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Dialectical Materialism – It sounds like “diabolical” but it’s not quite that bad

A portrait of Karl Marx.

A portrait of Karl Marx. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dialectical Materialism is a school of thought which emerged from Karl Marx‘s theory of history. Marx is said to have turned the Hegelian dialectic on its head. That is, Hegel envisioned the world as spirit unfolding in matter and, by implication, human relations and history.

Marx, on the other hand, did not believe in God nor spirit and saw history as unfolding due to internal tensions within the material, social and conceptual world.  These tensions have often been simplified into a dialectical process. Just how this dialectical process takes shape has been variously discussed by different Marxist commentators.

Like Marx, much of our common understanding of Hegel comes through secondary writers who interpret the original works—sometimes from translations, sometimes not. So we often hear that Hegel believed in a “thesis” and “antithesis” which precede a greater “synthesis.” But apparently Hegel never used these exact terms. Not systematically, anyhow. So this simplification (or handy schema) mostly comes from writers interested in Hegel but not from Hegel himself.

Similarly with Marx, writers like G. A. Cohen make his theory seem quite rational and conceptually ordered. The problem is, other writers interpret Marx differently, so we have to look at Marx’s actual writings to find out what he really meant. I sincerely tried to study Marx with several of his works but found them to be heavy and laborious (which is a nice way of saying “boring”), so must limit myself to talking about people talking about Marx.

If you need proof that a plethora of interpretations of Marx can be found, just follow these links:¹

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I personally don’t find Marx interesting enough to spend hours trying to pretend I am an expert on him when I’m not. It seems to me that writers like Michel Foucault just smash his clunky arguments. And I don’t really see much point in turning back.

In fairness to Marx, he apparently was a good family man, had a creative sense of humor and really cared about social injustice. I am sure his intentions were good. But any analysis without treating God as an agent will, in my view, fall short. And this applies to both Marx and Foucault.

¹ Thanks to the wonderful, customizable MultiSearch for K-Meleon Browser. I just discovered this and plan to use it to dig up as much stuff as possible for earthpages.ca!

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Structuralism – another ‘religious’ belief?

Ferdinand de Saussure founded linguistics, sem...

Ferdinand de Saussure founded linguistics, semiotics and structuralism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Structuralism is an approach found in the Social Sciences. Its adherents maintain that human beliefs, practices and interactions follow natural, universal patterns.¹

In psychology, structuralism is usually contrasted with functionalism. Structural approaches also appear in anthropology, linguistics, sociology and religious studies.

A good example of the strengths and weaknesses of this approach can be found in Wendy Doniger‘s monumental work, Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. Here Doniger talks about her reading of the intricacies of Hindu mythology, trying to place the countless myths into some kind of Western intellectual framework. Interesting, but one also gets the impression that she doesn’t really understand how these myths could apply to transpersonal dynamics and real life mysticism as practiced not only in India but around the world today.

In fact, some structuralists seem so caught up in their belief in structure that to suggest otherwise elicits an immature, emotional response. So in this sense structuralism could be viewed in the same light as a longstanding religious tradition. The certainty that structuralism seems to provide gives meaning and comfort to those not ready or able to step out of into the light of a more comprehensive, realistic position.²

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mostly on intellectual grounds, structuralism has also been challenged by postmodern and poststructural thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida

¹ Wikipedia gives us a history of structuralism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuralism

² We see a similar dynamic with science and particularly, scientism, where many people blindly believe in a science which, itself, enjoys no universal definition as to what it actually is. See Daniel N. Robinson PhD, http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/great-ideas-of-psychology.html (Lecture 1).

Related » Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Semiology/Semiotics

 


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Jean-Paul Sartre

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as a witness during the trial of French politician Alain Geismar. Palais de Justice de Paris. Paris. 20 October 1970. Photograph.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) was once an extremely popular French philosopher and writer born in Paris. He’s best known for articulating his unique vision of existentialism. But he was also a successful novelist, playwright and man of letters.

Academics and intellectuals tend to champion certain thinkers for a decade or two. Some scholars become something of a fad—as we find, for instance, with Noam Chomsky.

When another luminary comes along saying the right things, the right way, and at the right time, the old star usually fades into the background with countless others who have illuminated minds through the centuries.

One could say this was the fate of the late, great Jean-Paul Sartre.

Somewhat out of fashion today, his unique version of existentialism as presented in Being and Nothingness (1943) was the calling card for 1960s and early 70s thinkers and beatniks alienated from industrial society and traditional religion.¹

Existentialism speaks to a void. It suggests that mankind is uprooted from nature and exists in an absurd and essentially meaningless world.

Until very recently most psychologists maintained that animals are bound by patterns of environmental “stimulus and response.” However, human beings apparently have a gap of nothingness between a stimulus and their response.

With this radical and potentially alienating human freedom, Sartre says we must create meaning through personal choices and commitments.

Fake roadsign by Véro

Fake roadsign by Véro

His concept of bad faith has little or nothing to do with being a naughty religious person and everything to do with being an inauthentic human being.

For Sartre, inauthenticity means we fool ourselves into thinking we are forced to do something when in fact we choose it. The familiar line of the exposed criminal, “I had no choice,” would be a good instance of Sartre’s understanding of bad faith. Sartre would say the criminal chose to be a criminal, no matter how bad the circumstances were leading up to his or her choice.²

The existential style was taken up by writers such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. As mentioned, Sarte also wrote several novels, such as The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul. He was awarded but didn’t accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Later, he asked if he could still get the money without receiving the award. No surprise: He was refused.

¹ Most likely a young, largely unknown David Bowie was adding his own satirical twist to Sartre’s vision in one of his earliest songs, “The Gang.”

Join The Gang

Let me introduce you to the gang
Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist
Once he had a name, now he plays our game
You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang

Source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/davidbowie/jointhegang.html

² I remember hearing a professor give another example, that of gays apparently choosing to be gay. That was back in the early 1980s. I think that professor would have met some serious resistance from those believing in the “genetic” theory of homosexuality, had he said that today.

Related » Michel Foucault, Free Will, Erich Fromm

 


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Athleticism

U.S. Physical Fitness Program Exercise Book´s ...

U.S. Physical Fitness Program Exercise Book´s Front Cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As far back as American President Kennedy, government encouragement of individual fitness has been an important part of the many messages received through the popular media.

In 1973 a Canadian not-for-profit private company called Participaction ran TV messages, similar in style to commercial ads, urging viewers to get physically fit.

One segment claimed the average 30-year-old Canadian was in similar physical condition to the average 60-year-old Swede.

The ad had significant impact across Canada, while years later it was said

This was pure fiction. No one had any real evidence for this assertion other than international fitness comparisons that put the Swedish population well ahead of Canada and everyone else.¹

TV viewers in Canada now watch newer ads, like Body Break (1989-), which advocate an active lifestyle.

So what’s the big deal, who cares?

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, postmoderns like Michel Foucault and other sociologists say that discourses about the body often hide behind their innocuous exterior a marked political agenda, that being the legitimization of power relations that claim to “scientifically” improve the social body.

From this perspective, scientific and medical discourses focusing on personal health deflect public attention from serious environmental problems, such as toxic waste.

The same has been said about discourse concerning crime and mental illness. The emphasis on personal solutions arguably eclipses the need to fix greater social problems.

This (not so) subtle blame game is especially apparent in discourses about minority groups and the poor. “Decadent rap music” and “drugs,” for example, are often singled out as factors contributing to mental illness and higher crime rates among youths in visible minority groups.²

A New Testament view of athleticism, one often completely ignored by Christians, presents another perspective that challenges contemporary norms:

For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8).

—–

¹ The original link for this is now dead <“Bring Back the 60-year old Swede!”  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0LVZ/is_11_19/ai_n6130161:// >  , and ParticipACTION writes the story as if it were true http://scaa.sk.ca/gallery/participaction/english/motivate/swede.html

² Often overlooked here is the systemic racism and stressors encountered by have-nots living in societies marked by sharp economic disparity. Also ignored is the related possibility that corruption and the abuse of legitimate power can contribute to some individuals going utterly mad, developing their own “law of the jungle” sense of values, and entering into a life of crime.

Related Posts » Poststructuralism, Scientism


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Archaeology

archaeol.jpg

Practical Archaeology Course 8 by Wessex Archaeology via Flickr

Archaeology [Greek: archaiologia = ancient history] is a relatively new science concerned with the excavation and analysis of artifacts, texts, structures and organic material (such as skeletons) from past civilizations.

The birth of archaeology is often associated with J. J. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (History of Ancient Art), published in 1764.

When it first appeared, carbon dating was sometimes upheld as the miracle tool that would pinpoint precise dates for discovered objects. But the accuracy of carbon dating is now debated. Almost all agree that carbon dating becomes less precise as we go further back in time.

Others maintain that carbon dating results sometimes can be misleading due to the hoarding and biased interpretation of artifacts and, in some cases, an overzealous desire to advance a career by “proving” a pet theory.

International politics and profit incentives may also come into play with archaeology as ancient remnants are often found in poor, politically sensitive, volatile and even war-torn nations. Local politicians are usually required to authorize certificates for archaeological materials requested for investigation or release from a site, which sometimes slows things down.

The term archaeology was also used by the psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud employed the image of ruins within an ancient city to portray the relation between the unconscious and the ego (i.e. consciousness).

Archaeology at Crossrail

Archaeology at Crossrail by rich_pickler via Flickr

More recently, the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault used the metaphor of archaeology quite loosely to suggest the possibility of ideologically “buried” forms of knowledge. Foucault’s use of archaeology does not refer to questions like: “Did aliens build the pyramids?” or “What was the location of ancient Atlantis?”¹ Rather, Foucault’s work deals with reconstructing a network of connections, assumptions, expectations, techniques, values and beliefs assumed to exist in a given historical place and time.

Foucault’s archaeological metaphor is directly applied to a historical text, which he calls an “open site.” The notion of an open site suggests that the task of reconstructing historical meaning from texts is necessarily incomplete.

¹ Foucault did not ask these questions, but contemporary postmoderns might. Postmodernism and critical theory are slowly moving toward a greater appreciation of mysticism and esoterica. A good example of this integrative shift can be found in the work of G. E. Gallas.

Related Posts » Anthropology


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Aesculapius

A Sick Child brought into the Temple of Aescul...

A Sick Child brought into the Temple of Aesculapius 1877 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aesculapius was the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek myth. Some believe he was a Greek citizen around 1200 BCE who, like Heracles, became deified.

In Homer‘s Illiad he is described as “the blameless physician.” His cult was centered in Epidaurus and emphasized cure through a prototype of contemporary psychoanalysis.

The poets Hesiod and Pindar speak of Aesculapius as the son of Zeus and Corona. In Epiduarian myth, his mother Corona dies while he is an infant. A Messenian variant, however, says Aesculapius’ mother is Arsinoe and other accounts claim that he is the son of Apollo.

Regardless of his ambiguous parentage, Aesculapius’ fame grew until he became the god of medicine and healing.

According to Greek legend, he was educated by the centaur Chiron. And while in hell he raised a dead person, Hippolytus, to life. This vexed Zeus who retaliated by killing Aesculapius with a thunderbolt.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although illness in ancient Greece was often attributed to the displeasure of the gods and goddesses, it could nevertheless be cured by divine mercy. The afflicted entered a sacred chamber and allowed visionary or “incubated” dreams to guide them towards health.

The postmodern thinker Michel Foucault saw this type of dream incubation as an ancient precursor the psychoanalytic couch.

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Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French social thinker who built on ideas popularized by postmoderns such as Michel Foucault and the semiologist Roland Barthes. Like Foucault, Bourdieu was critical of Marxism, Existentialism and Structuralism and he tried to understand the practice of Sociology within its own cultural context.

Michael Payne says Bourdieu also argued that theories, beliefs and dispositions influence cultural practice, often “unconsciously and uncritically.”¹

So any good theory, including scientific theory, should be “reflexive”—that is, it should seek to identify and overcome its own biases. This sounds sensible but, at the same time, scientists are just people, with all the flaws, limitations, pride and ambition that we all share. These personal biases usually interfere, in varying degrees, with the reflexive aspect of science. In other words, the ego gets in the way. This is, perhaps, most obvious in so-called “soft science” disciplines like psychology and psychiatry, but it’s present in all aspects of science. Whenever a worldview becomes an entrenched form of belief, its reflexive aspects usually diminish. For a while, anyhow.

As a sociologist, Bourdieu developed seminal concepts such as “habitus,” “fields,” “cultural capital” and social “reproduction” to better illustrate his ideas about societal discrimination, inequity and domination. With regard to domination, he introduced the term “symbolic violence” to describe ways of seeing that are subtly imposed on groups and individuals. Along these lines, Bourdieu made important contributions toward the deconstruction of language, scholarship and science. Without the deconstruction of ideas and practices, those with social power seek to impose their particular view of the “natural” or “just” on those who lack the power to shape the understanding of these concepts within society. Whether or not this dynamic occurs willfully or unreflectively is a matter of debate.

Again, it would be wrong to say that Bourdieu was the first to come up with the idea of symbolic violence. Sociologists have been thinking out of the box ever since Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic played a central role in the development of Capitalism. As such, the related concepts of work and laziness have taken a definite shape and form in so-called developed societies. And Emile Durkheim looked at the phenomenon of suicide from a statistical perspective, trying to link social conditions to this tragic activity. So for Durkheim, suicide isn’t just a personal choice. It’s linked to the norms and expectations of a given culture.

¹ Michael Payne, ed. A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 73.