The Coherence of Biography and Philosophy: Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology in the Light of his Personal Memoirs

My senior thesis was just posted on VoegelinView.com.

VoegelinView

The topic is the relationship between a person’s biography and his or her philosophy. I studied this by reading a particular thinker’s memoirs and relating these to his philosophical writings to show the coherence between his experiences and his insights.

Feel free to take a peek, here.

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Totalitarian Elements in Mind/Body Dualism and What this Means for Bioethics

Here is a presentation I gave at the Southern Political Science Association Conference in New Orleans on January 11, 2014.

In The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas identifies the root of contemporary bioethical problems in the incorrect philosophical anthropology of mind-body dualism. What does this modern prejudice have to do with bioethical issues today from in vitro fertilization to euthanasia? Listen here! (20 min.)

I welcome your comments, critiques, responses, and recommended reading.

This post is dedicated with gratitude to Barry Cooper who first introduced me to Hans Jonas and helped me to study and love these questions.

SPSA Panel

Reading Week Part 3: On Hunting by Roger Scruton

This evening I finished reading Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting. It was a delight to read this short memoir indoors on a Saturday snuggled with a blanket and beside a fire. It reminded me of reading books about gruesome trench warfare in cafés while sipping cappuccinos. The circumstances in which I read books on topics like war and hunting are so radically removed from the contents of the books, which makes non-fiction books and autobiographical memoirs seem more like fantasy.

When I was a child, I didn’t like pretending very much. I was very much obsessed with accuracy and with reality. Tea was obviously an indispensable condition for a tea party; juice could not possibly be a substitute. So books that are based very much on reality, but on a reality which is utterly or significantly foreign to me make for very enjoyable reads. Being transported to the world of fox-hunting in Scruton’s book is a bit like being transported to a world of elves or wizards, except the foreign reality is not an imaginary one, but rather an existent one in our world.

When this book was lent to me, my first comment was that it is short. Scruton prefaces his especially autobiographical anecdotes saying, “The length of a biography ought to be dictated by the greatness of the deeds recorded in it. Thousand-page accounts of minor politicians are the greatest offence against literature – especially when written by politicians themselves.” Scruton weaves together an engaging narrative emphasizing the centrality of hunting to his experiences. He says he “resolved to take up hunting during this, the best part of my life. The next ten years were given to fulfilling that ambition, along with two others: to be employed by no-one, and to live by my wits. The three ambitions were really one and the same: I was taking a step back from the modern world into a realm of ancestral freedoms. I was also discovering England.”

The three-fold resolution and the lofty, yet compelling description of what became of his goals lend a larger-than-life quality to his storytelling. Perhaps this is the case with all storytelling though. I think that one of the most insightful lines in C.S. Lewis is this:
“Doesn’t the mere fact of putting something into words of itself  involve an exaggeration?”

Recently, a man I know, a hunter, was explaining to me that he is an atheist but that hunting is the closest he has come to believing in God. The reflection that hunting inspires on nature, on life, and on mortality orient the soul to contemplation of these things. Here is what Roger Scruton says on the matter:

“Of course, I was familiar with hunting prints, with lampshades, table mats and tea trays celebrating ‘the sport of our ancestors’. And being a mere intellectual, I had dismissed them as mass-produced kitsch. But what I observed was neither kitsch nor cliché. There by the willow-cumbered banks I saw the moving image of eternity. Here was an unselfconscious union between species, which was also a rejoicing in the land. It was neither Nature nor Heritage nor any other marketed thing. It was, like God, too shy and true for marketing, as inward and secret and comforting as soul is, and as durable. I know this more clearly now, in retrospect. But I sensed it then, and a strange apprehension came over me, like falling in love – the apprehension of the self taken hostage by an outside force.”

Occasionally throughout the book, I wondered how the book is received by other fox-hunters. After all, Scruton is an intellectual and his book centres around such themes as human nature and the human condition, all while referencing classical texts in politics, history, and literature. It reminded me of J. Glenn Gray’s book The Warriors, which was the most academic book that I read in my War and Interpretation class. Gray’s book is philosophical. It is fundamentally about human nature (of which war is an essential feature) and other eternal things. This is precisely what made Scruton’s book enjoyable for me too though. Because his book is about many more fundamental things than hunting (which is but one example of the deeper truths that are illustrated), the book resonated meaningfully.

Scruton’s book helps in discerning a proper understanding of human persons. Two important passages on this point include: one on looking at people as subjects and one on making distinctions between animals and humans based on what it means to be a moral being:

“God intended that we live in such a way, that we see into the subjectivity of the world – which is God himself. That we can do this is self-evident. How we do it is an unfathomable mystery. And if, in order to bring this mystery about, a process of evolution was required, so that the soul became incarnate at last in a creature which rose only by degrees to such an eminence, then so be it. God moves in a mysterious way. When you look on people as objects, then you see that Darwin was right. When you look on them as subjects, you see that the most important thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory.”

[…]

“Animals are not moral beings: they have neither rights nor duties, they are not sovereign over their lives, and they can commit no crimes. If they were moral beings, then Kant’s categorical would apply to them: it would be wrong to kill them, capture them, confine them, harm them, or curtail their freedom. But it would also be wrong for them to do these things. Lions would be murderers, cuckoos usurpers, mice burglars, and magpies thieves. The fox would be the worst of living criminals, fully deserving the death penalty which we from time to time administer. For foxes kill not only for food, but with a wanton appetite for death and destruction. In short, to treat animals as moral beings is to mistreat them – is to make demands which they could not satisfy, since they cannot understand them as demands.”

Like the books that I have studied on war last semester, Scruton’s book on hunting surprised me. It was engaging, witty, and persuasive. The book is not abstract, but personal. And from the particulars in Scruton’s experience, he points beyond the specifics to what is universal in human nature. He points to what any reasonable person should consider and that is the question: what is man’s place in nature?

Here are a few of my other favourite quotations from the book:

“Being unpopular is never easy; but being unpopular in a good cause is a shield against despair.”

“For hunting lifts me out of my modernist solitude and throws me down in a pre-modern herd – a composite herd, made up of horse and hound and human, each sharing its gift of excitement and giving its all to the chase.”

“It is a law of human nature that those with least to say spend the most time in saying it.”

“For this is how the suicide of nations begins, when sentimentality prevails over sense.”

“And here is the true reason why women ought not to fight in armies – that, in the moment of supreme danger, they might turn their hostility as much on their comrades as on their foes.”

“Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and the authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade – yes, and Heidegger, who appeals to the post-modern tutor largely because he makes so little sense.”

“Looking at” International Relations

This semester, I am taking a class called “Introduction to International Relations.” This class is a requirement for my degree in political science at the University of Calgary. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith makes a compelling argument against compulsory classes:

“The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability. It seems to presume perfect wisdom and virtue in the one order, and the greatest weakness and folly in the other. Where the masters, however, really perform their duty, there are no examples, I believe, that the greater part of the students ever neglect theirs. No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given.

During this first week of classes, professors have been quick to lower the standards. Examples of this include such statements as:

“Please don’t ask me for an extension, but you will anyway.”

“Instead of refusing to accept late assignments, you will instead lose three points per day for your late assignment.”

“This was part of your assigned reading, if you bothered at all to look at it.”

“Most of you do not want to be here, but are required to take this class.”

The professors who are the most demanding consistently command the greatest respect. Additionally, as Adam Smith notes, students also tend to rise to the challenge.

On excellent professor of mine said, “In this often impersonal, bureaucratic university, I want you to know that you students in this class are my primary responsibility for this semester and that I am available to guide you to the best of my ability throughout this course.”

This comment inspires students to strive for excellence and the students have a teacher whose example is worthy of imitation.

Since I have only taken two classes in my first introductory course in International Relations, I do not know very much about this sub-discipline. And so, this brief reflection is based on my initial impression of International Relations as a field of studies.

I perused the assigned textbook. From the outset, the authors say that they prefer to use the term “world politics” instead of international relations. What is politics? Since politics is derived from the Greek word polis, politics was classically and fundamentally about the affairs of the polis, or city-state (as we tend to translate it). What then is meant by “world politics”? The term in Greek would be “cosmopolis.”

According to Wikipedia, the source of this phrase can be traced to Diogenes of Sinope who, when asked where he came from, answered, “I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês).”

“Cosmopolitan” is defined as follows:

“Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. Cosmopolitanism may entail some sort of world government or it may simply refer to more inclusive moral, economic, and/or political relationships between nations or individuals of different nations. A person who adheres to the idea of cosmopolitanism in any of its forms is called a cosmopolitan or cosmopolite.”

While the professed purpose of the class is to provide students with an overview of several ideologies in international relations, I wonder about the extent to which the textbook being centered around “world politics” favors the cosmopolitan one.

Very often the problems of international relations are presented as questions of “either/or” when the truer account likely involves the word “and.” (E.g., Individual AND community.) If we resist systematic thinking, we are likely to find that the good of the individual and the common good are not actually in such severe tension as we might expect.

Edmund Burke grasps this interplay when he discusses “little platoons“:

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

Perhaps there could be an implicit “and” between the words “world politics.” Eric Voegelin begins his six volume work Order and History as follows:

“God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being. The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience insofar as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being. It is not a datum of experience insofar as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.”

Voegelin goes on to discuss the nature of human existence acknowledging that “man is not a self-contained spectator”, [but rather…] “an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is.”

Aiming to consider how “world politics” might make any sense, I began to consider that perhaps “world”, as an abstract noun relates to the mystery, to the idea beyond our full grasp and “politics” is connected to our direct experience, to our participation in “little platoons”.

Peter Kreeft makes a helpful distinction between abstract and concrete nouns that I find relevant to this discussion. He says:

“Humanity” does not go with “God” (“God and humanity”) because “God” and “man” are concrete nouns, like “dog” and “cat”, while “divinity” and “humanity” are abstract nouns, like “caninity” and “felinity” or “dogginess” and “cattiness.”

From Voegelin talking about the “quaternarian structure” of being including “God and man, world and society”,  he seems to be stressing the totality of being including the immanent and the transcendent.

On the first day of class, the professor discussed certain theories of International Relations, much like the overview given in the textbook. He mentioned such theories as idealism, realism, and Marxism. What is meant by theory? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology the word is derived from Greek and means “looking at”. Upon reading this, I immediately recollected C.S. Lewis’s “Meditation in a Toolshed“. In this essay, Lewis draws a distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” an experience.

I encourage you to read the excellent two-page essay. Here is an excerpt:

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

It seems that the entire aim of international relations is to “look at” ideologies. But we are not outside of international relations and beyond ideology. We are participants in the world. What would it be to “look along” international relations? Does a United Nations bureaucrat truly “look along” INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS or, does he (at best) “look along” perhaps interpersonal relations? It is easy to employ anthropomorphic language to abstract entities, but what do we learn about politics then? What do we learn from this about human nature and the affairs of the city?

As Lewis argues, “looking along” must precede “looking at” because “You discount them [the phenomena in question] in order to think more accurately. But you can’t think at all – and therefore, of course, can’t think accurately – if you have nothing to think about.

Furthermore, he maintains:

“[It] is perfectly easy to go on all your life giving explanations of religion, love, morality, honour, and the like, without having been inside any of them. And if you do that, you are simply playing with counters. You go on explaining a thing without knowing what it is. That is why a great deal of contemporary thought is, strictly speaking, thought about nothing – all the apparatus of thought busily working in a vacuum.”

It is quite early for me to make any judgments about International Relations (or World Politics), but these are the initial issues that come to mind.

Rather than “either/or” approaches, let us try to insert the word “and” in order to gain a broader view.

If we are assigned the task of choosing “one system” through which to “look at” an issue in current affairs, I do not see how this would be a very profitable exercise. Eric Voegelin was paraphrased in an Introduction to his book The New Science of Politics as encouraging people with the words, “Don’t be an Ism-ist!” When it seems that International Relations becomes a course in Ism-ism, I will try to resist the constraint of system construction and adoption. It is a temptation to make this substitution for thinking.

The textbook for my class even defines a theory in this manner. It says:

“A theory is a kind of simplifying device that allows you to decide which facts matter and which do not.”

The world is more complex and we are in it and so we cannot “look at” things perfectly, but we ought to try to sharpen the vision we get through the lens of our experiences of “looking along.”

Today I was discussing war and battle with some classmates. We had been reflecting on the idea that a soldier does not choose to die for his country, but rather lays down his life for a friend, for the guy next to him. “Looking at” war and “looking along” battle offer two different perspectives and both are important to gaining insight into the broader picture.

Dr. John von Heyking succinctly says, “Politics really is about the myriad of one-to-one relationships among people getting things done; politics is about friends helping friends.” International Relations seems be to ordinary politics what macro economics is to micro economics. Ultimately, the former in both cases is merely an effort to understand the aggregate of experiences “looked along” in the experiences of the latter.

Politics is about human action. Only humans act. Relating is a human action performed between persons, not between nations.

And so ends a hasty analysis of Week 1. I invite your comments.