Monday, 11 March 2019


Love and Philosophy
"What can romantic love teach philosophy?"  This was a topic we discussed at at one of our Wednesday night meetings last year.  The underlying premise seemed to  to be that philosophy is so abstract, so "vague," so left-brain, that it hasn't a clue about romantic love and probably can't learn anything at all about it.  We are famously instructed that "the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of" (Blaise Pascal).  One of our friends charged that philosophy deals in "frozen" words, whereas love is an "ineffable" experience.  Philosophy having thus been put in its place, a remarkable discussion took place in which all the participants used words to characterize the nature of love.
The animosity between the Romantic and the Rational has a long history in Western culture.  The dispute has been exaggerated and is mostly futile.  Humans need both.  Despite the triumph of the rational from the 19th century on, the Romantic lives on in our hearts, our music, our poetry, our novels and movies.  Most of us know that the two are capable of co-existing. but when they clash, as they did in the 1960's, it is hard to see how they can get along.  Some of us think a final peace will be won by some kind of integration, not by a battle to the death. 
Back to our topic.  Philosophy isn't a person; it's a type of inquiry, so let's rephrase the question:  what can philosophers learn from romantic love?
Philosophers are persons, so most of them will fall in love one or more times in their lives.  They will learn from their own encounters with love what it's like, just as everyone else does - from direct experience:  the waves of emotion, the ecstasies and torments, the joy of winning the lover, the pain of loss, the inevitable fading of passion - the whole exhilarating, frustrating, possibly indispensable, ultimately unsatisfactory mess.  They will use the modes of expression available to them in their culture - girl talk, boy talk, trans-talk, poetry, music, visual art, dance, etc. - to express their experience of love and what it means to them.  What they do not themselves experience in their own love affairs they will learn second-hand from others' stories, poetry, literature, drama, and songs.  In short, philosophers will learn about love from being in love.  So where's the issue in this issue?  
As we were profoundly informed at the meeting, love can't be adequately expressed in words, because it's an experience, a feeling or perhaps a whole constellation of feelings, a matter of the heart, not of the conceptual mind.  Therefore, a philosophy of love is an oxymoron.  The premise of this argument can't support the drama with which it was uttered.  Everyone knows it.  The difference between a feeling and a description of the feeling is obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a minute, so this does not reveal much about what a philosopher can learn from romantic love, and you won't find the theme given a great deal of attention in philosophical works on love.
If a philosopher takes time out from romancing her beloved to think and write about love, she will be working within one or more of three basic perspectives: the phenomenological  - thinking about her own personal experience; the cultural perspective - the historical and contemporary views on love in philosophy, psychology, literature, and drama that are available in her culture and perhaps in others; and the scientific - biology, neuroscience, and sociology.  All of those have a lot to say about love, and philosophers will take the best information and ideas from all of them to make sense out of "the story of….the glory of love."
Philosophy of love is an interesting pursuit, boasting a long history from ancient times in the West as well as in Hindu, Buddhist, and Persian traditions.  For a quick summary of that history and a list of philosophical sources, go to Wikipedia here. Read some philosophy of love - for example, Plato's Symposium, and decide for yourself whether philosophy has anything important to say about love.

Sunday, 10 March 2019


What Is Religion?
Answers to Questions and Objections
"Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation."
Where did this definition come from?  Out of the blue?  From some kind of a priori intuition?  Or is there some kind of factual basis behind it?
Good question.  Actually, it's not a definition in the ordinary sense.  It's more of a hypothesis or orienting generalization that provides a guide for a philosophical investigation of the kinds of phenomena people point to when they talk about religion.  It arose from the work of a group of American scholars who surveyed a vast literature from many cultures around the world, past and present, in hopes of finding a common element that would not only be a key to understanding ancient and modern traditions, but also any new forms of religious life that might show up in the future.  So what commonalities did those scholars discover?
Most importantly, they discovered that the traditional teachings are all responses to what Paul Tillich called ultimate concerns.
What counts as 'ultimate' will vary from person to person, won't it? 
Yes, and also from culture to culture.   However, this does not imply that there are no universal ultimates among humans.  For example, all humans have an instinct to survive which gives rise to the fear of death, which in turn may be the single most powerful motivator behind the rise of all the world's religious traditions.
Your definition is extremely abstract.  Doesn't it leave the door open for anything to qualify as an ultimate concern if some person says it is?  Aren't ideas about ultimates just subjective? Yes and no,  As students of comparative religion, we want to listen to anyone who has something to say about their ultimate concerns.  However, that doesn't mean we give equal weight to every personal testimonial.  Some might say their religion is bodybuilding or being an active fan of the Seattle Seahawks football team, and they are otherwise not interested in whatever else people call religion.  Fine, but those interests are too narrow, too idiosyncratic for our purposes.  They lack too many of the seven dimensions of religion in Ninian Smart's list.
One sensible way of proceeding would be to examine the five great traditions recognized by everyone as major religions and find out what their mainstream teachings are regarding ultimate concerns and means of transformation.  This is what the UTT scholars did, resulting in their 4 categories of "Traditional Ways of Being Religious."
Another way would be to use a modern psychological theory of human needs, for example, Herbert Maslow's famous hierarchy in which needs are shown to arise in a growth hierarchy of lower to higher.  As lower needs are met, individuals focus on higher needs, any one of which may become an ultimate concern, depending on particular life circumstances.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that each of these has been the ultimate concern of various societies throughout human history and the basis for the construction of their religious systems.  Hunting and gathering tribes, for example, faced daily with threats to their physical survival (bottom two levels of Maslow's pyramid), devised rain dances, sacrifices, and other rituals aimed at persuading spirits or gods to bless their crops and hunts or battles with rival tribes.  In advanced societies today, where basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and physical safety are taken for granted by most citizens, the higher level needs tend to become the focus of religious commitment.

A hierarchy of ultimate concerns is also implicit in James Fowler's spectrum, "Stages of Religious Development," in my earlier post "What Is Religion, Part 1," Figure 4.