Islam, Toleration, and Terror

There may be a problem with our tolerationist stance towards Islam. It is rooted in our intellectual strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda, who claimed authority on the basis of interpretation of scripture–it was a “rabbinical” authority. But one man’s fatwa is another man’s intemperate, misguided bullshit. Since many Muslims simply ignore the claims of religious accuracy offered by such groups (which can be either Shia or Sunni), our stance, which was that this is an interpretation of Islam, not Islam itself, was a powerful one.

But ISIS does change the equation in a way that Western liberals have not quite caught up with. ISIS does not claim to be interpreting scripture and tradition more accurately than other, more temperate interpreters; ISIS claims to be the Caliphate. That is, they claim their leadership has immediate religious authority, and that it is simply all Muslims’ duty to obey it directly, whatever it demands. There’s no room for interpretive controversy here. You either accept that they are the Caliphate or not.

The problem that this poses is that we can’t contest the claim by saying that they don’t represent the real ethos of Islam because whether they do or not is actually religiously irrelevant. You can only contest it by saying that (Sunni) Islam is false, and no one is ever the Caliph, or by saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not himself the Caliph, though perhaps someone else someday could be; in other words, by asserting a contrary religious claim. You see, subsuming a group under tolerationist separation of church and state is made awkward when the group itself does not accept the very idea of separation of church and state. As soon as ISIS goes away, we can return to the liberal narrative, because no Muslim owes any special loyalty to any particular group or individual, absent a Caliph, and can in the meantime give their political loyalty to secular Western states as needed. But ISIS has not yet gone away. (And to say that this whole topic is unimportant because so few people accept that al-Baghdadi is the Caliph is to misunderstand the nature of the problem; “33% of young British Muslims expressed a desire to see the resurrection of a world-wide caliphate.”)

Although a lot of Westerners are not aware of this, this problem does not arise with Shia Islam, which does not accept the idea of a Caliphate at all; as a result, all Shia religious authority is “rabbinical.” This would seem to suggest that if we are going to undertake the fool’s errand of playing the Great Game in the Middle East, we might want to rethink our attitude towards Iran, which is Shia, and thus in principle more open to reform via interpretation. Since in effect what is going on in the Middle East today is a grand Sunni versus Shia war, we might at least consider rethinking our strategy, which appears to be to be on everyone’s side, so that we are guaranteed to win… and lose, come what may.

Welcome to the clash of civilizations. The problem with trying to reconcile our own preferred liberal attitudes with framing Islamophobia as xenophobia is that it is conceptually dependent upon a religious dialogue with Islam itself which secular liberals are loathe to take seriously, being secular, and incompetent to pursue in any case. But the time has already come when saying “reasonable people can differ about what Islam requires” is inadequate. That claim itself presupposes that we are still in a world in which there is no Caliph. The claim to be the Caliphate is an ideological claim of an entirely different order, and Western liberals are forced into the awkward position of rejecting it in order to restore the status quo ante in which our tolerationist rhetoric still made sense. The ultimate source of our tolerationist ideals, John Locke, understood the problem well himself, when he said: “It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”

For an alternate view, see my old friend Juan Cole on the same subject.


Ex Machina

The allusion to Wittgenstein, which leads to his quasi-behaviorism, which leads to the Turing Test, was clever.

The allusion to Frank Jackson? Less clever. Worries about the rights of artificial persons? Tired. We’ve heard this discussion before, since Blade Runner at least.

But the deep dependence on the plot of The Magus was a surprise; the likely fact that no one will mention this because Fowles is not taught is itself interesting, as is the consilience with the change in the plot [spoiler]: things don’t work out for our “Nicholas” quite as well. The object of his affection, rather, becomes the protagonist ultimately. It’s not that The Magus couldn’t be written today: it’s that it would have to be written from the perspective of Rose and Lily, and love would not be the answer, but at worst an illusion, at best a manipulative tool for facilitating liberation from the patriarchy.

What does this tell us? That the bourgeois individualism of The Magus is probably not a permissible object of study in academia anymore… unless the bourgeois individualist doing the self-discovery and self-liberation is A Person of No Privilege (in this case, white and straight, but at least female and non-human). By contrast, A Person of Privilege is allowed to critique bourgeois individualism (even though this is essentially self-criticism, thus self-discovery, thus bourgeois individualism all over again, and as long as the critique focuses on the cultural surface effects and in no way speculates as to the mechanisms which produce them, and hence to strategies of dismantlement.)

On Living Long, and Prospering


There are several different archetypes of virtue in the history of Western culture: the patriot, the rebel, the artist, the statesman, the woman of faith. Socrates seemed to invent in his own life and personality a new type, and while that type played a huge role in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and was transmitted down to us in various forms, combined with various types, it was the Stoics who in a way embodied what was central in Socrates. Stoicism had a kind of oblique revival in the thought of Spinoza and Kant, but it could never quite compete with the other images and models in the larger culture. Ironically for us today, the Sixties made matters worse, and the notion that virtue is a sham and a self-betrayal, that what is truly necessary is to get in touch with your feelings, your appetites and passions, seemed to triumph over all else.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t quite sure at first what he was doing with the Spock concept. At first he was supposed to merely be provocatively alien, and the notion of a cold character who was second in command was planned for a woman, with the intention I imagine of making a feminist statement. The grand pooh-bahs of television wouldn’t wear it, and so the notions were merged and we got the Spock that we know. Without quite knowing what they were doing, Star Trek re-invented Stoicism and presented it to the modern world in an accessible form. Philosophers sometimes say that the image of Spock misrepresents Stoicism, but on further reflection, I think Star Trek got it right in the first place. The forgotten Stoic Poseidonius knew that to achieve the ideal of dignified, self-possessed rationality, one would need to struggle with passions and appetites; in this he followed Plato rather than Zeno. Modern Stoics like Lawrence Becker have insisted that a proper Stoic does not exterminate his or her emotions, but cultivates them selectively, by the light of reason. Spock showed us both the struggle, and the proper role of dignified, rational sentiment, especially the sentiment of friendship. Remarkably, what Roddenberry and Nimoy created did justice to one of the central and yet most often forgotten ethical ideals our culture has produced, and showed that it was worthy of our affection and respect… and for some of us, emulation. From what I know of him, Nimoy had reason to understand from the inside the invisible battles and victories of those whose passions and appetites clamor to overtake their judgement, and he had reason to know what is was like to be an alien in a culture with very different values… and perhaps this was why he was able to make the character so compelling. Though Leonard Nimoy tried fitfully to break out of the role with which he became identified, in the end he acquiesced, and, I think, wisely. He is one of the few non-philosophers I know who gave much of his life to modeling for us The Life of Reason. We philosophers haven’t done a tenth as much in that regard. Leonard Nimoy will be missed, but the character he created is immortal. Mr. Quinto, you now have some pretty big shoes to fill: live long and prosper.

Being and Time

“When the sunlight shines through the blackness of space it’s black, but I was in sunlight and I was able to look at this blackness! And what are you looking at? Call it the universe, but it’s the infinity of space and the infinity of time. I’m looking at something called space that had no end and at time that has no meaning. You can really focus on it because you’ve got this planet out there, this star called Earth, which itself is in this blackness, but it is lit up because the sunlight strikes on an object, strikes on something called Earth. And it’s not a hostile blackness. Maybe it’s not hostile because of the beauty of the Earth that sort of gives it light.” — an Apollo astronaut.

The Famine

I am a professor of philosophy. I am also a great admirer of some of the things that are thought of as postmodern so, caveat, this is not about that.

One of the things that bothers me about the world I live my professional life in is that philosophers teach the founding texts, not just of western civilization, which almost sounds pretentious to insist on, but of modernity, and yet there is a perception that philosophers are at best teachers of some nebulous thing called “critical thinking” and at worst Middle Earth cartography (charting their own fantasies). But the impact of the Enlightenment figures on our culture is huge, pervasive, and basically we own those guys. “It’s a pity that no one has ever inquired into the notion of political legitimacy resting on popular sovereignty,” says someone reading an article about Arab Spring. “It’s a pity that no one has ever tried to really explain to anyone how all knowledge rests on the evidence of the senses,” says a New Atheist.

Sidenote: when I teach Hegel, I teach him as primarily engaged in cultural politics and not one thing he discusses isn’t relevant to us, even down to his trenchant critique of neurobollocks (i.e., “phrenology”).

And because no one outside the profession knows that we promote, and may be the only ones who promote, historical awareness of the conceptual basis of our culture, the tendency is to think that science and politics are just rooted in common sense which requires no discussion, or horrid ideology which requires dismantling. The critics say “but why does it go without saying that ___?” The answer is a resounding silence. Who does this leave the initiative with, by the way?

Oftentimes our students’ first and only exposure to explicit thought about the natural of rationality, or freedom, will be in a required course called “Gender and Photography” or something. That class will be required. “Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Hume” or “Modern Political Thought: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau” won’t be. And then when I look at the consequences, what I notice is that people who read, say, Andrew Sullivan as aggregator, are encountering shallow discussions of centuries old debates as if some blogger was the first to ask if there isn’t more to life than science… or not, etc. unaware that there was this thing called the Romantic Reaction in the 19th century… And I look at the students we’re churning out, and basically they either dismiss the humanities as a complete waste of time (they’re trying to learn how to program in “C” and have no time for “Gender and Photography”) or they think that what it is to think reflectively about their culture is to oppose it self-righteously based on some hazy impressions of what they’re opposing from classes about pop culture or something.

Everyone knows what Santayana said about being condemned to repeat history. But such repetitions need not be catastrophic. Sometimes they are just shallow chatter.

I’m absolutely staggered when I see people getting really agitated for or against ideas that are centuries old who show no awareness of this fact, people who are products of a system which itself shows no awareness of the fact that my discipline is (if nothing else) the custodian of that awareness. I’m not saying “when you criticize a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I’m just sad that I see so much intellectual starvation around me when a banquet has been laid, but no invitations sent.

Binary Star System

Occasionally one will hear someone talk breezily about how all of philosophy is a struggle between Plato and Aristotle. This seems to me to use a painting from Raphael, and a small piece of it to boot, as a substitute for historical inquiry. The fact is, the picture of philosophy as a binary star system owes more to the accident that the third, fourth, fifth etc. great figures’ texts have disappeared, along with the fact that interpreting things in terms of team sports seems to be an inveterate tendency of the human mind. In any event, once this binary opposition is in place it can be superimposed on all sorts of dualisms. For example Ayn Rand and Lyndon LaRouche both agree on the “two sides, locked in eternal combat” picture, but for Rand, technology belongs to Aristotle and environmentalism to Plato; for LaRouche, it’s the other way around. Whatever.

Lloyd Gerson argued that late antiquity thought Plato and Aristotle more alike than different. One can put oneself into that state of mind, though whether that makes Plato seem more sensible and harmless or Aristotle less dull and uninspiring remains to be seen. All I know is that this jumbling together produced Neoplatonism, and that everything that is gorgeous and everything that is methodologically suspect, from Augustine to Heidegger, is indebted to it.