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

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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

You could have been black too: Describing racism in Venezuela

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“Black woman! . . . if you were white and had straight hair / My mother told me in distress not to marry a black woman, because when she’s asleep, she looks like a coiled snake / A black woman with a big nose doesn’t cook for me, because she hides the mouthfuls in her nostrils”

The world is in the severe grip of Corona virus, countries are experiencing recession & economic downfall, millions of people are starving vanishing, and environment is abating.  All this together, alarms world for the worsening future that might welcome us tomorrow. But still the capitalist class of developed nations is indulged in the debate of US/them. On the basis of primordial traits individuals are classified as either in-group or out-group. Consequently hatred, animosity and xenophobia is increasing generation by generation towards the minorities around the world. 

Similar is the situation of afro-Venezuelan community around the world and predominantly in Venezuela. The afro-descendant group is target of hate speech, discrimination and racism. They are been called by various names such as vermin, mulatoo, barefoot, rabble, uncultured and inferior; mainly due to their afro-descendant identity. However the Venezuelan government denies the presence of racism, by asserting itself a racial democracy. A land which mixed heritage, embraces its café con leech or coffee with milk characteristic with pride.

 History of afro-descendants in Venezuela dates back to 16th century, this era was significantly underlined for colonization by Spanish settlers. As the land was rich in natural resources supplementary workforces were brought from the third world countries. General belief system of elite of was “blacks have no soul and have very little intellectual capacity, so better if they perform task such as slavery”. This is how African people first came to Venezuela, in order to work in the coca plantation. But no one was aware of the fact, this increased immigration; at one point of time might leads to numerically upsurge of afro-descendants at home. In 1979, customary practice of African slave trade was abolished, but till this time African community made almost 60% of Venezuela’s population.

Afterwards to avoid the racial discrimination and hatred towards minorities. The Venezuelan nation adopted its mestizaje ideology and inculcated racial democracy. Which states that everyone is a mixed heritage, miscegenation. These elementary ideologies of Venezuela contradicts the presence of racism or racial divide in country. But realistically speaking racism is there, and unfortunately it is been masked due the mestizaje ideology. Closing the wounds of racism by making everyone a mixed.

The Racist treatment of afro-Venezuelan community is quite evident from their economic exclusion, social and political deprivation, hate speech directed towards them in popular music and lastly from their treatment in media.  In short the state has been narrow-minded in providing social, economic, political and cultural values to its non-white majority.

Systematic exclusion of afro-Venezuelans from the economic system and job opportunities intensify the grievances of Afro-Venezuelans. Lack job opportunities for blacks, and fortunately if there are some jobs; even in those places they are driven out of their offices or are target of continued racism. Quoting the example of former president of Hugo Chavez Perez who was been called as Negro and monkey due to his afro-descendant identity. Another case of discrimination was heralded was an ice cream parlor franchise, situated in Caracas published a digital advertisement asking for hiring of employees. But the job criteria confused people, as it represented a clear discriminatory stance towards non-whites, requesting employees with ‘white skin’ and a height of 1,70m.  Representation of blacks in media is also pitiful. There are only a few black faces in media, anchor person, television celebrities even the Miss Venezuela are invariably white or off white. It also causes whitening of popular culture; and a stigmatization in society those who are whiter are better off & socially acceptable.

Social grievances of afro-Venezuelans are evident from the customary practices of Non-documentation, denial of birth certificates, denial of nationality, and lack of information on social security issues; such as access to pensions by older people for almost past 40 years. Apart from that only references to black people in school texts is of historical aside during slavery. Further stereotyping afro-Venezuelans and perpetuating racism. This is not only wicked but alarming, how a state can constantly discriminate its citizens. How a group of people can be denied of their fundamental human rights by the states and authorities.

Political grievances of Afro-Venezuelans are in the form of exclusionary nationalist ideology, African descendants are deprived of self-right, freedom of expression, self-determination, political and human rights. Taking into account the recruitment procedure of blacks in army, was also biased and in the interest of elite. As it that would provide elite the man power for army.

The core of the problem lies in the problematic group histories of Afro-Venezuelans as they being a product of slave trade. Historically deprived of rights and treated unfairly further generates the concept of degraded community. Labelling them as the one who lack soul, not born to live rather to practice slavery as lack in intellectual wellbeing further generates dishonored sentiments and exacerbates racism. The problem cannot be solved, as long as it is considered a problem of black community only. Discrimination against any community reflects humanity at its worse, and the norm keeps on expanding in other parts of the world as well. Therefore it is necessary to consider racism a problem of humanity. Strict measures must be taken to root out racism, to help humanity. If today you are silent on the matter, it means you are showing consent towards racism. So speak up against racism, if you think it’s not right. Otherwise it will become a norm.

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Educating Women in Pakistan: A Necessity For National Development

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Photo: UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Asad Zaidi

Education is fundamental to the success of any nation. Almost every developed nation recognizes its importance and lays great emphasis on its availability to every human being.

Education brings out the meaning of life and enables a person to make sense of the world around him. While on the other hand, an illiterate person fails to comprehend the essence of life and lives in ignorance.

Pakistan, the sixth most populous country in the world has grappled with the grave situation of illiteracy almost from the time of its existence and has one of the lowest literary rates on the continent. To put it narrowly, approximately 40% of its female population has not even received education at all. Thus, the major chunk of its population remains backward, which otherwise if educated could have proven to be a major source of social and economic development.

Women’s education is inextricably linked to the well-being of society. A society comprises of both male and female members, and equally needs the contribution of women nearly as much as of men in maintaining and regulating its functions. However, women in Pakistan face great challenges in accessing education and are confined to play domestic roles only. Also, certain societies consider the education of women as taboo. This results in gender inequality and social disparity which ultimately impedes the growth of a nation.

Women, as a child bearer, not only holds great responsibility of proper upbringing of the child but also of a whole generation. This aspect can be underscored by the African proverb which says,

“If you educate a man, you educate an individual but if you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation.”

Therefore, an increase in the education of women can profoundly improve human development outcomes such as child survival, health, and schooling. Education can bring phenomenal change in women’s life as it increases their confidence and raises their status in family and society. It lends her voice which she can use to advocate her rights and also helps her to participate in political and social sciences. Pakistan cannot afford to neglect the education of women if it wants to modernize itself and until or unless its female population remains uneducated, it will continue to undermine the ideals of democracy that it so cherishes. There is no doubt that Pakistan is a country whose youth is imbued with great talents and if given adequate knowledge they can properly channel this talent to the country’s advantage. This can only be achieved if gender disparities in literacy and education attainment in rural and urban areas of Pakistan are removed.

Women are also regarded as the weaker segment of society but through education, they can change their weakness into strength. It is also seen that women’s education has a positive relationship with women’s labor force participation rate which can play a significant role in reducing poverty and can contribute to sustainable growth in a developing country like Pakistan itself. Therefore, the government should invest in the education sector and especially in women’s education. This should be on its priority list as it is necessary for national development and progress.

Hence, concrete steps should be taken to empower women by granting them equality and education so that Pakistan can set itself upon the path of success.

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Reasons of societal disintegration in Pakistan’s society

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Societal disintegration also known as social disorganization can be described as the society’s inability to structure itself and determine the mutual values and norms that should be presiding in a society. Another approach sees is as a complex and interconnected system of communities, formal and informal associations in the socialization process.

There are many reasons that exist in a society giving rise to the societal disintegration, the main and the core cause is the disturbed and interrupted system of social communication and the structure that exist for the mutual assistance.  The society that is deprived of functional and far-sighted leadership without new ideas and strategies usually tend to fall in the process of social disintegration.  The society practicality and viability tends to falls with the existence of economic problems, dissolving formal and informal institutions, deteriorating interpersonal relationships and weakening of the values and norms. All these thus impact the mental and the physical wellbeing of the society and the people thoroughly involved in it. Thus putting the restrain on the growth, self-realization, self-reflection and acknowledgment.

The reason for this societal disintegration in Pakistani society can be various. These numerous reason might include some internal as well as external causes. For instance Democracy and the rule of law, judicial system and calculated and good governance which was the main building factor of the idea of new country after the partition went into oblivion as soon as the establishment of the country. The nexus that started between the military and the bureaucracy for power accumulation and the multiple Martial laws put constrain on the hope of Pakistanis to build a sustainable nation and it was reflected in the future engagements of the citizen of the state.

Another reason which triggers the societal disintegration was the history of disasters and violence that the citizens go through. For example the history of Pakistan is marked with a lot of resistance and sacrifices by the people and their forefathers. Even after the creation of Pakistan, it had to go through several wars to ensure its survival. The people of Pakistani society also faced this disturbed environment throughout the Great War on terror happening in the immediate neighborhood of Afghanistan. It was impacting Pakistan in several ways for instance military operation to combat terrorism in the region of FATA created an environment of hostility and chaos. Troubled neighborhood and the major inclusion of migrants from time to time and its sociological, economic and psychological impacts  is what Pakistan has faced since its establishment .So the environment in which the society exist and the history of disasters also increase the pace of societal disintegration.

Dysfunctional Education system can also contribute to be another major reason that is driving the societal disintegration. As the system lacks to provide the same and the equal opportunities for the children and women to seek the basic education in Pakistan.  The lack of uniform educational curriculum and the modes of education is building a stroke between the elites and the lower section of the societies. The disparities on the basis of different religion and social status is escalating the social disintegration in the societies. In terms of opportunities the presence of Nepotism instead of merit is also causing the lack of commitment to one’s own country.

Another reason that is contributing in the societal disintegration is the Cultural confusion also known as cultural dissonance reflecting the disharmony and the conflict and the confusion that people face due to the change in their cultural environment. In Pakistan it is seen in the province of Baluchistan, Gilgit Baluchistan and Pashtunistan. There still exist speculation for the ill treatment, less development and lack of opportunities for the Baloch’s and Gilgiti. This creates a difference among the people of different cultural and give rise to hostility towards one another thus leads to more and more societal disintegration to a point that they start to consider themselves alien to the society. The lack of tolerance and acceptance for other religions, ethnicities and culture will alienate people from one another and will limit them to certain boundaries thus making it difficult for them to grow sociological and psychological, consequently bounding them to only one sect, ethnicities or area. For societal integration one must be visionary and develop sense of acceptance and tolerance leaving a room to nurture and develop as an integrated society rather than fueling the societal disintegration.

As mention earlier about the migration it is important to study it is detail, the massive in and out migration also serves as a factor that lead Pakistan society to face societal disintegration. Many people in Pakistan still seek migration to the countries aboard for better job opportunities, living standards, better health and education and security level. In Pakistan the Pakistani diaspora that basically reflects the brain drain from the country are exceeding the numbers of more than 10 million, people residing in the countries other than their homeland for such luxuries reflect little to no commitment and responsibility to their culture and country. Similarly the great number of influx of migrants as a result  of GWOT also posed a challenge for national integration as they bought with them their culture, identity and problem thus making it difficult for citizens to actually achieve the sense of nationality thus leading to more culture confusion and disharmonization.

Those having power and other patrons in Pakistan who are living in their luxurious lifestyles and comfort zones they have this responsibility to observe and analyze and seek guidance from the other countries that how with the presence of diverse cultures, languages and religions, the process of national integration reached to its logical conclusion. But it is not possible in the absence of visionary leadership and the will to work honesty for the society and its harmonization, in absence of these values one cannot expect a country to remain united and integrated as a nation.

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