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Phenomenology – Mystical or mystifying?

Day 302. Phenomenology. David Mulder via Flickr

Phenomenology is one of those words that crops up in undergrad sociology and philosophy courses. Whenever I heard it I felt sort of dumb, like when you hear a big word and don’t know what it means. And I think some people just used it to appear smart.

Academe games…

Edmund Husserl 1910s via Wikipedia

So early on I made a quick fix. Phenomenology is about personal experience. How a person sees it, I told myself, burning that simple definition into memory so I wouldn’t be caught off guard in seminars and the like. (Sometimes those seminars were really nasty).

When I need to force myself to remember something with a little trick, it usually means the concept doesn’t resonate with me.

I know pretty much all of Freud and especially Jung’s concepts by heart because they seem to have more relevance and richness than the simple, slightly mystifying word phenomenology.

But that’s just me. I’m sure many philosophy majors would love that word, which opens many doors for them.

Turns out the term is a bit more complicated and varied than my youthful quick fix would suggest (the top image is only one of many meanings). But that fix did get me through school okay. I never pursued the term much further because, as I say, it just didn’t personally connect.

Philosophers tend to get tangled up in their own concepts. Many seem to lack genuine insight and miss their own blind spots.

That’s how I see it. A huge generalization, it’s true. But overall, I much preferred the depth psychologists and mystics (I say preferred past tense because I’m always moving into new areas).

Edmund Husserl is usually mentioned when the word phenomenology comes up. Husserl wanted to study ‘structures’ of consciousness (whatever that means) and also phenomena that come into consciousness. At least, that’s how I understand it.

The history of the word is fairly interesting. I’ve used Highly highlighter to outline part of a Wikipedia summary. I could have rewritten this, but as I say, it’s not really my direct interest:

So looking at the above it seems that Kant believes there is a unknowable aspect to reality, whereas Hegel believes we can gradually come to know spiritual truth.

The problem with this Wikipedia comparison, as I see it, is that knowing (or not knowing) the “thing-in-itself” aspect of an object (noumena) is not the same as learning about spiritual presences (numinous).¹ The above quote doesn’t recognize the difference. But elsewhere Wikipedia does recognize it:

Numinous is an English adjective, derived in the 17th century from the Latin numen, that is (especially in ancient Roman religion) a “deity or spirit presiding over a thing or space”. Meaning “denoting or relating to a numen”, it describes the power or presence or realisation of a divinity. It is etymologically unrelated to Immanuel Kant’s noumenon, a Greek term referring to an unknowable reality underlying all things [emphasis added].²

Bottom line?

Don’t read anything uncritically. Even the venerable Wikipedia can be misleading if you don’t do a little digging.

PortalPhilosophers

PortalPhilosophers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ A similar distinction can be made, I think, between matter/energy on the one hand, and spirit, on the other hand. Some New Age writers confuse these two ideas, which to me says they don’t know what they’re talking about. Or to put it more nicely, they’re sort of like newborns who have yet to learn how to differentiate among different types of spiritual experience.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numinous

Related » David Hume, Science

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Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie – Eccentric, Genius, Innovator

Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a groundbreaking archaeologist. He was the first to precisely measure the Egyptian pyramids.

Pink Tutu by Chris Millett via Flickr

Historians love telling the fact that he wore a pink ballerina’s tutu while surveying the Great Pyramid. Some say he donned the tutu to avoid being stoned by “local religious fanatics.”¹

Appearing insane might have put the hostiles off guard. Others think he might have been a little bit touched.

There is no record of Petrie being gay so it seems dubious that he was trying to come out.²

In the Holy Land Petrie recognized the significance of earthen mounds which, due to his work, are now known as tells.

Unlike his plodding contemporaries, Petrie saw the mounds as records of successive settlements because each layer contained a distinctive style of ceramics.

Other conventional archaeologists had assumed the tells were natural phenomena.

From his keen observations Petrie developed a method of historical dating called sequence dating. The method is to dig down into layers of earth, thus reconstructing ancient chronology not from fable and abstracted history but from hands-on evidence.

This new dating technique earned him the title ‘Father’ of Palestinian archaeology.

Petrie’s unusual story doesn’t end with his wearing a pink tutu at the job site. He clearly had a very positive self-image. He arranged to have his head removed at death, hoping that his brain and all that it contained would be inherited by posterity.

Apparently the head was preserved in a jar and stored in a basement at the Royal College of Surgeons of London. The jar’s label fell off during WW-II, making it anonymous for a while. Later the head was identified and is currently stored but not on display at the Royal College.³

English: Flinders Petrie and Hilda Petrie in 1...

Flinders Petrie and Hilda Petrie in 1903 via Wikipedia

While his preserved brain might not be his most important legacy, Petrie trained a whole generation of “new style” archaeologists, to include Howard Carter. And his son went on to become a remarkable mathematician, discovering the Petrie Polygon.

Bottom line?

Sometimes genius and eccentricity go hand in hand.

¹ 1.1. Introduction to Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), 2007.

² Also: https://www.google.ca/search?q=petrie+pink+tutu&oq=petrie+pink+tutu&aqs=chrome..69i57.2660j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flinders_Petrie

 Egypt archaeologists unearth 3,500-year-old tomb in Luxor(telegraph.co.uk)

 Well-Aged: Oldest Traces of Italian Wine Discovered(livescience.com)

 A student found an ancient Canadian village that’s 10,000 years older than the Pyramids(businessinsider.com)

 Henry VIII’s lost palace found (foxnews.com)

 Egypt announces discovery of 3,500-years old tomb in Luxor (stripes.com)

 Turkey bones may help trace fate of ancient cliff dwellers (bostonherald.com)

 Finally, a tantalising YA book (for adults too) that uses archaeology to recount Indian history (scroll.in)

 Italians Have Been Getting Blitzed on Wine for a Very Long Time (gizmodo.co.uk)

 Egyptologists go high tech to unlock ancient mysteries (rappler.com)

 Stone Age Cannibals Decorated Human Bones While Butchering Them (ibtimes.com)


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Politics, Political and Politically Correct

Politics

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first English use of the word politics can be traced back to 1450:

Aristotle..componede..the book of Etiques and of Polettiques.

A distinction is often made between small-p and large-p politics.

Small-p politics is about competitive human interactions in the workplace, organization or home.

Large-p politics refers to dynamics within a government system—municipal, provincial, state, federal, hemispherical (NATO, NORAD) or global (UN).

Also, large-p politics usually influence small-p politics. In turn, small-p politics cooperates, develops or resists large-p politics.

Another distinction could be made concerning the ethics of politics. We have honorable and dishonorable politics, fair and unfair play, human decency and indecency.

With so many news articles cropping up about corruption, it’s hard to overlook this possibility in any kind of politics.

Political

When we say something is “political,” what are we really saying?

The dictionary says that political is an adjective meaning anything related to politics, but that doesn’t tell us much.

Theorists like Michael Parenti argue that the word political has become a euphemism. It obscures human choices that influence or determine outcomes in struggles for control, command or jurisdiction.

For Parenti, the term political often hides human indecencies appearing in competitive organizational behavior.

Similar power theorists say that political choices are rationalized as “unavoidable” in light of existing policies and the pursuit of the greater good.

However, policy is not always in the public interest. Policies may be created to ‘legitimize’ systems of exploitation, fear and totalitarian control. Adolf Hitler used this strategy when writing laws to ‘justify’ the cruel and barbaric actions of the Nazis during WW-II. And while politicians and their underlings may believe they act in accord with policy and for the greater good, sometimes policies are seen as dead wrong. Accordingly, their chief authors may be peacefully removed or violently deposed.

In our aggressive, competitive world, with so much to gain and to lose, using the word ‘political’ in everyday speech is a political act in itself. ‘Politics’ and ‘political’ can be euphemisms for all sorts of crimes and terrors that might go unnoticed by the public.

Corruption and bribery are relatively soft terms. Harder, organized crime stories do appear in the news but are often minimized – sometimes almost humorously – by countries wishing to appear squeaky clean. In Canadian news it’s always bikers like Hells Angels who profit from organized crime, not the ‘decent,’ white collar folks living in middle to upper-middle class neighborhoods.

To my mind this might be a form of scapegoating and an extension of the age-old class war.

Image via Vimeo

Image via Vimeo

Plain and simple, the upper classes – law abiding or not – tend to demonize, blame and punish the lower classes to a greater degree than those in their own social position. Thus it is hardly surprising that the lower classes tend to resent the upper classes.

Such a dysfunctional dynamic hardly makes for a better society or religious organization, no matter what the politicians or pastors preach.

So saying that a social environment is political can be a way of implying something quite different from mere politics. It might be a way of talking about the underbelly of 21st century society without really going there. In fact, it’s hard to know what people are really saying when they use the word ‘political.’ And that’s probably why it is so popular. Ambiguity is safe. After all, parents have kids to feed, mortgages to pay, dream vacations to pursue.

Browsing through visitor comments on major US and Canadian news sites shows that some pessimists hate politics because they believe it is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt.

Sometimes I feel that. Good examples in Canada would be the CBC News app or our Canada Revenue web site. One gets the impression that coders not good enough for genuine market competition get hired by government. Even when these online services work, they are mediocre at best. By way of contrast, the Best Buy (US tech company based in Minnesota) web site updates several times a week and is always fully functional. Capitalism either works or it doesn’t. No taxpayer supported gravy train to ride in business.

So that’s the pessimistic view. But one could also argue that politicians are just people, doing their best to make positive changes in a wildly imperfect world. I recall a former Toronto police chief once saying that he had to answer to the entire spectrum of humanity. In other words, one must be political if one wants to get anything done. This is an interesting perspective. Certainly not one for idealists.

Political Correctness is...

Political Correctness is… by Dave Kleinschmidt

Politically Correct

Using the phrase politically correct is one way of being political.

An idea or action is politically correct if believed to be true or acceptable because the majority – or a highly visible group – in a given society see it that way.

Political correctness can be a good thing. PC can protect the vulnerable, the marginalized and those who are simply different.

However, some might merely pretend to believe in PC ideas for fear of repercussions. What would happen if dissenters were to voice their politically incorrect beliefs?

Some dissenters do voice their opinions, of course—especially in the US which has always championed free speech. This can lead to thorny debates and violent clashes about free speech vs. political correctness.

The U of T academic Jordan Peterson, whom some applaud and others see as a rigid, old-school dinosaur, is catalyzing this discussion on a global scale. If he were a minor academic, chances are he would have lost his job a long time ago. But because he’s fairly well-read and articulate, Peterson hangs on, saying that he’s prepared to be fired at any moment.

Related » Corruption, The SystemPolitically Correct, Nineteen Eighty-Four


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Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) – “To be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading…”

English: Talcott Parsons (photo)

Talcott Parsons – Wikipedia

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist who emphasized the functional role of social stratification, as well as a positive relationship between education and politics.

His work clearly rejects communism and fascist totalitarianism. In fact, he was impressed by Max Weber‘s idea that the supposed ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ contributed to the rise of Capitialism.

Despite his obvious disenchantment with communism and fascism, a paranoid circle during the McCarthy Era suspected him of having communist sympathies.

This was no idle game. Parsons was charged, hassled and had to defend himself for about three years. He was denied access to a UNESCO conference and wasn’t acquitted of the charges until 1955.

Parsons’ rejection of communist and fascist totalitarianism was both theoretically and intellectually an integral part of his theory of world history, where Parsons tended to regard the European Reformation as the most crucial event in “modern” world history and where he like Max Weber tended to highlight the crucial impact of Calvinist religiosity in the socio-political and socio-economic processes, which followed.¹

In his own words:

This allegation is so preposterous that I cannot understand how any reasonable person could come to the conclusion that I was a member of the Communist Party or ever had been.²

English: portrait of Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin – Wikipedia

Neither was Parsons a libertarian, socialist thinker like the charismatic Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

I saw Bookchin in person at Trent University in the 1980s. His talk harkened back to a mythical golden age where everyone apparently prospered in a joyous, eco-friendly community filled to the brim with a spirit of cooperation.³

No, Parsons did not look back to a mythical past that most likely never was. Instead, he embraced modernity, seeing it as integral part of human development.

Critics of Parsons say his theories are too abstract and minimize the importance of power, conflict and deviance. However, his work has impacted anthropology, psychology, sociology and history.

Parsons taught at Harvard from 1927 to 1979. He was one of the first ‘sociology’ professors – a new discipline – to hit the scene in 1930. Today, he is probably found in every introductory sociology course given in North America, Europe and other ‘enlightened’ places around the world.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talcott_Parsons

² Ibid.

³ Afterward, one of my more intelligent professors remarked that he found it fascinating how one man with a bit of charisma could so effectively spark up university students, despite presenting a facile argument. The young audience clearly loved Bookchin but the professor thought his argument was weak.

Related » Functionalism

† Quoted text within title is from David Bowie’s It’s No Game.

 Charisma is a skill, not a gift – a Stanford psychologist shares 6 ways to build it (businessinsider.com)


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Panentheism – The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, Lithography p...

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause, Lithography published in: Die reine d.i. allgemeine Lebenlehre und Philosophie der Geschichte, Göttingen 1843 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Panentheism is a religious studies term coined in 1828 by the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832).

Today, it belongs within the umbrella term, pantheism. However, Krause’s concept is more specific.

Panentheism refers to the belief in an eternal God grounded in but also greater than creation. Put simply, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Krause is an interesting character. Largely overlooked by Western philosophy, his predominantly mystical thought was overshadowed by Schelling,¹ Fichte, and Kant, who were his professors. He was also passed over by academe, like a lot of bright people with a bit too much insight and individuality.²

His view of society reminds me of Émile Durkheim’s but with an added mystical flair. For Krause, the universe is an organic whole. And the more that individuals and groups fall into line with that whole, the better society functions.

Krause endeavoured to reconcile the ideas of a God known by faith or conscience and the world as known to sense. God, intuitively known by conscience, is not a personality (which implies limitations), but an all-inclusive essence (Wesen), which contains the universe within itself. This system he called panentheism, a combination of monotheism and pantheism.

Ideal society results from the widening of the organic operation of this principle from the individual man to small groups of men, and finally to mankind as a whole.³

Schelling

Schelling 1775 – 1854 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Variations of this view are found in Taoism and Hinduism, as well as the works of Spinoza and Hegel. But we should be wary of oversimplifying. Important differences are sometimes glossed over by educators, religious authors and New Age enthusiasts.

That may sell sugar coated self-help books and fool gullible students. But it’s far from the truth.4

¹ Schelling is considered by some to have coined the term unconscious and his saying, “Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible Nature” would make a perfect inspirational quote for social media.

² I’m coming to think that, with a few notable exceptions, the brightest people in the humanities do something better than teach at a university. The more dull-witted stay behind, churning out their conventional, politically correct or trendy tracts mostly designed to get funding and ensure financial security. Nothing wrong with that. But nothing spectacular either.

³ https://www.diigo.com/user/earthpages This is a link to highlighting (notes) I made. I thought it would be a good idea to link to this so additional info that didn’t make this article could be seen. My Diigo page also has the original source.

4 Unless one adheres to the ‘truth’ of selling no matter what b.s. you’re spinning.

Related » Panenhenism, Pantheism, Polytheism

 Sociology’s Stagnation (3quarksdaily.com)


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Panenhenism – A WW-II spy comes up big in religious studies

Image via Abe Books

Panenhenism is a religious studies term coined by the WW-II British undercover agent cum Oxford scholar R. C. Zaehner (1913-1974).¹

A minor point for many, perhaps, but panenhenism differs from the more popular pantheism.

Panenhenism refers to the belief that the universe is a unified whole, but without any reference to God.

Zaehner’s term prefigures the semiotic and postmodern agenda to deconstruct words like “God” and what they connote for different individuals and groups—e.g. women, invisible, visible, silent and outspoken minorities.

Zaehner, himself, became a practicing Catholic and emphasized a distinction between what he called monist and theistic perspectives on mysticism.

The monist, he claims, adheres mostly to Asian religions (with some exceptions), where the self is identified with the godhead. The theist, on the other hand, believes that the self is forever individual and has some kind of relationship with God.

To illustrate the latter perspective Zaehner begins his book, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1961), by referring to the Jewish writer, Martin Buber. Buber makes a similar distinction with his famous “I – Thou” thesis.

Image via Abe Books

Zaehner was pretty popular when I was in India during the 1980s. By stating his own personal biases at the outset of his study, he is miles ahead of other scholars who conceal their religious convictions while trying to appear ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ when dealing with world religions.

Later, while doing my doctorate in Ottawa, Canada during the 1990s, the notion of stating one’s biases at the outset of a study was a talking point at colloquia.²

¹ Quite an interesting read at Wikipedia » British_intelligence

² Basically, an informal exchange of ideas among those who cared to attend. Not all professors did. Some seemed to prefer volunteering for basic mail sorting chores in the mail room.

Related » Connotation, Denotation, Panentheism, Pantheism, Polytheism


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The Quakers, past and present

Pete Birkenshaw via Flickr

The Quakers (a.k.a. The Religious Society of Friends) are a religious movement founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691). Wikipedia outlines the interesting origins of the appellation, Quakers.

In 1650, Fox was brought before the magistrates Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton, on a charge of religious blasphemy. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord”. It is thought that George Fox was referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. Thus, the name Quaker began as a way of ridiculing George Fox’s admonition, but became widely accepted and is used by some Quakers

The Quakers were pacifists who rejected the Christian Sacraments, seeing themselves as  true Christians, Saints, Children of the Light, and Friends of the Truth.² They advocated plain speech and clothing, and were persecuted for their nonconformity. Four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, were executed in Boston in 1660.

In the 20th century Quakers made a name for themselves in the world of business, with names like Cadbury and Rowntree leading the pack. BBC points out that not all Quaker businesses succeeded. But we remember the success stories.³

English: The Religious Society of Friends (Qua...

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Mosedale Meeting House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, pockets of Quakers exist around the globe, often in economically disadvantaged locales where they engage in charitable works.

Quakers emphasize an Inner Light and personal revelation. Liberal Quaker “Friends” recognize different manifestations of what they understand as “The Holy Spirit.” This means that non-Christian religions are seen as valid approaches to God.

The Catholic Church has generally regarded the Quakers as a well-meaning but misguided sect.4

Title page from a book protesting the persecut...

Title page from a book protesting the persecution of Quakers in New England (1660-1661) (Photo Wikipedia)

My only direct experience with a Quaker came through a university professor. While most other professors had PhDs, he was still working on his.

Despite this apparent drawback, he was by far one of my best undergrad professors. Intelligent, witty, kind and encouraging. He brought historical and biographical depth to what otherwise could have been a pretty dry topic—sociological theory.

So if he is any indication of what the rest are like, Quakers have made a pretty good impression on me.

George Fox. This image shows part of an engrav...

George Fox. This image shows part of an engraving by “S. Allen” (published 1838) of a painting by “S. Chinn” – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers

² Ibid.

³ http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-17112572

4 For instance » http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9765

 Quaker Breakfast Squares Just $0.50 at Acme! {Rebate} (livingrichwithcoupons.com)

 Why Not Live With Friends? (feedproxy.google.com)