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Archive for the ‘Philosphy’ Category

Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.

In his 1923 book I and Thou, the philosopher Martin Buber draws a distinction between what he calls I-It and I-Thou ways of seeing. In I-It, the other (a thing or a person) is an “it” that exists only as an instrument or means to an end, something to be appropriated by the “I”. A person who only knows I-It will never encounter anything outside himself because he does not truly “encounter.” Buber Writes that such a person “only knows the feverish world out there and his feverish desire to use it . . . When he says You, he means: You, my ability to use!”

In contrast to I-it, I-Thou recognizes the irreducibility and absolute equality of the other. In this configuration, I meet you “thou” in your fullness by giving you my total attention; because I neither project nor “interpret” you, the world contracts into a moment of a magical exclusivity between you and me.

— Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing

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Contemporary philosophers often treat integrity not as a uniquely modern challenge but as a problem inherent in human existence. Integrity is variously defined as self-consistency, self-integration, self-constitution, sometimes as the determination to be “true to one’s self.” Integrity is tested by temptation: A person of integrity remains resolute regardless of the seductions to deviate from a guiding categorical imperative. It’s tested by opposition: A man or woman of integrity is willing to suffer rather than abandon their self-commitments. At the limit, the martyr is the paradigm of integrity.

Purely formal conceptions of integrity quickly run aground. Surely we want to head off the opinion of Walter (John Goodman) in the Big Lebowski: “Say what you will about National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” And it seems oxymoronic to say that one can display integrity by rigorous commitment to spineless cowardice. Finally, there’s the problem identified by a character toward the end of Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco: “What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it better, in that case, not to be true to ‘thine own self’?” Formal concepts are empty, leading Bernard Williams to the conclusion that integrity doesn’t count as a virtue because it doesn’t motivate or enable a person to act in desirable ways. We expect martyrs to cling to something serious and recognizably good.

— Peter Leithart, “Dismemberment and Integrity”

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Many people believe that the fact that people draw divergent conclusions about the real implies either that there is no objective real or that we must all privatize our claims about truth (“This is true for me, that is true for you.”), especially if we are to demonstrate tolerance of all people. Remember the old story of the blind men and the elephant: One man feels the animal’s leg and concludes that an elephant is like a tree. Another feels his tail and surmises that an elephant is like a snake. And so on. The moral of the story, however, is precisely the opposite of “There is no objective truth” or “Truth is what I say it is.” The moral is that reality is so rich that we had better talk together if we are to stand a chance of figuring it out. Plus, each of us, situated as we are at different vantage points with respect to the real, can contribute unique insights. But we should expect that working together will give us a fuller picture. And that’s where articulating and justifying our beliefs together comes into play, relying judiciously on authoritative guides, expanding our horizons, and increasing our grasp on the real.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

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A common way that we used to speak of truth is to say that true statements correspond to reality. We had in mind a picturing or matching of word and object. Correspondence required precise representation. While this is a notion that in an informal way expresses our sense of truth, it becomes problematic when asked to bear the weight of formal analysis. The whole enterprise comes under fire: How could you ever jump outside yourself to assess objectively whether your statements match the world? And, short of that, how can we possibly measure the truth of our statements? Perhaps we must replace the notion of truth with consistency of statements, or some notion of effectiveness.

Understanding the beyond-words dimensions of human knowing, including our sense of contacting the real, enables us to speak of truth. I think we can replace the notion of correspondence with the notion of contact.

If it were possible for a statement to correspond to reality in a rigidly formal sense, it would have to exhaust that reality in its verbal description. If our acts of knowing include dimensions that defy verbalization, including future prospects, not only is it impossible for our statements to exhaust the reality they contact, but if they did, it wouldn’t be reality that we had contacted. Exhaustive lucidity is sterile. Correspondence, in this sense, is just what we don’t want if we want to access the real truly.

But we have seen that a truth claimed by a knower alludes to dimensions of the self and the world that stretch beyond what the words represent. There’s a matchup, but there’s a lot of remainder, both in subsidiaries and in prospects. Well-expressed words evoke these hidden dimensions, but they do not drain them of mystery.

We can say that true statements bear on reality, lay hold of a feature of a real. We sense hidden dimensions, which makes us know what we’ve contacted is real. By definition we couldn’t put these into words. Yet we navigate by them in pursuit of the real. We don’t have to have articulated future outcomes to grope forward in light of them.

What is more, reality’s richness and the way we access it mean that we have in our integration only laid hold of an aspect of the real. We may have a sense of possibilities that don’t correspond in a linear way to the nature of the thing. We can get part of it right. In years to come, we may find that we were definitely on to something but had yet to unlock the heart of it. Columbus did not think he had discovered America, for example, even though he knew he was on to something big.

None of this implies that we are to give up the effort to articulate and justify our truth claims. Careful thinking and reasoning, while not identical to or exhaustive of truth or knowledge, nevertheless strategically prompts and expands it. That’s why going to school and writing papers is still a key to learning. We will always be better for the exercise, and better at skillfully contacting the real. And we will be better at it especially if we do this while understanding that justified belief isn’t all there is to knowing, while maintaining a reverence for the indeterminate roots and aspirations of all our epistemic efforts.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

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It is important to see that the fact that people rely on the Bible as an authoritative guide when it comes to knowing God in no way sets knowing God apart from any other ordinary act of knowing. Coming down to us from the Middle Ages has been the idea that the Bible contained revealed truth, and thus its claims were accessed by faith, while principles, say, of science were accessed by reason. When reliance on authority as a credible source of knowledge became disreputable, the religious enterprise was discredited also. By arguing that all human acts of knowing require authoritative guides, I hope you see that I mean to challenge this time-honored but false and unfortunate dichotomy. We trust our parents, we trust the nurse, we trust the Magic Eye directions, we trust the auto mechanic, we trust the piano teacher, we trust Scripture. If you like, you may call it faith. But you must call it faith when the topic is breast-feeding or golf or auto mechanics just as it is faith when the topic is God.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

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Among the many other things I shall not be offering to prove, there is one which lies at the heart of everything I have to say: It is the validity of our knowing process. Many philosophers who weigh in at a lot more than I do have exercised themselves on the subject—and so strenuously that I long ago decided to take the whole thing as a spectator sport. With TV tuned, therefore, and Barca-lounger tilted back, my one comment on epistemology is that I root for any team which says human knowledge is valid, and never watch the others.

I do this because everybody I know acts as if it were valid anyway. The skeptic is never for real. There he stands, cocktail in hand, left arm draped languorously on one end of the mantelpiece, telling you that he can’t be sure of any- thing, not even of his own existence. I’ll give you my secret method of demolishing universal skepticism in four words. Whisper to him: “Your fly is open.” If he thinks knowledge is so all-fired impossible, why does he always look?

— Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

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People in the Western tradition tend to have lots of issues when it comes to trusting authorities. It doesn’t help that as children we may have had very painful experiences at the hands of our guides. But we have also become skittish at the hands of philosophy. The story of Western philosophy is our story. It includes a time in our coming of age when authority was painted as an illegitimate source of knowledge. It was noble, by contrast, to think for ourselves. And now in this postmodern milieu, we feel painfully that any decision to trust is discredited because deconstructable—reducible without remainder to factors of power.

The move to reject authority was warranted but not justified. Bad use of authority, we should see, does not entail the rejection of authority, for the rejection of authority is impossible. Bad use of authority entails the rejection of bad authority. The fact that some authorities are bad means that we need to exercise wisdom in our stewardship.

Our legacy has led us to read authority as authoritarianism, and seriously to be misled in requiring unconditioned freedom in every legitimate human act.

— Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know 

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