The Place Where Higher Ed Comes To Die

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My desire to draw these blog posts back to a more process philosophy, “Whiteheadian” orientation keeps getting hijacked by current events. But in this particular instance, the Whitehead connection is not entirely lost. That is because Alfred North Whitehead was not only a beloved educator and professor, but a highly respected administrator at London University, where he finished his career as a specifically British academician. Many of Whitehead’s most important essays on education are collected in the volume The Aims of Education. But one of the things not discussed in great detail in that collection is the administration of higher education.                                            Closed

In Whitehead’s case, this is most likely due to the fact that when and where he came up through university, when and where he taught, did his research, and performed his administrative tasks, it was in a university system with roots that stretched back to the early medieval times, and that was present at the birth of the modern university in the late 18th C. Facing forced retirement from the English university system, Whitehead (who was not ready to retire) came to the U.S., where he was confronted by a very different system of administration. Over a century ago (and years before Whitehead arrived) Thorstein Veblen was condemning the well-established forces that were trying to mutilate the comparatively nascent American system of higher-education into a profit-stream oriented business. So Whitehead’s educational writings never had much chance to address the trends, as the very thought of them was completely alien to his thinking, and his thinking was oriented toward the most significant development in speculative philosophy of the last 2300 years. Continue reading

Process Philosophy and Process Theology

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Talk about “God” makes numerous appearances in Whitehead’s metaphysical magnum opus, Process and Reality (PR hereafter), which is a source of histrionic consternation for some and febrile enthusiasm for others. I’ll not name names, but anyone familiar with the secondary literature will likely have some notion of persons fitting each description. I think it is a fair assessment to say that, within the United States, the Whitehead scholarly community is dominated by the theologians. (Very cursory and unscientific impressions of the European and Asian communities suggests the situation is quite otherwise in those regions.) This unbalanced view of things tends, I suspect, to narrow the range of application of process thought, and unduly limit its potential and legitimate influence. Also, being a process philosopher, it just kind of pisses me off. It’s like going to your favorite bar or club, and even though there are over 800 songs in the jukebox, only 12 of them are ever allowed to be played. Never mind that they might be 12 really good songs. If the only album I was ever allowed to listen to – ever again – was Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, I’d give up listening to music in pretty short order; after a while, you just want to hear something else.Fractal Nautilus

Please make no mistake here: I am in no way disdaining either theology or, specifically, process theology. But philosophy is different from theology, and even when philosophers use “The G Word” they are using it differently from theologians. And Whitehead’s usage was strictly philosophical in nature. So the theological developments of Whitehead’s thoughts on the subject are just that: developments. And there is absolutely no reason why such developments should be eschewed. But neither should those developments be taken for that primary matter, either. I am not going to revisit the discussion of the G-word here, that I covered in the post hyperlinked above. But there are some specific issues relating to contemporary Whitehead scholarship in America that might, in their discussion, suggest ways in which process philosophy is relevant to a broader audience.

To begin with, while Whitehead uses the word “God” with some frequency in PR, there is almost nothing in that book that could support a religious or theological sense of the term. For Whitehead, “God” is the term that designates the rational order of the universe coupled with the font of creativity and origination. There is nothing even remotely personal about it in this usage. It is only on the basis of how people choose to interpret a few sentences in the last section of the last (and quite short) chapter of the entire book, that Whitehead’s work gets stretched into a theological thesis. And even here, there is scarcely any foundation for viewing this “God” as a person. Some of this extravagance comes from Whitehead’s previous usages of words like “experience” and “feeling” to characterize the most primitive forms of relatedness possible (more on Whitehead’s choice of terms in a moment). An electron interacting with a magnetic field “feels” that field; but there is nothing cognitive or conscious in that “feeling.” It simply indicates how the electron is embedded in the universe as an “electronic occasion.” Similar care needs to be exercised with Whitehead’s use of the word “God,” especially if one’s intention is to stay true to Whitehead’s ideas, rather than engaging in novel developments. There is nothing wrong (again!) with such novelty; one just needs to be clear about what it is one is doing.

Many people have been turned off by Whitehead’s use of the word “God.” Various scholars have argued that the entire concept can be eliminated from his metaphysics (along with his “eternal objects”) without any loss or problem. I have been personally asked why Whitehead simply didn’t use another word to cover the above mentioned issues. The Greek word “arché” (“αρχή”) could easily cover the ideas of rational order and creative advance. But here’s the thing: rumors to the contrary notwithstanding (and they are plentiful), Whitehead never used neologisms, and never used non-English words to convey his thoughts. So what other word than “God” was he supposed to use in these various metaphysical contexts?

(“Eternal objects” are essential as well to his system: this is the term Whitehead uses for pure relational structures of possibility and potentiality. They are “eternal” in the sense that temporal considerations do not enter into their consideration. You cannot do away with rational structure and possibility without doing away the the pretense of thought, never mind Whitehead’s philosophy.)

The ideas are difficult, and the terminology often obscure, but philosophy isn’t supposed to be easy. However, with the dominating influence of process theology in this country, getting people past their “atheist owies” around the G-word becomes much more difficult. And lets make no mistake here, people like Richard Dawkins and others have not improved matters by their self-righteous presumption to know all there is to know about religion (while knowing nothing at all about theology, much less philosophy) because they once watched five minutes of Jerry Falwell on the television. But understanding the abuses people have endured at the hands of religion is a responsibility as well. So making Whitehead’s philosophical concept of God accessible to everyone is a responsibility that all Whitehead scholars share – perhaps, especially, the process theologians who’ve only bothered to advance discussion of the theological ideas they have freely constructed on Whitehead’s philosophical concepts. (“Idea” stands to “concept” as “genera” to “species.” Whitehead’s discussion was much more specific than those wide-ranging generalizations that process theologians have since developed.)

So how about some of those specifically philosophical meanings?

Let’s go back to that biggie, the stuff covered by the dreaded G-word. People have occasionally tried to argue against the reality of the rational structure of the universe. They are pretty funny, twisting themselves into pretzels like that, since in order to argue for anything, one must first presuppose that rational structure. So the folks who try to make such an argument (various flavors of existentialists (not all) and certain religious fideists, for example) must take for granted that which they claim cannot possibly exist. Not the ideal strategy for making your case. That said, the hyperventilating hysterics attendant upon the philosophical usage of the G-word will continue to make it a problem that constantly needs to be re-explained.

Perhaps the most important thing that process philosophy brings to the party is a more coherent, more defensible theory of Nature. I capitalize the word deliberately, because Nature in the process sense includes robust theories of possibility and time, something that current science and naturalism thoroughly lack. Particularly at the cosmology end of physics, time is treated essentially (though arguably not identically) as a spatial dimension, in which all of time is already there. Brian Greene characterizes time as a “frozen river” in various writings. This is what is known as a Parmenidean block universe. In process philosophy, time is genuinely real and, for Whitehead, more basic than space. Temporality itself is (again, for Whitehead) not a primitive; time is a natural fact, not a metaphysical given. (Details can be found HERE.) But that natural fact is a genuinely evolving one, not a static reality that only the limits of our observational capacities prevents us from “seeing” in its “totality.”

On ethical matters, it is a little trickier to tease out a purely Whiteheadian response (though Hall has taken notable steps in this direction). Still, a few points are worth highlighting within a process philosophical perspective. First, ideals can be “real” (as in, genuine relational possibilities), without being fixed, existent “things.” Second, developing from the first, ideals can emerge as possibilities change and make different actualities concretely present. Thus, it arguably makes no sense to talk about a “right to privacy” or a “right to healthcare” prior to the 19th C., since the possibilities for invading the first or providing the second, in any large scale or meaningful form, simply did not exist. This last will be a topic for a later post.

Reading Between The Texts

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A review of The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1924–1925: Philosophical Presuppositions of Science, Edited by Paul A. Bogaard and Jason Bell. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

One of the single greatest regrets of Whitehead scholars everywhere was Whitehead’s desire that all of his papers be burned after his death. His wife Evelyn dutifully fulfilled that wish, leaving the scholarly community with an enormous gap in its grasp of Whitehead’s thought, and the nature of its development over the years. Whitehead, for his part, wished for no such scholarly interpretations to be imposed upon his thought; his books, Whitehead believed, should be read and interpreted as they stood, with no “extraneous” materials being used to interpolate further ideas, “between the texts,” as it were, that were not already explicitly stated in those texts.Harvard Lectures 1

In one respect, Whitehead’s wish was not all that unreasonable: authors in general want their works to stand and be judged on their own, and not second guessed by readers using materials the author has specifically left out. There are, however, at least two problems with this desire. The first is that as soon as the work exceeds the complexity of a “Dick and Jane” story, the difficulties of interpretation amplify significantly. The second problem is that, regardless of the complexity of the work, the author’s wishes are always going to be ignored by scholars. And when the two problems are operating together, that scholarly interpolation will, unless it is anchored by some substantial body of secondary materials (such as that which Whitehead had burned), often enough run riot in untethered speculation. Continue reading

Evidence

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In one of the more spectacularly fatuous recent displays of why formal public debates are a complete waste of time, Ken Ham (creationist promoter of Kentucky’s financial albatross “Noah’s Arc” theme park) and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) “debated” the question of evolution versus creationism. Now, for there to be a debate, there first has to be something TO debate and, in this instance of course, there was not. While there are many scientific issues of deep perplexity still to be found in the theory of evolution, there is no reasoned question as to the FACT of evolution. Creationism, on the other hand, lacks even the abstract possibility of scientific – or even logical – content; not even amounting to a fabulous “just so story,” creationism is nothing but childish hand-waving, and it is incapable of being anything other than such hand-waving. (Detailed scientific texts on evolution can be downloaded for free from the National Academies Press HERE.)Ham-Nye-debate-in-a-nutshell

Still, one of the stand-out moments of this exercise in wasted time, which thoroughly demonstrates why the entire exercise was a waste of time, came at the end, when Ken Ham and Bill Nye were both asked what would suffice to lead them to change their mind regarding their position. Ham’s reply was an immediate and unqualified, “Nothing.” Nye, on the other hand, responded almost as instantly, saying, “Evidence.” Ham perfectly exemplifies the pointlessness of “debating” with people such as himself; there is no discussion to be had with the willfully impenetrable. Nevertheless, current events have me thinking once again about the role of evidence and denial in our society today. So this seems like a good opportunity to return to the subject, albeit in contexts other than that of creationism. Continue reading

Stoicism for Every Day

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A very nice “Intro to Stoicism” was brought to my attention the other day that I wanted to share with folks here. NJLifehacks “10 Stoic Core Principles” is an interesting and handy read on the subject. One of the most interesting aspects of stoicism (besides the fact that it is widely misunderstood) is that it is NOT an academic pursuit, but a method of achieving what the Greeks called “eudaimonia.” For reasons that have long mystified me, this term is generally translated as “happiness,” but a vastly superior translation would be “living well.”MarcusAurelius

The “eu” in “eudaimonia” is the Greek particle meaning “well,” but it also translates as “healthy”. Thus, if you’re a dog owner, you’re probably aware of the dog food Eukanuba. Since “kanuba” comes from the Greek root meaning “dog,” the brand name literally translates as “healthy dog.” The “daimonia” in eudaimonia means something like “spirit,” though in a different sense from the Greek word “pneuma.” So eudaimonia means something like “healthy spiritedness” or, as already noted, living well. That is a little like happiness, as long as we don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Being a stoic does not mean a life of giggles, kittens, and carnival rides. Continue reading

You’re So Vain

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(Respects to Carly Simon. Minor amounts of “adult” language in the following.)

So, the story is making the rounds that Trump’s “spiritual advisor” (who knew that was a cabinet position?) is saying that Trump, “whether people like it or not, has been raised up by God.” She says this in the context of how the Bible says God “raises up kings,” apparently indifferent to, and unaware of, the pitifully uneducated irony of classifying Trump as a “king” (regardless of how much the fascist Trump would like that to be true.) She (and yes, it is a female televangelist) goes on to say that,

God says that he raises up and places all people in places of authority. It is God who raises up a king. It is God that sets one down. When you fight against the plan of God, you are fighting against the hand of God.

This has been making the news rounds quite a bit of late; you can find one example (from which the previous quotes are taken) HERE.Me

It is easy enough to mock the infantile stupidity of this blathering numskull; indeed, such mockery is well deserved and as likely to have any positive effect as any effort at reasoned discussion. But the number of people who swallow – and then, in turn, spew – such fatuous twaddle is not so small as can be safely dismissed out of hand. I suspect some, possibly many, of my own family members fall into this category. So I want to point out a fact about these people’s own belief system, a fact that is based exclusively ON their belief system, and the sacred text known as “the” Bible. Because you see, the woman above, and so many others like her, are, by their own supposedly fervently held beliefs, doing is committing a sin: these people are so pathetically self-absorbed, they believe God is their string puppet to command; in so doing they are taking God’s name in vain. Continue reading

Privilege and Simplicity (thoughts on Thoreau)

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Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, and rereading Walden always inspires me to say some uncharitable and unfair things about Thoreau. Knowing that they are unfair (see HERE, for example) I’m going to say them anyway, since having once been said it will be possible to see how and why they are unfair – as applied to Thoreau, at least – and then say some things that are fair, though mostly about some of Thoreau’s “readers.” So, let’s start by presenting the unfair in its simplest, and most privileged terms.

Sears Roebuck

Many years ago, the Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein elucidated what he called, “the Sears-Roebuck” fallacy. (Memory tells me this was in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You should not credit my memory with any authority.) Describing this in my own words, young Henry David decides to head off into the wilderness, and make for himself the life of a True Man. Upon arrival, the first thing he needs to do is build himself some shelter, so he grabs his trusty ax, and sets out to fell some trees. But wait a minute! He was supposed to be leaving civilization behind; so where did that ax come from?

Why, the Sears-Roebuck catalog, of course! Continue reading

Hegel Makes Everything Funnier

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Good comedy and good scholarship are about challenging expectations. Still, they are an odd couple to pair in a single blog post (it doesn’t fit our expectations): there is seldom anything scholarly in comedy, and even rarer is there anything intentionally comic in scholarship. Philosophy jokes are even rarer, and less funny, than fencing jokes. For example:

When you’re at a party, you can always tell who fences with which weapon by what they talk about. In one corner will be the foil fencers, and they’ll be talking about the style and the finesse of the moves. In another corner will be the epee fencers, and they’ll be talking about the dynamics and continuities of the moves. In the third corner will be the saber fencers, who will all be talking about themselves …

It is actually a lot funnier if you’re a fencer, but it is still clear enough that even non-fencers might well be amused by the wordplay. Here, on the other hand, is pretty much the only philosophy joke I know:

Herr Doktor Professor strides into the lecture hall, turns and faces the terrified students in attendance. “I have come,” he declares, in his booming but gravelly voice, “to talk to you about … ZE UNIVERSE!! Und vhy, you ask, am I here to talk about … ZE UNIVERSE??!!” Herr Doktor Professor pauses, glares at all the intent faces, and then shrugs. “Because zats all zere is …”

Like I said, pretty sad. I’m the only person I know who has ever laughed at that joke. And that was even before I’d read much Hegel.

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Hegel makes everything funnier …

Continue reading