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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)


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Romulus and Remus – The story that won

Lupa di Roma

Lupa di Roma – Wee Sen Goh via Flickr

In Roman myth Romulus (c. 771 BCE – 717 BCE) and Remus (c. 771 BCE – 753 BCE) are twin brothers born of Mars and Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin.

According to legend Romulus and Remus founded Rome. The story says they were thrown into the Tiber river. After floating downstream to the Palatine, they are discovered and nurtured by a she-wolf.

Upon maturation, they erect a city wall at the place where they had been rescued by the she-wolf.

Later, the two argue over who is favored by the gods to name the new city. The upshot of this conflict is that Romulus – or maybe one of his henchmen – murders Remus.

Romulus then becomes the first ruler of Rome and names the city after himself.

The ancient writers Plutarch and Livy treat this tale as if it were actual history. But today, we have a different story:

The origins of the different elements in Rome’s foundation myth are a subject of ongoing debate. they may have come from the Romans’ own indigenous origins, or from Hellenic influences that were included later. Definitively identifying those original elements has so far eluded the classical academic community. Although the tale takes place before the founding of Rome around 750 BC, the earliest known written account of the myth is from the late 3rd century BC.[6] There is an ongoing debate about how and when the “complete” fable came together.¹

Romulus and Remus nursed by the She-wolf by Pe...

Romulus and Remus nursed by the She-wolf by Peter Paul Rubens Rome, Capitoline Museums (Photo: Wikipedia)

As noted elsewhere, the Romulus and Remus myth is not the only story about the founding of Rome:

The founding of Rome is understood in terms of two mythic tales. One about Romulus and Remus. The other about Aeneas. The Romulus and Remus myth seems to have mostly won out. Any popular videos I’ve seen about Rome tell about their being suckled by a she-wolf but ignore the tale of Aeneas. Such is life… and history.

I’m not a Roman historian so, rather than spend days rewriting something I’m only mildly interested in, I have highlighted some main points here. Readers wanting more could also check out the lively podcast at Spotify: The History of Rome (mobile).²

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

² https://earthpages.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/rome/

Related » Gemini

 Giant mausoleum in Rome that held the remains of the emperor Augustus to be restored after decades of neglect (telegraph.co.uk)


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Representation – A subtle power for good or ill

Radar is a unique type of representation that helps in war and peace

Radar is a unique type of representation used in war and peace

In the literary and artistic sense, representation refers to depicting a psychological, social, natural, political or spiritual idea or condition through language, music, visual art, multimedia, CGI or dance.

In the sciences, abstract ideas like numbers and their interrelationships are represented through numerals and other symbols.¹

In psychology, Carl Jung argues that representation is essential to the healthy growth of the psyche. For him, the conscious ego is like a control center that, through representation, must express and manage the formidable powers of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Jung believes it is potentially dangerous to not express unconscious attitudes, tendencies and desires in some socially acceptable way.

One of the classic examples of this danger in today’s news would be pedophile priests. These are mostly gay men, not too spiritually aware nor advanced, who have taken a vow of celibacy. They’ve also pledged themselves to God in an organization that says homosexuality is disordered. For Jung, this would be double trouble, involving

  • the harsh repression of physiological impulses for sex
  • a strange, twisted hypocrisy concerning one’s sexual orientation²

No wonder the US Church, alone, has paid out several billions of dollars in sex abuse lawsuits to victims over the past 65 years.

Postmodern thinkers question to what degree representation actually represents and to what degree it creates or colors something. For them, social power comes into play in describing and defining. Representation does not only denote something. It also connotes meanings. Compare the following two sentences:

He had a distinguished career with an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford.

He read and wrote a lot of stuff that people at a British school for continued learning liked, so they added more letters to his name.

These may denote the same thing but they connote very different meanings. Thus we see the power of representation.

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu say that elites use certain terms, ways of speaking and manners to separate themselves from others, and to remind the “lower classes” of their apparent vulgarity and powerlessness. Choice of clothing has the same effect. And funnily enough, the lower classics often buy cheaper, less fine versions of that expensive “look” in a failed attempt to measure up to their apparently elite superiors. Bourdieu calls these non-economic assets that elites possess cultural capital. From head to toe, inside and out, elites have a lot while the lower classes have far less.³

In anthropology, philosophy and theology, the idea of representation has been broken down into

  • first-order sense data, where human beings create an internal representation of something seemingly “out there”4
  • second-order conceptualizations and images

Within Platonic philosophy and the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, different questions are raised about the possibility of eternal, unchanging essences or ideas that are imperfectly represented in our everyday, impermanent world of change and decay.

With abstract art, some argue that the personality and personal message of the artist may be entirely absent in the representational message of an artwork. Others say this is impossible—that is, the artist, artwork and viewer always exist in some kind of relationship.

To sum, representation is a fascinating phenomenon. In junior high school I once wrote a paper differentiating mankind from animals on the basis of our ability to make tools. But when I hit university I was introduced to the power of language, symbols and signs. And many argue that this representational aspect of mankind is what makes us truly human. For better or for worse, we live in a largely symbolic universe with diverse meanings.5

¹ Most of us don’t think about it too much. But the concept of number as a discrete, definite unit is not as simple as it might seem. See https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/what-are-numbers and https://welovephilosophy.com/2012/12/17/do-numbers-exist/

² I have no idea about the causes of hetero- and homosexuality. I am just reporting Jung’s view. Non-abusive instances of gay religious may involve a bewildering confusion or secret dual life concerning one’s sexual orientation. Concerning the first bulleted item, some Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit gives brothers, nuns and priests a supernatural gift of celibacy, lifting them to a higher level of operation and giving them power over their natural desires. In reality, though, I don’t think it’s always that clear cut.

³ This is not to say that the economically poor cannot be highly intelligent nor spiritually rich. But I think some religious people create a stereotype about this based on Luke 6:20. Just because someone is poor does not, imo, mean they always have a rich inner life and good ethics. And by the same token, just because someone is rich does not mean they are always cruel, superficial snobs. This is a silly, superficial view in itself, I think based on a particular interpretation of the New Testament.

I say seemingly “out there” because solipsism suggests we cannot prove the reality of anything beyond our own internal experience. I don’t agree with taking this view but thought I should mention it.

5 I say largely symbolic because some sociologists fall short by saying that we live in a mere symbolic universe. I’m not convinced that religious experience, before the interpretive stage, is symbolic. I believe the Holy Spirit can touch us directly. So part of our experience, provided we’re open to religious experience, can be direct and non-representational.

Related » Active Imagination, Archetypal Image, Roland Barthes, Rudolf Bultmann, Bruce Cockburn, Emile Durkheim, Emic-Etic, Icon, Object, Participation Mystique, Surrealism, Wittgenstein, Yoni


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The Renaissance – Some were punished, others outsmarted authoritarian powers

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A term that literally means “rebirth,” the Renaissance brought on a flowering of the arts, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and scholarship.

Prefigured in the 12th century, what some call the High Middle Ages, most agree that the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy and spread through Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. Several factors were involved in its genesis. One of the more prominent was a weakening of the Christian Church’s cultural and economic grip over the lives of men and women.¹

Geographers, astronomers, and map makers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were very interested in observing and mapping the heavenly bodies and theorizing about their relationship to the Earth – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center via Flickr

Instead of Europeans following the dictates of authoritarian personalities and their organizational structures, beauty and truth were sought after in fresh new ways.

The clergy had lost its stranglehold on learning and aptitude in languages like Latin, Hebrew and Greek, making any person with means and ability free to study and ask new questions about society, history and Biblical scripture.

Some were severely punished for their new found freedoms. Authoritarians in power rarely enjoy challenges to their rigid mindsets and regimes. Other freethinkers distanced themselves or entirely renounced authoritarian beliefs and structures so as to minimize repercussions. And yet other shrewd figures like Erasmus Desiderius knew how to find balance and equilibrium among competing political forces.

It’s not for us to say whose approach was right or wrong. Each had their own way, just as today some are called to blend in while others stand out.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


¹ This entry doesn’t really touch on sex-role stereotypes during the Renaissance. If you are in the know, feel free to add to it.

Related  » Fortuna, Medieval, Scholarship


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Freud’s Reality Principle (German: Realitätsprinzip) – Is that all there is?

Hanging man artwork, in Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.

In Sigmund Freud‘s personality theory, the reality principle is a learned psychological function that seeks to gratify instinctual desires (id) through adaptation to the external world.

The reality principle exists in a state of tension with the innate pleasure principle. The instinctual id always wants instant gratification. The rest of the psyche (ego, superego) limits and directs the id so that its incessant demands are appropriately expressed, both personally and socially.¹

That is Freud’s theory of normality. Sadly, however, we often we hear in the news instances – and lawsuits – where the id reigns supreme by eclipsing or habitually overshadowing the rest of the psyche. And if an imbalanced person happens to have power over others, say in the workplace, sometimes they can get away with abusive behavior and, perhaps, other crimes for quite some time before victims come forward.

I have great respect for Freud as a true pioneer in trying to systematize the psyche. However, my main critique of Freud’s view has to do with his understanding of external “reality.” For Freud, external reality is limited to the material and the social. Freud was openly hostile to religion and religious ideas. This hostility put him at odds with his star pupil, Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology also became a leading force, especially among writers, artists and depth psychologists interested in more than just sex, aggression, secular life (Freud’s eros) and death (thanatos).

¹ I took a memorable first-year humanities course at York University directed by a Freudian analyst, Dr. Don Carveth. Although soaking up the professor’s wise words as far back as the early 80s, I remember the general theory very well. Reading Kendra Cherry’s excellent summary also helped to flesh out this short entry » https://www.verywell.com/what-is-the-reality-principle-2795801, as did Charles Rycroft’s clear and concise » https://www.amazon.com/Critical-Dictionary-Psychoanalysis-Penguin-Reference/dp/0140513108


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Marx’s Productive Relations and Theory of History

Marx for Sale by Gideon via Flickr

Karl Marx proposed a theory of history in which society apparently progresses through definite stages. The catalyst for change from one stage to the next is a tension between the productive forces (PF) and the productive relations (PR). At least, this is how some have interpreted Marx’s theory.

According to this model, the PR are the social aspects of production in a given society, usually the legal or brute force means of exploiting labor, extracting surplus and maintaining social dominance of the few over the many.

By way of contrast, the PF refers to how a society actually produces commodities.

There is some feedback from the PR to the PF. But the PF determine the PR because the PF are more fundamental to society. In short, the social (PR) depends on the material (PF). And the material (PF) is primary to capital.

I wrote a paper about this back in 1985. The wording is a bit laborious. I was a relatively new university student perfecting a formula for getting good marks, so maybe I was subconsciously mimicking my professor. Over the years I found that grades were usually higher when you wrote like your professors spoke, which was sorta sad but true.

Despite the old-world sentences, the content is good. So I refer you to that for more detailed coverage, especially pp. 2-4:


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Reification – Are things always as they seem?

State Theater, Congress Avenue

State Theater, Congress Avenue by Dave Wilson via Flickr

Reification is a sociological, philosophical and literary concept concerning language and symbolization.¹

For Marxist, Weberian and postmodern sociologists, reification also involves social power. It occurs whenever ideas, concepts or theories are falsely assumed to accurately represent some entity or thing.

While many folks get heated up over political debates, and rightly so, few go a little deeper to question the political entities that we have constructed and continue to construct on a daily basis. Yes, we sometimes question what “democracy” means. But how often do we deconstruct the very notion of the “state”?

When you think about it, it is valid to ask: What is “Canada”? or What is “The United States of America”? For postmodern theorists, these are abstract ideas with potentially different meanings for each person. So the notion of the “state” is a human construction with many, interpreted meanings that do not point to an absolute existence of the thing in itself.

Another example of reification is often given in discussions about religious rules and regulations. These not only have legal but moral and emotional power over individuals. “Forgive me Father… it’s been 10 weeks since my last confession…” For non-Catholic reification theorists, the idea that a man can stand in place of God and that Catholics must regularly check in to a small booth and confess to a man/God is totally silly. It’s just a set of man-made rules that, although fictitious, have real power over the lives of men and women. Catholics are conditioned into believing the rules are part of a sacred tradition. A magisterial teaching authority. So the man-made thing becomes real to the extent that it is believed in.

From the perspective of believing Catholics, however, confession is far from silly. It’s a way to confirm that God has heard and forgives sins. Confession is a “sacrament.” It’s not a mere social construction legitimized in writ and replicated through conditioning because Catholics believe the teaching authority is holy. So, for them, the rules are functional truths from God.

Funnily enough, some folks talk about their country’s laws in a similar manner. Fundamentalist Americans, for instance, who speak of manifest destiny, often link the holy with their nation’s activity. And this is not only in the Bible Belt. Some “New Age” Americans speak the same way. The French social theorist Roland Barthes points out the close emotional and symbolic connection between the ideas of the “American Spirit” and “The Holy” in his 1957 book Mythologies

Critics of the idea of reification would argue that different countries are distinguished by laws, citizenship, culture, the landscape and geographic boundaries. However, reification theorists could reply that laws are often applied differently to the rich and powerful than to the poor and powerless. Statistics support this. The rich spend less time in jail for the same offences. So do the laws truly exist?

It may be difficult to appreciate the notion that landscape and geographic boundaries are not absolute, indisputable markers. But when we deconstruct the idea of physicality, as quantum physics does, even ideas like “the land” and geographic “boundaries” become less clear cut.

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by C...

Democriet (laughing) & Herakliet (crying) by Cornelis van Haarlem, which Lievens copied at 12. (The copy is lost) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In philosophy the ancient Greek Heraclitus alluded to the idea of reification when he wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. What is a river if we can’t pin it down?

The 20th-21st century philosopher Willard Quine touches on the idea of reification by saying that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” The first dogma involves the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts. This is related to the second dogma of “reductionism.” Reductionism is the belief that naming and meaning are the same.³ Likewise in rhetoric, it is commonly debated whether reification is applied appropriately.4

In the literary world, reification may occur whenever a metaphor is employed; although in literature a metaphor is accepted and encouraged; it is also evaluated for its effectiveness.5

To sum, reified ideas may be simple or complex. They may involve legal entities like “corporation” or “state.” But the question remains as to whether the thing written and talked about truly exists as described.

¹ Wikipedia lists several meanings for this term. Of particular interest is the meaning within Gestalt psychology, which I haven’t really emphasized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification

² Barthes focuses on America here, but I think individuals and groups in any country can get high and mighty about the alleged superiority of their nation.

³ Quine’s language may be difficult for laypersons. Understanding what he says depends on some knowledge of Kant’s particular language games (although Kant probably wouldn’t have seen it that way). Here’s the original Quine quote:

Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

Source: http://www.ditext.com/quine/quine.html

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy)

5 See examples.

Related » Sociology, Unconscious