just linguistically, for example, a bewildering array of modern concepts cannot have meant exactly what we mean by them today – concepts such as ‘rational knowledge’, ‘empirical evidence’, and ‘Christianity’. This stands to reason, as orthodox Christianity and western science, as we understand them today, developed mostly after the period of the Gnostics, taking centuries to thresh out their respective philosophical particulars. Similarly, the term ‘Gnosticism’ itself was never used by the ancients. It was coined in the 17th century C.E.[6] to refer to an apparent heretical movement among the early Christians and consequently has a pejorative ring to it.[7] Yet the word gnosis does play a role in the extant Gnostic texts to an extent unusual in its time.[8] Gnosis is generally translated as ‘knowledge’,[9] but in English ‘knowledge’ has many different meanings. The term ‘philosophy’ is associated with the ancient Greek word for ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge’. This suggests Gnostic gnosis is something quite different from what we now call ‘rationalistic knowledge’. Joseph Campbell associates gnosis with an ineffable knowledge “transcending that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought”.[10] Kurt Rudolph calls it a “liberating and redeeming” knowledge.[11] All of this suggests that we will struggle to describe Gnosticism with precision because it is both ancient and, fundamentally, ineffable, like much that is emotional or religious.[12]

This last point is often overlooked by scholars, particularly when it comes to seeking ‘definitions’ for cultural-religious ideas. A perfect example of this is the scholarly muddle around ‘defining’ Gnosticism. The debate centres around how to classify a fundamentally ancient and ineffable religion using a variety of discrete, precise terminologies. Ismo Dunderberg, for example, denies that ‘Gnosticism’ is a particularly useful or meaningful designation,[13] mainly because he does not see ‘the Gnostics’ as forming a unified group. He proceeds to study the fragments of Valentinus pragmatically, as representing a particular individual’s mainly moral and philosophic teachings. But most mythologies do not form unified, clearly demarcated units[14] – these are myths, not social or political organizations with a discrete charter. I see no need for mythological ‘definitions’ at all; such would be purely casual, approximate, and impressionistic[15] in the area of cultural-religious ideas in general.[16] Such ‘definitions’ say more about viewpoints of modern scholarship than about the ancients’ beliefs.[17]

How might we understand religion?

I will, briefly, support my own mythic interpretative theory by utilizing the more appropriately impressionistic myth theories of Ernst Cassirer,[18] Clifford Geertz,[19] and others. Cassirer’s theory concerns the changes to mythic thinking over time. He proposes that the principle difference between modern and ancient thinking was not that the ancients did not have a basic understanding of what we call practical matters or rationality, for example, but that these understandings were expressed in a manner more fundamentally fused (today we would say confused) with areas of thought which we would call impractical, superstitious, or irrational.[20] For example, hunter-gatherer thinking would most likely have fused into one mindset the categories of thought we would today compartmentalize and distinguish as ethics, metaphysics, personal psychology, politics, aesthetics, opinion, superstition, philosophy, practical economics, etc.[21] Of course, the Romans would not have thought in as much of an extremely ‘fused’ manner as hunter-gatherer people; Cassirer suggests that with the development of what we call civilization (particularly early science and rationality) more of these categories of thought began to be consciously distinguished and conceptualized more discretely.

What this means is that we can and should, if only for convenience’ sake, use ‘discrete’ modern terms to refer to ancient thought, provided that we remain wary that the historical reality was more blurred, mixed, and ‘fused’, such that, for example, discrete but superficially similar thought processes can be equated and spoken of, even experienced, as one. In fact, Cassirer’s whole thesis is that this ancient, ‘fused’ way of thinking is actually the default mode of mythological thought and experience.[22] It is this less distinguished, ‘fused’ thinking which we are likely to see reflected in written records such as the Gnostic texts and which leads us to consider all religions, not just Gnosticism, as intrinsically ‘psychological’, even ‘mystic’.[23] This is one reason why religions cannot be explicated using ‘empirical’ or ‘systematic’ methods – both these thinking processes value discreteness and physicality to an extent, I argue, which the cultural-mythological subject matter does not warrant.[24]

Clifford Geertz[25] further explains the structure of myth in terms of a two-way interaction between a cultural ethos and a mythic worldview. Certain popular and meaningful cultural beliefs and ideas make up the components of a metaphysics or meta-narrative which in turn validates the component beliefs and ideas through ordering them into a meaningful structure. I argue, on the basis of Geertz’s theory, that it is the mythic worldview which crystallizes and guides the thinking process in relation to religious thought and experience. It is a kind of dynamic formula not of intellect, ethics, or theology, but of action.[26] The worldview motivates the ‘religious mission’.[27] However, we must remain aware that an individual deeply involved[28] in such a worldview is generally not consciously aware of its psychological functioning because he or she is dealing with a heavily ‘fused’ mode of thinking. The worldview and ethos are necessarily vague and approximate values, however their interrelation is of prime importance.[29] A slight alteration in ethos is unlikely to affect the worldview, but a large alteration can render the structuring device of the worldview ineffectual (i.e. less powerful, less inspiring) or even totally obsolete (in which case the religion becomes meaningless, ‘deceptive’ (i.e. uninspiring), or a curious folk story). The difficulty in terms of historical analysis of worldview and ethos is that neither of these is explicitly stated or directly represented in written texts or even verbal expression. These are only approximate values to begin with, that only appear in very impressionistic and generalised ways. Accordingly, a mythic worldview cannot be ‘defined’ but only impressionistically outlined and for the purposes of study.[30]

Finally, the numinous feeling that pervades myth[31] is, I argue, another component in the ‘fusing’ of mythic thought, not only in the sense that an emotional aspect is included along with the other indistinct mental elements, but the very process of ‘fused’ mythological thinking – particularly the sense of a mythic worldview crystallizing all the myriad parts of the cultural ethos and ordering these meaningfully – probably engenders a sense of culminating awe, of ‘transcendent-immanent horror-joy’.[32]

What is Gnosticism?

Since a mythic worldview is a complex metaphysics or meta-narrative, to explore the Gnostic worldview[33] I will turn primarily to Gnostic accounts of creation and cosmology as revealed in the texts usually titled, On the Origin of the World (OW) and The Secret Book of John (SBJ).[34] Here we read that, after the creation of the world of the highest gods by the ultimate god-principle known as ‘the One’ (OW 97-9; SBJ 2-9), an immortal known as Barbelo in SBJ, Pistis-Sophia (literally ‘Faith-Wisdom’) in OW, independently creates a being without the consent of the One from a superfluous substance referred to as shadow, chaos, darkness, envy, deficiency, abortion, and matter (OW 100; SBJ 9-10). This new being, said to be a “thing with no spirit … made into a likeness of the divine” (OW 100), is the first archon (‘ruler’), known as the Demiurge, identified with the creator god from the Torah or Old Testament. The Demiurge proceeds to shape matter into the world roughly as per Genesis chapter 1, creating lesser rulers, kings, and powers, including those of the planets of the ancient zodiac (OW 100-3; SBJ 10-3). The Demiurge then commits a great sin: he proclaims, “‘I am God, and there is no other but me’” (OM 103). In his arrogance, or ignorance, the Demiurge does not know of the One, the higher, more perfect god which came before him. Barbelo/Pistis and the One then reveal a glorious androgynous man made of light to expose the lie of the Demiurge, but this only encourages the Demiurge to create man, as it were, in the man of light’s image (OM 103, 107-8, 112-3; SBJ 14-5). The Demiurge and his powers (including the planets) are able to create bodily aspects of the first human but such is only able to come fully to life with the secret intervention of ‘the Mother’/Sophia, who essentially imprisons a spark of enlightened Insight (gnosis) within man (OM 114-5; SBJ 19-21). The end of the tale is similar to Genesis 2. The first man appears in the garden of Paradise, is divided: Adam becomes male and Eve female – Eve secretly embodies an earthly version of the goddess/Sophia – and, after eating from the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden by a jealous Demiurge (OM 118-21; SBJ 21-3).

From this creation story, we discern the mythic worldview of the Gnostics. The world, including man, as in orthodox Christianity, is ‘fallen’ – evil, deluded, ignorant, imperfect – but it is not the Biblical God who is to bring about salvation. A redeemer figure – not always[35] but often Jesus Christ, son of the true, highest god, of the One – descends and re-ascends from on high to bring knowledge – insight, gnosis – of the true light, perfection, wholeness. This is the central worldview of Gnosticism.[36] The aim of the Gnostic was, through whatever means,[37] to become aware of the divine spark within, and thereby to gain some sort of spiritual freedom or release from the corrupt world of the Demiurge. To reiterate, this is not a precise, always-stated principle or ‘doctrine’ of Gnosticism, but an approximation of a common conceptualization (the worldview) which functioned as the motivator for the driving feeling and spirit of this ancient religion.

As Dunderberg observes,[38] many Gnostic texts do not even mention the Demiurge, the fallen world, even the One, but I argue that something like this basic conception of ‘salvation from corruption’ inspires the ethical teaching or abstract transcendental poetry of the Gnostic texts. Similarly, this general worldview can be expressed in texts which differ or contradict each other on the level of specific detail. My exposition of the Gnostic cosmology above has ironed out much of the differing detail in the two texts – not only regarding names used, but the order of events is different, and there are some seemingly radical differences of interpretation. For example, in OM, the serpent in the garden and the tree of knowledge itself are embodiments of or emissaries from the life-giving Pistis-Sophia; whereas, in SBJ, they represent the corrupting powers of the Demiurge – the fruit of the tree brings not gnosis but a poison which instills desire, empty pleasure, and sexuality (which is seen as perverse and corrupting). These differences have been largely disregarded for two reasons. Firstly, individual believers naturally do not express similar ideas in exactly the same way. This is especially the case in a non-doctrinal religion where there is no authoritative text to be consulted like a prescriptive law book. Hence the differences are not necessarily significant. Secondly, most importantly, the differing details do not affect the fundamental worldview. In OM, disobedience in the garden is a disobedience of the ignorant Demiurge only. In SBJ, the Demiurge urges them away from the evil tree to make it seem more attractive to them. Either way, the world creator is an evil menace, endeavouring to keep humanity away from gnosis and the light. This disparity and variety of expression suggests not imprecision (since, again, there is no real precision in ‘fused’ religious conception), but a mytho-poetic grasping for expression of an ineffable ‘psychological’ truth.

Gnosticism compared to Neoplatonism

Like Gnosticism, Neoplatonism also exhibits a propensity for diverse forms. Each philosopher in the tradition from Plotinus to Proclus knowingly articulates his ideas in differing ways.[39] However, once again, an encompassing mythic worldview suffuses all texts in the tradition, otherwise we probably would not recognize them as exemplifying ‘Neoplatonism’. In comparison to Gnosticism, the Neoplatonic religion expresses itself in what we might call transcendental philosophy rather than narrative myth-making. In this respect, its worldview is less of a meta-narrative and more of a metaphysics. The universe is pictured largely according to the Greco-Roman tradition[40] with Earth pictured at the centre of 7 or 8 rotating concentric spheres, each home to a ‘planet’[41] or the ‘fixed stars’. Neoplatonism conceives all of this originating and remaining within the perfect, uniting, infinite, self-sufficient, transcendent-yet-immanent power of the One, which is sometimes anthropomorphized but is, like the entirety of Neoplatonism, mostly conceived of in extremely abstract terms. From the One emanates the archetypes or ‘intelligible forms’ which function rather like blueprints for the shaping of inert matter into the material and living world. Naturally, all of this differs slightly in organization, degree, names and expression depending on which Neoplatonic philosopher you are reading (or, indeed, which section of the same philosopher).[42]

The principal difference between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism in terms of mythic worldview – which, of course, changes everything – is that the world is not considered necessarily evil, ‘fallen’, corrupt, deluded, or ignorant. Plotinus insists that the material world, while less ‘real’ than that of the immortal Soul or the One, is truly beautiful, perfect, and necessary to existence.[43] “[W]ill there be any so dull-witted and unresponsive,” he asks, “in seeing all the varied beauty in the world of sense, … that he will not stand in awe of it?” (Plotinus Enneads II 9.xvi). Without matter, he argues, “all would lie buried in [the One], without Form” (Plotinus, Enneads IV Evil is not a separate principle or power but simply a result of a world which is not adequately ‘in form’; that is, not properly reflecting the perfect archetypes which herald from the One. However, the similarities between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism are great, and not only in respect to diversity of expression and structural conception of the universe. Neoplatonism holds that humans are part-matter and part-incorporeal, immortal soul. This soul is said to descend and ascend through the spheres at birth and death respectively. The similarity here to the Gnostic ‘insight’ or ‘spark’ imprisoned in the corrupt flesh of body is striking.

Diversity of form, coupled with its expression in the form of philosophy rather than mythic narrative, leaves us with a sense that Neoplatonism is also ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’. The terminology used by Plotinus refers directly to metaphysical principles which are blatantly words indicating psychological states: the powers of ‘Intellect’, ‘Desire’, ‘Soul’, ‘Goodness’, for example. This is also the case in Gnosticism of course, but such forces are generally personified: Pistis-Sophia (‘Faith-Wisdom’) is more clearly conceived as a goddess-figure, for example. Plotinus is apparently describing a metaphysics, not a psychology, yet virtually all his proofs and arguments rely on comparisons to psychological experience in some way. For example, he argues using metaphors that only make sense when psychologically conceived: the development of matter is “like the unfolding of a seed” (Enneads IV These metaphors seem to be all the proof required – he does not need to argue why it should be like the unfolding of a seed; the metaphorical comparison itself seems to be evidence that satisfies intuitively, that is, ‘psychologically’.[44] Furthermore, “the sight of beauty … can bear a man up to the higher reality” (Enneads II 9.xvi) surely means that such a man is not literally borne to a physically higher or otherwise displaced location, but is metaphorically borne to a ‘higher’ psychological state of mind. Unfortunately, the metaphorical conception is probably only perceived as more correct from our modern standpoint. Plotinus almost certainly equates the two, i.e. that psychological state (experienced rather than conceptualized) is the soul momentarily becoming physically displaced to a higher reality. Properly considered, Gnosticism seems less ‘psychological’ in comparison to Neoplatonic philosophy, yet modern psychologists are not considered by some thinkers as ‘modern Neoplatonists’[45] – it is the Gnostics that are represented as ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’. This still needs to be explained.

Gnosticism versus orthodox Christianity

In turning to orthodox Christianity, we must be careful to consider this in context. As far as we know there was no ‘orthodox’ Christianity before the 4th century C.E. when Theodosius I made it the Roman Empire’s sole authorized religion. I hope my earlier discussion of the typical forms of religious thought has shown that the idea of ‘authorizing’ a religion is a highly artificial almost incongruous thing to do.[46] It is worth bearing in mind that even after the declaration of the Nicene Creed in 325 C.E., the establishing of one dogmatic Christian creed took centuries to achieve, and it is arguable that such an undertaking had more to do with political repression than religious expression.[47]

We might express the fundamental orthodox Christian worldview as: The world including man is ‘fallen’; it is obedience to the moral law of the Biblical God, through the forgiving Grace and sacrament of his son Jesus Christ, that will lead the individual to ‘salvation’. This worldview sounds, on the face of it, very like the Gnostic in the sense that both can be reduced to a less specific and indiscrete emotional striving after ‘salvation from corruption’. We might explore the differences between the orthodox Christian and Gnostic religions through the critical words of those contemporaries of the Gnostics who later came to be known as the Church Fathers, but, upon reflection, there is very little criticism here pertaining to mythic worldview. This is because when two religious sects essentially hold the same or very similar worldviews, criticism can only occur on the level of ethos, that is, on the level of particular expression, social practice, ethical systemization or even political affiliation. These may be component elements which make up part of the ‘fused’ mythic worldview, but on their own they are perceived by the religious believer as either inessential, extrinsic or differently inflected. The Church Fathers’ fundamental criticisms are not specific to Christianity or Gnosticism but might be applied by an outsider to any religion he or she wishes to repudiate. These criticisms differ in detail of course but include accusations of corrupt origins, of inconsistency or incoherence, and of immoral practices.[48] All religions can be considered as dubious in this way due to the ‘fused’ nature of mythic conception.

The mode of religious expression can also be used to make a superficial distinction between traditions. We have already seen how Neoplatonism appears far more philosophical due to the abstract dialectical language in which its central inspiration is expressed. We see this component factor of expression over-enlarged into an apparently fundamental religious conflict when we consider the arguments concerning orthodox Christian ‘faith’ versus Gnostic ‘knowledge’.[49] On the psychological level, what, finally, is the difference between ‘faith’, a sense of ineffable religious righteousness or feeling, and ‘gnosis’, a non-rational, ineffable kind of ‘knowledge’? Such terms are ‘fused’ in normal religious thought. Their use merely depends upon whichever seems the more appropriate word to express the ineffable in the context of the religious discourse or vernacular. The word ‘faith’ rather than ‘knowledge’ is more likely to be used when the speaker does not seek to draw upon (or wishes to bypass) philosophic conception in describing this feeling.[50] This is primarily how the orthodox Christian hermeneutic operates. Its worldview finds expression and justification in literal, material, anti-philosophic, ethical-political doctrine rather than theoretical philosophical dialectic (Neoplatonism) or mytho-poetic narrative-philosophy (Gnosticism).

The primary religious difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism (i.e. significantly affecting worldview) is in the degree of world denial. In both traditions the world is ‘fallen’, man a creature of sin. Gnosticism includes the world rulers and creators as part of this corruption, whereas orthodox Christianity does not. This is the source of the orthodox Christian claim that Gnosticism is “nihilistic”,[51] yet ‘greater world denial’ does not necessarily equate to ‘rejection of all religious principles’. Accordingly, orthodox Christianity values collective social, ethical, and earlier-religious sources of meaning more than Gnosticism.[52] The effect of this upon orthodox Christianity is that, ironically, man is actually considered more flawed in relation to the deity. God, unlike The One, becomes the representative of earthly social, ethical, and traditionally authoritive meaning; hence he is more moralistic, righteous, and transcendent.[53] The Gnostic finds salvation not in the world, not in man, but not in moral, political[54] or traditional social authorities either, only in the One, which is abstract, transcendent, ineffable, but also, significantly, immanent, within the individual. Ironically, by rejecting all other forms of meaning, Gnosticism actually makes meaning accessible to any individual anywhere at any time, provided he is in possession of gnosis, or, in more ‘psychological’ terms, is in the right ‘enlightened’ state of mind.[55] Orthodox Christianity instead seeks to locate its numinous inspiration – its gnosis, as it were – exclusively in the institution of the Church, in the holy rite (religious ‘magic’) of the Eucharist, its efficacy explained by an un-philosophical ‘magic’ designated ‘faith’.[56] It is this ‘faith’ and the associated material-historical doctrine of the orthodox Christian which seeks to invalidate all claims that his or her religion has any necessary connection to emotional expression or ‘psychology’.[57] Hence orthodox Christianity as religion remains emotional-‘psychological’ but claims it is literal, historical ‘magic’ to a startling degree.[58]


The source of the modern designation of Gnosticism as a more ‘psychological’ religion is to be found in my earlier exposition concerning how religion is structured and operates. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity can all be seen as ‘psychological’ because they are religions and, as we have seen, religions are psychologically complex human thinking constructs. However, the modern conception of Gnosticism’s especially ‘psychological’ or ‘mystic’ nature goes beyond this in, I argue, two different directions. These concern, respectively, modern ideas of, in the first instance, religion, and, in the second, scholastic enquiry. Today, religions are popularly understood to be prescriptive ethical systems, clearly defined in a doctrine, and based on an irrational supernatural ‘belief’ concerning existence. This conception is clearly based on the Abrahamic doctrinal religions, particularly orthodox Christianity, which are, as I have argued throughout this essay, quite exceptional in that they rather incongruously and somewhat superficially express their approximate, impressionistic, ‘fused’ mythological worldviews in deceptively discrete, specific, ethical-political-ontological-historical doctrines. As a result, religion in general is popularly considered much less ‘psychological’ today than it actually is, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, Campbell, Boyer etc. Hence, when Gnosticism is considered, its non-doctrinal expression stands out in stark relief against its worldview, perceived as startlingly similar to the familiar Christian worldview, thus rending Gnosticism, superficially, as a more ‘psychological’ and ‘mystic’ religion.

The scholarly conception of Gnosticism functions in a similarly superficial manner. In simulating the rigorous standards of empirical science, modern scholarship breaks down ‘evidence’ of this ancient religion into discrete, consistent units, searching for the precision of historical truth and, again, ‘doctrine’. However, this ‘evidence’ is comprised of cultural-mythological phenomena, which are actually, as per Cassirer, Geertz, Otto, etc., intrinsically vague, approximate, impressionistic, and ‘fused’. Most scholarship thereby produces mainly hairsplitting analysis of individual differences of presentation, expression, or social-political affiliation, comprising cultural ethos, and only rarely and indistinctly the fundamental worldview. The result is categorization of religions according to their mode of expression or obvious surface characteristics. Hence, Neoplatonism is properly a kind of transcendental philosophy rather than a religion because it is expressed in philosophical texts. Similarly, orthodox Christianity is a religion since it has a church, expresses itself in doctrine and has authoritative-sounding texts. Gnosticism’s mixture of poetry and literary-style narrative text analysis seems too ‘wild’ to be sensible philosophy or a ‘serious’[59] religion. Again, its diverse, impressionistic texts defy (inappropriately) concise definition. Hence it remains, colloquially, a strange, complex curiosity, to be picked over for intellectual tidbits and branded as ‘mystic’ and ‘psychological’.

Considered inappropriately through the prisms of doctrinal religion or rationalistic scholarship, the ‘mystic’, ‘psychological’ aspect of any and all religion is selected as Gnosticism’s unique possession. Both approaches make essentially the same mistake in considering religion to be defined by a discrete, specific, concise thinking-process rather than an impressionistic, general, ‘fused’ non-conscious interaction between a Geertzian worldview and cultural ethos, producing an orientating ineffable numinous motivation and inspiration for life. However, such a ‘psychological’ aspect is not so much absent from as not unique to Gnosticism. In fact, we could put this slightly more positively as: Gnosticism is unique in that the ‘psychological’ aspect of general religious conception is more obvious to modern thinkers in its mode of expression than other known religions. However, modern thinkers do not generally realize this, or at least, express it this way.


Primary Texts
Epiphanius Panarion trans. P. R. Armidon (New York and Oxford, 1990).
Irenaeus Against the Heresies trans. D. J. Unger (New York and Mahwah, N. J., 1992).
Plotinus Enneads trans. J. Gregory (London, 1991).
On the Origin of the World trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
The Secret Book of John trans. M. Meyer (New York, 2007).
Tertullian On the Prescription of Heretics trans. T. H. Bindley (London, 1914).

Secondary Texts
Austin, N. Meaning and Being in Myth (University Park and London, 1990).
Beck, R. The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York, 2006).
Boyer, P. Religion Explained (London, 2001).
Cahana, J. “None of Them Knew Me or My Brothers: Gnostic Antitraditionalism and Gnosticism as a Cultural Phenomenon,” The Journal of Religion 94 (2014): 49-73.
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York, 1968).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York, 1964).
Campbell, J. Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York, 1962).
Cassirer, E. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. II: Mythic Thought trans. R. Manheim (New Haven and London, 1955).
Cassirer, E. Language and Myth trans. S. K. Langer (New York, 1946).
Dunderberg, I. Beyond Gnosticism (New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2008).
Filoramo, G. A History of Gnosticism trans. A. Alcock (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990).
Geertz, C. ‘Ethos, World-View and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ Antioch Review 17 (1957), 421-37.
Gregory, J. The Neoplatonists (London, 1991).
Hayden, B. Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints: a prehistory of religion (Washington, 2003).
King, K. L. “The Politics of Syncretism and the Problem of Defining Gnosticism,” Historical Reflections 27 (2001): 461-79.
King, K. L. What is Gnosticism? (London, 2003).
Leloup, J. The Gospel of Philip trans. J. Rowe (Rochester, Vermont, 2003).
Meyer, M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (New York, 2007).
Otto, R. The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey (London, 1923).
Pennachio, John. “Gnostic Inner Illumination and Carl Jung’s Individuation,” Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992): 237-45.
Rasimus, T. “Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library,” Vigiliae Christianae 59 (2005): 235-63.
Rudolph, K. Gnosis: the Nature and History of an Ancient Religion trans. R. M. Wilson (Leipzig, 1977).
Wallis, R. T. and Bregman, J., eds. Neoplatonism and Gnosticism (New York, 1992).


[1] Jonas expounded in King (2003), 114.

[2] Leloup (2003), x; Needleman’s italics.

[3] Leloup (2003), 2.

[4] Wallis and Bregman (1992), 4; Filoramo (1990), xiv; King (2003), 19. Cf. Pennachio (1992).

[5] Campbell (1968), 158.

[6] Dunderberg (2008), 16; or 18th century according to Rudolph (1977), 55.

[7] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[8] Rudolph (1977), 55. Aside from use by the Gnostics themselves, the Church Fathers refer to Gnosticism as the “gnosis falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6: 20 cited in Rudolph (1977), 55).

[9] Campbell (1968), 158. Rudolph (1977) prefers ‘insight’.

[10] Campbell (1968), 158. Campbell compares Gnosticism to Buddhism, which is based on the word for ‘knowledge’ in Sanskrit, and with its own variety of non-rationalistic ‘knowledge’.

[11] Rudolph (1977), 55.

[12] There is certainly no scholarship to the effect that gnosis represents ‘rationalistic’ knowledge.

[13] Dunderberg (2008), 16.

[14] Though they may appear to. See the discussion of ‘doctrine’ versus ‘worldview’ in footnote 28; more on this later.

[15] To clarify, ‘impressionistic’ in this essay suggests a subjective, emotional, unsystematic reaction or thinking style.

[16] The debate surrounding the ‘definition’ of Gnosticism seems unknowingly and bizarrely preoccupied with defining what exactly we mean by religion in general, merely approached through the example of Gnosticism. We do not generally spend most or all of an article on, say, Christianity or Judaism, trying to define the word we use for that religion before we have even began. The whole approach seems to be hairsplitting or, at least, based on certain unspoken (or unconscious) assumptions.

[17] Dunderberg (2008), 15. It can of course be useful to make such distinctions in terms of historical-political scholarship but we must remember that these are fundamentally artificial (even, merely linguistic) methodological conveniences which often have very little to do with actual religious experience. Furthermore, a particular cultural idea or trait is never a single, clearly-defined, identically structured or reproduced ethereal ‘substance’ or ‘quality’, but a mere approximate similarity in terms of a thinking process or element among a group of discrete individuals (see Boyer (2001), 40). The scholarly designation of ‘Sethian’ versus, say, ‘Orphite’ Gnosticism (see Rasimus (2005), for example) produces further muddles. Are we talking here about different religions, different sects, or different regional variation in the expression of ideas within Gnosticism? Surely Lutherans are not Muslims, but are Sufis not Muslims because they are not Sunnis? And what about the Japanese person who might be Zen Buddhist and Shinto? We must make clear exactly what we are interested in: the meaning of Gnosticism for its professors or for the outsiders or enemies of the Gnostics? The perspective here will make all the difference but it is surprising how often these different perspectives are not differentiated, declared, even blurred together in the scholarship. There often is a world of difference between the mental reality of religious thinking and the self-identification of religious categories according to believers, non-believers, and individual religious scholars. My own interest is in the mindset of those inspired by, most intimately involved in, the ‘practisers’ of, Gnosticism (we might call them Gnostic ‘believers’).

[18] Cassirer (1946).

[19] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[20] Cassirer (1955), 78.

[21] This is why today, when such relatively discrete compartments of thinking have been separated we are more likely to redefine the earlier mode not so much as ‘fused’ but as ‘confused’, even ‘irrational’, ‘silly’, ‘impressionistic’, ‘wrong’, etc.

[22] This accords with modern understandings of the plethora of simultaneous non-conscious inference systems constantly operating in the human mind as outlined in Boyer (2001), 109-12.

[23] Since ‘mysticism’ by definition assumes an overriding of intellectual thinking, all religions can be considered ‘mystic’ because ‘fused’ thought is necessarily more or other than intellectual. Similarly, we might consider all religions as ‘syncretistic’ despite dogmatic claims for exclusivity, see King (2001), 463 for discussion of the term ‘syncretistic’.

[24] What this essentially means is that you cannot ‘prove’ two individuals are not inspired by the same religion just because they consciously express different words or conceptions. There is, in religious matters, an essential disconnect between conscious expression and non-conscious thought such as Boyer can remark: “when we talk about religion we quite literally do not know what we are talking about” (Boyer (2001), 108).

[25] Geertz (1957), 421-7.

[26] As per Ruth Millikan, mental conception functions much less like an encyclopedia, collating ‘definitions’, than as a process for acquiring practical mental skills of recognition and evaluation (Boyer (2001), 129).

[27] I might add that the mythic worldview is not just the ‘lowest common denominator’ of a particular collection of culture-values (i.e. the ethos). This is partly because religious worldviews tend toward the more not less meaningful conception (hence we could argue it is more like the ‘highest common denominator’), but there are actually a distinct number of psychological factors which make some ideas and not others good candidates for religious conception. See Boyer (2001), 19-20, 33-4.

[28] I would not say ‘indoctrinated’ here. A Geertzian worldview is totally different from a doctrine. A doctrine is specific, discrete and philosophically stated. It is usually associated with political or ethical rather than mythological thinking. It functions more like a constitution in relation to a set of laws and in this respect it says more or less precisely what it means. A religious doctrine is, as per Boyer, not a precondition of all religion, but peculiar only to some (Boyer (2001), 159). Such a doctrine often functions as a justification for equating, repressing or restructuring primary religious inspiration with or by ethical-ideological dogma (see Hayden (2003), 5-12).

[29] See King (2001), 469-71 for her explanation involving the metaphor of cookery.

[30] For application of the Geertzian ethos-worldview in more modern scholarship, see Beck (2006), particularly 67-71; also, King (2001), 469-70.

[31] Otto (1923), 5-71; Campbell (1962), 35-6, 45-8; Austin (1990), 15; Hayden (2003), 3, 63-4.

[32] Otto (1923), 5-71. See also Boyer (2001), 145: feelings are the natural outcomes of our complex non-conscious inference systems.

[33] As per Geertz (1957), the use of ‘worldview’ refers to a decidedly impressionistic, ‘fused’, general overarching conception by definition. My use of ‘worldview’ does not imply a specific, discrete, precisely proscribed concept, and certainly not a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[34] See Meyer (2007), 199-222, 103-32.

[35] Rudolph (1977), 118.

[36] Such a rendition is relatively rare in scholarship, perhaps because making such generalized statements about a religion smacks of imprecision or simplification. However, I have already shown how systematic precision is misplaced when talking about ‘fused’ mytho-religious thought. And when such a statement is made in scholarship, it ends up sounding very like a doctrine (see again footnote 28).

[37]We do not actually know what these were in any detail.

[38] Dunderberg (2008), 15.

[39] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[40]Which is no doubt the source of this conception in Gnosticism also; both religions share an ethos.

[41] The sun and moon were considered planets in ancient times.

[42] Gregory (1991), 193-5.

[43] Gregory (1991), 102.

[44] It is possible of course to see these as explanations rather than proofs, but, if this is the case, Plotinus does not seem to provide any proofs for his philosophy as very rarely is any other form of evidence offered.

[45] See again the designation of some modern psychologists as ‘modern Gnostics’ in my introduction section.

[46] Hayden (2003), 4-12.

[47] See Campbell (1964), 407-19.

[48] Rudolph (1977), 12, 14, 15, 19. For example, in reference to the perversion of scripture and the allegedly confused basis of Gnostic myth, Irenaeus claims “what is ambiguous [the Gnostics] cleverly and deceitfully adapt to their fabrication by an unusual explanation” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.35) and, “[s]uch is their system which neither the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down,” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 8.1). Epiphanius argues that the Gnostics “fabricate books … basing themselves on pagan superstition … thereby weaving together truth and falsehood” (Epiphanius, Panarion 26.1.3). Tertullian also rails against false origins (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 21) and inconsistency (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 51). Epiphanius stretches credibility with his long diatribe detailing the apparent perversity of the Gnostics’ sexual practices which he claims include promiscuity (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.1), masturbation (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.1), homosexuality (Epiphanius, Panarion 11.8), and obscene rituals involving sexual orgies and abortions (Epiphanius, Panarion 4.5-5.2).

[49] Rudolph (1977), 15. For example, see Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 6.2.

[50] By philosophy here I mean both evidence-based ‘empirical’ philosophy, and the more general, ‘rational thinking’ variety. Indeed, the rejection of philosophy seems explicit in statements such as the following from Tertullian: “‘Thy faith,’ Christ said, ‘hath saved thee,’ not thy argumentative skill in the Scriptures” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics 14).

[51] Rudolph (1977), 16.

[52] See Cahana (2014) for a study of Gnosticism’s unusual rejection of virtually all tradition.

[53]This is what Tertullian unknowingly expresses when he argues that Gnosticism “blurs the fixed limits that separate the creature from the deity” (H. von Campenhausen qtd. in Rudolph (1977), 16).

[54] King (2001), 476-7 finds the Gnostic position more political, as in, the Gnostic opposition to celestial and earthly rulers can be seen as a political protest against Roman authority. I acknowledge this is possible although the extant Gnostic texts read as religious texts and not political tracts. I suspect the distinction ‘more political’ may again be a qualifier which heralds from measuring Gnostic implications in relation to perceived Christian orthodoxy (itself possibly more explicitly political in its day than today). My point is that most religions can be skewed into political discourses, but such do not afford a complete picture of the religious experience, which is, as King ends up acknowledging, “somewhat ambivalent” (King (2001), 477) when it comes to advocating a radical political cause.

[55]See Campbell (1964), 366; Campbell (1968), 157-8.

[56] I am not here precluding the possibility that Gnosticism may have had a ‘magic’ ritual aspect too, only that, if it did have this aspect, there was also a philosophical-emotional reading involved as well. The extant Gnostic texts tell us little about ritual practice but they certainly reveal that there was no fixed doctrinal expression or denial of a philosophical-emotional approach to gnosis.

[57] For example, Irenaeus criticizes the Gnostics for supposing “they can surpass the apostles … and trust their inner capacity to innovate and progress spiritually” (Cahana (2014), 54).

[58] Perhaps one reason it does this is to distinguish itself from Gnosticism in the first place – who can say.

[59] I.e. dogmatic.

Some Troublesome Art Terms

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Susanne K. Langer

Here are some troublesome art words and clarifying explanations of them I learned from reading philosopher Susanne K. Langer (Philosophy In A New Key (1941), Feeling and Form (1953), Problems of Art (1957)). Langer argues that all art (from pictorial art, to sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, literature, and theatre) functions in a way that is fundamentally not expressible using words.[1] This is generally the problem lying behind these troublesome art terms. Since verbal expression is difficult, there is a tendency to use words impressionistically or metaphorically but then become confused with any number of literal meanings.



– often used to mean ‘art that aims to superficially distract the viewer, or to avoid unpleasant realities’.

“Escapist” tends to be incorrectly applied merely to artworks which have no obvious verbal content or message.

This misuse has to do with the modern assumption that if a meaning cannot be expressed in words in must be “emotional”, “mystical,” “irrational,” “unscientific,” “sensational,” “fantastical” or “delusional”. Langer points out that the ‘fantasy’ or ‘faery world’ experienced in childhood is not an attempt by the child to escape the ‘real world’ (as in “escapism”) but is a non-verbal way of conceiving reality when other methods have not developed yet – it is a “thinking in shades of feeling.” Similarly, an artist may use non-verbal means to communicate certain expressive or emotional effects which cannot be properly articulated verbally.


“artistic truth”

– has nothing necessarily to do with truth in relation to reality (“the way things really are”, “the existence of things”) or historical fact (“what really happened”) or logical processes (“this conclusion follows from these premises”).

Yinka_Shonibare_MBE.77213521_stdLanger argues that “artistic truth” is the degree to which an artistic work reminds the viewer of the feeling patterns of organic life. Such patterns might be the approximate feeling-impression of organic growth (like a plant growing or a young person maturing), of natural processes (like the heart beating, water flowing or vines curling), or of natural emotional patterns (such as fear or desire or horror or passion). Langer emphasizes that this is only an impression of these feelings and consequently there is no necessity for the artwork itself, or the subject it seems to be portraying, to actually be organic or alive (or, in particular, to reflect factual or social-political reality – art is not a newspaper article or scientific paper). It is merely ‘an impression of organic life’. (This is also often inexpressible in words.) Thus, a work that “has no artistic truth” seems inorganic, flat, ho-hum.



– Langer argues that “self-expression” has no necessary connection to art if you use “self-expression” to refer to:

  1. the feelings that the artist feels when creating the artwork
  2. the raw visceral emotions a viewer might feel when reacting to real-life events (such as vigorous exercise, or hearing that a close friend has died, or winning the lottery)

Langer argues that it is unnecessary to be in an emotional state to create an artwork that has an expressive effect.[2] In fact, being in a highly emotional state does not allow for much concentration. Also, in the case of the performing arts, an emotional state cannot easily be produced on the spur of the moment when it is time for a performance.

Similarly, when, as viewers, we feel ‘the anguish of the holocaust’ or ‘hunted by a monster’ on the cinema screen, we do not actually undergo the same or even similar emotions as we would if we believed these events were actually taking place. (Going to see a horror film would be traumatic and physically painful.)

berensonLanger argues that art does not produce or vent emotions, and the artist is not making us feel emotion.[3] Instead, the artist is arranging artistic materials so that they signify expressive effects to us – though we should take note that Langer is essentially using ‘signify’ here in an unconventional way; to mean indicate and sense, get an impression of, understand non-verbally. There isn’t actually an adequate word to describe something that is felt but isn’t a feeling. The best that Langer can do is to describe it as a feeling that is not a reaction but a form of comprehension – ‘you ‘know’ that feeling’.

The whole difficulty of “self-expression” in art resides in the fact that artworks seem to express something without telling us anything in the usual practical non-artistic way. A painting is not a person so it cannot “speak” to us. A poem does not deliver information in the same way that a newspaper article or instruction manual does. How is it “expressing itself” without bluntly “saying what it means”? The artwork appears to be “alive”, to be “telling” us something, “making us feel” something, but in some non-conventional way. This again is difficult to describe in words – a feeling of subjectivity (the expression) with apparent objectivity (the artwork is apparently just a ‘thing’, and ‘things’ aren’t alive in order to express things to us).

All of this is related to:


“aesthetic distance”

– this term is often used in relation to expressive effects which are muted: “it stands at some aesthetic distance”.

Langer points out that “aesthetic distance” is essential to art (otherwise you wouldn’t recognize it as art) and that the distance can be near as well as far.

The confusion surrounding this term has to do with non-verbal expression again. “Aesthetic distance” refers to the process of making something into (or, from the viewer’s perspective, considering something as) a work of art. The artistic materials must be sort of ‘set back’, or mentally ‘marked off’ from not just their surroundings but the ‘everyday’ ‘normal’ way of thinking that we employ for non-art objects. This may involve ignoring an object’s practical function or usual context. Importantly, this is not necessarily about impersonality or lack of expressive effect – in fact, the very act of considering something aesthetically tends to enhance its expressive effect. Once again, we have a tricky conception which does not lend itself to words – this is rendering something ‘distant’ or ‘formalised’ but not ‘typical’, ‘general’ or ‘unemotional’.escaping_criticism_by_caso

Something that is at too great an “aesthetic distance” (“too far away” as it were) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing), which does not strike a viewer as being expressive at all – it is usually ignored or merely ‘used’ to some purpose. A sign in a supermarket would not usually be experienced as art for this reason.

Something that is at too little an “aesthetic distance” (“too close to us”) seems to be a non-art thing (a practical object or incidental thing) which is reacted to violently by the viewer or ‘shatters the illusion’ (the aesthetic situation). Suddenly talking to the audience during a naturalistic play can have this effect if not properly prepared. So can graphic sex or violence in a movie (we stop caring about the story and start marveling at how fake or real it looks, and whether that is really the actor’s private parts).

(Alfred Hitchcock mentions a “house of horror” amusement at a carnival in which the patrons sat down before a cinema screen, thinking a horror movie would start, but the real horror is caused by the roof seeming to suddenly collapse upon them. Hitchcock reports that the ride was really unpopular because the fear was too real to be enjoyable. This is another example of being at too close an “aesthetic” distance – the experience was certainly terrifying but it was not “aesthetic”.)

Langer suggests that this is why we should really talk of art as engendering a ‘disengagement with belief’ (belief being far “too close” a conception) rather than “make believe” (we are disengaging belief not engaging or ‘making’ it).[4]


“form versus content”

– People talk about an artistic work being ‘more formalistic’ or ‘more about the content’.

Langer points out that in an artistic work, form and content are always the same thing. This is because the formal qualities of a work are only perceived by the viewer through the positioning of the elements, which is the content. Hence if there were no elements or the artistic elements were different, the form perceived would be absent or different, hence form and content are always necessarily intertwined.

Often “form versus content” is raised when the speaker is actually talking about the use of conventional or clichéd structural devices (“it is too/very formal”) or clear verbal messages (“it is more about the content”). Neither of these elements necessarily harm the expressive effect of an art work.

A work which is mainly about conveying information – for example, a public service announcement – could have an impact on an audience, if, for example, the information itself is distressing or interesting. Since its impact is more a result of an emotional reaction to certain facts or ideas (= the artistic materials themselves rather than their status as artistic elements), we might refer to such a work as “non-” or “less aesthetic” and the other kind of work as more “formalistic”. However, such wording is misleading as the “more aesthetic”, “formalistic” variety is actually not “formalistic” but equal parts “content” and “form” (so much so that the difference between these things is indistinguishable). When discussing literature, Langer points out that even in an essay (in which information conveyed is of paramount importance), the structuring of the argument (along the lines of introduction, first point, counter proof, second point, examples, conclusion, etc.) is aesthetic. This is art being used in the service of ideas. We might more accurately say that ‘information’ art is “more content” while the other variety is “equal parts content and form” but we are still being terribly vague and simplistic.


“beauty” “value” “culture”iberens001p1

– do not have set descriptions; they have no definite units and cannot be combined in clear proportions. Langer points out that describing these as if they form part of a systematic quantitative order is either poetry or nonsense, but certainly not art criticism. We might as well describe medicine using the medieval theory of the four bodily “humors” – it is a form of poetic expression which is masquerading as a graded system.


“imitation of reality”

– art isn’t an imitation of reality (see “artistic truth” above). The concept of imitation doesn’t actually apply to whole areas of art: What is a building or a melody imitating? As we discussed above, the expressive power of an artwork does not come from its literally life-like imitation but from its “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

This is why we use the word “creation” for the making of an artwork but not for the making of a cake. We say “She has constructed an artistic creation”, “He is creative”; we do not say, “He has created a cake”, “My plumber has created a downpipe for my roofing”. What is “created” is the “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.

Langer suggests that the reason we want to touch “realistic” sculptures is not because we are amazed that they are so precise an imitation, but because we are astounded that this mere thing can be so expressive (see again “self-expression”).[5]

The idea of imitation leads to the following 2 perverse questions:

–       “What is the artist trying to say?” and

–       “What is the artist trying to make us feel?”

That is, “how has the artwork imitated or indicated things or concepts extraneous to itself?” But, Langer argues, this is studying the associations generated by the artwork rather than studying the work itself. Artworks don’t imitate; they “expressively-indicate” or “present aesthetically” non-verbal organic “lived experience” to our comprehension/”feeling-understanding”.

Both of these questions are also based upon a theory of art founded on verbal language, which can either convey information or stimulate feelings. But, as we have seen, art fundamentally is not verbally expressive. It does not “tell” us things, nor does it “stimulate” feelings in the same way that real-life does.

The valid question, for Langer, is “What has the artist made, and how did the artist achieve this effect?” The poet has not created a mere arrangement of words, for words are only her materials, out of which she makes her poetic elements, which are deployed, balanced, spread out, or built up to create a recognizable “expressive-indication” of the feeling patterns of organic life.


[1] Yes, poetry and literature use words as their artistic materials, but the way these materials function as art is not easily expressible in words.

[2] This is kind of like how it is not necessary to be happy to use the word “happy”, or to actually be in the presence of a cow to say the word “cow” and be understood.

[3] All of these could happen but they are not indicators of art itself, which can occur without these effects.

[4] It is more accurately, “make expressive-indication” or “make aesthetic”.

[5] It’s almost like an optical illusion.

Written by tomtomrant

18 June 2014 at 6:01 pm

Against ‘Reason’

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Some weeks ago, a couple of my readers asked me to explain what I meant by this Facebook status update:Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 7.31.38 PM

So here goes.

What is wrong with philosophy?

First, my story: My background is film, theatre, and storytelling – these were my adolescent passions. These led me to mythology, which I explored to discover how the world’s myths could help improve my writing. In the process, I discovered essentially how the world’s myths could enrich my life – that is, in exploring the fundamental concerns of fulfillment, mortality, passion, love and life-meaning.

Now, you might notice an apparent overlap here with a popular understanding of philosophy’s aims (as expressed on Wikipedia):

“Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.”

My gripe with philosophy is really about the extremely important fundamentals this definition seems to have left out. Consider again: “reality, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language” – where on Earth has emotion, culture, art, and, well, fun got to? Might these be just as if not more important for exploring the fundamentals of human existence?

I chose to pursue philosophy in my Bachelor of Arts because I had not noticed this oversight. The philosophers I had encountered in my studies of myth seemed wise and meaningful. I soon discovered that these philosophers were either sidelined or misconstrued by the university philosophy department. My problem with philosophy is that it is unclear about what it means by ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, and when it is clear, it is next to useless.

The Consolations of PhilosophyTo illustrate I thought about dredging up some dense incomprehensible philosophical texts like anything by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl; just about any philosopher studied at university, but I thought this would be a little too hard to elucidate, and a little too easy to criticize. I have turned instead to a popular, easy to understand work – The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain De Botton. It’s available in the Popular Penguins series – those cheap books with the blank orange cover – so it is easy to obtain. In it, Alain De Botton briefly explores the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in easy prose (with pictures!).

I do not dispute the interesting, sometimes insightful findings of these philosophers nor the manner in which De Botton illuminates them – with one exception. I disagree with De Botton whenever he says something like this:

“The validity of an argument or action is determined … by whether it obeys the rules of logic.” (42)

“Anger results … from a basic … error of reasoning” (82)

“It is for reason to make the distinction.” (109)

What is reason? Most philosophers bandy the word around but do not go into detail as to what exactly they mean by it. De Botton outlines the Socratic method (24-25): one must take a statement purporting to be true, search for situations in which the statement would not be true, and use this to either modify the statement or declare it false. This sounds to most of us like good common sense. “Rationality … refers to the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” Basically, to be rational and reasonable, we must have reasons for doing or believing things. By implication, we must have reasons which have been examined under some more vigorous standard, which, in the case of philosophy, is, again, never specifically elucidated. Why is “because I want to” not a viable reason? This is never explained. The reason why philosophers are so vague in this area, I argue, is because there is no ‘rational’ or ‘reasoned’ standard for assessing philosophical veracity.

What about the principles of empiricism and logic? Might these form a foundation, a measure against which our rational reasoning can be measured? Unfortunately, both of these ideas are inappropriate for philosophical purposes. “Empiricism … states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.” When we say something is empirically true, we mean it has been tested in the external physical world. Human knowledge, values, and mind let alone subjective feelings and life-meaning cannot be empirically examined in the external world – they are mostly internal to us and their external manifestations are open to multifarious interpretation. Hence philosophy cannot be employing empirical reasoning.[1] Logic is a rigorous system whereby lucid, consistent, precisely delineated statements are juxtaposed to determine and corroborate a conclusion. Once again, human knowledge, values, and mind cannot be delineated using lucid, consistent, precise statements – we are examining the idiosyncratic human mind not building a bridge. The words you use to express qualities of mind are all imprecise, they are metaphors for our internal experience of consciousness: words like ‘truth’, ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘anger’, ‘trust’, ‘joy’. Logic treats these concepts as if they were physical things or forces. Just try to find a precise definition for ‘happiness’ among any group of individuals and you will see what I mean.[2]

So ‘rational reasoning’ cannot, for the purposes of philosophy, be founded in empiricism or logic. By ‘rational reasoning’, I suggest that the philosophers mean at a basic level, ‘examined thought’ or ‘careful reflection’, at a more profound level they actually mean ‘creative thought,’ that is, thought that considers the broad and multifarious areas of human experience and understanding, and attempts to make startling connections to reveal insights into the human condition. The distressing thing is that the philosophers, and particularly university philosophy lecturers, do not appear to know this. That their philosophical conclusions are ‘more rational’ is simply an opinion or prejudice. It just means, ‘I find them more sensible’ or ‘I’ve thought about them lots.’ Their ideas may be more appealing than many popular or religious ideas, but they are more practical, meaningful, compassionate, idealistic, ‘realistic’, straightforward or exciting than these ideas, not more ‘rational’.

As an example of how pointless and inappropriate reasoning based on logic is for philosophical purposes, we only need examine the thinking of Socrates. Socrates questions everything – the nature of courage, the purpose of work, the reasons for marriage – but he entirely fails to come up with any answers. (He is, in this respect, as useless and ‘amoral’ as the post-modern deconstructionists discussed here.) Now, I agree that ‘questioning everything’ frees up the mind, enlivens our thinking, staves off blind obedience to conventional views, and has led to the development of empirical science, but Socrates insists he is doing none of these things – he is (most ambiguously) ‘seeking truth’. He seeks to do this by following the dictum: “A statement is true if it cannot be disproved” (24), that is, if all reasons provided for it cannot be contradicted. Socrates seems to have forgotten to question his own method here. It is true that a lack of satisfactory reasons behind a statement may indicate that it is not true, but has he not conceived of truths that may be extremely difficult or impossible to explain in words? We cannot completely explain in terse consistent ‘logical’ statements why we feel emotionally moved by a poem, or why we love our spouse, or why a sunset is beautiful. Does this mean such ideas are false or just inexplicable? Socrates seems to have overlooked the non-rational, emotional basis of the human mind which is a very great pity considering the human mind is what philosophy is supposed to be about!

Fortunately, many of the philosophers that followed Socrates took up his ‘rational’ ‘reasoned’ ‘logical’ terminology, but nicely failed to apply his methods. Epicurus expresses his reasons for valuing friendship – solidarity, intimacy, compassion, happiness – in purely emotional terms which he can call ‘rational’ only nominally. Seneca wisely suggests our frustrations are tempered by what we can ‘rationally’ understand, even though what he really means is what we have emotionally experienced. Montaigne says we should accept and celebrate our ‘irrational’ bodily functions – when he means ‘involuntary’. Fortunately, all the rubbish about ‘rationality’ here does not get in the way of these philosophers speaking their impassioned, meaningful, creative, intuitive ideas, which are either not rational or ‘rational’ in an unconventional rather meaningless sense of the word (roughly approximating ‘well thought about’). They do not limit their thinking to mere contradiction and ‘deconstruction’, as Socrates appears to do.

However, there are a number of highly unfortunate consequences of speaking about intuitive, emotionally-satisfying ideas as based on ‘reason’. To begin with, the ideas appear to be somehow literally factually true – like the conclusions of empirical science. The philosopher does not proffer his idea as a more fulfilling way of seeing the world but as somehow the ‘right’ or ‘more accurate’ way in which the world actually is. Notice how this ironically sounds just a little bit like the absolute certainty of some extremist religious positions? ‘Reason’ in this area has become an Enlightenment superstition. Compare: when a new idea or insight emerged, the ancient thinker was more than likely to attribute such a breakthrough to ‘the grace of God’. For the philosopher, ancient or modern, he is likely to attribute it to his ‘reason’ – it is a more ‘rational’ solution to an existential question. ‘Reason’ in the second example had as much to do with it as ‘God’ in the first.

The second problem is that of expression. Most philosophers, labouring under the mis-impression that they are being ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ and ‘factually accurate’, write their intuitive, emotional-meaningful, interesting, inspiring ideas in a formal, stiff, pompous, academic writing style, which is wholly inappropriate to the subject matter. The result is that their ideas are often incomprehensible. I like sometimes to compare this to its opposite, as if, say, someone wrote out their tax return in lines of abstract Romantic poetry. Doing this would not only be strange, but would not serve the purpose of writing. Describing one’s earnings this quarter as “vindictively corpulent” makes as much sense as describing human value as a “categorical imperative”.[3] Montaigne is on my side here: “An incomprehensible prose-style is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness.” Not to mention the pretentious self-importance involved in writing in such a way.

The issue of expression is not a slight inconvenience in terms of effective philosophy. Socrates is particular about setting philosophy apart from rhetoric, which is the art of persuasive speaking. Put this way, it seems that Socrates’ goal was to be right rather than convincing. Socrates seems to be trying to emulate the physical sciences where, for example, if I have done the appropriate calculations, it does not matter how I express them, they will still be correct. However, there is a major problem with this when applied to philosophy’s concerns. The way you describe elements of the mind is intimately connected to what you are describing. Consider for example the equivalence of the following terms: “glass” = “tumbler”; “rain” = “shower”; “wind” = “breeze”. Since these refer to external things or properties, we can always refer outwardly to clarify a difference in terminology or a bad description of something. Since elements of mind are abstract ideas, if you describe them inaccurately, the reader is likely to grab hold of a completely different idea, mistaking, for example, ‘freedom’ for ‘licentiousness’, ‘love’ for ‘lust’, ‘beauty’ for ‘prettiness’ etc. There is no external reality to grab hold of to clarify. The ‘rational’ philosopher either ends up describing something other than what he intends to, or nothing at all comprehensible.

A much better more appropriate way of approaching matters of mind would be poetry, art or metaphor. These methods seek not only to describe but to express the sense, the feeling, of that which they indicate. Metaphor is, I argue, the clearest and most powerful method of expressing philosophy. One does not try to inappropriately describe values, feelings, and mind using ‘logical’ or ‘empirical’ language, one gives an example, an ‘as if’, suggesting situations in which the feeling arose or that the values imply, using ordinary everyday language to conjure up a clear impression of what one is talking about. Seneca understood this, which is one of the reasons why his philosophy is unusually clear. He suggests the metaphor of the goddess of Fortune; she represents our exposure to accident. The goddess of Fortune inflicts harm with the moral blindness of a hurricane (another metaphor). Frustratingly, when De Botton discusses this, he notes that the image of the goddess here is distinctly “unphilosophical” (92) and that Seneca introduces her only to aid the memory.

The views expressed in poetry, literature, art, and particularly myth (or, more precisely, philosophical exegeses of myth) are far clearer, more meaningful and insightful than most of those expressed by the philosophers, mostly because the philosophers are incomprehensible to most readers. Actually, the difference between philosophy and literature frequently appears extremely arbitrary, influenced by whether the author in question is using the inappropriate language of ‘rationality’ or not. I am not sure exactly how a T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Walt Whitman or Thoreau is not in their own way a philosopher, at least, in comparison to the less ‘rationally’ obsessed ‘official’ philosophers such as Montaigne (who seems to be writing pure sociology) or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty (who were also littérateurs).

The third and most troubling problem with the use of ‘reason’ in philosophy is that it makes all philosophies, properly considered, wrong or deeply wanting. It does not take much to apply real logical and empirical reasoning to their arguments and find them wanting in the pointless, deconstructive manner of Socrates. This is what university philosophy lecturers do. So not only is most philosophy expressed in an incomprehensible manner, but the intuitive, meaningful ideas hidden beneath the surface are generally extracted by philosophy lecturers in order to be demolished as not ‘rational’ enough. These philosophies are hopelessly tainted by the opinions of the author – and this a bad thing, a weakness. Yet these same philosophy lecturers can only contradict. They proffer no solutions. Why is this? Because empirical/logical reasoning will not yield any answers to the nature of mind because these are the wrong tools for the job. Instead, all such criticism produces is deconstruction, meaninglessness, and nihilism.

To conclude, I want to make it clear that I am not denying that the discoveries of reason have advanced the empirical sciences particularly affecting the areas of technology and health. My argument is that the great philosophers do not employ reason at all, but say they do. The universities, taking things very literally of course, predicate their entire philosophy program around the use of reason, and in the process:

  • misinterpret and ridicule the arguments of philosophers who have something meaningful to tell us about our lives and
  • endorse the useless arguments of philosophers who have next to nothing meaningful to say, but are actually rational.

Recent discoveries in neurology have emphasized the importance of emotion in ‘reasoning’. In particular, people who have brain damage affecting a particular type of emotional processing can still reason hypothetically, but not in a useful, practical manner. Thus we learn that feeling and reason are not opposites. The distinction that is made between what the philosophers call ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ is the distinction made, in their day, between emotionally meaningful ideas and those which are not. The idea of a reasonable ethics founded on maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number is similarly based upon an emotionally satisfying idea – all the more so for being more practically realizable for the first time in history – but it is not based upon a greater ‘reason’. To claim such is to state an untruth, to cloud the issue with an incomprehensible writing style, and, most destructively, to open your idea to logical contradiction. So enough of these ‘rationalisations’! Tell it like it is! Such an idea is more inspiring, humane, compassionate, dynamic, etc. not more ‘rational’.

[1] I leave out of this discussion the empirical observation of brain science (neurology) and the statistical basis of modern psychology as philosophy clearly attempts to separate itself from these methods.

[2] I have had people counter this argument of mine by, essentially, choosing one of these definitions and insisting on it, but this is never arrived at through any explicitly logical process.

[3] For those well-versed in Kantian terminology, I suggest that you understand this term because you have found a way of connecting this sterile language to an intuitive emotional sense of meaning within yourself. It is definitely is not the ‘mathematical principle’ that Kant’s inappropriate and obscure language makes it resemble.

Written by tomtomrant

16 November 2013 at 7:47 pm

Detached Action in the Bhagavadgītā

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This is another essay from my Arts degree. Enjoy!

At Bhagavadgītā 2:47-48 Kṛṣṇa says that the path to liberation requires that we should perform the actions required by our svadharma without regard to their “fruits”. What does this mean? Is it a plausible practical philosophy?

Krishna and Arjuna

Krishna and Arjuna

The Bhagavadgītā seeks to marry the activism and quietism of earlier Indian traditions by advocating a performance of action without attachments to the ‘fruits’ (phala) of such action. Specifically, the action to be performed is that of one’s svadharma, approximately, one’s social duty or essential nature. In this essay, I will explore the meaning of this philosophy of ‘detached action’ (karma-yoga) as described in the Gītā, before arguing more broadly for its plausibility and practicality by countering the objection that it disregards ordinary human motivations and ethics.

The earliest schools of Indian philosophy advocate two apparently very different teachings. The Vedic tradition advocates an activism (pravrtti) exemplified in a powerful ritual orientation: one is to play one’s role in the community, to participate in rituals that reflect and uphold the universal order (rita) in order to reap the benefits of virtue, success and enjoyment.[1] A weakness apparently inherent in this philosophy is that in acting according to one’s dharma (approximately, one’s moral duty),[2] one is seeking to acquire merit (through karma);[3] the Vedic ideal could be seen as basically selfish.[4]  The later Upanishadic tradition avoids this egocentric taint by advocating the ideal of liberation from all karma, whether good or bad,[5] in an introverted doctrine of quietism (nivrtti). Yet, with its focus on individual liberation (mokṣa), it advocates a renunciation of all action through solitary contemplation.[6]

The Bhagavadgītā seeks to discover the golden mean between these two apparently contradictory ideals with its suggestion that one should act so as to disregard the ‘fruits’ of action: “work alone is your proper business, never the fruits (it may produce)” (2.47).[7] This not only resolves the incompatibilities of the earlier doctrines but corrects for their weaknesses[8] – one is not to act selfishly, nor wallow in lazy worklessness: “let not your motive be the fruits of works nor your attachment to (mere) worklessness” (2.47).

The Gītā establishes worklessness as impossible:[9] “not for a moment can a man stand still and do no work, for every man is … made to work by the constituents… of Nature” (3.5). We cannot live without breathing, without feeding ourselves – “without working you will not succeed even in keeping your body in good repair” (3.8). Therein lies the flaw of quietism: however much one tries to purge one’s involvement with karma (or with saṃsāra or duḥkha)[10] one cannot renounce completely while yet remaining alive.

The Gītā may appear to advocate action instead, yet it actually seems more concerned about the achievement of a certain detached mental state: “[w]ith body, mind, soul, and senses alone-and-isolated do men engaged in spiritual exercise engage in action” (5.11). The Gītā is very clear that it is not action itself that leads to mokṣa but the detached attitude of the doer: “Attachment gone, deliverance won, his thoughts are fixed on wisdom: he works for sacrifice (alone), and all the work (he ever did) entirely melts away” (4.23). While the Vedic philosophy advocates acquiring good karma as a reward for performing certain sacred ritual actions, one is encouraged in the Gītā to act without consideration for one’s karma, good or bad; while acting, one is to “[h]old pleasure and pain, profit and loss, victory and defeat to be the same” (2.38). The Gītā even goes on to advocate performing the duties of one’s svadharma, just as the Vedic sages do, but, again, without attachment to the rewards (18.45-7).

Detachment is of course a negative term – the difficulty here is in properly describing the positive, practical attitude that is implied. M. Hiriyanna suggests that the Gītā advocates that one should proceed according to the act itself rather than the ends; the end is dismissed from the mind while performing the act.[11] In this respect, it sounds as if we are to simply act without concerning ourselves with motivation or ethical consequences. Not only is it unrealistic and impractical to expect people to behave without adequate motivation, but neglecting the consequences of one’s actions, even if in accord with one’s social duties, is a very irresponsible way to behave. To address these objections, which are popular concerns often voiced by modern Westerners, we must re-examine the Gītā’s philosophy in detail.

The Gītā is well established as part of the Brahminical tradition in India, thus, to clarify the message of the Gītā, we must examine the terms it uses from this earlier tradition, whose meanings the Gītā assumes we understand.[12] The most important of these for our argument is mokṣa, often translated ‘salvation’. It is related to the earlier ideas of brahman and Ātman, and the Sāṃkhya idea of samādhi. These terms all denote slightly different concepts but I shall treat them all as more or less one, as indeed the Gītā seems to.[13] Broadly speaking, they denote a positive goal approximating liberation, salvation, release, balance or rest, but beyond (or without) empirical description or conceptual categories of thought.[14] They denote a psychological state to be achieved, even if, in the instance of brahman for example, they are sometimes described as a substantial element of external reality also.[15]

In contradistinction to the mokṣa-state, are, as the Gītā tells us, the guṇa-states of sattva, rajas, and tamas.[16] These are said to ‘bind’ the embodied self (14.5),[17] respectively, to happiness and wisdom (14.6), to craving and works (14.7), and to ignorance and sloth (14.8). Broadly, these states[18] are suffused with duḥkha (sorrow/craving), entangle one in saṃsāra (the endless round of life-death), and steep one’s being with karma, trapping one between the opposites of fear and desire.[19] Essentially, in the guṇa-states, one is pursuing desire, one is in a state of craving a happy state (sattva), possession (rajas), or a slothful state (tamas), or fearing the absence of such. Consequently, the Brahminical systems do not advocate the gaining of pleasure as helpful in attaining the mokṣa-state as pleasure leads to either a desire for more pleasure or sorrow at its absence. Overcoming such frictions could only conceivably be achieved in a state of compromise – a kind of rest-in-stasis between craving and fearing, beyond the opposites. Philosophically, we might describe this as a state of neutrality or balance. This is approximately the mokṣa-state the Brahminical works advocate, including the Gītā when it encourages us to “surmount (all) dualities” (4.22).

I want to pause for a practical example of these two broad states in action. W. Timothy Gallwey in his book on the psychology of tennis,[20] advises players to avoid forming judgments about their performance during a tennis game. He advises them to avoid calling a particular shot ‘good’ or ‘bad’; he instead asks them to let the play happen, to avoid over-trying.[21] In other words, he advises players to perform without the distraction of their desire-to-win or their fear-of-losing – these guṇa-values distract the player psychologically from her game. Instead, he advocates a kind of neutral observation of one’s own actions in order to remove this distraction. This I liken to the mokṣa-state of the Gītā.

In returning to the text, we must be wary not to mix up the terminology of the guṇa– and mokṣa-states. Any terms which the Gītā employs (particularly in translation) to refer to the mokṣa-state which suggest conceptual categories of thought (such as pleasure or pain, fear or desire) cannot truly be meant in the sense those words usually indicate (when referring to the ordinary guṇa-states). The mokṣa-state is not, strictly speaking, “peaceful” (2.64) in the way that having a nice relaxing bath is. The detached state cannot be the pleasurable, all-good-in-opposition-to-bad sort of peace but a kind of neutral sense of centredness. Similarly, terms such as sameness, detachment, renunciation, and disregard must be in fact attempts to describe the balance/neutrality of the beyond-opposites mokṣa-state, not suggestions to become oblivious, distracted, inactive or ignorant.

Now we have clarified the Gītā’s stance, we can return to our objections concerning the motivation for and ethical consequences of the action it advocates. My contention is that both ethics and adequate motivation are irrelevant to the discussion. Both motivation and ethics are concerned with a choice of right action – these are guṇa-value decisions. ‘To act’ here does not mean ‘to choose an action’ as this implies a choice between conceptual opposites – between right and wrong, fear and desire, action and non-action; we have already established that the Gītā is not interested in choosing between opposites, but instead thinking past them.

And thinking past the opposites, does not mean banishing or ignoring them. The guṇa-values are the ‘attached’ values that, like action, will always occur while we are living: “Let a man but think of the objects of sense – attachment to them is born” (2.62) and, “there is no agent other than these constituents [the guṇa-values]… which give the body its existence” (14.19-20). Importantly, in the mokṣa-state, the guṇa-values still continue to occur: “As one indifferent he [the one who has transcended the three constituents] sits, by the constituents unruffled: ‘So the constituents are busy’: thus he thinks” (14.23); he experiences them still yet he is unmoved by them, being in the mokṣa-state. So, one may still form one’s own motivations in the usual way – making moral choices, practical decisions, playing tennis to win – but one is to neutralise the impact of anxiety, uncertainty, duḥkha associated with these necessary acts, one is to exist while neutralising the guṇa-values inherent in living.

In fact, I contend that the Gītā does not advocate any particular action (or non-action):  “Renouncing works – performing them (as spiritual exercise) – both lead to the highest goal” (5.2).  The Gītā only puts action over non-action as a corrective to the popular Upanishadic quietism. It is primarily concerned not with doing but with being. The Gītā’s recommendation of acting according to one’s svadharma may appear to contradict this, however, we have once more to examine the full implications of the terminology and context. In Indian society, one’s svadharma was not just one’s social role as we mean it today; it was considered also one’s intrinsic inborn nature – what one is. This explains why the Gītā does not explicitly describe social duties in great detail.[22] Essentially, since we cannot escape guṇa-values or the propensity to act, the action the Gītā recommends is to be that which is in accord with one’s inborn nature (svadharma), while neutralizing guṇa-values. Arjuna therefore must fight, not just because he is in the warrior class, but because his sudden decision to renounce all fighting is borne out of the guṇa-values of fear and uncertainty, not out of his genuine being (svadharma). In fact, the genuine being of svadharma is considered synonymous with the right state of mind, which is the mokṣa-state, just as brahman (“ultimate reality”) is considered the same as Ātman (“the self”) in the later Upanishads; the mokṣa-state is a realisation of the Indian conception of the genuine self, true being.

So, to conclude, in suggesting we should perform our actions without regard for their fruits, the Bhagavadgītā advocates existing, while in action or not, and neutralising the distracting effect of the guṇa-values natural to our being. The directive ‘to act without regard for the fruits’ is not an instruction ‘to choose your action without considering the consequences’. Nearly every word in the sentence needs to be more carefully defined. For ‘to act’ we should understand something like ‘to be’, or ‘to observe neutrally the world’, because the Gītā is unconcerned by what the action is. For ‘without regard for’ we should recall that this, like ‘without attachment for’ or ‘while renouncing’, is a negative verbal phrase used to indicate the detached neutrality of the mokṣa-state – this is not obliviousness or ignorance. ‘The fruits’ are not just the ‘consequences’ or ‘results’ but the ‘guṇa-values’ involved in determining or anticipating these. They are the ‘selfish interests’ which distort the serene neutrality and balance of the mokṣa-state which permits us to perform perfectly what circumstances and our essential being (svadharma) have determined as necessary action. (If there were another course of action to be done, one’s own essential being (svadharma), involving one’s sense of duty, morality, motivation, and logic, would provide it.) The ‘detached’ mokṣa-state allows us to do ‘what must be done’, come what may; it permits us to live deliberately. And as much as this mokṣa-state is a mindset, a quality of experiencing not just thinking (since all thought is conceptual), I must add that the terms ‘neutrality’ and ‘balance’ may themselves be too conceptually cold to adequately express what must be an ineffable categorical sense of rightness, or the sublime. One must feel a kind of amazed stupor at the wordless, a-conceptual mystery of life as it is even while in action, as Arjuna must feel before the revelation of Kṛṣṇa’s glorious and terrible divinity even in the person of this commonplace chariot-driver.



Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy. London: Allen & Unwin, 1932.

Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.

Perrett, Roy W. “Hindu Ethics.” In The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette, 2410-2419. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Perrett, Roy W. Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study. Honolulu: University of Hawaiai Press, 1998.

Zaehner, ed. The Bhagavad-Gītā. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2012), 13-17.

[2] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 93.

[3] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 10.

[4] M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1932), 120.

[5] Roy W. Perrett, “Hindu Ethics” in The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 2412.

[6] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 17.

[7] All primary source references from R. C. Zaehner, ed. The Bhagavad-Gītā (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). Zaehner’s square brackets have been converted to parentheses to avoid confusion with my own square brackets.

[8] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 120; Roy W. Perrett, Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study (Honolulu: University of Hawaiai Press, 1998), 16.

[9] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 123; Perrett, Hindu Ethics, 15.

[10] Perrett, Hindu Ethics, 23.

[11] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 119.

[12] Hiriyanna, Outlines,124.

[13] For example, samādhi at 2.53, mokṣa at 5.28, brahman at 7.29, etc. All translated in similar ways.

[14] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 18-19, 94.

[15] Koller, Asian Philosophies, 18. I shall not be addressing ontological claims in this essay, as our question concerns only attitudes for action (see further below in note 18).

[16] Zaehner, Bhagavad-Gītā, 140.

[17] Zaehner, Bhagavad-Gītā, 140.

[18] I am aware there is an ontological claim here regarding the actual existence of the ‘guṇa-constituents’ which may or may not be plausible. However, since our argument concerns the Gītā’s stance on action, and by implication, attitudes for action, we are only interested in these ‘guṇa-constituents’ (ontologically existent or not) insofar as they influence the attitudes of the doer. Hence I refer to the ‘guṇa-states’. One can correct for this if one wishes by reading ‘states of mind influenced principally by the ‘guṇa-constituents’’ every time I use ‘guṇa-states’ or similar.

[19] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 120.

[20] W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975).

[21] Gallwey, Inner Game, 42.

[22] Hiriyanna, Outlines, 124.

Written by tomtomrant

8 August 2013 at 5:17 pm

Bad Art

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I used the term ‘bad art’ – isn’t it disgraceful?!
Surely ‘art’ cannot be ‘bad’ as this assumes an absolute ‘good’ and an absolute ‘bad’ and as right-thinking post-modern thinkers this is just unacceptable!
Art isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it all depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.


But don’t stop there.

If the theory stops there, we have a situation like the following:
Danny is a total tool. He is a really hot guy and he goes about seducing girls, using them then dumping them.
“What a dick,” his latest, Janet, reflects. “You are a tool, Danny, and I am breaking up with you. Do you know why?! Because you are a dick. Think about it.” And she dumps him.
Danny, hurt by this unflattering assessment of his character, momentarily reflects: Who is she to call him a dick? These are just words. They are just subjective judgments. Danny is not of course literally a dick (though he may have one), it is simply a matter of opinion – it depends on the frame of reference, the critical theory, the person doing the looking.

Danny stops here. Thus assessing the relativity of judgments, he banishes such thoughts from his mind and continues his womanizing ways. In other words, he fails to learn anything.

It is precisely in this way that “post-modernism”, “post-structuralism”, “deconstruction” suggest we should view the world: fixed and definite meanings are impossible and futile; meanings are always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous; no one is capable of dispassionate judgments.

The result of this is: “You can’t tell me what to think!” and *shrug* indifference. But of course both of these attitudes are only useful against poorly considered, badly thought-out judgments, in situations requiring water to slide of the duck’s back. For example:
Two months later, Danny sees Janet at a party. “Hey,” he says, sidling up, “You still being a bitch?”
Janet reflects: Who is he to call me a bitch? These are just words, etc. It all depends on the person doing the looking – and puts his insults out of her mind.

Such indifference may be a mature response to a dickhead. But applied to all situations, we have a stunting of personal growth, the inability to learn, arrogance and the sense that life is meaningless.

Danny is right that he is not literally a dick. He is also right that the insult is only Janet’s opinion. BUT what is Janet’s opinion worth? 

This is the step the post-modernists seem reluctant to make: all right ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ but is such an opinion RELIABLE? Is the person to be trusted, or, more importantly, what data, what thinking is it based upon?

Janet is not a stranger and Danny knows that Janet is not a moron. In fact, Janet is probably both intellectually and emotionally smarter than him. Furthermore, they were going out for 3 weeks and spending a lot of time together. Janet has both an excellent sense of judgment and plenty of multi-faceted evidence about Danny’s character. Of course this means that what she said is not law, but it is still extremely reliable. Maybe, Danny might consider, maybe I might like to reconsider some of the ways in which I behave…

pollock-paintingSo the sequence goes like this:
1. Judgment
2. Step back from the judgment to realize the relativity and unreliability of all judgments, in an absolute sense.
3. Don’t stop there. Now assess the perspective from which that judgment is valid. Is such a perspective an important one? We must assess the source of the judgment and the basis of the assessment. Is it reliable?
This last, all important step (step 3), seems to have flummoxed the modernists, who seem transfixed by the existential crisis of the non-absoluteness of judgments (step 2). This suggests they secretly miss, cannot cope with, cannot endure a world without such absolutes. At least, it is unendurable to the extent that they stop there.

The modernist laments the directionless fragmentation and disorientation of modern life while the post-modernist celebrates it. Neither of them seems to want to do anything about it (aka., progress to step 3).

So instead:
Post-structuralism: we decide to reject complex structures (clearly all ‘lies’) and study instead the unstructured, the incidental, the plain. This is expressed by Danny when he says: “How dare she be smarter than me! I’m going to stick to dumb, disoriented girls in future who I incidentally meet at parties and never see again.”
Post-modernism: we ignore cohesive ideas and study instead the disordered, meaningless and cynical. For Danny: “How dare she make sense! I’m not going to even attempt a real relationship again – I’m just for the sex and the joy of manipulation.”
Or, we can read everything from a black-and-white political perspective: vis-a-vis Marxist Criticism, Lesbian/Gay Criticism, Cultural Materialism, Post-Colonial Criticism, Ecocriticism, Feminism, etc. Danny: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning woman to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Notice that these attitudes are equally unhealthy even if Janet were to think them about Danny. Janet should be indifferent to Danny’s taunts because she has assessed his claims, and knows them to be nonsense – not because:
Post-structuralism: “All opinions have a merely relative structure, therefore even Danny’s opinion is worthless.”
Post-modernism: “All is meaningless so I am cynical of anything Danny (or anyone else) tells me.”
Or: “Well it would be just like a Bourgeois/hetero/old school/exploitative/fossil-fuel-burning man to say something as totally dumb as that!”

Step 3 (the assessment of the pertinent reading of the situation) is not the reinstatement of a step 1 absolute judgment. It is the making of a judgment from a relative but appropriate point of view. The post-modernist argument seems to be that finding the appropriate point of view is so difficult, it is impossible or at least, not worth even trying. The idea is related to, not just an over-interpreted idea of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but the reality of the modern ‘global’ world, in which many races, cultures, religions, people are all mixing and intermingling to an extent never before experienced in the history of humanity. It is as if we are two alien tribes meeting for the first time, except everywhere and all the time. But what did we do at those earlier meetings, where there was no common language, no common culture or understanding? We tentatively and cautiously took some clumsy mute attempts at communication, at reassurance on a common ground. This seems to me to be the appropriate course of action – not the definitely right one of course, but, as post-modernism keeps insisting, there is no absolute right so, post-modernists, quit your whinging and get a grip.

I agree the situation is not easy and is not ideal, but I think encouraging people to take those tentative steps to communication, not just to find bland ‘new’ hyper-individualistic (“You can’t tell me what to think!”) forms, but to reconstruct and re-use old structures, orders, cohesive systems, old understandings with fresh insight, would be a lot better, a lot more appropriate, than celebrating indifference, inhumanity, fragmentation, disorder and the hopelessness of going on. This is the difference between stepping into the unknown with a shaky confidence versus cowering in a corner and giving up.

Not just literary criticism, but art that does the former and not the latter is truly ‘good’ – ‘good art’ – at least for this moment, in this global situation, but probably (shock! horror!) for all time – for what situation would not require a meaningful, ordered critical but uncynical reflection on life?

Written by tomtomrant

15 June 2013 at 12:40 am

Literary Theory (1) New Criticism Reviewed

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I’m not much interested in literary theory but a recent traumatic university assessment experience has forced me to peer into its bewildering world of arcane verbiage and idiosyncratic intellectuality and attempt to distinguish the proverbial head from tail. The unfashionable schools of Formalism and New Criticism seem to me to make a good deal of sense, although we must overlook some deficiencies of method and update elements of old-school language. My brief comments below were inspired simply by the Wikipedia page, but I thought I would share them.  

New Criticism

Such Formalism looks promising:
New Critics often performed a “close reading” of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately rather than analyzing the literary text itself.” = non-separation of content and style.
Content by itself = ‘information’ and everything this could entail (not necessarily having anything to do with the arts), i.e. history, culture, opinion, news, etc.
Style by itself = abstract art (not usually very engaging) or ‘the mode of presentation’: the notepaper, empty stage/screen/Powerpoint slides, etc. In sum, meagre offerings with limited potential.[1]

But Formalism seems less promising in the negative:
“New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.”
I would add the words: “unless the text itself, or the method of critical examination, explicitly calls for these.”

“For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.”
This is fair – we are studying literature. To read more into a text than reasonably occurs to one while reading is like neurosis: seeing shadows which are not merited/are based on one’s own personal idiosyncratic character or context.

But we can’t HELP being in a social-political context surely?
This is true but:
1. if the work is contemporary, we are currently IN that context and if the context is relevant it should occur to us naturally when reading. (It is also possible that the cultural character of the current age is not something we can see clearly while living in that age and it is problematic (and off the subject!) to be theorizing about this.)
2. if the work is NOT contemporary, or it is from a context which is strange to us[2] (set in distant lands, concerning a subject we know little about), it is fair to say that the context is then relevant provided it is made explicit that we are interpreting it from a relative standpoint. (It is quite possible to analyze an ancient work as viewed through modern historically-unenlightened eyes.)

This is also a bit of a worry:
Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader’s personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text.
If you discount the reader’s reaction what exactly is the point of art? …I have subsequently done more reading on this and it seems that this sentence is a little misleading. It is not any emotional reaction that is to be discounted but an excessively personalised one (see above). Also, writing about emotion in ‘paint-by-number’ categories, e.g. this bit makes us happy, this bit makes us sad, is not enlightening and over-simplistic.

Criticism of New Criticism:
“Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that ‘the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification.’”
1. The subject and object of study ARE stable forms – from a particular perspective. When the particular perspective is ‘white Caucasian academics’ it is true that custom has made it assumed rather than specified. This assumption confers a stability which is merited provided we bear the assumption in mind.
2. The subject and object of study ARE NOT independent forms – I am in agreement with Hawkes here; however are the New Critics really saying the work and reader/context are independent? (See the first and last points on this page.)
3. An unconscious process cannot properly be expressed in words. Not addressing such an area (the unconscious) is usually the practice in other academic criticism: for example, one is not to employ theories of the unconscious when discussing Greek myth or, say, the history of the French Revolution – unless specifically asked to do so. Looking into the unconscious nakedly and constantly creates the kind of morass of messy contradictions and heated debates which is the landscape of current literary theory. Unconscious signification is just that – unconscious. We can hazard vague suggestion of it (and signification methods are illuminated by a greater awareness of the perspective from which we are viewing things) but in the end, digging into the unconscious will only take us off the subject. As per Carl Jung: “Only the material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in interpreting it.”

“For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to ‘[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.’”
This is the chicken and the egg. A work requires the reader, and a reader requires the work. To assume there is only one side of this is the problem.

A salient point from another New Critic:
“to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste.”
This is largely what indeed has happened.

The idea of target audience is fine if you mean ‘audience from whose perspective it may be beneficial to interpret (or create) this work’. It is problematic if you then suggest that all target audiences are equally sophisticated in their readings, which is no more true than that all people are equally happy, or wise, or intelligent. There is a perspective from which there is no target audience: just me – the personal individual idiosyncratic reading – but this is not usually the vantage point of literary theory which is, if anything, collective to some degree.

[1] Note exception for music where the content is the melody = ‘aural sentence’.

[2] Or we are in a context that is strange to the work

Written by tomtomrant

6 June 2013 at 8:16 pm

My 2008 book, The God Allusion, now online

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This is just a quick post to let you know that my 2008 book, The God Allusion, is now up on the website.
To check it out click on the image below.

God Allusion

Written by tomtomrant

7 May 2013 at 7:21 pm

Two Species of Monster

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This is an undergraduate literature essay from last year. I read it again recently and decided its content is relevant to this site: namely the distinction between allegory and mimesis is really the distinction between political, moral, rational ideas on the one hand, and creative, artistic, mythological and ’emotional’ ideas on the other. It may be surprising for some to realise that rational philosophy, for example, is really, in effect, a variant form of moralism mixed with occasional allegory.

The monster-figure in literature can be interpreted as a primal beast, a representation of the societal or unconscious ‘other’, a challenge to mainstream values, or a particular social, political, or moral evil. Whether the monster is interpreted as one or some or all of these depends upon authorial intention and reader interpretation, influenced by factors both within and outside the text. In this essay, I will compare two modes of presentation employed within a narrative, two modes which have a bearing upon the narrative significance and meaning of monsters – allegory and mimesis. Allegorical monsters take on the form of personified phenomena as part of a figural narrative, such as the dragon Errour in Spencer’s Faerie Queene or Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Mimetic monsters, such as Polyphemus in The Odyssey or Grendel in Beowulf, can be said to personify either nothing explicit, an obscure multiplicity of phenomena, or, looked at another way, only themselves. I will examine the implications of these stylistic and hermeneutic modes on these monster-narratives and assess their relative strengths and weaknesses in achieving particular authorial intentions.

Allegory as a literary concept is difficult to classify definitively. This is largely due to many centuries of commentary and scholarship in which the term is often proscribed slightly differently; literary scholar Gary Johnson’s 2012 book The Vitality of Allegory provides the foundation for my understanding of the term. Johnson defines allegory as “a class of works that fulfills its rhetorical purpose… by means of the transformation of some phenomenon into a figural narrative” (8). By “rhetorical purpose,” Johnson means something approximating authorial intention, the meaning the author is trying to convey (10). By “figural,” he approximates ‘metaphoric’: “figuration.. [involves] things representing or standing for other things” (8). However, Johnson notes that allegory is figural in a particular way; “[a]llegory entails duration” (Johnson 14). Thus, allegorical figurations intrinsically involve narrative; the figurations not only pervade the whole narrative but the narrative effects a ‘comment’ on the concept referenced  (Johnson 12). Furthermore, scholars note that there is “a [large] degree of manifest incompatibility between the tenor and the vehicle” (Miller 357); the figural reference “point[s] to an earlier and fuller reality outside itself” (Krieger 4). In other words, allegory entails a reading of the narrative as metaphoric of a relatively specific concept which is extrinsic to the meanings inherent in the narrative taken for itself. Thus, Johnson takes issue with a definition such as this: “[allegory is] a way of giving a narrative form to something which cannot be directly narrativised” (Butler qtd. in Johnson 11). This is too broad; allegorical figurations tend to refer to more specific content (Johnson 11).

A work that achieves a high level of ‘figural narrative transformation’ Johnson designates a ‘strong allegory’ (37). A ‘weak allegory’, he notes, references extrinsic concepts, but it is difficult to specify exactly what these are (54). Animal Farm by George Orwell is the classic example of a strong allegory although it should be noted that strong allegories are generally rare. (Johnson suggests Kafka’s short stories are an example of the weak type (63).)[1] In Orwell’s novel, a narrative involving farm animals is explicitly figurative of the extrinsic concept (and ‘narrative’) of Soviet Communism. This concept is extrinsic as, for instance, Communism itself is never mentioned in the story itself. It may help to contrast such an allegory with a ‘symbolic’ narrative (or a narrative involving symbolism). A symbol differs from an allegory in that the metaphoric reference is more obscure (less precise), and this reference is to ideas more closely related to itself, i.e. “the substance and its representation do not differ in their being but only in their extension” (de Man qtd. in Johnson 14).

As an allegorical monster, Errour in The Faerie Queene has been said to represent “intellectual speculation… learned error” (Waters 283), the “false rationalism of the church of Rome” (Waters 284) or “the temptation to lust” (Klein 177). This multiplicity of references suggests that this is not a strong allegory, however, the fact that such extraneous references could be suggested by a mere “ugly monster plaine” (1.14.6)[2] identifies this as an allegory all the same. Readers of The Faerie Queene understand from the text alone that the author intends to instruct us “in man’s progress toward goodness” (Klein 174-175) and to comment and critique the events and characters of the English reformation (Padelford 1). We are aware that overall it “combines social commentary with moral and epistemological inquiry” (Borris 174), yet it contains few moments of explicit commentary; it is a poetic narrative. Allegory is employed to reference these extraneous and specific allusions, and this is achieved through the author’s stylistic methods.

To signal to the reader that an allegorical reading is required, a delicate balance between verisimilitude and the extrinsic reference is maintained (Kelley 38). The character of Rumour in Ovid’s Metamorphoses provides a simple illustration.

“Picture a space at the heart of the world…
Here there are eyes for whatever goes on, no matter how distant;
and here there are ears whose hollows no voice can fail to penetrate.
This is the kingdom of Rumour, who chose to live on a mountain,
with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door.
Open by night and by day, constructed entirely of sounding
brass, the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever
it hears… Rumour herself spies every occurrence
on earth, at sea, in the sky; and her scrutiny ranges the universe.”
(12.39, 41-48, 61-21)[3]

Ovid has essentially personified an abstract concept in this passage; rumour – an extrinsic idea (unrelated to kingdoms, or mountains, and possessing no body with spying eyes) – has become an entity. We are alerted to the allegory by the very perverse incongruity of this ‘mixed mode’, by the precise and explicit nature of the metaphor; “it is the predicates that ‘say’ the one and the (personified) nouns that ‘mean’ the other” (Levin 25). To remove the allegory here, we could substitute the personification noun with an ordinary one (Levin 28) – instead of ‘Rumour’ we could say ‘Sarah’ (or whoever). However, Rumour, to be an effective allegorical monster, cannot be too conceptual or too ‘realistic’. For example, Ovid would struggle to personify a specific rumour or the concept ‘talk’ as these are difficult to caricature simply. Equally, the allegory would collapse if the character of Rumour as described were to undertake too many person-like actions, such as if she were to pull Achilles’ hair or develop a too ‘well-rounded’ personality; rumours are not actual people and cannot literally pull hair (this shatters the figurative unity). Thus, “in allegorical narrative, [discourse] and personification are inversely prominent” (Johnson 66); more of one, less of the other. Allegorical monsters are therefore less well-rounded characterizations and more glyph-like. “The more personal attributes we give our personification, the more we turn it first into a… character type… and finally into.. [an] individual” (Whitman 6) – which would push the allegory out of the reader’s awareness.

errorWe know that The Faerie Queene is an allegory because this balance is sufficiently maintained throughout. The Red Crosse Knight and Una are described without overcomplication of either extrinsic concept or intrinsic characterization; the allegory is apparent – he is a “norm of Holiness” (Padelford 2), she is “Christian Truth” (Padelford 4). Errour appears as a hideous supernatural monster, half-woman, half-serpent. Her very name, Errour, and her hybrid human-animal form alert the reader to another ‘mixed mode’ reference – the mismatch of idea (‘error’) and personification, the extrinsic references of woman and snake in unnatural combination. It is important to note that it is not Errour’s supernatural quality that is distinctive of allegory but the incongruity of the elements; they do not cohere on their own terms. (Does she possess the upper or lower half of the woman? Presumably the upper, but then how do her thousands of offspring fit inside her mouth?) When Red Crosse attacks her, Errour not only spews forth poison and gore but “bookes and papers.” (1.20.6). There is simply no credible way, within the frame of the story itself, that these could have got inside her (let alone remain intact). This signals that allegorical figuration is present.

So the allegorical quality of monsters like Errour involves both thinness of characterization and internal incongruity (‘outsideness’ or ‘artificiality’) to reference the extrinsic ‘other narrative’ idea. When considered dynamically in interaction with other figures and constructs within the narrative, these monsters clarify, educate, or challenge readers’ understandings and opinions about specific extrinsic concepts, events, or ideas. For example, Red Crosse is driven into the Wood of Errour by a tempest. This tempest is often taken to represent the beginning of the Reformation (Whitney 44). It is telling that Red Crosse ends up confronting the foul dragon Errour when he is helplessly lost as a result of this tempest, even though he is accompanied by Una and the dwarf – hence the allegorical meaning: even ‘Truth’ and ‘Prudence’ are confused in the calamity of the Reformation (Whitney 44).

Mimetic monsters have a noticeably different quality within their narratives. I am using the word ‘mimetic’ not so much because these monsters actually resemble (‘mimic’) ‘real’ monster-antagonists. I use ‘mimetic’ mainly in the sense of ‘non-allegorical’; these monsters have a stronger kind of internal ‘reality’. They make some sort of (albeit fantastic) sense within the narrative. Mimetic monsters are more believable. However, this does not necessarily mean they are more realistic in the sense of ‘resembling historical or physical reality’. For example, within the context of a narrative, Hitler is not necessarily a more believable antagonist than Grendel from Beowulf. Hitler may have actually existed in history whereas Grendel presumably didn’t, but both characters can be presented as mimetic, believable monsters; it depends, once again, upon the style and context. In one sense, all the characteristics of an allegorical monster are simply reversed – a mimetic monster is a more complex characterization, more intrinsic to its narrative ‘world’, and either does not suggest figurations, or such figurations are intrinsic and complex or obscure.

The Cyclops Polyphemus in The Odyssey, for example, is a much more well-rounded and complex monster than Errour or Rumour. Once again, the style of the narrative contributes to this impression. Homer’s use of contrasts contributes to a more believable narrative ‘world’. The menace of Polyphemus’ cave is all the more affecting in contrast with the apparently idyllic pastoral scene portrayed beforehand (Murgatroyd 166): the land is “no mean spot, / it could bear you any crop you like in season” (9.143-144),[4] the water-willows are “soft and moist” (9.146), the harbour, “snug” (9.150). This introductory episode, positions Polyphemus out of view contributing to a sense of unease but it also increases identification with Odysseus and his men (Murgatroyd 167); we care about them as people, rather than representative ideas. Johnson remarks, “[i]nstead of thinking about what [the character] represents, we must contemplate… what he will do” (66, emphasis in original).

More contrasts follow: the abject horror we experience when Polyphemus starts devouring Odysseus’ men is contrasted with dark humour as Odysseus tricks the monster into getting drunk on wine (Murgatroyd 168). Furthermore, even though Polyphemus is a loathsome, stupid and primitive monster as initially described, he is presented, briefly, in a sympathetic way, when he cowers in pain at his blinding, and shows a pitiful affection for his ram (Murgatroyd 170). In contrast to the monster Errour, who is “lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine” (1.14.9), and who dwells in a shadowy cave in a dark wood, Polyphemus is much less a black-and-white caricature.

All of this ambiguity and detail makes it very difficult to interpret the story allegorically. The very complexity of Odysseus’ escape plan – involving drink, the blinding, hiding under sheep etc. – cements the events into the specific world of the narrative itself; allegorical figurations would have to reference a parallel extrinsic narrative equally as detailed. Mimetic narratives can of course be read allegorically if a reader should choose to do so; in fact, Homer was often interpreted allegorically in 16th century Europe (Borris 16-20). However, such readings can be rather unconvincing and reductive; a lot of the detail must be overlooked or glossed over. Whitman outlines a section of The Iliad where the 18th century translator, Alexander Pope, capitalizes ‘Grief’ and ‘Rage’, as if these are allegorical personifications when no such personifications are present in the original text. “In Homer it is the person who acts, not the personification,” Whitman remarks (18). It is certainly difficult to conceive of a specific extraneous figurative reference for Polyphemus; he has symbolic rather than allegorical connotations involving the obscure forces of primitive irrationality (epitomized by Polyphemus’ character and actions within the story itself).

When comparing these two species of monster – the mimetic and the allegorical – it is clear that, despite the propensity for mimesis and allegory to overlap sometimes, each monster-type is largely unique and diametrically the opposite of the other. Author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien was scathing of critics who interpreted his novel The Lord of the Rings as allegory;[5] it must be admitted that allegory and mimesis have very different aims and functions. Even as long ago as the late 18th century, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remarked that “[a]llegory cannot be other than spoken consciously” (qtd. in Johnson 34), and he meant this as a criticism. Others complained that allegory “too consciously limits the text’s signifying potential” (Johnson 35), that it “distort[s]… apparently real or material details” (Kelley 31), and that it is “so obvious and so pedantic, so ‘sermonlike’” (Johnson 36). Of course, many of these criticisms were made by those specifically interested in mimesis with its more believable characters and situations, in which “readers leave their present reality, and dwell, for the duration of the story, within the world the writer creates” (Card 158).

A number of 20th century literary critics have disparaged mimetic literature (particularly modern fantasy novels) as populist and ‘escapist’, suggesting that the indulgent nature of the narratives distract, or propagate old-fashioned or harmful social-political ideas (Card 153). However, science fiction writer Orson Scott Card argues that mimetic narratives are not generally read for their social-political comment. In fact, ideology is likely to ruin a mimetic story; after all, “[Fantasy (mimesis)] is at its best when it is presented by a poet who feels rather than makes explicit what his theme portends” (Tolkien 15). ShelobCard uses the example of a mimetic monster, the giant spider Shelob from book 4 of The Lord of the Rings, to illustrate this. In their increasingly desperate and dangerous quest to infiltrate the land of Mordor unseen, hobbits Frodo and Samwise must pass through a dark tunnel inhabited by Shelob. Against enormous odds, Shelob is eventually skewered on the hobbits’ sword and painfully crawls away, apparently to die a painful death elsewhere. If we feel the painful and cruel death of Shelob to be too much for us, that she does not deserve to be dealt this death blow (by one of our heroes no less), Card argues that “the effect is not an argument, but rather a withdrawal from the world of the tale” (Card 164). Either that or the reader ignores the mistreatment of Shelob and tries to move on. Modern readers may feel a similar concern for Polyphemus when Odysseus skewers his eye; this may ‘break the mimetic spell’, as it were, leading to rejection of the ‘reality’ of the story.

So in conclusion, mimetic monsters such as Grendel, Polyphemus or Shelob tend to be characterized by a degree of believability achieved by an obscure complexity of connotations and contrasts in authorial style. These monsters ‘live and breath’ within the narrative structure. However, these qualities pose a problem if the author wishes to reference specific extrinsic ideological evils. In this instance, allegorical monsters such as Errour and Rumour achieve their authorial intentions far more effectively, having the clarity of a particularly pertinent illustrative example in a text book or ideological treatise. Relatively simple, fable-like  characterization allows for specific extrinsic figuration – such that the reader can easily designate their status as personified phenomena and in so doing detect a specific authorial ‘message’. Each species of monster therefore has a unique, exclusive function; rare instances of overlap between allegory and mimesis actually entail reading the same text in two drastically different and mutually exclusive ways.

WORD COUNT: 2520 (not including in-text citations)

Works Cited

Borris, Kenneth. Allegory and Epic in English Renaissance Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Card, Orson Scott. “How Tolkien Means.” Meditations on Middle Earth. Ed. Karen Haber. London: Earthlight, 2002. 153-174.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.
Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2012.
Kelley, Theresa M. Reinventing Allegory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Klein, Joan Larsen. “From Errour to Acrasia.” Huntington Library Quarterly 41 (1978): 173-199.
Krieger, Murray. “‘A Waking Dream’: The Symbolic Alternative to Allegory.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 1-22.
Levin, Samuel R. “Allegorical Language.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 23-38.
MacLean, Hugh, ed. Edmund Spenser’s Poetry. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1982. 6-19.
Miller, J. Hillis. “The Two Allegories.” Allegory, Myth, and Symbol. Ed. Morton W. Bloomfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. 355-370.
Murgatroyd, Paul. Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2007.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. David Raeburn. London: Penguin, 2004.
Padelford, Frederick Morgan. “The Spiritual Allegory of the Faerie Queene, Book One.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 22 (1923): 1-17.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: Allen & Unwin, 1983. 5-48.
Waters, D. Douglas. “Errour’s Den and Archimago’s Hermitage: Symbolic Lust and Symbolic Witchcraft.” ELH 33 (1966): 279-298.
Whitman, Jon. Allegory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Whitney, J. Earnest. “The ‘Continued Allegory’ in the First Book of the Faery Queene.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 19 (1888): 40-69.

[1] Johnson emphasizes that no value judgment is implied in the terms ‘strong’ and ‘weak’; these “simply designate degrees of allegoricalness” (8).

[2] Quotations from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene taken from MacLean 6-19. References are in ‘canto: stanza: line’ format.

[3] Quotations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses taken from David Raeburn’s translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[4] Quotations from Homer’s The Odyssey taken from Robert Fagles’ translation. References are in ‘book: line’ format.

[5] The concept that the One Ring represents anything as specific and extrinsic as ‘the threat of nuclear war’, for example, may perhaps cause readers to “turn [their] heads away in some embarrassment” (Card 156). This is as dubious as interpreting Animal Farm on the level of an amusing rural fairy-tale such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’ or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.

Written by tomtomrant

10 April 2013 at 11:22 am

Husserl’s Challenge to Empirical Psychology

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This is another essay from my philosophy class at Melbourne Uni. Husserl’s criticism is I think a radical point that can provide the basis of a ‘psychology’ of experience that is not confused with scientific/psychobabble theories which hold knowledge as the basis of experience (something I consider a tautology). I look forward to investigating this further in the summer break when I’ll have time to study what I want. I am particularly looking forward to attempting to join Sartre’s existentialism to mythological concepts.

Husserl believes that without phenomenology empirical psychology remains ‘naïve’. What does he mean? Is he right?

Edmund Husserl argues that empirical psychology cannot provide a sound methodology for investigating the structures of human consciousness. He argues that empirical psychology discloses confused, unreliable, often merely peripheral findings, limiting both the questions it can ask and the answers it can provide. This leads Husserl to argue for phenomenology as providing a more complete and logical system. I find Husserl’s argument to be confusingly presented but basically credible within the parameters of consciousness and its investigation. However, I would like to raise the suggestion that a credible argument, while not usually vitally affected by confusing presentation, may in fact be fundamentally undermined by such presentation in the unique instance of phenomenological theory.

In his 1911 essay, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science” (“Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft”), Husserl speaks of, “the ‘naiveté’ with which… natural science accepts nature as given” (172). By ‘natural science’, Husserl refers to the branch of the sciences focussed on studying the rules governing the natural world. These sciences – for example, physics, chemistry, biology – operate by means of the scientific method of empiricism. The basic empiricist practise involves positing a theory about nature, testing this theory in the physical world so as to determine if it is confirmed by natural conditions, thereby discovering nature’s laws, processes, and properties. This is what Husserl means by ‘accepting nature as given’; the empiricist necessarily presupposes that (a) there is a substantial physical world that exists to be tested: “Nature [is] considered as a unity of spatio-temporal being subject to exact laws of nature” (Husserl 169).

Further to this, Husserl also argues that the empiricist presupposes that (b) this world is existing separately from us, that is, the physical ‘natural’ world is not seen to rely on or be affected by our human perception. This is why empirical researchers take great care to ensure that their experiments are unaffected by human bias or influence: “physics… excludes in principle the phenomenal [read: the subjective human influence] in order to look for the nature that presents itself” (Husserl 178).

Husserl is not referring to the natural sciences per se as ‘naïve’. Famously, the empiricist theory has facilitated many of the great advances of modern science. Rather, Husserl attacks the application of empiricist methods (and their associated ‘naturalism’) within the social sciences, particularly within psychology, the study of human mental functions and behaviours. Husserl argues that the proper means of studying human consciousness is via phenomenology, broadly defined in this essay as the philosophical science concerning ‘anything psychical’ (180). The psychical dimension Husserl outlines is drastically different from the physical world as conceived of by the natural sciences. “Everything psychical…,” he writes, “is… a unity that in itself has nothing at all to do with nature, with space and time or substantiality and causality, but has its thoroughly peculiar [unique] ‘forms’. It is a flow of phenomena” (180). Husserl considers empirical psychology ‘naïve’ because it fails to take account in its methodology of this fundamental difference between ‘human’ and ‘physical’ nature.

For instance, in the psyche, Husserl argues, “there is, properly speaking, only one nature, the one that appears in the appearance of things” (179). This means that there is no fundamental split between the apparently ‘subjective’ elements of human perception and the physical, ‘natural’ phenomena of the empiricist’s conception. All phenomena of consciousness, including both ‘real’ things and ‘imagined’ things, are experienced in the same “flow” of consciousness. This contradicts (b) above. Along with this, the concept ‘real’, as defined by the empiricist, as in ‘substantial’, and ‘physically existing’, can have no intrinsic meaning in the psychical mode (Husserl 179). The mind experiencing a phenomenon does not necessarily “posit existentially… the individual being of empirical details” (Husserl 182). This contradicts (a); in the psychical mode, the substantial physical world need not exist – at least, not as the empiricist defines it.

And yet, and this is Husserl’s thesis, empirical psychology often presupposes nature, that is, human consciousness is studied as if it were a part of and functioning within the field of empirical nature. Nature is not removed from the equation at the outset so that consciousness can be studied in and for itself (as subjective consciousness was when studying nature), instead it is left in, where it distorts and confuses the enquiry. Husserl uses the example of a calculator, or, as Klaus Held elaborates for modern times, a computer (Held 11). The two domains of empirical naturalism and psychical phenomenology are imagined as the different ‘worlds’ of a computer’s hardware and its software. The ‘phenomena’ of these two worlds are very different: the ‘hardware’ world contains keyboard, mouse, table, and chair; the ‘software’ world contains icons, scroll bars, and windows. It then follows that the old joke about the secretary who applies liquid paper to the computer screen is a metaphoric illustration of how Husserl believes that empiricists are conducting their psychical research – by mixing up the two domains.

One could object that by separating the domain of psychical investigation from natural enquiry, Husserl is leaving the domain of credible science altogether. After all, when we study, say, rock-wallabies, we do not try to abandon human conception of nature (or rock-wallabies) and attempt to discover what the rock-wallaby sees itself as, in rock-wallaby terms. Such an exercise sounds, at best, like an expressive, artistic activity rather than a scientific one. However, when it comes to human consciousness, there is, I argue, one strong reason why we should abandon the empirical field and plunge into purely psychical thinking: the reasoning phenomenological philosopher is him- or herself, knowingly or unknowingly, examining the psychical from within the psychical domain itself. Hence another argument that supports Husserl’s thesis is that empirical study requires a separation from the object of study ((b) above) and no thinker can achieve this separation with respect to human consciousness; the empirical method is inoperative in such a situation. The human observer is forever compromising the empirical process when examining human consciousness itself.

Husserl also argues that the confusion between the psychical and the physical in empirical psychology reduces the psychical, the supposed object of study, to “a variable dependant on the physical” (169), lobsidedly granting intrinsic value to empirical facts only (170). The result is that psychical phenomena are treated as if they had the consistent physical qualities of substantial objects. Husserl likens this to a study of abstract numbers as if these were actual things that existed somewhere. Also, this effectively becomes a study of the content of consciousness while excluding the all-important structuring principles of the mind. The best result, according to Husserl, is that “experimental psychology… discovers… valuable regularities, but of a very mediate [incidental, peripheral] kind.” (174). However, it might be objected, to this view, that empirical psychologists do not mean these terms quite as concretely as Husserl suggests. Investigating ‘depression’ or ‘the Freudian id’, the psychologist interprets his or her terms less distinctly or partly metaphorically even in empirical studies, although this inconsistency is itself concerning.

Husserl suggests that only phenomenology can effectively investigate consciousness as it treats the psychical “according to its [own] essence in all its distinguishing forms” (173). His method is necessarily philosophical and rational, as in, non-empirical, because it must “admit no absurd naturalizings” (180). Indeed, Husserl argues that the very idea of conducting an empirical-style experiment ‘within’ the psychical domain is illogical, or at least, highly dubious. The “psychical… comes and goes; it retains no enduring, identical being that would be objectively determinable” (Husserl 180).

And yet, Husserl has a tendency of exaggerating all that phenomenology encompasses. This, I argue, has lead some interpreters (if not Husserl himself) to argue, or appear to argue, that phenomenology can offer radical new ontological discoveries (that is, discoveries about the actual existence of phenomena), or that Husserl at least leaves this option open. I argue that Husserl’s criticisms of empirical philosophy make it absolutely clear that phenomenology can in no way address the problem of ‘being’ in the sense that we usually mean this term, that is, as signifying empirical and ‘natural’ existence. When Husserl writes that, “In the psychical sphere… there is no distinction between appearance and being” (179), I interpret him to mean that, within the psychical mode, phenomena that are said to empirically exist are not intrinsically more meaningful or more ‘present to conscious’ than phenomena that we would empirically call ‘imaginary’, ‘subjective’, or ‘mere appearance’. (He may also mean that phenomena in a sense are, or exemplify, the structures of consciousness, as experienced.) He does not mean that phenomena, as experienced, may provisionally exemplify something intrinsic to empirical being at the same time as being only psychical ‘appearances’. If he is making this claim, Husserl is being inconsistent as: “What psychical being ‘is’, experience cannot say in the same sense that it can with regard to the physical” (180), and, “Knowledge of essence is by no means matter-of-fact knowledge” (182). Phenomenology, as clearly shown in relation to empirical science, cannot comment on empirical being as empirical laws and processes do not apply, cannot be made to consistently work, within the closed field of the psychical.

This confusion arises as a consequence of Husserl’s word usage (which may possibly be linked to the concrete terms required by rational philosophical discourse itself). For example, to demonstrate the type of problem: When we ask, ‘what exists for the psychical?’ if we mean ‘exists’ in the empirical sense, there is no answer to this question. It is invalid. But if by ‘exists’ we mean ‘is present to’, as in, ‘makes up’ and ‘is encountered as part of’, the flow of consciousness then this question can be answered using phenomenology. And yet the confusion around fundamental words, like ‘being’, remains.

In criticising Husserl’s confusing writing style (at least in translation), we must be wary that this may result from “the extraordinary wealth of consciousness-differences…[which] flow into each other without differentiation” (175). However, one wonders that Husserl can criticise psychology for using words in a vague, chaotic fashion (177), when his own use of terminology is hardly more illuminating. For instance, he often uses common terms but with obscure and diverse meanings that he fails to separately define – ‘intuitive fulfillment’, ‘casual perceptions’, ‘being-there’. Worse, he writes in abstractions and only very rarely provides examples to illustrate and clarify. This means that Husserl has many commentators all providing slightly differing impressions of his theory, to which I add the summary (or perhaps interpretation) in this essay.

This confusion in Husserl’s writing style is not likely to endear his arguments to a popular audience, but in most philosophical disciplines it is usually the reasoning that counts over the presentation (which can be overlooked as a mere irritating hindrance to ingesting the theory). I would like here to suggest, however, that when it comes to phenomenology, confused presentation may equate to confused reasoning. Husserl writes, “In the psychical sphere… there is no distinction between appearance and being” (179). He implies that, when studying consciousness, it is not what our consciousness perceives but of what it consists of that is pertinent. In other words, it is not what we are conscious of but the way of perceiving (of ‘being present to consciousness’) that should be studied. I argue this equates to the expression, ‘It is not what is said, but the way it is said.’ Hence, the word chosen to describe the psychical is as significant to consciousness as the appearance-being delineated. A misunderstood word (such as ‘being’) results in the grasping hold, in the mind, of an entirely incorrect conception, which any lack of clarifying metaphoric examples or word-definitions in the surrounding text may render entirely incomprehensible or permanently misunderstood. Phenomenology is the ultimate study of self-referential natively indistinct abstract structures of thought and meaning – a misplaced word actually changes the psychical structures delineated.

This is not the place to outline an alternative language system but I want to suggest that the metaphoric structures delineated through comparative mythology[1] might provide a clearer vocabulary for phenomenology. Metaphors are capable of multiple connections across the same ‘field’ of psychical phenomena as the mental processes they are mirroring. This way, there would be, as per consciousness, no difference between a metaphoric image (in the mind, of a phenomenon) and a meaning-structure (to the mind). I have not the space to argue this here but I raise this to illustrate how Husserl’s difficult language can be seen to compromise his argument, perhaps fundamentally.

To conclude, Husserl’s criticisms of empirical psychology centre on the inappropriate application of empirical methods to psychical studies. Husserl argues that empirical methods can only distort as the object of examination (the ‘psychical’) is either overlooked altogether or addressed only mediately. The extent which psychologists objectivise and ‘naturalise’ may be somewhat exaggerated but Husserl’s criticism is credible when we consider that empirical methods cannot function properly when human consciousness examines itself. However, Husserl’s attempts to explain phenomenology using ill-defined abstract terminology leads to a lack of clarity which hampers his argument and may undermine his philosophy as a viable alternative. This may in fact be Husserl’s ‘naivety’.

Word count: 2179 (including footnotes but excluding in-text references).

Works Cited:

Held, Klaus. “Husserl’s Phenomenological Method.” Translated by Lanei Rodemayer. The New Husserl. A Critical Reader. Ed. Donn Welton. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. 3-32.

Husserl, Edmund. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science.” Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. Translated by Quentin Lauer. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. 71-147. Reproduced in PHIL20041 Phenomenology and Existentialism Tutorial Reader 2012. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 2012. 2-12. (Page numbers in the text are according to the original 1965 translation pagination.)

[1] Mythology is here defined in the sense of myth and religion interpreted in a non-dogmatic, literary-style analysis in which the elements of the myth are read as metaphoric of psychical structures.

Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:02 pm

Posted in myth, philosophy

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Moral Objectivity and Moral Relativity: Semantic Disputes

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This is another rather heavy-going philosophy essay written for my Bachelor of Arts. It highlights the problem I keep finding in just about every unit of philosophy I study, namely, that there really is no conflict in apparently opposing systems of philosophical argument – only a difference of semantics in describing concepts that are purely mental. The result is that much of philosophy is like a heated and needlessly complex dispute between two parties – one who argues that feeling happy is ‘happiness’, another arguing that feeling happy is in fact ‘delightfulness’ – when the feeling is either exactly the same in both cases or so insubstantial and subjective as we may as well equate them. Both sides in reality agree on content but disagree on what words they wish to use to describe the content and in the process of argument breed more and more convoluted and meaningless theories which multiply the supposed explanations in the same manner that superstitions multiplied in the Middle Ages to describe scientifically unexamined “causes” for the Black Death.

Moral objectivists claim that moral judgements are objectively true – not true relative to a particular moral code. Do you agree with their claim? Defend your view.

Moral objectivists argue that moral judgements are objectively true – that is, that there is a moral code that is relevant in all situations and societies. I do not agree with this claim – moral relativism seems more correct – and yet I do not believe there is necessarily any fundamental disagreement between the two general views. I will argue that the difference is only semantic – we are describing the same mental processes in different ways.

Firstly, I argue that a moral judgement cannot be objective in the way that, for example, a physical force of nature is. We can measure forces like wind or gravity by observation of the natural world. We cannot measure morality like this. The argument that there are moral forces outside of our human perception is I think untenable.

Granting that moral judgements must occur, as far as we know, in the human mind, the argument for moral objectivity must be based on the idea of some kind of universal affinity for moral judgement among all human beings. This seems possible as we do all undergo common developments: we are all of the same species, so we all have similarities in our physical structural properties; we all are born, must consume food, and so forth. Hence we all must develop a capacity for similar thoughts and reactions including, or so a moral objectivist would argue, the same capacity for moral judgement.

The argument follows then that if two people or societies disagree about moral codes, there must be some subjective influence that has led one or both disputants to deviate from the objective moral ground. This subjective influence would, in the view of the moral objectivist, be considered an erroneous influence, distorting the disputant’s objective moral judgement. The objectivist assumes that such a disputant has made a mistake – he or she has perhaps become distracted by lust or greed, ‘irrational feelings’ or wrong ideas.

Now, the moral relativist looks at this differently. According to moral relativism, moral disputes are generally caused by legitimately different moral codes. The moral relativist does not hold that there is an objective moral code but that each of us forms his or her ideas of moral right and wrong based on such things as upbringing, commitments, personal meaning, cultural background and so forth. Therefore, according to the moral relativist, all morals are subjective.

It is very important here that I clarify what I mean by ‘subjective’ in this essay. By ‘subjective’ I mean simply ‘other than objective’ or ‘preconditioned by factors unique to a society or individual.’ I am not suggesting that moral relativism necessarily implies different moral judgements on the level of individual opinion (or whim), only that moral relativism by its very nature argues for the possibility of different but equally correct moral codes. Whether these moral codes are considered different on only the societal level, the individual level, or both, is not the subject of this essay, and will depend on the particular moral relativist theory. Suffice it to say that moral relativists do not believe in a set moral code that applies universally to all peoples and it is this that I am implying by the use of the word ‘subjective’.

A moral relativist could deny the existence of psychological properties that are common to all humanity – after all, we cannot seem to decide on exactly which judgements are morally objective so perhaps none of them are. Scientists have struggled to find an entirely objective reaction pattern in human beings; it seems that human psychological functioning is always heavily influenced by environment and upbringing.[1] In fact, it is this openness and flexibility in the human brain that makes us so complex as a species. You could use this as the basis for an argument that there are no truly objective reactions of any kind in humanity – we are always affected by some subjective factors – and so the idea of moral objectivity would be without any strong foundation. However, I think this would be a weak argument in itself. We all may be individually unique to some extent but we are not biologically distinct – we are all the same species after all and clearly seem to share common abilities.

Considering this, I do not think that the moral relativists must believe that there are no objective psychological similarities between human beings. Some degree of universal human psychological structuring is likely.[2] In fact, I argue that the moral relativist need not be in any disagreement with the moral objectivist insofar as what is really conceptualised here: some kind of common objective human judging function (O) combines with or is altered by a unique subjective human judging function (S) to produce a current professed value judgement (J). I argue that the disagreement resides on the level at which the judgements are said to be moral. The relativist speaks only of moral judgements on the level of (J), the values professed at the end of the process, while the objectivist believes that (O), the objective human judging function, is the unchanging basis of all morality. Or put slightly differently, the objectivist thinks the views about morality we express, (J), are determined by objective values, (O), interfered with or supported by subjective values, (S), while the relativist thinks they are a legitimate, sometimes more or less unique combination of objective (O) and subjective (S) values. (Note that there is no assumption here that every moral philosopher is defining (O), (S) or (J) in exactly the same way – that is, the content of these categories will vary according to the theory, but the general category of objective (O), subjective (S) and their culmination in a position (J) is always part of the argument, stated or implied.)

To clarify, we must look at an example. One society (society A) claims that it is improper (aka. morally bad) to cremate the dead. Another society (society B) says that cremation is morally good. As per above, the moral objectivist would explain this discrepancy with the view that the universal moral ground (O) – whatever that should say about disposing of the dead – has been altered or affirmed by some subjective values (S) unique to society A or B (such as religious views about the afterlife or the relative practicality of the burying the dead in the particular environment), producing their two differing professed values (J) above. The objectivist will then say that society A or society B can be considered right or wrong (or neither) according to whether their S affirms O or not. My point is the relativist essentially sees the same situation except that the relativist would not see O as determining what we refer to as morality; moral views are professed views (J), arrived at through sometimes unique though equally legitimate combinations of universal human values (O) – these not considered moral ideas per se – and subjectively unique factors (S). In this way, it makes perfect sense that the two societies would have differing views about cremation as each had to contend with differing subjective factors that are nonetheless legitimately arrived at.

To address the essentially definitional difference here, to discover which of these views is incorrect, we need to discover which one of them is defining morality incorrectly; should we rightly consider O or J as constituting morality proper? Unfortunately, there is no way of doing this as (O), the objective ground of judgement, and (J), the resulting professed moral views, are not objectively distinguishable – they are both just mental concepts; no one of these ‘exists’ more than the other, nor can either be said to be objectively more pertinent to ‘morality’. We can choose to call either (O) or (J) ‘morality’ if we so wish.[3]

This definitional conflict between what I am calling (O) and (J) explains all the objections to moral relativism put forward by James Rachel in his article.[4] The inductive argument for moral relativism, as Rachel states, does not prove there are no objective values (O), only a difference of professed opinion (J) – but I argue that this is all the moral relativist meant, as the relativist does not consider whatever constitutes (O) to be called ‘morality’. The apparently objectively immoral acts of repressive societies in the past or present do not pose problems for the moral relativist because it is only the professed views (J) of these societies that he or she considers as expressing their ‘morality’. The Nazi ‘morality’ may indeed disturb us in relation to what we perceive to be some objective human determinate (O), but the relativist is only considering the contemporary expression of these, (J), as constituting the concept ‘morality’. Also, these (J) morals are still capable of criticism from the point of view of our own current (J) views. Similar arguments can be used to clarify misunderstandings in relation to Rachel’s arguments about universal values (O) versus subjective customs (J),[5] and about the instances where the apparent universal function (O) is unaltered by the subjective factors (S) and so professed values (J) may happen to be the same as (O).[6]

To conclude, I argue we simply cannot answer the question as to the objective or relative nature of morality as we cannot agree on a sure definition of whether morality should properly be considered the objective human ground of judgement (O) or the professed judgements (J) reached as a result of subjective and objective factors.  We are likely to consider ourselves objectivists or relativists based on what level we conceive true ‘morality’ to be operating. I suspect that many relativists do not disagree fundamentally with objectivists; they may instead prefer to call the objective ground of judgement (O) something more mysterious than ‘morality’ or ‘utility’ such as ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’. The relativist conception of the shadowy nature of (O) may invite this alternative conception. Since I personally prefer to see (O) as something like ‘intuition’ or ‘universal necessities’ (rather than ‘morality’), and (J) usually what I mean by ‘morality’, I find the relativist argument that tiny bit more compelling. But I must admit that neither moral objectivist nor moral relativist conceptions are fundamentally more correct since the difference between these general ideas of human functioning which defines them as objectivist or relativist is finally semantic only.

[1] N. Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (London: Oxford University Press, 1951), 7-8.

[2] After all, philosophy itself often presupposes that we are all able to reason objectively.

[3] Although I have not the space to argue this here, I suspect that entirely subjective values (S) would not usually be considered as ‘morals’ in themselves by either party as these are usually seen as comprised of the subjective coincidences of social, cultural or environmental factors (if not just personal preferences) unrelated to an objective ground (O) that, whether it is conceived as ‘moral’ or not, still has a determining effect upon the professed (J) value.

[4] James Rachel, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 15-29.

[5] Ibid., 23-25.

[6] Ibid., 25-26.

Written by tomtomrant

20 May 2012 at 10:39 am

Posted in philosophy

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The Atheist, the Believer and the Confusion on both sides

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This is another piece written for my philosophy class. I’m sure there are “logical” holes and “unverified statements” in it but, honestly, I think it’s a tautology to correctly reason for the inappropriateness of reason. It’s like using emotion to be impassive. (This is another article in my series surreptitiously themed, ‘philosophy is just applying the logic systems of reason to experience, feelings and perception and then wondering why it all doesn’t make sense’…)

“The Christian begins the recital of his faith with the words, ‘I believe’, and it would be an utter distortion to construe this as anything like ‘I have inquired and found it reasonable to conclude’.”

“A person’s belief in anything, including religion, should be directly dependent on the evidence in favour of it.”

Discuss. Is the first of these claims right? The second? Both? Neither? Explain why.

These two statements represent the philosophic debate surrounding religious belief. The atheist thinks religious belief is ‘irrational’ because it is not verified by evidence. The theist argues that the basis of religious belief is not evidence but ‘faith’. I will argue that both misunderstand each other. The second statement is more incorrect as it treats religious belief as if it were a scientific hypothesis instead of a personal conviction. These things are very different. The first statement, made by Richard Taylor, is more correct but Taylor goes on to use faith as supporting religious belief which, as we shall see, is also problematic.

The contention here surrounds the definition of belief – there are two conflicting interpretations involved. The first defines belief as conditioned and adjusted by evidence – this belief we shall call a hypothesis. This is exemplified by the second statement above. The second definition is not conditioned or affected by external evidence – this belief is what Michael Scriven considers as simply confidence in an idea. I believe the impression is much stronger than this; it is really a personal conviction, as represented in the first statement. A hypothesis and a personal conviction are very different things, the former involving knowledge content – a hypothesis expresses fact content about the external world – the latter experience content – a personal conviction is subjective, internal and feeling-based.

Of these two ideas, it is important to note that one is not simply a poor or invalid version of the other. Consider: an incorrect hypothesis is distinctly different from a personal conviction. A personal conviction is expressive of personal experience or subjective impressions. Examples include statement like, ‘I believe in true love’ or ‘I really enjoy playing tennis.’ These statements cannot be ‘proved’ using external evidence as they involve some internal personal evaluation – they are subjective. Contrast this with statements like, ‘I believe I can jump from a ten-storey building and gravity will not pull me down,’ or ‘I believe I can drink arsenic and not die.’ Apart from being externally verifiable through evidence, these statements also do not involve subjective evaluation – they have no feeling content or ‘meaning’ without their factual value.

The cause of contention regarding religious belief is that these two concepts – hypothesis and personal conviction – have become mixed up, their definitions blurred. The situation is rather like that involving a smoker who enjoys smoking so much, it gives her such a personal buzz, that she claims it must be good for her despite the evidence against this. The personal conviction, ‘I enjoy smoking’ has been confused with the hypothesis concerning the physical effects of smoking on the human body, ‘I believe smoking is good for me.’ Examination of the physical effects of smoking (the evidence) by a scientist can invalidate the hypothesis but, unfortunately, for many a smoker this does not affect the personal conviction that smoking is enjoyable. Similarly, the theist’s personal conviction that God exists is not threatened by any evidence to the contrary, however this is only a personal conviction, I am not sure what the hypothesis is that the atheist attempts to invalidate. It may be something like, ‘A physical God exists somewhere overlooking our lives.’ Note that if this is the hypothesis, there is no physical evidence to examine here. God as a physical presence technically cannot be proven to not exist any more that it is possible to prove any negative statement. The atheists position here is that, since physical evidence cannot prove God’s existence, God is merely unlikely.

It has always concerned me that the atheist usually attempts to prove belief in God is irrational rather than harmful. The implication that anything irrational is necessarily valueless or worthless is a disturbing disparagement of important irrational elements in life such as emotional experiences, creativity, love, meaning, etc. Some more extreme atheists have argued that religious belief is harmful but these usually involve criticism of elements only peripherally associated with belief such religious wars, paedophile priests, conservative moral values or hypocritical church leaders. Science might equally be disparaged with reference to nuclear disasters, pollution or chemical warfare. These unflattering elements have no vital link to the core of the belief and prove nothing.

So what is the core of religious belief? To get to the answer to this question we need to examine the common traits of religious experience not popular hearsay or negative offshoot ideas. Michael Scriven says that the popularity of an idea such as religious belief cannot be trusted as evidence in its favour. I agree with this view – just because a large group of people believe something does not mean that they may not all be wrong. But Scriven contradicts himself when he goes on to dismiss religious belief based on refuting the popular views of religious people. This is not examining the physical effects of the belief – it is listening to hearsay.

If Scriven were a medieval doctor trying to discover a cure for disease, what he does here would be like listening to the superstitious stories of the survivors who claim that “I prayed to God,” or “I wore this lucky charm to keep off the devil.” He ignores the physical experience of his patients who, unbeknownst to them, may have saved themselves by simply washing more frequently. Such a doctor ignores the physical symptoms and listens to superstition and hearsay.

The ‘symptoms’ of religion do not include the usual ideas which atheists ‘disprove’ as ridiculous such as a physical God or the system of metaphysical punishment and reward, or even ideas like the Trinity. The essential religious element is a powerful awe-inspiring feeling, of wonder, of the numinous, a strong emotional intuition for a sense of rightness or emotional truth. This feeling is the basis for the personal conviction of religious belief. The internal source of this feeling is the reason why external evidence does not affect such a belief. Furthermore, the conviction ‘God exists’ is only one particular expression of what the religious experience is or means. By challenging this conviction, the atheist philosophy only challenges the particular verbal expression and not the religious experience itself. This is attacking only an associated idea again.

In reality, this verbal expression – ‘belief in God’ – only amounts to something like a metaphor which attempts to describe the religious experience. There is some objection to this idea by religious people as it seems to belittle God, but, significantly, every word we use to describe strong feelings is a metaphor to some extent. When I feel sad, this is an indistinct personal feeling which I may gauge as ‘sad’ or ‘sorrowful’ or ‘suicidal’ or ‘a bit down’. When we experience a personal attraction to another person we may call this ‘love’ or ‘lust’ or maybe I just ‘like’ them. It is significant that we often cannot easily tell which it is. This shows that the words we use are only expressions, verbal approximations for emotional feelings. However, these effects definitely exist to us despite their relatively insubstantial nature and our imprecision in naming each state definitively. Scriven dismisses metaphoric religion on the basis that most religious people deny this reading but once again, he does not listen to his own council – he is listening to hearsay and popular ideas instead of addressing the basis of belief.

So it seems that both sides in this debate are making vital errors. The religious believer, overcome with a powerful feeling of the numinous, explains this as ‘belief in God’, then makes the mistake of over-interpreting this literally, positing a physical God, and denying the feeling and metaphoric basis of the ‘power that fills his soul’. The atheist then comes along and correctly refutes the over-interpreted idea, but rather than criticising the theist’s verbal expression of ‘belief’ as too general or confusing, he dismisses the religious experience altogether. This rightly offends the theist because the atheist is essentially censuring him for having a meaningful experience, indeed this experience is the source of any and all awe-inspiring feelings in anyone’s life. Just as no one is necessarily unable to experience love or anger, even the atheist can feel the awe-inspiring ‘religious’ feeling too, it is simply that the atheist refrains from naming the experience as anything other than ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’. (This vagueness may, disturbingly, devalue such an experience, which is what can happen if you over-emphasise rational thought).

So in conclusion, the first statement is closer to the truth because the second disparages religious belief based on an inappropriate definition – it says all forms of belief must be based on hypothesis which is not the case. However, the first statement is used by Taylor to suggest ‘faith’ is the basis of religious belief and ‘faith’ is another cloaking metaphor for the religious feeling which is only called upon because it is conveniently vaguer and so less refutable by scientific hypothesis. However, later in Taylor’s article he quotes Hume describing faith as “a continuing miracle in [a believer’s] own person.” What could this bizarre sentence mean if it is not a metaphor expressing poetically a numinous feeling-impression? Until either side of the argument is willing to admit the experiential nature of belief or define properly their use of the word ‘belief’ then both sides will be arguing against each other’s own misunderstandings.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:16 pm

Kant’s Autonomous Willpower

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This is my essay from Philosophy class. Warning: the gobbledegook that is philosophy is present in most of the first section, although I think my point surpasses and outcomes this. The marking of a philosophy essay is frankly beyond me (see note at end). 

Kant claims: “an absolutely good will, the principle of which must be a categorical imperative, doesn’t specify any object, and contains only the form of volition, as such, and this form is autonomy.”[1]

Explaining such a statement is the central problem of Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals. I will attempt an explanation of the statement above, presenting his best argument for it, but I will go on to argue that, due to his attempting to represent in words the essentially non-representative forces of the intelligible world of the will, we shall need to redefine or, at least, refine the definition of many of Kant’s terms to fully make sense of his theory. This semantic confusion is perhaps a result of philosophic discipline or it may be purely linguistic and historical, the work concerning numinous impressions translated into words, translated into 18th century German,  translated into 21st century English. I contend further that this best objection is more of a misunderstanding which clouds the issue than a bad argument.

To begin, I will address each of the statement’s terms in turn, starting with the absolutely good will. A will, for Kant, is “the ability to act according to the thought of laws.”[2] It is the decider which rational beings possess that chooses, using mental evaluation, which action to take according to principles of some sort. An absolutely good will evaluates in such a way as to be absolutely good in this choice of action. It is, in a sense, good character,[3] to be a good decider of action (as distinct from merely doing pleasing deeds). Power, intelligence, personality – these things may be desirable but without good will, Kant argues, they are not truly good or virtuous.[4] There is some necessary circularity in his argument: “good will is good because of how it wills – i.e. it is good in itself.”[5] In other words, good will is good because it is good. This circularity comes from the word, ‘absolutely,’ that is, completely, unquestionably, perfectly. It is difficult to find other words to describe something so perfect and complete.

Kant’s absolutely good will commands categorical imperatives because ‘categorical’ means ‘absolute’. Something absolutely good cannot be only conditionally good – ‘conditional’ as the opposite of ‘absolute’ means ‘subject to the conditions of, for example, the situation, the people involved, your goal, the weather, etc.’ A categorical imperative is unconditional – the command is given without provisos.[6] The command is not, ‘do this when such-and-such condition prevails’ or, ‘if in situation A, then do this,’ etc. This explains the ‘absolute’ part of the absolutely good will. When we add the quality ‘good’, we read, ‘you should do this because it is absolutely good’ – absolute goodness is the only condition, if you like. Once again, the reason for this circularity is that there are no words to define or compare absolute goodness hence there are no words to justify absolute goodness, as it is wholly absolute. The absolutely good will must give categorical imperatives because otherwise the will would not be absolutely good.

As a result of all this, the absolutely good will cannot specify an object, something we are trying to attain. Firstly, an imperative containing the clause ‘in order to attain a specific goal’ would be conditional: ‘you must do this if you want to attain the goal.’[7] Therefore the will would not be issuing a categorical imperative and so not be absolutely good (see above). Secondly, by having a specified object, the will would be treating everything it encountered as a means to attain this object, that is, it would make decisions as to actions based on their relative value.[8] ‘Relative’ is also in opposition to ‘absolute’; to decide which action to perform based on its relation to a goal, could not be operating from a standpoint that is absolute. For instance, the actions would be only good for the goal in question, for me, for achieving X; they would not be absolutely good.

The absolutely good will only contains the form of volition insofar as we understand what a categorical imperative is. A categorical imperative by its very nature, is only the form of volition[9] because the content of volition would be a specific goal we are seeking to attain and this, as per above, would be conditional, specific and relative, all opposed to the concept of absolute good.

Kant called this mere form of volition autonomy in the sense that it is a command that emanates from inside the mind. Since, as we have seen, an absolutely good will can only issue categorical imperatives, unconditioned by any specific situation or object, it is clear that the motivation of the command does not herald from the material world. The material world can only be accessed via your body, which is always in a particular place at a particular time – in other words, in a situation. As a result, all directives issuing from the outside world can only motivate you to act if there is a material-world object interesting you in performing the action. Therefore, the idea of absolute goodness must arise a priori, without derivation from empirical, material-world experience. The proof for this rests largely on the all-pervading, irresistible idea of freewill; we feel we can choose our actions independent of the natural laws of the material world.[10] For instance, we do not explain our actions as exclusively a combination of situation, biology, habits, or the causal qualities of space and time (though, of course, since our body is in the material world, we must be subject to these laws all the same). Furthermore, the requirement that a categorical imperative must apply categorically, also includes that it must apply to oneself, not just to others or the universe generally. In this sense, the absolutely good will is autonomously self-directing, a mysterious force or volition emanating from within the mind.

I contend that Kant’s best argument for this claim is analytic and, as frequently illustrated above, contained in the definition of the word ‘absolute’. Since the absolutely good will does not rest on material-world experience – it is a purely a priori idea – explaining it or arguing for it on the basis of real-world examples is, I think, a poor way of arguing for its importance and validity.[11] It clearly operates entirely apart from these concerns.

My principal objection to Kant’s view is that he makes the mind, along with the will itself, more rational and moral than is justified. Consider: what does Kant mean by absolute good exactly? Kant is referring to a sense of absolute, all-pervasive ‘rightness’ or ‘correctness,’ I think, but I mean these words without any moral, ethical, or rational content, as, I believe, though unbeknownst to him, Kant does. He writes of a powerful sense of absolute good that does not rely on empirical-world terms. This removes it from the social sphere of governmental law with its statues of rights but also from the subjective human sphere of rationally or even ethically right-or-wrong judgements;[12] good and bad, useful and useless involve real-world input. Kant argues that the idea of absolute good therefore must be rational, that is, a result of ‘pure reasoning’. This is a tenuous leap. By ‘pure reasoning,’ most people mean abstract though concrete thought such as logic or mathematics with their systematic laws and theorems. But Kant’s absolutely good will does not employ, by any stretch of conception, a set of concrete laws or even terms. Of course, he calls the process ‘moral law’ but, as he repeatedly emphasises, there is no input, no object and no content in its workings; it does not treat people, actions or concepts like mathematical or syllogistic[13] processes (this would be using them as a means to an end), and furthermore, he writes, “how this presupposition [of freedom]… is possible can never be grasped by human reason.”[14] In sum, absolute good will is an irrational,[15] unreasoned though abstract sense of intrinsic ‘rightness.’ It is not conditioned by specific ends; it does not suggest doing but being, being a good decider of action, being a good person.[16] In this sense, it is a pure sublime impression, going beyond reasoned moral judgement. The word ‘right,’ as in intrinsically ‘correct,’ ‘appropriate’; or ‘true,’ not in the factual sense, but in the emotional – as in emotionally ‘real,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘balanced’, ‘at one’ even just mysteriously ‘meaningful’ – are, I argue, closer to the absolute good that Kant outlines.[17]

Kant’s conclusions should not be devalued by this criticism. His system provides a tenable framework explaining genuine altruistic inspiration. His weakness is in trying to subsume too much under rational processes (in this respect he is similar to other Enlightenment philosophers, who felt the need to justify inspiring religious feeling[18] by ‘proof’ of God’s accord with reason). His insistence on rational terminology makes the Groundwork excessively confusing but not invalid per se. A relaxing of Kant’s language – something like ‘a sense of rightness’ for ‘moral law’, ‘meaningful suggestion’ for ‘categorical imperative’, ‘impressionistic’ for ‘intelligible’ – would clarify the proper feeling of these mysterious experiential elements – although the Groundwork makes perfect sense when read metaphorically, with an understanding that rational language is here used semi-poetically to refer beyond reason to a ground of pure emotion/mystery. Kant seems to recognise this himself when he suggests applying his three principles of morality simultaneously “to introduce a certain analogy[19] that will bring an idea of reason closer to intuition and thus nearer to feeling.”[20]

NOTE ON THE MARKING OF THIS: Aside from lamenting the absence of a bibliography which the question specifically stated was not necessary, the marker thinks “much more could have been said about autonomy and intention” – although besides using Kant’s exact (and confusing) terms when discussing this in my second longest paragraph (para 6), I am not sure what else was required. (I suspect putting things into my own words and not using philosophic and Kantian buzz words did not work in my favour here.) My criticism of his rationality was apparently “on target” but my argument regarding semantics needed “much more support” – once again, semantics is words, what kind of evidence do we need for words? Presumably more than the word limit permitted. Did I mention I might major in this? Gives you second thoughts…

[1] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Jonathan Bennett; available from p. 40. [Access date not given.]

[2] Ibid, p. 18 (emphasis removed).

[3] Ibid, p. 5. The parallel is implied: “[good talents and temperaments] can become extremely bad and harmful if the person’s character isn’t good – i.e. if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature isn’t good.” Here character and good will are equated.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid (Kant’s emphasis).

[6] Ibid., p. 19.

[7] Ibid., p. 28.

[8] Ibid: “Things that are preferred have only conditional value, for is the preferences (and the needs arising from them) didn’t exist, their object would be worthless.” (Kant’s emphasis.)

[9] Ibid., p. 20: The categorical imperative is “concerned with… the form and the principle from which the conduct follows.”

[10] Ibid., p. 44.

[11] Ibid., 24. The perfunctory way in which Kant treats his real-world examples suggests their relative unimportance. He puts off the “serious, considered division of duties for a future metaphysic of morals” (footnote 9, p. 24). The examples he gives are somewhat confusing in their hallucinatory logic and besides, “we can’t site a single sure example of someone’s being disposed to act from pure duty” (p. 14) anyway.

[12] These right-or-wrong judgements are what we usually call morality (indeed this is what Nietzsche means by the term) but Kant uses his own definition of ‘moral law,’ ‘ethics’ and even ‘rationality’.

[13] A logical syllogism requires an “if” and so could not be categorical.

[14] Kant, Groundwork, p. 51 (my emphasis).

[15] As in, ‘emotional, not based on the pure reasoning of logic or maths,’ not, ‘other than mental’.

[16] Kant, Groundwork, p. 5: As mentioned earlier, see Kant’s equating it with ‘character,’ being a good person.

[17] Of course, Kant seems to reject the emotional ‘meaning’ qualities I am suggesting with the use of words like ‘rationality,’ ‘reason’ and ‘moral law,’ but I contend that he has redefined these terms so that they do not mean what most people take them to mean, at least not today.

[18] If religious awe is not related to this idea of absolutely good will, what is it then?

[19] A.k.a. metaphor.

[20] Kant, Groundwork, p. 34.

Written by tomtomrant

23 November 2011 at 12:28 am

Posted in myth, philosophy

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Interdependent Arising: Meanings for Buddhism and for the Individual

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This is an essay for one of my uni subjects. It fits the theme of the writings on this site. The prompt was to explain the Buddhist concept that ‘you are nothing more than a collection of ever-changing parts’, its validity and its problems

The Buddhist idea that you are nothing more than a collection of ever-changing parts is difficult to disprove. The idea reveals a fundamental property of existence, however, the conclusions reached about its implications for the actual living of life conflict even within Buddhism itself. I will argue that the most intelligent objection to the idea is not based on its validity per se but on its potentially destructive effect upon the development of the mature individual when too narrowly considered. However, the deepest conceptions of Buddhist ideas are so numinous and life-affirming that even these objections are revealed as probably misinterpretations.

The idea of interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada) is a central teaching of Buddhism. Briefly stated, it is the idea that “human life is a continuous process of change, rising and falling through interdependence with numerous other processes” (Koller, 153). All that we see around us is conditioned by interconnected and fluctuating processes; nothing is either permanent or separate (Koller, 157). Ignorance of this leads to duhkha, the dissatisfaction, suffering and anguish of life. By considering anything in life as permanent and separate, one generates trishna, futile desires and attachments to people, things and ideas that are ultimately devoid of any absolute reality. The idea of the self which most people consider largely continuous and unchanging is also a fiction. The person is only an aggregate of mental and bodily processes, of sensation, perception, volition, consciousness and physicality (Koller, 157). Pursuit of self leads to futile suffering and ultimately death, rebirth and the continuance of this vain struggle in future lives. The Buddhist aim is to extinguish trishna by experiencing the reality of interdependent arising thereby reaching the state of nirvana (literally, ‘extinguished’).

Firstly, interdependent arising is not a difficult idea to marry with modern science. Our bodies are impermanent (we die) and made entirely of foreign elements; the living organism is supported solely by fresh supplies of water, oxygen and food. The impermanent nature of reality is well supported by modern scientific understandings of matter as dynamic and active (Jinpa, 873). The concepts of the relativity of space and of quantum mechanics (Yong, 53) marry with the Buddhist rejection of absolute notions of time, matter and consciousness (Jinpa, 873). And no matter how much we may delve into the complexities of neuroscience, the discovery of a verifiable (not to mention separate) ‘self’ is not likely.

And yet how we react to and emphasize the reality of impermanence makes a world of difference both in terms of how we experience life and of how we view Buddhist ideals. For instance, as per Joseph Campbell: “It is extremely difficult for an Occidental mind to realize how deep the impersonality of the Oriental lies” (276).[1] The concept of no-self could not be more averse to the view of the Western individual; as Susan E. Donner states: “the self [in the West] is… treated as though it were a definable knowable entity with particular characteristics” (217).

It is tempting to see this individualistic view as deluded, a reflection of the ‘materialistic’ West, yet it may be more sophisticated that the Buddhist view in some respects. The idea of the id in the psychology of Freud and Jung – the selfish ‘pleasure principle’ constantly demanding, ‘I want it!’ – is an exact match for the Buddhist concept of trishna. Yet in Western thinking, the selfish id motivations are to be sublimated under the rational guidance of the ego, which is the centre of the mature personality. In Buddhist thinking, we are to give up ego altogether, but what is meant by ego in Buddhism is actually what is meant by just the id in Western thought. In other words, the Buddhist system does not acknowledge the possibility of a balanced, rational human ego at all – the individual psyche is either deluded (in the grip of the id) or it has been dissolved away into the impersonal bliss of nirvana (Campbell, 14-15).

Thus, the primary objection to Buddhist interdependent arising is that, while it is apparently true, it is too narrow-sighted by itself and not conducive to the maturation of a personality. This personality provides the impetus for development in society, in the arts, in technology; for adventure and achievement within the world, and for the formation of moral values. Without social institutions advocating expressly human ethical values, there are few means of protesting on the socio-political level – hence the weak resistance to inhuman acts of violence such as those perpetrated by the “maniac” Chinese despot Wuzung (Campbell, 452) or by the Chinese Communists when invading peaceful Buddhist Tibet (Campbell, 505-516). Similarly, P. T. Raju argues against the Buddhism tendency toward asceticism and the resulting collapse of society, the huge ascetic population no longer favouring work or defence (269-270).

Even if an idea, such as interdependent arising, is apparently true, its value is reflected in its position within the entire framework of conception. The Therevada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions provide a good example of differing frameworks. Interdependent arising suggests the apparent solidity of life is an illusion. The Therevada conclusion: reject the world, purge oneself of illusion, board the ferryboat built solely for the mendicant life (hence the derisive designation ‘small ferryboat’ (hinayana) by the Mahayana) and struggle toward the yonder shore of nirvana (Campbell, 279). But, the Mahayana Buddhist asks: where do you think you are going? If the world and the self is really ‘empty’ then from where are you voyaging to reach which yonder shore? The universe itself is a ‘great ferryboat’ (mahayana) going absolutely nowhere, since we all are already ‘empty’. There is no need to retire to the woods, nirvana is everywhere; it is a state of mind that but needs realisation (Campbell, 280).

Both schools use the same terminology but reach two different conclusions from the original idea of interdependent arising. I would argue that the Mahayana conception is the deeper and more complex reading as it recognises the psychological and experiential nature of nirvana. After all, the experience of enlightenment is repeatedly emphasized by the Buddha (Dwivedi, 206). I would argue that this idea of nirvana as pure experience comes closest to the spiritual truth of interdependent arising and coincidentally it is also the most conducive to Western thinking – since the vital experience is non-dual, nirvana can be achieved just as well through the performance as through the cessation of acts.

Therefore the Buddhist conception of the Western individual as the ‘little self’ – “an arbitrary, somewhat idiosyncratic aggregate of processes that come and go” (Donner, 222) – is to my mind an error of judgement. Individual attachment versus collective extinction is just another pair of opposites that the experience of nirvana should go beyond. Like the Bodhisattva, we should realise the truth of interdependent arising, that nothing is really there, but then venture back into the world of exciting illusions to play the game while still experiencing this truth inside. The criticism of individualism is, I suspect, based on the assumption that the Western individual is not experiencing the blissful joy of the non-dual experience. Indeed, with the post-modern conception of the self as merely “a cultural construction subjectively experienced… overstimulated and bombarded [with] shifting values” (Donner, 225), it is indeed difficult to achieve. But this does not mean a spiritual centring is impossible, in fact the post-modern deconstruction of the self “offers a great deal in disarming the destructive force of uncontemplated power dynamics” (Donner, 226) which, it could be said, is the aim of the Buddhist ideal too.

The modern Western concept of interdependent arising rests within a different, more challenging framework than the Buddhist idea – the Western aim is not to reject but to solidify ego, to nurture and refine a balanced, mature, yet unique self that can sublimate the sometimes destructive urges of the id and convert the impersonal maelstrom of a fluctuating ‘interdependent reality’ into numinous personal meaning. The Western idea of ego is as a unique arbiter between challenging inner and outer processes; the apparent emotional instability of ‘capitalist’ daily life may properly reflect an unrealised, often dangerous yet humbling, nearness to the numinous (nirvana).

Word count: 1,350 (including citations).

Works Cited:

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1962.

Donner, Susan E. “Self or No Self: Views from Self Psychology and Buddhism in a Postmodern Context.” Smith College Studies in Social Work. 80 (2010): 215-27.

Dwivedi, Kedar Nath. “An Eastern Perspective on Change.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 11 (2006): 205-12

Jinpa, Thupten. “Buddhism and Science: How Far Can the Dialogue Proceed?” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science. 45 (2010): 871-82.

Koller, John M. Asian Philosophies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Raju, P. T. “The Concept of Man in Indian Thought.” Concept of Man. Ed. S. Radhakrishnan and P. T. Raju. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960. 158-206.

Yong, Amos. “Mind and Life, Religion and Science: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Buddhism-Christianity-Science Trialogue.” Buddhist-Christian Studies. 28 (2008): 43-63.

[1] As my assessor remarked, the use of the word “Oriental” is dated but Campbell does not use the word in the pejorative, exoticist, repressive Western-empirical sense. One could substitute “Asian” as per modern scholarship. Indeed, the subject-recommended Koller text, “Asian Philosophies”, has a note inside its cover stating that the earlier editions of the book were similarly entitled, “Oriental Philosophies.”

Written by tomtomrant

5 November 2011 at 10:08 am