Apr 28, 2011

Kicking off my Book Tour in National Library Week

notre dame hesburgh library christian philosophy debates 1930s blondel gilson maritain religion faith reason
Nearly a week and a half of busily packed days have passed since I officially started the tour for my book Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France  at our own Charles Chesnutt Library at Fayetteville State University.  I didn't realize until I started putting my presentation together precisely how appropriate an occasion and location that was.  The story that I'm going to tell, reflect upon, draw some implications from, and conclude with an argument about resources and policies - - the story of my research and the book that eventually emerged from is also the story of a library, the University of Notre Dame Hesburgh Library, a library of a certain type that unfortunately seems to be at risk for gradually dwindling away, faced with the twin pressures of a digital age and the costs of maintaining library stacks.

I'm not going to talk much about my book in this entry, other than to say that I'll be adding a video (to My New Book) discussing how it is intended to make contributions to scholarship in several respects somewhat different than and complementary the volumes of secondary literature -- or even original groundbreaking work in Philosophy, Religion, History, Political Theory, or Rhetoric -- the disciplinary circles in which I move and appreciate the works of my peers.  What I will note first about Reason Fulfilled By Revelation is that were it not for the existence nearby of a certain kind of library, a certain form of repository of human knowledge, of intellectual striving and dialogue, the research that I carried out would have been. . . . well, not entirely inconceivable, but practically speaking rendered impossible

Apr 24, 2011

Anselm on the Seven Levels of Humility

Having finished the six-entry series on Anselm's views on anger, I've decided on a new Sunday blogging project for the time being, one which still focuses on the (somewhat inaptly epitheted) Scholastic Doctor, but now on a different aspect of his moral theory:  the virtue of humility, so central to his life, practice, thought, and counsels -- so difficult and trying a virtue to cultivate (I'll admit, in my experience and after very limited success).  Humility, Anselm says, is needed in order to prepare the ground for, and to stabilize the other moral virtues. 

Unlike anger, Anselm did devote some thematic discussion to humility as such, particularly through a metaphor he develops in considerable depth -- that of a mountain with levels.  Each level corresponds to one degree of humility, a new qualitative addition or deepening of that virtue, in practice, in action.  In the weeks to come, I'm going to compare Anselm's treatment, and the successive levels he outlines, with those of other Christian thinkers who also discussed humility, and similarly distinguished successive degrees, steps, or levels, of that virtue.  One of these at least Anselm knew with an intimacy than which a greater can barely be conceived, for St. Benedict, the founder of the very order in which Anselm lived out nearly all of his adult life, distinguishes and briefly discusses twelve steps or levels of humility.

Apr 17, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger (part 6 and end)

Over the last two months, I've explored several aspects of St. Anselm's thought bearing upon anger, hopefully demonstrating that his moral theory, though not addressing anger thematically, has much to say about it, if we put in the necessary exegetical and interpretative legwork (here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) We have examined anger as an emotional response, as one of the stirrings of the carnal appetite, as an object of choice of the ultimately free will, as an occasion for temptation and weakness of will, as a set of habits more or less deeply graven upon the human soul, as a common shape injustice assumes in the will, a privation or corruption of right structures, orderings, direction, affections of the will.

Often, anger also involves a fundamental choice, a willing -- though not necessarily or even often one made deliberately, consciously, with entire awareness -- not to align one's will with God's will, but instead to follow one's own course, one's propria voluntas, to use the human rational will's capacity for self-governance, self-determination in a away that seems in the moment to exercise that capacity to the fullest, but which in reality ends up subjugating that will, that freedom, that instrument of choice to objects or persons outside the will or to a portion -- not the better portions -- of the human being, the carnal appetites and desires which like seeds extrude their tendrils throughout the will, setting down the roots of vices.

Christianity contributes a fuller, though very challenging, perspective upon anger.  The task of the Christian moral theologian or philosopher is not only to follow counsels and dictates provided by relevant scriptures, by the example and words of Christ, the saints, even those around one who are better disposed in relation to anger.  It is to bring additional illumination to our understanding of  this tricky, seductive affective response, one so apt to subvert the very rationality and justice that should in some cases block or censure anger, and in others moderate, rightly direct, or temper it. The Doctor of Bec does make such contributions, and in this final entry on Anselm and anger, we'll look at those that have to do specifically with virtues and vices.

Apr 15, 2011

Infusing Critical Thinking through the Curriculum: FSU's QEP

One of the requirements for reaccreditation of an educational institution -- at least at the college and university level -- if you are under SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), since 2004, has been producing a Quality Enhancement Plan. This is supposed to be a institution-wide, comprehensively worked out, step by step, multidimensional means of improving education at as college or university. It is interesting that the original idea behind requiring institutions to develop a QEP was to remedy a seemingly widespread view that SACS was more reactive than proactive, more about assessing past performance than about fostering future improvement.

Even those who are interested in, who "buy in" to, (some forms of) assessment -- like myself -- do admittedly often look at the sorts of requirements SACS imposes upon its constituents, at the reams of data it falls upon us to generate, to organize, to report upon, as onerous make-work. Having been drawn in to the ongoing process of generating our Quality Enhancement Plan at Fayetteville State University -- first as a subject matter expert in both Critical Thinking and CLA Performance Tasks, a purely advisory role, and then afterwards as a member of the QEP Writing Committee -- I was afforded an illuminating vantage point from which to observe at least some of the workings of SACS and the QEP activity.

For me, as a philosopher, this involvement has been very interesting on a number of different levels.Our plan itself thematically focuses on critical thinking and practical reasoning, two areas in which philosophers are not the only experts and disciplinary practitioners, but definitely fields in which we make central contributions. Going beyond the content of the plan, the very process of our QEP's development, our attempts to interpret and meet requirements imposed by SACS by drawing upon our available faculty strengths, leveraging our current involvements, and setting up tracks for future ongoing faculty development -- that very process has been a sort of set of test cases or experiments in practical reasoning -- and reasoning in difficult circumstances, less resources available than we would have liked, consensuses yet to be formed, buy-ins to be achieved -- basically, the sort of real-life circumstances in which most practical reasoning really does take place -- far from the clean contours of classroom examples, or the highly abstract thought-experiments and textbook cases with which most philosophers tend to be more comfortable.

Apr 12, 2011

Enjoyment of the Highest Good in Plato: Personal or Not?

plato socrates highest good personal impersonal forms ideas enjoyment pleasure love desire
Last week, after giving a guest lecture about Plato, Persons, and the Highest Good (video available here), and then narrating a portion of the lecture and the larger project of Plato interpretation it stems from in a blog entry, I promised a follow-up post making the not-immediately-evident case that for Plato, enjoyment of the highest good does indeed involve personality or personhood, and not merely by virtue of the fact that the soul of the person is what enjoys the Form of the Good (or the Beautiful) in a sort of eternal communion and contemplation.  I have been making the stronger claim that the ascent to the highest good and the enjoyment of it contain necessarily personal aspects or moments, and that these are  essential to that condition. Plato's own texts bear this out, as it turns out (fortunately for my interpretation, no?)

Having several other promised follow-ups to earlier blog entries still pending, I've learned my lesson: 'faut forger le fer. . .  -- get (to) it while it's hot!  -- so I'm writing out, setting down, freezing in letters this exegesis of Platonic texts and passages, at the head of a week jam-packed -- with end-of-semester student panics and scamblings, equally last minute readying on the part of faculty to become familiar with a Quality Enhancement Plan I had some small part in authoring (before our SACS accreditation team arrives next week), preparing for my first presentation on my first published book. . . the list could go on -- before it becomes yet another projected then deferred composition.

Before we travel down into the Platonic texts, into depictions of the afterlife, or the life before available through reminiscence, verbal representations of the ascent to the Forms and to the Good, I must make one clarificatory remark: I am not in any way claiming that the Form of the Good is in Plato's view is itself something imbued with any aspect of personality. In fact, his texts clearly suggest otherwise.  It is true that later broadly Platonic thought will explicitly depict the highest good as fundamentally personal, for Christians, Jews, and Muslims will understand it as God.  But, that is a later development, and I am sticking with Plato's own writings on this matter.  For in those texts, the enjoyment of the Good is carried out as a person in community with others.

Apr 9, 2011

Plato, Persons, and the Ascent to the Highest Good

My colleague Eric Silverman hosted me in his Plato class at Christopher Newport University this last Wednesday, where I delivered a guest lecture (video available here)-- with much contribution from his student's questions, objections, puzzles, and discussion -- ostensibly focused on Diotima's speech (in Socrates' speech) nested in the very heart of Plato's dialogue, the Symposium -- but actually taking the opportunity to work out and talk about a few parts of one of my own projects concerned with Plato.

plato symposium highest good form god ascent love desire personality person
That dialogue is, and will ever remain, a central work in the history and discipline of philosophy.  It has inspired commentators, appropriators, perhaps even what might be called imitators down throughout the ages.  Its depiction of philosophy, indeed of many types of activity and inquiry, as fundamentally erotic will ever seduce new students to read it through and then return to explore its fascinating passages, and will draw back old friends and lovers, professors whose copies of it bear wear as signs of diligent study -- or even as the guide with whom I first traversed the dialogue in Greek with called it, an inability to put the book away because every time one opens it, in turn it opens in the reader's mind new, gnawing, aching questions.

Apr 5, 2011

Happy Birthday, Thomas Hobbes

Today, as I fortunately learned from The Cult of Genius -- in the midst of my day busied by projects, meetings, curriculum considerations, and student emails, as I prepared mentally (I'll finish the last physical and paperwork preparations after this) for a presentation on Plato I'll drive four hours in the morning to deliver -- that the great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, would be 423 years old today.  Hobbes indisputably occupies the rank of one of the fathers of early modern philosophy, political philosophy especially.

For me, more personally, he is like a strange somewhat unsavory, intense, but eminently well-spoken, attractive . . . . acquaintance? Friend?  Perhaps. . .  interlocutor, disputant, dialogue partner.  I have what a colleague once described a "quasi-pornographic fascination" with Hobbes, his thought, his writings even his very turns of phrase.  You know some wrong resides and lurks in allowing the eyes to linger too long over their contours, but you find yourself at times unable to tear away, and then you feel palpably, with the force of desire, the urge to look back, to peek, which then turns yet again into full perusal.  His works and his thought exert a magnetic effect upon my own, which through contact or even just recollection I discover taking on the boldness, the starkness, and the grimness of his own.  There is a side of me darkly drawn to what a commentator, Louis Roux so rightly signaled, calling Hobbes preeminently late modern:
Hobbes is present among us: his fiery gaze, his dark and loveless world, his universe of war, of death, of commands and prohibitions, his mechanistic and soulless law, everything is there.

Apr 3, 2011

Saint Anselm on Anger (Part 5)

Some weeks back, I started a series of Sunday posts progressively setting out portions of an Anselmian treatment of the emotion, actions, and vice of anger.  Preoccupied with some other concerns, I haven't added to that series for two weeks, but now return to it, specifically to the topic of anger and the mechanism of temptation in the will.  This particular issue is something that Anselm did write a good deal about more generally, and while explaining tonight how anger fits into the volitional structure of temptation, we will bring together and tie in the threads of the previous four posts.

From part 1, we come back to the impulse of anger as one of the carnal appetites -- and through the mechanics of the will, one of the carnal desires -- Anselm discusses as presenting occasions of temptation.  I also brought up there the fact that anger was not simply an emotion experienced, felt, aroused in the person angered , but also, so far as it involves action, thought, choice, or habit, also a disposition or use of the will.  In part 2, I noted that Anselm does not write much about vices specifically bearing on anger, but does discuss several virtues which lessen, stand in the way of, or resolve anger.  I also brought up the Anselmian definition of the architectonic virtue of justice: "rectitude of will kept for its own sake," and discussed how anger in its various forms would typically be or involve injustice (while holding out the possibilities for just anger).

In part 3, I turned to virtues and vices as habitual or dispositional structures of the will and framed virtues as specific shapes justice takes in the will, vices correlatively as specific shapes of injustice.  These could be understood further in terms of the human being's fundamental choice what to do with, what to make of their will, to collaborate with the divine will in justice, or to choose self-will (propria voluntas), which always leads into a condition of unfreedom and injustice, the will subjected to something other than itself (or a portion of itself) rather than aligned with God's will.  Part 4 reintroduced Anselm's tripartite distinction of the will, and discussed the two fundamental inclinations (or dispositions, or affections) of the will:  the will-for-happiness -- always operative, directing us towards and away from multiple objects, susceptible of being shaped, modified -- and the will-for-justice -- possible to lose and regain, tempering, directing, and sometimes opposing the will-for-happiness when present, but still not coercing the free will of the human being.