Where do our lives fit in the Grand Scheme Of Things – GSOT? Karl seems to have found his bearings. Can a place be found in GSOT for you and me?
We live in a time called postmodern. The very term reflects insecurity, as if the present moment no longer exists and we live somehow in a future cut loose from all moorings. What was modern – current, up-to-date – is gone, and we identify this time, our time now, only by the absence of something lost.
This blog is the second in a projected series of more than 50 that I will post 2 or more per week. My hope is that we may glimpse a new framework for understanding GSOT, now that the towers of modernity are collapsing.
It would be presumptuous to call this search philosophy, because GSOT expresses a more modest goal. These blogs aim to appeal to the general community of people who look for meaning in their busy lives, people whom we meet on a daily basis, rather than those who make philosophy their life’s work. Here I want to give a preview of the entire series of blogs – the format as well as some recurring themes.
“Deconstruction” is Jacques Derrida’s method for postmodern thinking, and some deconstruction will be necessary to clear space for the new. But deconstructive thinking is too close to destructive, directionless thinking. I hope we can discern some kind of vector that hints at progress in human affairs. “Postmodernism” fails for me in several ways, and yet it represents a great improvement on what came before.
And what was that? This series will begin by describing what came before, namely, the ideas that I grew up with in the fifties and sixties.
The first topic to cover is positivism, which I identify as the dominant philosophy of the late modern era extending from the latter 19th century through most of the 20th century. Positivism will be explored in the next 6 blogs.
Positivism did not stand alone as an expression of modernity. Modernism encompassed a variety of human intellectual projections in art, architecture, education, social movements, and even religion. The strongest alternative expression of modern thought – religious fundamentalism – stands in conscious opposition to atheistic positivism, yet I contend that it unconsciously shares many of the same attitudes and operational tactics. Fundamentalism, I shall urge, is an alternative framework within modernity and not an alternative to modernity. Four blogs will look at fundamentalism.
The world of modernity has been ruled by governors in both camps who pretended to have transcendent oversight on every law and process. The thought leaders of that world toiled in laboratories and taught in university classrooms, or preached to fervent religious believers and organized politically. The knowledge promulgated by the governors, whether atheist or evangelist, claimed to extend to everything actually existing. Whatever might escape comprehension by the methods of their camp they came to regard nihilistically, sometimes not so much declaring it false, but instead describing it as having no consequence at all.
We do not have transcendent oversight. By assuming an humbler stance, an immediate fruit is that overarching declarations of “no consequence for ideas of that sort” – a selective nihilism – can be disregarded. There are limits on knowledge which paradoxically may allow meaning to bubble up from the depths. The task in postmodern culture is to learn to work within certain limits of knowledge, extending beyond them only in the manner of explorers trying out new ideas and relationships, and coming home to rest in judgment of the gains and losses. In this way we might discover a surprisingly rich GSOT to guide our lives individually and together.
The reader should not anticipate a progressive justification of religious faith in these blogs. I confess that I believe in God, but I believe myself competent neither in philosophy of religion nor in theology. These blogs will concentrate on the philosophic side of GSOT.
But you should expect to find revived here some almost forgotten concepts of the will, human will, or most specifically my will and yours.
A foundational project will be to propose 5 rules to guide the search for GSOT, perhaps even philosophy. The first 3 can be stated briefly as follows:
- Every sentence is first person.
- The overarching viewpoint is not allowed.
- Unless it makes a difference in somebody’s disposition to act, then it makes no difference.
The 4th and 5th rules are even shorter; they will be presented in due time.
Rule #1 looks dangerously like subjectivism, even solipsism, but I contend that those labels do not fit. Rule #1 simply acknowledges that every human expression of meaning comes from some person or some group of people.
Importantly “first person” in this context includes singular and plural – I/me/mine and we/us/ours. I do not think it is necessary to ascribe ontologic authority solely to human individuals and not to groups.
Rule #1 embraces science. Science is the enlarging framework of knowledge produced by an ongoing community of people who interrogate the real world of nature by reliable methods.
Rule #1 even gives some credit to positivism. Positivism, which is related to and inclusive of science, is the body of knowledge developed by people who agree to agree.
We owe much to scientists and positivists. However, apart from the people who agree to agree, there are others who seek to differentiate and who agree to disagree. Positivists err when they count the contribution of these people as nothing.
According to rule #2, a certain kind of first person plural sentence goes too far. That sentence begins with a royal, universal “We….” Often its purpose is to assert an objective fact or pose an objective hypothesis. Rule #2 says that this kind of sentence is illegitimate.
Rule #3 you can easily recognize to derive from pragmatism. Charles Peirce, the originator of pragmatism, provides guidance for some key ideas to be pursued. Pragmatism is not so much a theory of truth as it is a theory of belief and clear thinking.
My maternal grandfather grew up a Lutheran preacher’s son in Pennsylvania, taught philosophy in Minnesota where he married one of his students (my Grandma), played the banjo in Mississippi, wrote some books, and subsequently became mostly an academic administrator in New England. In a memoir he wrote the following personal note about pragmatism:
From about 1907 to 1910, in company with the general run of mankind, I had an attack of pragmatism. I…expounded the movement before various groups of folk who were curious about it, just as groups have since been curious about Coue’s practice of autosuggestion, Watson’s behaviorism, or Freud’s psychoanalysis. But I never quite succumbed to pragmatism and in due time recovered.
What would Grandpa say if he knew that I have succumbed to pragmatism? I suppose he would tell me again, as once he did, to read A. E. Taylor and Elton Trueblood. I have read both and Trueblood repeatedly. But I shall not review their work in this series, because they primarily discuss religion at a depth that lies well beyond the notion of GSOT to be explored here.
Behaviorism and psychoanalysis, which were novelties to my grandfather, became bulwarks of positivism by the mid-20th century. Both behaviorism and Freudian psychoanalysis deny the concept of will, or free will. Positivist thinkers today generally do likewise. In 2012 a featured set of articles in the U.S.-based Chronicle of Higher Education gave the responses of 6 philosophers to the question, “Is free will an illusion?” Four agreed that free will is an illusion, one said that it is not. The sixth gave an in-between “compatibilist” position. Those articles provoked my thinking greatly. Their premises are largely incompatible with the first 3 rules described above.
A book that Grandpa wrote and published in 1911 reveals a forceful notion of the will as part of the human mind. However, his arguments for the will need updating. Let’s see what we can do. Asking whether and how a valid concept of will can be framed is going to be a major current in this series, especially toward the end.
Next we’ll take a close look at positivism.
Next post: Positivism I. Starting Point
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 I’m influenced here partly by a great book, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and colleagues (Univ. of California Press, 1985), which emphasizes the validity of first-person plural viewpoints that remain less than the universal viewpoint of science and theology.
 The Glory Days: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle. Weigle, R.D. Friendship Press, New York, 1976, p. 21.
 The Pupil and the Teacher. Weigle, L.A. Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911, pp. 80-87.