Starting with the body

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women takes its clever title from her art criticism, but the heart of the book is a long, compelling, riveting, thoroughly researched and intricately thought-through essay on the mind/body philosophical problem, with personal touches often missing from discourses on the subject. She attacks it from a feminist angle, in the sense that she starts with the body, especially the female body, and the bond between mother and child, beginning in the womb, and unravels the masculine bias often submerged in Cartesian or evolutionary approaches (such as that of Richard Dawkins, whom she labels, interestingly, a Platonist). Importantly, she criticises over and over the stridency of arguments and the lame assertions that evidence for particular points of view (that consciousness is an illusion, we are just machines, etc., that we will soon create AI) will be forthcoming, just you wait and see. (Such lame ‘we don’t have the answer yet but we will, therefore our hypothesis is correct’ arguments are also roasted by, amongst others, David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God.)

Instead she pleads for recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the problem, and argues for the need to genuinely express doubt (perhaps another masculine area of weakness), especially, she says, since doubt is often a catalyst for innovative thinking, and not merely a weakness in argument or a reluctance to learn.

Evolution from and in debt to

Alister McGrath, in his latest book, says that no modern philosophers are asking about the meaning of life because it is (to them) an embarrassingly crude subject matter. This is not entirely true, although perhaps academic philosophers regard the popular philosophising of the likes of Alain de Botton, John Armstrong or Terry Eagleton as barely worthy of the name philosophy. The disregard seems to be mutual. Anyway, John Kaag (above) in his recent  American Philosophy paints a similar picture of contemporary philosophy’s allergy to the everyday. Kaag argues for the relevance of said American philosophy of a bygone age, particularly that of the pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

A philosophy lecturer, Kaag stumbles across the library in New England of Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher and educator, a student of William James, a key contributor to the literature on the sociology of religion, and a correspondent of Robert Frost and others. Kaag has the task of working out how to preserve and offload the library, while keeping some semblance of its worth as a whole. Amidst his discoveries of gasp-inducing first editions of various Western classics with handwritten notes and dedications from authors, Kaag weaves the tale of American philosophy’s evolution from and debt to European philosophy, emphasising both that American philosophy was not as autonomous as it is often portrayed and that it beat its own individual, enterprising path. As in an undergraduate course, he introduces Hobbes, Hegel, Descartes, Kant and James, as well as lesser known figures such as Jane Addams and Pearl Buck.

Not only does Kaag argue for an older, more relevant style of philosophy, but he ties it to his personal experience of getting over a divorce and alcoholism and falling in love again. Rather than just telling of American philosophy’s practicality, he applies it to his own situation, and the result is a beautifully entwined memoir and summary, even if at times his own circumstances tend to accentuate what is personally relevant from the works of various philosophers. For example, he says that Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘actually’ about Coleridge’s marriage. Well, yes, but also so much more, as Malcolm Guite relates in detail in his recent glowing study of the man and the poem, Mariner (Hodder & Stoughton).

A kind of materialist

Materialism, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising, even if he writes with common sense and a minimum of theoretical verbiage. In his latest book he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) particularly in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around, and that material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche held similar views about the roots of our ideas, spurned bourgeois philosophy in favour of brutal honesty and could see to the dark heart of things. (His celebrated ‘God is dead’ was meant to alert people to the fact that they spoke of God but acted as if He didn’t exist.) But Nietzsche got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling conditions of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself. (Those on the left in thrall to Nietzsche tend to conveniently overlook his fascist views, says Eagleton.)

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also, writes Eagleton, undervalued philosophy’s power. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled. It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion, but Jesus, who is supposedly God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ teachings typically had a materialist bent – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, feed the hungry, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

And Christians are not just souls waiting for heaven, but material beings (of a ‘highly specific kind’, says Eagleton) working through the animation of the Holy Spirit for a better world. Neither are we just minds, but connected to other people through our bodily needs.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.

Where are the philosophical books?


When we think of Art with a capital ‘A’ we tend to think of paintings in galleries, in public galleries most of all, of superstar artists, and of the viewing of art as some sort of reverent, contemplative experience, much like, no doubt the experience of pilgrims viewing relics or taking the stations of the cross in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is not an uncommon analogy to liken art galleries to cathedrals, or to declare that art galleries have replaced churches as the place for transcendent experience. Or at least that is the kind of bourgeois or elitist view of things, and it is that elitism that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff rightly takes a shot at in his latest book Art Rethought. After-all, as he says, where are the philosophical books about the deeper meaning of memorials? Or quilting or folk songs? Why when we think of the philosophy of art do we automatically assume we are talking about Western painting? (We might think that something like Australian indigenous art is an exception, but most Australians still encounter it as painting in a gallery in an aesthetic contemplation experience.)

To answer this we have to, as Wolterstorff does, take stock of the ‘grand narrative’ of the trajectory of modern art, realise it is a narrative and not just the way the world must be. And then we might have to, as Wolterstorff does, look at some outsider art, in the wide sense of the term as being outside the elite art establishment, think about what it does and why it is of value and then we might decide that ‘transcendence’ is not the only criteria to judge art on. Wolterstorff makes a great case here for the value of art as propaganda (in the generous sense of the word) or as craft or as made for purposes other than simply aesthetic contemplation (as worthy as that is of itself). He suggests that when we view art in galleries we are actually viewing if often outside of its original purpose (as political statement or as a means of conveying religious messages, say). Take, for example, he says, Bach, who never wrote music outside of the purpose of worship within a church. Aesthetics and other purposes are not mutually exclusive of course, but aesthetics are not the only gig in town. Besides, suggesting art is merely aesthetics can also be a cover for other, non-aesthetic agenda.

As an example of artists denigrated, or at least ignored, because they are not purely aesthetically-focussed, Wolterstorff discusses the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (below), who not only made visual art in a medium that was not painting, but made strongly political statements with her enthusiasm for the working poor in her (beautiful) prints and drawings. Not that she is unknown, but she has not received her due precisely because she had a non-aesthetically exclusive agenda. And yes, Van Gogh and Picasso and others had their pieces to say too, but they were secondary to the aesthetic innovation they are famous for. It is, as Wolterstorff says, that if an artist makes art for a purpose other than aesthetics, the art is somehow lessened and heavy-handed. In fact, says, Wolterstorff, a philosopher well-known for writing about justice, it is creating more injustice to dismiss art made for the purpose of confronting injustice as mere propaganda. It is to his credit that Wolterstorff patiently, and in a very philosophically methodical way, points all this out.





A mistaken enterprise?


Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers, edited by Peter Frick, (published by Fortress Press), is concerned with the perhaps surprising contemporary phenomenon of otherwise atheist philosophers’ interest in the apostle Paul. Most of these philosophers would be placed on the “left”, although Frick points out in his introduction that simple left-right polarisations are not very helpful because they can block out potential lessons to be learned on both sides. The chapters cover what may be the usual suspects – Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. – while describing how Paul’s position within his society stimulates their thinking, even if many philosophers dismiss the content of his message. A final chapter encourages us within the churches to be not so precious with Paul and to accept as prompts the alternative viewpoint these philosophers present.

To take a couple of examples, the chapter on Alain Badiou (above) begins by noting that postmodernity is characterised by both pluralism and homogenisation. We have endless choice, but there is a sameness about it all, meaning true novelty is hard to find. And truth is seen as merely a matter of opinion. Badiou’s political problem is finding truth that is not so abstract as to be meaningless, but that is grounded in something more than a particular moment that is of interest to only a select few. And he finds in Paul an example of someone, even if in Badiou’s view what Paul is preaching about is nonsense, whose method treads this middle ground – applying a particular event (the resurrection) in a wider context.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, that frowning giant of European philosophy, finds inspiration in Paul’s proclamation of what seems a “scandal” to reason. For Zizek, Paul proves that radical change must come not from within the “horizon” of “common sense”, but must be sparked by something analogous to Kierkegaard’s (and Luther’s) leap of faith. Zizek claims then that his radical political philosophy is a far closer descendant of Paul than the theology of the mainstream churches. In other words, it is Paul’s radical method, and not his content, that is the most important thing. Now, Zizek may be saying this tongue in cheek (it’s hard to tell with Zizek, and he might say it is beside the point), and it certainly is contrary to the mainstream views in the churches, but for Zizek we live in a different world, and the sort of continuity with the early church we seek in the contemporary churches, in theological rather than political terms, would be for him a mistaken enterprise.