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Our Virtually Real Existence, Part 2

Over the last quarter century the experiment in cyber life has gone off with little to no resistance. No sooner did the technologies arrive than the entire world embraced them. In the early days of the web, however, and in the years preceding it, there were some who sounded an alarm. “It’s an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness," wrote one expert. "While the Internet beckons brightly, selectively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this non-place lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where – in the holy names of Education and Progress – important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued."


Renouncing One’s Autonomy

Do people really hunger for freedom, as so many thinkers over the ages have asserted? Or does freedom terrify them – is it something they would rather renounce? “The common man,” Van Wyck Brooks once observed, “has no sense of having surrendered his will: he regards it as a mere pretension of the philosophers that man has a will to surrender. He eats, drinks and continues to be merry or morose regardless of his moral destiny: to possess no principle of growth, no spiritual backbone is, indeed, his greatest advantage in a world where success is the reward of accommodation."


A CEO’s Confession

The offhanded remark is often criticized for being reckless, but sometimes it bears the stamp of an unpleasant truth. Consider, for instance, how the CEO of the French TV station TF1 described his company’s business: “Let's be realistic. TF1's job is to help Coca-Cola shift product...For an advertising message to get through, the viewer's brain has to be receptive to it. It's the aim of our programs to make that brain receptive, that is, to entertain it and relax it, to prepare it between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is receptive human brain time.”


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Reference Section

Bon Mot Archive

Bon Mot

And what if only the worst survived? A Darwinism in reverse.

– Elias Canetti, The Human Province


It is an unrecognized form of stupidity [that] you have to forget the cosmic meaninglessness of all our acts to be vain, and that’s a glaring form of stupidity.

– Pascal Mercier, Night Train To Lisbon


If you want to earn the gratitude of your own age you must keep in step with it. But if you do that you will produce nothing great. If you have something great in view you must address yourself to posterity: only then, to be sure, you will probably remain unknown to your contemporaries; you will be like a man compelled to spend his life on a desert island and there toiling to erect a memorial so that future seafarers shall know he once existed.

– Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena


The carnivorous-minded 'strong man,' the adult male and cannibal, can see nothing but mouldiness and morbidness in the saint's gentleness and self-severity, and regards him with pure loathing. The whole feud revolves essentially upon two pivots: Shall the seen world or the unseen world be our chief sphere of adaptation? And must our means of adaptation in this seen world be aggressiveness or non-resistance?

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience


Irony signifies the state of mind of people or of an age which has lost faith. They conceal their loss, or even flaunt it by laughter. You seldom get irony except from people who have been somehow more or less cleaned out.

– Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues of A.N. Whitehead


If the art of conversation stood a little higher we would have a lower birthrate.

– Stanislaw Lec, Unkempt Thoughts
















IN THE ARCHIVE

Adler’s Portrait Of Vain People

“There are people who are deeply convinced that they are not vain,” wrote Alfred Adler in Understanding Human Nature. “They look only at the outside, knowing that vanity lies much deeper. Vanity may be expressed, for instance, in that a person always demands the full stage in his social circle, must always have the floor, or judges a social gathering as good or bad according to his ability to maintain the center of the stage.”


A Free Man’s Worship

“A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.”


Nietzsche On The Need To Be Alone

“A traveler who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience -- why?”




























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The Necessity For The Name “God”

By John A.T. Robinson

The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,

Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.

There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]


Jung’s Observation About People

In Man And His Symbols (1964, pp.48-49), Carl Jung offers this observation about the many people he had either known or counseled over the course of his life:

"I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. I was also surprised to find many intelligent and wide-awake people who lived (as far as one could make out) as if they had never learned to use their sense organs: They did not see the things before their eyes, hear the words sounding in their ears, or notice the things they touched or tasted. Some lived without being aware of the state of their own bodies.

"There are others who seemed to live in a most curious condition of consciousness, as if the state they had arrived at today were final, with no possibility of change, or as if the world and the psyche were static and would remain so forever. They seemed devoid of all imagination, and they entirely and exclusively depended upon their sense-perception. Chances and possibilities did not exist in their world, and in 'today' there was no real 'tomorrow'. The future was just the repetition of the past."


“There No Longer Exist Human Beings”

By Søren Kierkegaard

The world’s deepest misfortune is the unhappy objectivity (in the sense of the absence of personality) characteristic of all speech and teaching, and that the one great mechanical discovery after the other has made it possible to expound doctrines impersonally in constantly increasing measure. There no longer exist human beings: there are no lovers, no thinkers, etc. By means of the press the human race has enveloped itself in an atmospheric what-not of thoughts, feelings, moods; even of resolutions and purposes, all of which are no one’s property, since they belong to all and none. It is a torture to the soul to note the callous incorrigibility with which a human being can resort to wherever he thinks there is some truth to be had, for the sole purpose of learning to expound it, so that his music box may add this piece to its repertoire; but as for doing anything about it, the thing never even occurs to him.

If the jewel which everyone desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while closer in the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all “something must be done.”

The crowds would go out to watch from a safe place, and with the eyes of connoisseurs appraise the accomplished skater who could skate almost to the very edge (i.e., as far as the ice was still safe and the danger had not yet begun) and then turn back. The most accomplished skater would manage to go out to the furthermost point and then do a still more dangerous-looking run, so as to make the spectators hold their breath and say: “Ye gods! He is mad, he is risking his life.” But look, and you will see that his skill was so astonishing that he managed to turn back just in time, while the ice was perfectly safe and there was still no danger. As at the theater, the crowd would applaud and acclaim him, surging homeward with the heroic artist in their midst, to honor him with a magnificent banquet. For intelligence has got the upper hand to such an extent that it transforms the real task into an unreal trick, and reality into a play. During the banquet admiration would reach its height. Now the proper relation between the admirer and the object of admiration is one in which the admirer is edified by the thought that he is a man like the hero, humbled by the thought that he is incapable of such great actions, yet morally encouraged to emulate him according to his powers; but where intelligence has got the upper hand the character of admiration is completely altered.

Even at the height of the banquet, when the applause was loudest, the admiring guests would all have a shrewd notion that the action of the man who received all the honor was not really so extraordinary, and that only by chance was the gathering for him, since after all, with a little practice, every one could have done as much. Briefly, instead of being strengthened in their discernment and encouraged to do good the guests would more probably go home with an even stronger predisposition for the most dangerous, if also the most respectable, of all diseases: to admire in public what they consider unimportant in private, since everything is made into a joke; and so, stimulated by the gush of admiration, they are comfortably agreed that they might just as well admire themselves.


The Revolution Betrayed

By Terry Eagleton

Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it's hard to think of a historical movement which has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins [than Christianity]. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal establishment really has nothing whatsoever to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it's become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the rifraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawim, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as 'loser,' is for the most part to flush them off the streets.

This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image -- a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessed God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and just north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tractless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils...Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neo-cons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right...

The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, santimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. It supports murderous dictatorships in the name of God, views both criticism and pessimism as unpatriotic, and imagines that being a Christian means maintaining a glazed grin, a substantial bank balance, and a mouthful of pious platitudes. It denounces terrorism, but excludes from its strictures such kidnapping, torturing, murdering outfits as the CIA...

This brand of faith fails to see that the only cure for terrorism is justice. It also fails to grasp to what extent the hideous, disfigured thing clamoring at its gates is its own monstrous creation. It is unable to acknowledge this thing of darkness as in part its own, unable to find its own reflection in its distorted visage...It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion.

I am talking, then, about the distinction between what seems to me a scriptural and an ideological kind of Christian faith -- a distinction which can never simply be assumed but must be interminably argued. One name for this thankless exercise is what Nietzsche, who held that churches were the tombs and sepulchres of God, called in Kierkegaardian phrase saving Christianity from Christendom. Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless. It is not a project which at present holds out much promise of success.


Darkening Of The World

The following is an excerpt from Marjorie Grene's essay "Martin Heidegger" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ms. Grene passed away in March 2009; she wrote some two dozen books, among which are works on Sartre and Heidegger.

The "darkening of the world" is Heidegger's constant theme. So, for example, in Holzwege ("Woodpaths," 1950), he tells us that we live in the age of research, of the planned, systematic coordination of intellectual tasks. And what sort of tasks can be planned and coordinated? Neat, limited, manageable tasks -- tasks, primarily, that demand inventiveness rather than understanding, tasks for engineering know-how rather than theoretical insight. Heidegger draws no line between pure and applied science. Science for him is research, and research is a procedure for solving well-packaged problems. Such problems are, in general, those of manufacture, of inventing new and better gadgets. According to Heidegger, das Herstellbare, the collection of gadgets, is what we are after; that is what specialization, the rigid departmental structure of expertise in our society, amounts to. And all this vast proliferation of technical skills nevertheless has its inner unity -- that is, its historical and metaphysical unity. It had to happen this way. It had to happen this way because we are fallen out of Being. We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing.


(See more from Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Excerpts & Passages: Einstein on God and the Good Life; Rilke’s Imaginary Life Journey; Adorno on Modern Human Relations.)

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