Thursday, May 20, 2010

Platonism

Nick Cohen (whose link to the Yard sports the hover text description “Brilliant on everything except God” - a succinct, unwitting self-description) has a post about radical Islam and the right-wing loon Melanie Phillips, under which commenter James Bloodworth writes:

She might have a better argument against moral relativism if the biblical morality she was advocating had the ability to build a better society than secularism. History tells us otherwise. Her argument might also hold more weight if Christianity itself did not consist of an, albeit tamer, version of what the leading Al Qaeda thinkers are themselves advocating. That’s not by any means to equate figures such as Melanie Phillips with Al Qaeda, rather obviously; however, I suspect a fully Christianised West would be a lot closer to what the Islamists dream of than a strong secularised one.

Though he was occasionally prone to it himself on the issue of God (we all are sometimes, it’s unavoidable), the late Duck accurately argued that Platonic thinking is one of the biggest hindrances to understanding the world. James Bloodworth suggests that society consists of some degree of compromise between two opposed Platonic ideal worldviews: Secularism and Religion. This bears no relation to historical reality (secular liberalism is rooted in a world of Christians) and even as an analogy it makes little sense and has almost no practical application. History, being the sum of the affairs of humans, is unknowably tangled and complex and, as with America, whatever you try to say about it the opposite is also true.

I don’t know what, if anything, will kill radical Islamism (probably a mixture of moderate Islam, military force and some other fad coming along); but I’m confident it won’t be a post-religious secular utopia in which, thanks to the unanswerable rational arguments of secular liberals like Nick Cohen, Chris Hitchens and James Bloodworth, all religions are washed away, radical Islamism being just one more with them.

45 comments:

Peter said...

accurately argued that Platonic thinking is one of the biggest hindrances to understanding the world.

History, being the sum of the affairs of humans, is unknowably tangled and complex

Compare and contrast.

Brit said...

After you, Peter.

malty said...

It's not just Donald Rumsfeld who knows the unknowable. Where is the dividing line between religious and secular obsession.

Peter said...

Brit;

Well, with all due respect to Duck, may he rest in peace, his anti-Platonist posts were too much the angry lapsed Catholic to know whether he was touting Aristotle or re-fighting the Reformation. Platonism has become a kind of slur, a synonym for smug intolerance or even mere priggishness, and it is true as Duck said that anyone who goes through life guided exclusively by a literal reading of a catechism learned in youth is going to miss a lot and may end up a tiresome pain in the butt at best. But as your equally accurate statement indicates, a wholesale rejection of idealism leaves one with a mess of incoherent pottage and a life muttering "whatever" in response to increasing despair and disillusionment. Choose your poison.

In terms of political and social debate today, the argument is not so much Plato vs. Aristotle, but idealism vs scientism, because the way dogmatic secular relativism arises from its mess of philosphical nihilism and confusion is to claim its positions are based in some kind of evidence-based objective reality, a theory that can become every bit as absolutist as ultramontane Catholicism. It has become trendy today to refer to Marxism as an alternative religion, but we forget how in its heyday it was seen as the last word in scientific thinking. There were more "scientific" institutes in Moscow than probably in the rest of the world.

Anyway, it's easy to attack Platonism from the perspective of a reflective and compassionate sceptic, and that is good. But go too far and you might find yourself ruled by a troika of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. Me, I'd rather go with the Pope, at least on his good days.

Brit said...

I don't think it's easy to attack Platonism - it's so much a way of thinking that it's like trying to see 'eyesight'.

The gist of this post is that your atheist troika are Platonic thinkers - certainly Hitchens is, he exists entirely in a realm of Ideas and Arguments, which he imposes clumsily onto history.

Gaw said...

History, being the sum of the affairs of humans, is unknowably tangled and complex and ... whatever you try to say about it the opposite is also true.

This isn't a very comfortable or even realistic place to rest. If it's all unknowable, then it's all pretty much the same, i.e. it's all relative. And this relativism is a short step to nihilism: if we can have no hope of knowing any truth, then it's likely it doesn't exist and we should despair.

It also doesn't make much sense - as with all relativistic statements it undermines its own authority: everything is unknowably tangled and complex, er, except for this sweeping, all-encompassing statement.

I have to say that this attitude in a less robust but sensitive head would lead one to doubt any principled justifications for our Western way of life.

Brit said...

You always say that, Gaw. But then you are a historian, so it's understandable.

Narrow, particular historical accounts are useful within limits. Large, simplistic views of history that start from the theory and eventually work back to events are much more dangerous than an acceptance that our knowledge and comprehension is limited.

Gaw said...

The implication of what you say applies to the world and our experience of it more generally, not just to history. You obviate the validity of any attempt to explain human affairs.

Your second para is uncontroversial and fairly unobjectionable (it does beg the question - simplistic and unwarranted a priori assumptions lead to bad conclusions, you reckon?). But it does contradict your earlier premise, which, as you say, I've objected to before as it's a common or garden form of relativism.

Brit said...

I've no problem with my point about simplistic a priori assumptions being obvious and true. It's not always obvious when it applies - see James Bloodworth.

You're bringing in a different problem. You worry that moral/ cultural relativism follows from my scepticism about historical accounts. eg. you think there's no reason to defend western democratic liberalism, apply human rights universally etc if you can't prove they're based on Truth. I disagree. There is no need to justify those things by reference to a first principle. You can if you want but it will never stand up to philosophical scrutiny, ie. the child's endless 'why?' which always takes you back to 'Just because'. You may as well simply start with 'just because' - that's justification enough.

David said...

All lefty politics consists of the argument that state of affairs Z, which doesn't exist, is preferable to state of affairs Y, which does exist.

Righty politics is somewhat more complex, spanning as it does "Both Y and Z are worse than state of affairs X, which used to exist;" "I like it right here;" "better the devil you know;" and even, at the extreme, "state of affairs A is the best of all."

Peter said...

There is no need to justify those things by reference to a first principle.

Brit, you are confusing absolutism and fanaticism with idealism. Your point that anti-idealism, if pursued fervently, becomes indistinguishable from its target is fine, but that is tangenital to the question of whether ideals per se block knowledge and understanding.

One of my ideals is that it is wrong to condemn the innocent judicially. Why? Because it is wrong. It just is. But that doesn't mean I think I can deduce a perfect criminal code and law of criminal procedure from that ideal. Even for my own society, never mind others. However, I do believe it leaves me considerably less confused about the ways of the world than those folks who say justice is just a social construct.

Gaw said...

I'm not looking for truth, sorry Truth, which I agree is a very sticky wicket. I'm looking for 'as far as we know...'. You can't have that if everything is unknowable as you claim it to be. You seem to believe that if we can't have Truth there can be no truths, albeit contingent ones ('as far as we know', etc.).

Your first statement - that human affairs are 'unknowably tangled and complex' - is more than sceptical of historical accounts, it's dismissive of them. It insists that each is as valid (or invalid) as another. That's the plain meaning of your statement (and previous ones you've made before back-tracking). It shall be known by its true name: RELATIVISM.

Brit said...

And round we go.

Peter - I never confuse anything. It's a curse.

My minimalist approach is a charitable service to frustrated bloggers, as it gives everyone an outlet to declare their favourite arguments.

Brit said...

Yes, reading through your comments again, not a single one is in disagreement with me.

Peter said...

My goodness, the post has only been up three hours and already Brit retreats to fatigued sarcasm. He would have been useless at Trafalgar.

(BTW, the word verification for this comment was "ducka". I'll bet even Skipper would get the irony.)

Gaw said...

Yes, the counter-arguments were a bit unanswerable, weren't they? Anyway, we move on.

Brit said...

It's quite obvious to me that Peter is saying exactly what I would say, and Gaw is arguing against someone else.

I've been in the blog arguing game ('ardest game in the world, blog-arguing) long enough to have learnt that a 100-comment thread in which everyone tells everyone else that they're wrong merely entrenches (false) positions and brings Pride into play.

It's better, when someone doesn't get your point straight away, to simply keep making it in different contexts whenever it pops into your head. Eventually you might get it; or again, you might never get, either because you can't or because I'm wrong (it has been known, unlikely as that seems).

This much I have learnt from David "Darwin-is-trivial-Atheism-is-a-Christian-heresy" Cohen.

Peter said...

a 100-comment thread in which everyone tells everyone else that they're wrong merely entrenches (false) positions and brings Pride into play.

Brit, surely we in the post-Judd Alliance can take collective satisfaction in having mastered the art of bringing Pride into play in under ten comments?

Gaw said...

My problem with this debate is that you step away from your point about human affairs being unknowable and one thing being as valid as another as soon as it's challenged. Instead you move on to claim quite uncontroversially that there's no such thing as absolute truth based on a first principle. These claims are not identical as Peter and I have pointed out. You don't seem to have an answer to this.

This (along with everything else) is what makes this argument frustrating.

Brit said...

"your point about human affairs being unknowable and one thing being as valid as another"

Have said nothing of the sort. Don't think one thing is as valid as another. Don't think that all are as invalid as each other either. Am merely claiming that grand historical narratives are never a complete picture of the truth. That's a point about human limitations, not history. It doesn't follow that there is no such thing as truth. Relativism is just another grand claim.

Peter said...

There you go, Gaw. It really isn't Plato's idealism Brit objects to. It's his grand historical narrative. :-)

Gaw said...

I'm just going by what you wrote in your post (and which you've written before):

History, being the sum of the affairs of humans, is unknowably tangled and complex and, as with America, whatever you try to say about it the opposite is also true.

If whatever you try to say about human affairs is as true as its opposite then either everything is true or nothing is true. This is relativism.

Rather than singling out grand narratives you say above that human affairs in particular and in summation are unknowable. If everything is unknowable nothing can have any higher claim to truth than anything else. This is relativism.

I'm not sure how else you can read your statement. But given your comment, I guess you didn't mean it to come out like that.

Brit said...

Hmmmm... literalism, is it? Never judge a man's opinions on what he says, that would make life too easy and anyone could play.

"the opposite is also true". That's called Rhetoric. The self-referential link should have been a clue.

Gaw said...

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all."

Through the Looking Glass

Brit said...

There should be a Godwin's Law for that old chestnut.

David said...

If I understand Brit's point, I agree with it. If there's one thing the 20th century should have taught us, it's that history is not teleological. It's just one damn thing after another.

Now, we're pattern seeking animals and, based on where we are, we see different patterns when trying to explain how we got here. Just for example: Columbus, visionary explorer exemplifying all that is best in humanity, or ruthless white colonialist? The histories we write say more about us than about those who went before us.

Having said all that, though, what else can we do? That we are unknowable doesn't change the fact that the natural study of man is man.

Which is why Darwinism -- just the name we use for natural history -- is trivial and why modern atheism -- which is nothing but premillennial millenarianism -- is a Christian heresy.

Brit said...

The point I'm making is, in itself, so trivial and obvious as to be insulting. It is that where there are competing historical narratives, then as long as they're not insane, the answer is always some degree of 'not quite either of the above'. The bigger the scope of the narrative, the more that is the case. (For total historical narratives, it must always be the case because any complete historical account of everything would take all of history to relate - it would be a map on a scale of 1:1.)

What is less trivial and obvious is to point out how a dubious assumption of a historical narrative - or more properly, an Idea or Theory to which history is assumed to conform - underpins a whole load of arguments where the arguer has no idea he is doing it. James Bloodworth's arguments about how to combat radical Islam is one of the more obvious examples. Often it's much subtler. For example: "it's a disgrace (for whom?) that there are no women or ethnic minorities standing for the Labour leadership".

Gaw said...

Brit, what you say in your first para is simply not the case. Some historical narratives - that sane people have sanely believed in - have proven to be false in that they've been proven evidentially untrue. I think Marx's reading of history can be put in this category.

Others, you might harshly say, have merely yet to be falsified. But does this mean they're just as false right now? Perhaps one day they may be seen as such. But for now they're the best thing we have to a contingent truth albeit one that's continuously at issue.

If we abandon this form of contingent truth - the best we can do on the basis of good faith, reason, rationality, observation, debate - we end up in the relativistic gloop.

But at a more practical level, making it a rule to always judge the truth to be 'not quite either' narrative can be shown to be mistaken with reference to an everyday example, valid because, as you rightly say, history is the sum of what were once everyday events.

I bought some Jaffa Cakes today. Observer A knows I usually buy them for my sons for their after-nursery snack so explains my action by saying I did it for that reason. Observer B knows that I was hungry and wanted something to go with my afternoon tea so he reckons I bought them for that reason.

An observer from the Brit school would say, 'well he probably did it because he wanted them for his tea, but he was also going to save some for his boys or something'. According to your logic he's more likely than anyone to be right.

But I can tell you exclusively that I don't like Jaffa Cakes and I bought them for my boys: Observer A was right and Observer B and you were wrong. Not just sort of right, but wrong.

I agree history with a capital 'H' makes this more complex but if such a thing can be true on a micro level it can be true on a macro level.

The reason I'm going on about this is that I recognise these arguments of equivalence from the Cold War, when many seemingly sane intellectuals (and even others) saw both the Soviet and Western view of history and the world as equally valid (or invalid). The whole non-aligned movement was based on this apprehension.

But, of course, they weren't equivalent and it took a lot of argument from people like Leszek Kolakowski to refute the communistic approach (he stands undefeated on philosophical grounds).

I worry that you think the truth of what you say is so self-evident. Perhaps Mel was right after all...

Brit said...

I repeat:

then as long as they're not insane, the answer is always some degree of 'not quite either of the above'. The bigger the scope of the narrative, the more that is the case.

Gaw said...

So were the followers of Marx insane or merely more wrong than us? Or is it all too big and complex to take a view on? Thank God a sufficiently large number of people in the past didn't subscribe to 'not quite either of the above' to any degree.

David said...

Gaw:

I believe that you're mixing your ontology with your epistemology.

Brit said...

I have no idea, Gaw, why you think the wrongness of the Marxist theory of history is an argument against my position.

This is why I didn't want to get into the 100-comment battle.

Brit said...

Let's try it this way:

Relativism holds that there is no such thing as an objective truth.

My position is that there is an objective truth but that humans are not very good at guessing what it is (strong version: never will be able to guess what it is) - though we are pretty good at showing why other's guesses are wrong.

Gaw's position is that there is an objective truth, and that some of us are good at guessing what it is.

Other than that, we don't differ - even to the extent of Gaw's claim that we should call the current least worst guess the 'truth' (it makes things much easier).

Gaw said...

Because I think the established wrongness of the classic Marxist historical narrative (versus, say, your own view of how things happen) disproves your proposition that where there are competing historical narratives ... the answer is always some degree of 'not quite either of the above'.

To get round this objection you seem to want to place all the emphasis on the qualification some degree. But I would argue that no degree of not quite right can stretch far enough to encompass absolutely wrong.

Anyway, we're nowhere near 100 comments. It's a bit of a treat for me - it's not often one gets to debate theories of history and knowledge (whether we're also debating theories of being, I'll leave to David). History is a much disregarded topic on the web (and some might say after this, rightly so).

Gaw said...

What you don't seem to see is that your strong statement - [humans] never will be able to guess what [objective truth] is - has the effect of making everything relative. If human affairs are unknowable we can't make any statement on whether anything is true or untrue.

By the way, it may be useful to state that I prefer not to use the term 'objective truth', as implying something that stands outside our debates and even us as human beings. I think 'negotiated truth' is more realistic. It's something that we generate with reference to good faith, reason, rationality, observation, debate and tradition. It's an historical artifact.

Gaw said...

Not sure what happened to the order of posts there: my 7.20 responded to your 6.29; my 7.37 responded to your 6.56. Got that? (And we're only just over a third of the way in...)

Brit said...

What you don't seem to see is that your strong statement - [humans] never will be able to guess what [objective truth] is - has the effect of making everything relative. If human affairs are unknowable we can't make any statement on whether anything is true or untrue.

No. I do see, very clearly, that it doesn't. First, we can very often state with confidence that something is untrue. Second, even the strong version is a practical not a logical claim, and isn't necessary to the main point. We could hypothetically know everything, if we knew the mind of God.

Brit said...

But I would argue that no degree of not quite right can stretch far enough to encompass absolutely wrong.

Yes, so would I. "Unless they are insane" included those things.

Gaw said...

Ah, the nub of our difference lies in our differing apprehension of truth. You think there are two sorts - objective and everyday - and I think there's one - a negotiated one that serves all purposes. We've therefore been arguing at cross-purposes.

You say that we can't know absolute truth but still know what's true. This seems quite meaningless to me but then I don't really believe in God.

To be wrong isn't to be insane. Though the Soviets seemed to think so. Or was that an example of Rhetoric?

Brit said...

Yes, Gaw, that was Rhetoric. So was 'mind of God'.

"We've therefore been arguing at cross-purposes."

That's what I said at the beginning. If you don't knock it on the head early, Pride comes into play and (false) positions become entrenched. I said that at the beginning too.

Gaw said...

But I did learn something more than that in the course of this debate.

Brit said...

Me too. You think there are two sorts - objective and everyday - and I think there's one - a negotiated one that serves all purposes. That you're a bit of a






















relativist.

Sorry.

Gaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gaw said...

I've run out of stamina. I really do now move on.

Hey Skipper said...

History, being the sum of the affairs of humans, is unknowably tangled and complex and ... whatever you try to say about it the opposite is also true.

I read this distillation of history recently, courtesy of Will Durant:

"Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion." Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and-after some hesitation- the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization."

Historically speaking, sounds reasonably true to me.

Question is, will this same history be right next time.