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Reductionism, Modernity and Nihilism in Western Civilization: Should Aristotle be Resurrected?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes)

But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (From Pascal’s Pensèes, 346)

There is an unfortunate tendency within our hubristic modern times to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. Philosophically, it goes by the name of Reductionism. For example, the Resurrection of Christ will be explained away scientifically or positivistically by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendant rabbits, flowers, eggs and the general resurrection of nature, thus transforming a spiritual reality into a material one. The cart has been placed before the horse, when the proper approach ought to be that those natural phenomena in springtime point to, or are a symbol, a metaphor, if you will, of a transcendent spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as great advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what had gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old is debunked, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s complaint against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death eight years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is.

Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science. Here again, the baby was thrown out with the dirty water.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically.

In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history.

From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose. The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.”

In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation.

Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self-maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

N.B. This article appeared in Ovi magazine on 28 April 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant now.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Nairobi summit: Women’s empowerment a ‘game changer’ for sustainable development

MD Staff

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UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, addresses the 25th Anniversary of the ICPD in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: UNFPA

The global goal of a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people gain control over their own bodies and lives, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told world leaders meeting in Nairobi on Tuesday.

The Kenyan capital is hosting a three-day summit to mark 25 years since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The conference, held in Cairo, produced a Programme of Action which recognized that reproductive health, women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical to sustainable development.

Ms. Mohammed said it must be carried forward: “Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and upholding women’s rights is a game changer – for poverty-reduction, inclusive growth, democratic governance, peace and justice,” she said.

“The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people are able to control their bodies and their lives, and live free of violence. The power to choose the number, timing and spacing of children is a human right that can bolster economic and social development.”

SDGs deadline approaching 

For Ms. Mohammed, the Nairobi Summit is also an opportunity to mobilize political and financial momentum towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by world leaders in 2015. 

Next year will see the start of a Decade of Action ahead of the 2030 deadline. 

“We must continue to work  even harder towards preventable maternal and child mortality, achieving the unmet need for family planning, and eliminating violence and harmful practices against women and girls everywhere, not least in humanitarian and fragile settings,” the UN deputy chief told the gathering. 

As too many are still being left behind, Ms. Mohammed called for action. 

“Hundreds of millions of women and girls are still waiting for the promise to be kept. They have been waiting long enough,” she said. 

“It’s time for urgent and transformative change as we enter the decade of action to 2030. 

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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