Maps are suggestive of philosophical concepts and systems, whose authors suggest guides to reality.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of truth in terms of “inwardness,” “passion,” and “subjectivity,” and is best known for urging a “leap of faith” into belief in God and Christ. Opponents of Kierkegaard and Faith say this means that trust in Jesus is irrational and that one must simply make a mindless jump into the Kingdom (if there is such a thing).
Of course, SK meant no such thing. Rather, he saw that no “proofs” could establish the soundness of an overarching worldview, with its supreme metaphysical commitments. Arguments come up short, whatever your “religion,” including the religion of materialism. (Blaise Pascal had a similar stance, from which he proposed a “wager,” wherein one sizes up the life outcomes of rival religious bets.) But more than this, he showed no patience for those who suggested that we could be detached, disinterested observers, sizing up big truth claims from the sidelines, as if we were Olympic diving or gymnastics judges in business suits, holding up our score cards while the athletes tumbled and sweated in the arena. Rather, you must throw yourself into the event yourself before you can really know what’s going on, before truth can become Truth, if you will.
His take on the Danish, state, Lutheran church was merciless, for he saw it as a place of spiritual deadness, even where there was doctrinal correctness. Against this type of domesticated, safe, respectable religion, he wrote Fear and Trembling, which argued that Abraham’s “crazy” and “deplorable” willingness to sacrifice Isaac was normative. It was only when Abraham showed himself willing to follow through on God’s shocking directive that the Lord provided an alternative. It didn’t make sense up to that point, for the aged Abraham and Sarah had only one son to fulfill the promise that they would parent a vast nation, and now God was telling him to kill that son. But God was building a nation on faith and not on flesh, and he insisted that the father of both genetic and Christian “Israel” would be a faith exemplar.
Hence the “progressive treasure map.” With our “Godlike” view, we can see the end of this sketch from the beginning, but the pilgrim can only see one instruction at a time, and he must enter upon the route before he gets what he needs next to make his way toward blessings. You can’t stick with the cool assessment of natural law ethicist or the superficial snippiness of an aesthete. You have to put “skin in the game” (the often terrifying game of radical discipleship) to really grasp reality.
Kierkegaard also had no patience for the wildly abstract philosophizing of a Hegel and others who presumed to speak sweeping and detached descriptions and prescriptions for mankind. He insisted that wisdom comes at the gut level, and, for this, he has been labeled the “father of existentialism.” (In this connection, Francis Schaeffer blamed SK, at least indirectly, for the dreadful, atheistical work of Jean-Paul Sartre.) But this is less than fair, something like blaming Paul for antinomianism, since he said we’re “saved by grace, not works.”
It is fair to say that Kierkegaard’s language was over-the- top, a linguistic over-correction. He could have said that truth was, at base, correspondence with reality, but that one was in no position to appropriate and preach it until he had lived it, with some risk. Or something like that. Indeed, speaking of truth “as subjectivity” invites theoretical malpractice. But hammers aren’t scalpels, and we’re fortunate that he took up the hammer he did.
In 1893, Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, imagined a 1:1-scale map in his book, Sylvie and Bruno, and others have riffed on the idea, including Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and American comedian Steven Wright. Here’s the passage from Carroll:
“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
Well, actually, it doesn’t do nearly as well, and Borges imagines more of the problem in his 1954 essay, “On Exactitude in Science.”
“In time, . . . the cartographers guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that that vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”
The point is that useful maps rely upon a level of abstraction, without which you would have to simply look to the ground in front of you to see what was next, though you would scarcely know where you were. A sense of location would demand context, generalization, and simplification.
The same goes for all theoretical thinking, including science and philosophy. You can’t count each individual phenomenon and person as sui generis (“in a class by itself”), for then you couldn’t speak meaningfully about anything. There were be no adjectives, no collective terms, such as ‘child,’ ‘blue,’ or ‘forest’ – only this thing, that thing, and the other thing, for there is an infinite variety of each. You couldn’t categorize them, respectively, as creatures, colors, or forms of vegetation, for those, too, are abstractions.
Instead of representing all rivers by a uniform blue line on your map, you would need to make the lines wider and narrower depending on the distance between banks in the various sections. But even when you do that, as on the 1:50,000 military topographical maps, such as those we used to study the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, you still rely on blue to stand for rivers, even though most aren’t so blue. The same goes for maps of Khartoum, Sudan, where the darker Blue Nile, rushing down from the Ethiopian highlands, meets the languid (and muddy) White Nile coming up from flatlands to the south. In a sense, the blue notation is a lie, for neither of the feeder Niles is really blue, but that’s not the point. You don’t need to know the pigmentation of this stretch or that as much as whether or not there’s a river before you, to travel or cross or tap for water.
And so we abstract. But what do we make of the status of those abstractions? And how do they relate to the specifics on the ground? Philosophers speak of these matters in terms of “universals” (general terms) and “particulars” (specific things). Nominalists (name-only people, like Hume) say that universals are just useful fictions. Realists say they’re real, as the name implies. Conceptualists say they’re real, but only as concepts in the mind.
And the breakdown continues: Plato and Aristotle were both Realists, but for Plato, the universals (such as friendship and horseness) were “transcendent,” existing independently in an immaterial realm all their own. For Aristotle, they were immanent, written into the very creatures we see on earth, e.g., horseness in Seabiscuit. And how exactly does this happen? What are the mechanisms for “participation” of particulars in the universals? And what are the proper boundaries of application? When, for instance, does a river become a creek or an estuary?
For my money, conceptualism, with the universals residing in the mind of God, who creates and sustains all the particulars, makes the most sense. And thus one aims to not only “think God’s [propositional] thoughts after Him,” but also to wield in reflection and discourse God’s exalted universals (Imago Dei; anointing) along with his more mundane ones (lamb; sea), and even the dark ones (sin; delusion). Of course, if you don’t believe in God, then things get trickier, more metaphysically daunting. If you take this tack, then, as my daughter says, “Knock yourself out.”
While the northern, western, and southern borders of Arkansas are drawn with straight-line geometrical precision, the eastern border is a mess, for it traces the meanderings of the Mississippi River. Such twists and turns are commonplace throughout the valleys of the world as gravity and topography work their power on descending bodies of water. Back and forth, back and forth, as they make their way to the sea.
Hegel’s philosophy of history bears similarities, for it centers on “dialectic,” a sort of conversation between realities and emerging, contrary possibilities, resulting in new realities, which will, in turn be confronted by new, conflicting possibilities – thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis/thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis/thesis . . . and so on. Marching onward, ever forward. It’s grounded in a sort of conceptual ping-pong game between the being of what’s happening now and the non-being of mere- potential, but it also plays out on the world stage in the affairs of men.
Over a hundred years after Hegel laid out his theory of history, Karl Marx and his cohort, drawing heavily on Hegel, hammered out the doctrine of “dialectical materialism,” wherein matter, beginning with some sort of primordial stuff, has a long-running “conversation” with itself, evolving, if you will, into better and better circumstances for the working man. But Hegel’s dialectic was idealistic rather than materialistic, the manifestation of a world spirit, or Weltgeist. (Kant got things started in this direction earlier in the 18th century, declaring the power of mind to shape the world.)
So, much like a section of the river, a particular form of government, religion, art, family, industry, etc. runs its course until it hits higher ground and is turned in another direction. But unlike ping-pong, play continues off the table onto other tables. And its not the same river as it negotiates these reversals, for it may widen, pick up fresh pigmentation from a new sort of soil, or gain speed as it follows a new azimuth.
Unlike the Mississippi, the dialectical flow of history goes uphill rather than down. (Though, I’ve read that the silt buildup in the Mississippi as it reaches New Orleans is so considerable that in places, it’s forced to flow uphill as it punches its way into the Gulf; but by this time, it has so much heft and momentum that it can do this without diversion.) In Hegel’s case, the Gulf of Mexico is called Absolute Spirit.
This notion has charmed a lot of philosophers and, “downstream,” a lot of laymen, whose fancies are tickled by the thought that history is on the side of trashing what they don’t like and delivering what they favor. So they take to the barricades to confront “the man,” confident that he’ll be ground to dust in the march of events. Lenin preached it. So did Mao.
The 20th-century British philosopher Karl Popper was a fierce critic of this mindset, first in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and then with The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Popper was know for his insistence that serious scientific theories needed to be “falsifiable” – that something could possibility count against them, for otherwise, they were gaseously compatible with whatever came down the pike – and that the predictive power of Hegel’s fantasy was zero. But more than this, it tended to trample men, for social planners, who thought they saw the future and marched in that direction, stomped right over folks who wouldn’t get with the program. This included at least fifteen million recalcitrant kulak farmers in Stalin’s Ukraine and seventy million or so victims in Communist China. After all, “You have to break some eggs if you’re going to make an omelet.”
Of course, Christians believe that history is marching toward its proper culmination, but not at the beck of an impersonal spirit, but in the hands of the personal God, one whose Scripture reveals that utopian zeal is both stupid and cruel, for a fallen world will not perfect itself, and those who presume to hasten its perfection are servants and masters of tyranny and brutality.
Back in the 1970s, I read an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about the conceptual root of political conservatism. The writer argued that it all came down to belief in original sin. If you didn’t believe in it, you thought government could bring out the “Great Society,” the “Workers Paradise,” or some other wonderful state of affairs by bashing the status quo and by proliferating and growing social programs. Hegelians resonated with such talk.
Not so the original-sin folks, who took a more skeptical approach to public policy. Yes, pursue justice, but don’t think you can achieve heaven on earth in the process, and don’t think you’re entitled to visit injustices on those who get in the way.
There’s no denying that Texas is big and important (the biggest of the “lower 48”), but the residents have been known to magnify its already considerable place on the national stage, to the point of parody. One reflection of this hubris is the comic American map with an outsized treatment of the state, to the detriment of its neighbors. And it’s typically drawn by Texans, proud of what they’re asserting, and not by critics who want to shame the Texans into humility.
Any number of philosophers can be charged with drawing outsized Texas maps of their own, exaggerating the importance of this or that feature of reality. Kant’s ethic is a case in point.
A quick review. The sage of Koenigsberg was convinced you must build morality on reason alone, distilling his approach to the Categorical Imperative — a duty that exhausted the concerns of the whole category of ethical obligation. He actually had two versions: 1. That we should only use standards we could apply to everyone; 2. That we should treat people, as distinct from hammers or dogs, with special regard.
Number 1 is incisive, in that I have no business saying it’s okay for me to pilfer office supplies for home use, while disapproving of others’ doing the same. It’s always germane to ask, “What if everyone did this?” Now, of course, you can game the thing to say, “What if everyone whose kid had a crucial assignment needing hanging file folders but whose wife had just lost her job, making this purchase difficult, took a batch of these folders from the supply cabinet?” But those serious about ethics know we can always make our case “special,” granting us all sorts of immoral permission to do things we shouldn’t.
Number 2 is also admirable, for he talks about the vital distinction between things we can treat as tools, useful but disposable when it suits our purposes. You don’t have to keep a dry ballpoint pen around out of respect for its dignity, and it’s no big deal to cage a chicken, pending its use for chicken soup. But you mustn’t think of such behavior toward an inconvenient neighbor or elderly relative, though they seem to be “more trouble or expense than they’re worth.” You don’t run those calculations on a person.
So far so good, but there’s a problem in trying to base all this on reason, and Kant’s applications reveal the fault line. For Number 1, he asks us to consider suicide. What if everyone did it? On his account, that would be crazy because it would mean the end to human reasoning, which is the basis of ethics itself. But I can imagine an environmentalist or two who would find this just ducky, for it would rid the world of “anthropocentric” abusers of the biosphere, leaving Mother Earth and her innocent and winsome fawns and seedlings to themselves.
He also mentions the squandering of one’s powers through lassitude. What if everyone were a slacker? But what he takes as an obvious absurdity, some would find idyllic, particularly in temperate or tropic climes with fruit and vegetables handy for the picking.
Something’s missing. A yuck factor. A sense of indignation. Compassion. The counsel of decency. For reason alone is something like a computer program – “garbage in, garbage out.” If you have a dark heart, you can crank out all sorts of “rational” solutions, as Hitler and others have shown us. And if your heart is basically sound, you can stumble into an admirable life with the only the slimmest notion of what you’re doing.
The slacker needs a sense of stewardship, of accountability to gifts he’s been given. It’s not enough to figure, “Well, I have that ginormous trust fund, and I can jet around the world doing whatever I feel like doing with impunity.” You need a broader context to banish this thought, one involving a Creator God who’s blessed you with talents and opportunities, the appropriation of which contributes to human flourishing, and greater fellowship with the source of your being. Kant hints at this in talking about the value of the concepts, God, freedom, and immortality, but at the crucial point of anchoring ethics, he brushes God’s hand aside and says, in effect, “Thanks, but I’ve got this.” It’s almost as though he’s joining the atheist Voltaire is saying (reputedly) that he was glad he had believing servants because otherwise they might steal the silverware. Useful idiots, if you will.
Number 2 is also problematic, for in defining the inviolable beings, he turns to “rational nature,” making reason an idol. Yes, but isn’t that the heart of what it means to be a person? Doesn’t this set us apart from rusting iron and migrating birds? Not if you think the Bible is authoritative and revelatory. For it says our human specialness is based not on our skills at ratiocination, but rather on the fact that we’re made “in the image of God.” And though the elements or essence of this image are not spelled out, the Bible does not encourage us to think it boils down to reflective cleverness.
This may seem a quibble, but Kant shows that it isn’t. He called the “negroes of Africa” incapable of “feelings that rise above the trifling” and says that the difference between blacks and whites is “as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” (I wish he could have met Ben Carson for starters.) Now it doesn’t take a big step to see that this stupid and evil racism was groundwork for treating blacks as lesser beings. For if you think they, or any people for that matter, have less “rationality” than you do, then you can think they are less human. The same would go for the retarded or the as-yet-unborn. The Bible says they’re worthy because they’re made in the image of God. But Kant doesn’t have room for this “foolishness.” His “outsized Texas” of rationality crowds out essentials, such as love and holiness and piety and creatureliness. Now who looks not so rational?
Of course, this isn’t to glorify irrationality, for that can crash and burn too. And yes, in the last analysis, the “divine comedy” along with its moral precepts is sweetly reasonable. The problem with Kant was not that he esteemed reason, a God-given capacity, but that he supposed he could sort things out by his own reason irrespective of revelation.
Years ago, when our family negotiated the two-lane highways of America to visit relatives from Michigan to Florida, we’d get help from one of our kin in the form of a AAA strip map booklet. The American Automobile Association would custom make these for their members (and, by extension, their relatives, though not intentionally). Page after page, they centered on the desired route, with highlight markings to show detours, speed traps, and such. Unlike standard, fold-out road maps, they didn’t show the big picture. They didn’t contextualize the roads, but only showed what came next up the highway.
These strip maps have a Kantian feel to them, in that they help picture the distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds in the Kantian scheme of things. Immanuel Kant was “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers” by Scottish empiricist David Hume, who said that experience gives us no grounds for confident belief in God, miracles, the substantial soul, or the laws of nature. He said we could only make sense of the soul or person as a bundle of disjointed perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, and that natural causes boiled down to the regular conjunction of events (e.g., water boiling at 100 degrees centigrade at sea level), a conjunction on which we project causality, even though things could turn out quite differently the next time (e.g., water not boiling until it reached 200 degrees), with no “violation” of a law, which was, itself, nothing more than a useful fiction.
Kant, a confident devotee of science in proper “Enlightenment” mode, was shocked that Hume could make such a crazy claim, but he struggled to say where the Scot went wrong. In due season, he came up with a radically different account of things, one that saved the sanctity of science from the skeptics. To do so, he had to effect what’s called a “Copernican revolution.” Instead of arguing that we can build our rock solid devotion to scientific law from the testimony of experience, we can go at it the other way around: We can assume the inviolability of the causal system, and then figure out why it’s inviolable. It’s a “transcendental” argument, claiming to find the ground of the possibility of what we know to be true.
His answer was ingenious. He said that the English philosopher John Locke was terribly mistaken when he said that the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which experience would write. Rather, the mind was a reality-shaper itself, with inescapable categories of thought built right in. One of these was the category of causality. Thus, whatever we experience is already rigged to be causally related to other things in the world, a world itself cast within space and time, both of which are “pure forms of intuition,” to use Kant’s terminology.
He called this rigged world the realm of “phenomena.” In contrast, the realm of things as they really, really were was called the “noumena.” Though the noumenal world was beyond our experience, it was useful, even important, to believe in some notions “out there” – God, freedom, and immortality. These “regulative” ideas helped keep morals afloat, but they were nowhere as certain as the products of physics and chemistry, e.g., such “phenomenal” items as Bernoulli’s Principle or Avogadro’s Number.
This bifurcation sent shock waves through the philosophical world, with a host of subsequent philosophers extending or riffing on the scheme, including fellow Germans, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Of course, others pushed back hard, including, in the late 20th century, Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer, who said that Kant had drawn an arbitrary “line of despair,” putting the really important matters, such as belief in God, out in a relative LaLa Land. And much earlier, back in England, Thomas Reid made a case for “common sense” philosophy, an alternative to both Hume and Kant.
So back to the strip map: Though your automobile journey make take you past suffocating green kudzu plants springing from red Georgia clay, over snow-capped peaks in the Rockies, down past the Grand Canyon, through the Mojave Desert, ever approaching the blue Pacific, your page of strip map gives you only black on white, a line winding up the middle of the narrow, rectangular page. Some numbers and letters, but no topography or political boundary context. It’s “phenomenal,” if you will, but not “noumenal.”
In the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, some popular enthusiasm for “third way” philosophy surfaced in the counter-culture. The names, Georgi Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, were tossed around with an aura of profundity. It was a time when old verities were questioned, and secular esoterica were in vogue. Gurdjieff and his devotees came on the scene in the early 1900s, and their thought connected with some prominent cultural figures, including the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Gurdjieff’s philosophy was a dog’s breakfast of absurdities, with talk of “finer hydrogens,” “astral bodies,” and the cosmic “Law of Threes,” which could be combined with the “Ray of Creation” to enable his students to locate themselves within the universe. He prescribed “sacred dances,” which he would interrupt with the “stop exercise,” requiring them to freeze until he released them for more motion.
He threw in study of the Kabalah and numerology and drew disciples from those who had been studying Eurythmics, a form of gymnastics designed to coordinate and empower the senses. He prescribed “dulio-therapy” or the “slave cure,’ wherein he had them dig holes in the ground and then fill them back in.
It goes on and on, a testimony to man’s ingenuity and capacity for self-and-group delusion. But it hung together in its own way, with a place for every thing and a thing for every place. It was system, a worldview, a map to reality if you will. The problem was that it was unfit to equip its followers to navigate within reality. They made terrible messes of their lives, missed real insight at every turn, and fell prey to ever more exotic forms of babbling. Of course, much of it was so vague that you could claim compatibility with whatever came along, but it was useless as a guide to the universe or well-being.
The literature is full of these bogus, though often charming, worlds, whether Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Aker Woods to the Land of Crest, which Chad Nuss has so ably imagined for this piece. Some, like Gurdjieff’s, are a laughing stock among professional philosophers; others, like Spinoza’s pantheism, are treated with reverence in privileged corners of the academy, including offices of the secular environmentalists. One might think that a Spinozan who said that rocks, spiders, pine trees, and humans were equally divine, would have trouble getting a hearing, but one would underestimate the intellectual impressiveness a proof-based system, no matter how shaky the proofs or wacky the resulting scheme.
Various mapmakers have scrubbed the modern state of Israel from regional maps, giving the territory to the predominantly Muslim Arabs who call themselves Palestinians. This is not the first attempt to cleanse the land of Jewish influence, for the very word ‘Palestine’ is a Roman slight. As they solidified their rule over Jerusalem and the nation that surrounded it, they renamed the district ‘Palestina,’ in honor of the Jews’ ancient enemy, the Philistines. In this same vein, Shechem became the Greek/Hellenistic ‘Neapolis’ (“new city”), which today is called Nablus.
Philosophers do that sort of thing as well, most notably, I think, in the case of the logical positivists, with the British philosopher A. J. (Alfred Jules) Ayer as a prime exemplar. He worked in the empiricist tradition, begun by believers John Locke and George Berkeley, who insisted that all meaningful talk derived from actual or potential experience. They were concerned that we not talk “non-sense.”
In this vein, Berkeley, a protestant bishop, faulted the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the one that said communion wine literally turned into the blood of Christ, despite the fact that it continued to look, smell, feel, taste, and sound like wine. He found to be nonsense the Catholic insistence that, though the appearances stayed the same, the underlying “substance” changed. Berkeley said he had no experience of such substance because it was, indeed, a fiction.
Fast forward to the 20th century, where many European and American philosophers were in the thrall of science, based on empirical testing, with confirmation and disconfirmation of various hypotheses. By their light, we couldn’t run a check on the claim that God existed, that adultery was evil, or that a sunset was more beautiful than a rotting possum. All the hopeful religionists, moralists, and aesthetes had to go on were moods, faith projections, and feelings of disgust and delight – but those were subjective, not objective. So they were happy to relegate books on metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics to the fiction shelf. Accordingly, Christians were mocked as foggy-headed dreamers, and those making moral and value judgments were counted as “emoters” — “Adultery is evil” amounted to nothing more than “Adultery? Boo!” (A convenient conclusion for the adulterous Ayer.)
Though early empiricist David Hume was on board with much of this program, he did show a way to objectify aesthetic judgments in terms of inter-subjectivity. To say that a sunset is beautiful is really to say it strikes the overwhelming mass of people as delightful, which can be verifiable. Yes, there can be outliers, just as there are color blind people who see red as gray, but we don’t need to deny that a thing is really red in order to accommodate the rare abnormality.
Furthermore, in their haste to dismiss religion and ethics, they didn’t do justice to their principle that a meaningful statement must be only possibly testable, if not actually testable in the foreseeable future. For example, we may never be able to run tests on the exact makeup of the interior of a planet detected in another galaxy, but at least we can imagine going there in an advanced space ship, boring to the core, and taking readings. That’s good enough for a logical positivist to treat as meaningful, even if implausible, the statement, “The center of Planet X is mainly molten zinc.”
By that standard, then, the Christian has grounds to say, “Jesus will one day return and the saints will ultimately be gathered to the Father in heaven.” That’s a possible experience, one with “cash value.” So it’s meaningful to talk that way. (Several philosophers speak of “eschatological verification” in this connection.)
Let them deny the truth of that statement, but insist that they’re drawing the map wrong when they try to overlay the reign of current science and its parochial testability on territory properly belonging to the “things of God.” At this point, it may well involve faith, but it is propositionally meaningful faith, faith that we believe will one day “become sight.”
The movie “Cineplex” is a network of worlds unto themselves, so to speak. The occupants of each see their own movie without access to what’s being shown in the adjoining theaters. (Yes, I know that two or more theaters may be featuring the same film, but, for our purposes, we’ll speak of a different one for each room.) This arrangement came to mind the first time I read Monadology, written by the German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in 1716. Therein, he wrote that “monads,” which are centers of consciousness, “have no windows” (§7), and that one monad can affect another “only through the intervention of God” (§51).
In this drawing, you see blowups of two of the theaters in the complex, with two characters appearing in each other’s movies. They’re not really present to each other directly, but only aware of the other by virtue of the projectionist’s work. Though these figures are seated and alone, you could just as well have one throwing a baseball at the figure on the screen, with the other seeing a movie of a baseball coming his way – and with 3-D glasses, if you will.
These monads, these little theaters or universes, are the building blocks or atoms of reality, created by God, with each having its own developmental “DNA,” it’s engine of perfectability, which Leibniz calls its “entelechy.” Their various internal unfoldings are engineered by God, even as he coordinates one monad with the others so that it appears that they are impacting each other when the causes and effects are merely “coincidental” – a view called “occasionalism.” This view of “pre-established harmony” (§80) fits nicely with his claim that this is the “best of all possible worlds,” a notion mocked by Voltaire in Candide (1759), where Leibniz appears thinly disguised as Dr. Pangloss, who utters cheerful assurances in the face disasters such as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Things may look out of control and evil, but you have to know the big picture to see the beauty of it all, a beauty insured by a God who is perfect in every way, including power and goodness.
His philosophy is idealist as opposed to materialist. He says it all boils down to mental stuff, as opposed to physical stuff, the latter a view advanced by Thomas Hobbes in that same era, and which has been popular with some throughout the history of ideas, from Epicurus to Bertrand Russell and beyond.
By his account, animals are monads too, in that they too have perceptions as well as desires and memories on the higher end. But human monads exceed these, for their souls are rational and reflective in a way that transcends mere animality. And at the top, we have the being of God himself, whose “supreme substance, which is unique, universal and necessary, having nothing outside of itself which is independent of it . . . must be incapable of imitations and must contain as much of reality as is possible” (§40). It’s unjust to compare him to the cineplex projectionist, but perhaps there’s something helpful in the analogy.
Of course, the real, divine projectionist, who is both “architect” and “legislator” of all affairs (§89), is properly “the whole aim of our will,” the one “who, alone, can make our happiness,” and the essence of “pure love, which takes pleasure in the happiness of the beloved.”(§90).
The aforementioned Russell said that “the Monadology was a kind of fantastic fairy tale, coherent perhaps, but wholly arbitrary.” Well, perhaps so, or even probably so – at least with regard to the monads. But Russell-minded thinkers had better hope that they’re right about the exclusive reign of matter, for otherwise, Leibniz will enjoy a welcome to the next age that they will sorely miss.
Sometimes called the “South-Up Map,” the Upside-Down Map is meant mainly to critique or correct a bias toward northern, Western culture. Technically, it’s a tossup which pole you put at the top, for there’s no up or down in space (so far as we know, and whatever that means). An alien could just as easily happen upon planet earth with a view of Antarctica at the top of his spacecraft “windshield” and Cape Horn at the bottom, and then orient his subsequent maps so as to place Hudson Bay well below Tierra del Fuego on the page. Nothing crazy about that. Of course, magnetism now draws compass needles north, giving that region something of a navigational cache, but I’m told that the poles could reverse one of these days, erasing that “advantage.”
Be that as it may, a South-Up map provides us an introduction to the ethical thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose book, Zur Genealogie der Moral (On The Genealogy of Morals), argues that conventional moral thinking has things upside down. By his light, ‘good’ originally meant something like ‘intimidating.’ The “good” man was the one to whom deference was owed, the “alpha male,” who could command the respect of the room, whether for his strength or guile – “the man of strife, of dissention . . . the man of war”; the one who delivers “knightly-aristocratic value judgments,” which presuppose “a powerful physicality” and which show themselves strong in not only war, but in “adventure, hunting, [&] dancing.”
Nietzsche goes on to say that a sniveling bunch of losers – Jews and Christians to be specific – couldn’t compete on those grounds, so they foisted a new concept of goodness on the world, and it stuck. Since they were weak and contemptible, they condemned physical domination and pride. In place, they enthroned such “virtues” as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (to quote from Galatians 5:22-23), since those “lame” postures were ones they could manage. They found themselves disgusting under the old system, so they engineered an “inversion” to assuage their shame and demean their betters.
Nietzsche took it upon himself to put the willful, imposing renegade back on top, designating him an Übermensch (“overman” or “superman”), and celebrating him in Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra). He, like Nietzsche would say, “The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as that which is best in us” (Jenseits von Gut und Böse; Beyond Good and Evil). By this, he meant that we become magnificent when say, in effect, “Put it on my resume,” when critics tell us we’re not nice.
Though Nietzsche enthusiasts are quick to protest that he would have found Hitler distasteful, Hitler was an unabashed enthusiast for Nietzsche, as were other fascists of the day. (In a famous photo, the Fuhrer stands admiringly before a bust of the philosopher, and he was known to send flowers to Nietzsche’s sister.) It’s not hard to see why, for Nietzsche’s disparagement of the Jews and his adulation of the “superman” served nicely the program of a despot who commissioned Teutonic members of his “Aryan Master Race” to run the death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Though Jews and Christians were the villains in his story, many a non-believer has faulted the ethics represented in Nietzsche. For instance, in Plato’s Republic (written centuries before Jesus’s birth in Greece, a nation which had no use for the religion of the Jews), Socrates made philosophical mincemeat of Thrasymachus’s claim that “might makes right,” a view akin to Nietzsche’s. And, indeed, many men of war, adventure, and physical prowess have also been champions of Judeo-Christian values. Oliver Cromwell and George Washington are two cases in point. Furthermore, those who think the Jews are weak should examine the results of Israel’s Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars.
In short, Nietzsche got it wrong both morally and historically, and those who aspire to upend the ethical order in favor of the elites of their choosing embarrass themselves conceptually and place themselves in harm’s way at the hands of “weak” peoples who refuse to suffer their stupid, and yes “bad,” tyranny.
The Assad/Nusra/ISIS/Kurd Map
It seems that every day the sectors of control in Syria shift from one force to another, whether rebel, government or ethic in orientation. And it’s not the work of debaters, philosophers, or scientists trying determine the true contours of Syria’s borders. Truth is not the issue; rather, it is power.
Such is the post-modern project, which rejects overarching accounts of reality in favor of relativism, with all sorts of tactics in play to gain advantage. (As Jean- François Lyotard put it, “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”) While some applaud the way in which the shackles of “scientifish” modernism have been broken, leaving smug naturalists with less swagger than they once had, the new-found relief has come at a cost. For instance, while Christians used to reel under the lash of Hume, Kant, and their Enlightenment progeny, whether Darwin, Freud, or Bertrand Russell, now they shudder in the creepy embrace of relativists who indulge their religious lifestyle, with a patronizing, “Whatever works for you.”
A number of thinkers have played into this dethroning of science. Thomas Kuhn, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, showed how scientists worked under paradigms or models to do their “normal” research, but how they also petulantly defended their perspectives against revolutionaries who dared point out difficulties in their conceits. This wasn’t the pure system we’d been led to believe in, with courageous thinkers in lab coats going wherever the data led.
Wittgenstein also gets credit for his concept of “language games” and “family resemblances.” While Plato believed he was looking for essences, Wittgenstein denied such things. Rather, we had to work with extended similarities, with overlappings and crisscrossings, whereby the boundaries of valid meaning were ever expanding. Nothing fixed about it. As for religious speech, it’s just a language game you can play, as others can play commercial and political language games — not so much linkage with reality as maneuvers on a chess board.
Allen Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind explained mournfully that the only true virtue on the American secular college campus had become tolerance – not chastity, integrity, industry, sobriety, etc. He concluded that we’d become so “open minded” that our brains had fallen out. Feelings had won. Truth was irrelevant.
Into the mix have come varieties of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and of “critical theory,” where you read power plays into every text (e.g., “We hold these truths to be self evident, that we are endowed by our Creator . . .” prompts the audience to bark, “What do you mean, ‘We’”? and “How dare you try to co-opt us for a patriarchal religion!”) We “deconstruct” texts by means of an ancient logical fallacy, “ad hominem,” wherein we defame the writer as we seek to impose our own social agenda.
The ancient and honorable craft of epistemology, whereby we try to establish “justified, true, belief,” is consigned to the ash heap of history, for it’s been exposed as a way to force “dead, white, European male” perspectives upon regular people not adept at playing treacherous academic games. Logic itself, including the essential principle of non-contradiction (“It cannot be the case that both the cat is on the mat and the cat is not on the mat”), is cast aside as imperialistic, insensitive thuggery. So discourse degenerates into “Gothchas!” and “How dare yous!” and “Take thats!” This is sectarian warfare, not the collaborative pursuit of wisdom.
It’s reminiscent of the “Arab Spring,” where the populace cast off the tyranny of the Mubaracks and Gaddafis, only to find themselves under the thumb of the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk. But in this case, scholars dethroned the scientists, only to find themselves ruled by reason-hating community organizers and literati pandering to parties averse to transcendent verities, which might cramp their liberated style.
Until 1931, maps for the London subway (the Underground or Tube) were accurate tracings of the rail system, superimposed on surface maps, showing twists and turns, station bunchings as well long spans between stations, whatever the case might be. It was problematic in several regards — to make room for crowded downtown details, they had to enlarge the central city portions, pushing suburban stations off the margins; they provided a lot of extraneous and distracting information; and they failed to supply critical, understandable data about transfer points.
Company engineer and draftsman, Harry Beck, came to the rescue in 1931, working without a commission in his spare time. He designed a “topological” rather than a “geographical” map, and the 1933 pamphlet giving the public their first look was an instant success. The Underground paid him a bonus of around $20 and had him supply updates and refinements through the years. Today, it is the standard look for subway maps, from Barcelona to New York to Tokyo.
Beck’s design was a response to the pressing questions, “What difference does it make?” and “What do we need to get around?” That’s the pragmatic impulse at work, and it shows up in many forms in philosophy.
Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced “purse”) birthed the term ‘pragmatism’ in an 1878 essay, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” advancing this maxim: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then the whole of our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” In this connection, he said that “hardness” was essentially a matter of what could scratch what, and not some abstract, idealized notion. For instance, a diamond was harder than a pane of glass since the former could mark the latter, but not vice versa.
This was the genius of Beck’s design. People just wanted to know how to get around, which station was next and where they could jump from one line to another. It didn’t matter they were racing along under this or that park or building, but only how close they were to their desired stop. This new map let them easily check off the stations along the way. They couldn’t care less if Manor House, Turnpike Lane, and Wood Green were actually equidistant on the Piccadilly line. They just wanted to know that they came in that order after Arsenal and before Arnos Grove on the way out to Cockfosters. And if someone said that the map was a lie because the Piccadilly tunnels were not dark blue, the public could counter that it didn’t matter, for the coloration was only meant to distinguish one line from another, as from the light blue Victoria or the gray Jubilee. (Observers couldn’t help but note that it resembled an electrical wiring diagram, a schematic drawing which fortunately didn’t follow the jumble and twists and turns of actual wires in a junction box.)
In the years following the publication of Peirce’s essay, pragmatism found many expressions, associated with the likes of William James (who introduced a “pragmatic theory of truth”), John Dewey (who cast aside the “stuffy” schoolhouse memorization of historical figures and dates in favor of little workshops of childhood creativity and experimentation), C.I. (Clarence Irving, not Clive Staples) Lewis (with his “conceptual pragmatism,” wherein words are seen primarily as tools), and Richard Rorty (who seeks to dismiss the traditional search for truth as bogus). As things developed, Peirce changed the name of his approach to “pragmaticism” to put some distance between himself and those who’d run away with his original expression.
Lewis’s “pragmatic a priori” supplies the explanation for why we all can provide the name for the front of the hand, ‘palm,’ but not for the back of the hand. While we speak of a tennis ‘backhand’ or of a mobster ‘backhanding’ a disappointing minion, we’re still working with a compound made up of ‘back’ and ‘hand.’ Nothing like ‘palm,’ as opposed to ‘fronthand.’ So what gives? Well, we use the front in so many ways that economy of expression is helpful. The highwayman growls, “Cross my palm with silver,” the NBA point guard “palms the ball,” and we extend our palm to get change at the cash register. (Imagine the clerk’s dismay if we creepily extend our hand palm down to receive our change.)
James overdid it when, eschewing talk of static correspondence between a proposition and some feature of the world, he said we make things true by our action. For him, truth emerges as we proceed to carry out experiments and receive happy results. (The more normal way would be to say the results are happy because the initial proposition was true to begin with, a fact increasingly illuminated as we act on it.) Pragmatically speaking, this approach to truth is workable when we focus on subway maps, cooking, and civil engineering. The “brute facts” keep us honest as we make our way around the world. But when you venture into the larger world of human values and public policy, it gets harder to say what “it works” means. Indeed, the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, famous for “getting the trains to run on time,” was a fan of James, taking comfort as he squashed opponents in consolidating his power and advancing his agenda. Besides a lot of the people liked what he was doing. So what’s not to like? Well, quite a bit if “it works” means “it fosters human flourishing in accord with the imago dei and a just social order.” (Of course, James did not back Mussolini, but it’s a shame that his philosophy could so readily provide inspiration and comfort to a tyrant.)
Not surprisingly, ‘pragmatism’ has become a dirty word in many circles, including churches, where the push for numbers and nickels can compromise preaching “the whole counsel of God.” Of course, in the end, such shenanigans don’t “work,” so we might speak of a deeper pragmatism in terms of what brings lasting fruit, what pleases the ultimate judge, and what grows “oaks of righteousness” (Isa. 61:3) instead of mushrooms.
Whatever the missteps and perversions there might be in this school of thought, it is still worthwhile to ask, “What in the world does it matter?”; to challenge grandiose abstractions with “That’s fine talk, but could you cash that in experientially?”; and to insist that disputants make sure they’re not spinning their wheels over trivialities. Of course, much of professional philosophy could use a lesson in pragmatism. While papers read and published may “work” at padding one’s resume in advance of promotion and tenure positions, it’s fair to ask what good they do in the world and how they might actually help others live and achieve worthwhile things apart from maneuvering through the groves of academic esteem.
Along the way, philosophers might well turn back to James for a lesson in philosophical style. Most people could actually understand him, for he saw no virtue in pedantry. (May his tribe increase.)
The medieval T and O map of the “world” (the O) put Jerusalem at the top, with the Mediterranean (literally, “middle of the earth”) forming the main post of a cross (T), the cross bars being the Don (Tanais) River on the left and the Red Sea or Nile on the right. This orientation gave primacy to Christ, the Jewish Son of God, the Messiah. It honored the Jesus of Colossians 1:15-20,
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (KJV)
I think it’s an admirable picture of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, whose take on the universe and truth and goodness was theocentric. In his “Treatise on Law” (Questions 90-108 in the Summa Theologica), he spoke of the way in which God, whose purposes are the eternal law, reveals himself through natural law (the created order and the moral code imprinted on the conscience – general revelation) and divine law (scripture – special revelation). These apply, in turn, to human law (whose content we can mutually support with non-Christians because of their deep-down reasonableness, as, for example, regarding the prohibition of incest) and canon law or church law (which deals with such things as ordination, worship, and mission). Continuing this map analogy, general and special revelation form the Europe and Africa of the philosophical world, whose head is the Asian Middle East.
This is not an other-worldly approach, focused on the content and activities of heaven (though this activity is immanent, eminent, and imminent), but rather it deals with the world as God’s creation and as our current field of endeavor. It doesn’t picture one continent aflame in ruins and the other in verdant plenitude, but rather, it features both as habitable and instructive.
This is a philosophical map happily alert to Intelligent Design, ready to acknowledge the personal Intelligence. It’s a philosophical map which encourages Christian colleges to acknowledge with Augustine that “all truth is God’s truth,” and to press the faculty to “integrate faith and learning,” bringing their disciplines to bear on their understanding of Scripture and vice versa.
As testimony to his regard of both faith and reason, Aquinas wrote in dialogical fashion, acknowledging objections to his position, and then drawing on both Scripture and world-class “secular” thinkers (his far-and-away favorite being Aristotle) to parry them and forge his own declaration on the issue.
The Protestant Reformers were not as keen as Aquinas on man’s ability to sort things out for himself, so they insisted that the Bible alone is the supreme authority (sola scriptura) and not just a member of the steering committee. Still, there is great respect for general revelation and natural law in the Protestant tradition.