Category Archives: Philosophy Quotes

Robert Joustra on the false ultimacy of politics

[Reviewing Nick Spencer’s The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable]

Maybe our politics has become so ultimate because it’s one of the last things we have in common. Public narrows to mean political. The state, the last public project, exhausts our collective imagination, when it’s really only one institution, a specifically political one to exercise the good of justice, but hardly all goods. It thus has an essential but deeply limited function. The American solution, so far, has been to enforce a kind of commonness via those same mechanisms, spiraling the existential stakes of the normally banal routines of political stewardship into a kind of moral, cultural, and spiritual winner-takes-all. The better solution, probably, is to have more things in common, to branch out from the winner-takes-all hysteria of modern politics and rediscover other facets of human life, art, music, literature, sports, family, and so on, whose goods can never be exhausted by something as rude and mundane as politics. By making everything political, we’ve ruined everything, like the good Samaritan, who ends up as a stand-in for just the most fashionable debates on the size of government, a political problem so far removed from the actual parable that an outsider would have to do considerable study to learn how we got here.

from “The Politics of the Good Samaritan,” Comment (Jan 2018)

See also an earlier post on this same theme HERE


Lawrence Principe on a species of scientific fundamentalism

The point is that [John W.] Draper [d. 1882] and [Andrew D.] White [d. 1918] were illegitimately transporting the emerging social stratification of their own era backward into earlier times. By constructing the notion that two rival camps – scientists and religionists – had existed throughout history, they set up an inherent and essential rivalry between science and religion that did not exist as such. Interestingly, despite their explicit use of a military metaphor, they implicitly – whether consciously or unconsciously – borrowed the imagery and structure that characterized the history of religion itself. They created a litany of martyrs – most notably Bruno and Galileo, but also Roger Bacon, Michael Servetus, and others – and a hagiography of sinless and oppressed reformers and visionaries that populated the scientists’ camp. They implicitly recast scientists as prophets and priests, the recipients of special favor and enlightenment, who brought forth truth and struggled to spread a gospel of science and progress against the darkness and ignorance of the pagans (i.e., the old priesthood of religion). In this way, they co-opted for themselves all the drama and emotional power of the story of the early Christians persecuted by – but finally victorious over – oppressive Roman paganism. This origin myth of science laid the foundation for setting up science as a religion of its own.

This origin myth of science remains extraordinarily powerful today, and it stands at the core of scientism. It is constantly repeated uncritically by a host of popular books and television programs, and as a virtual shibboleth by the prophets of scientism. Indeed, it has been my personal experience that it is dangerous (or at least foolhardy) to question its orthodoxy around those of a scientistic persuasion. I remember receiving an email from an undergraduate student in the sciences who had recently read some of my publications on early modern science. He was literally distraught because I had demonstrated that the heroes he had been taught to revere – Kepler, Boyle, Newton, and the like – were actually…religious believers. How could this be, he asked. For him, it was a crisis of faith, with all the characteristics of a crisis of religious belief. And indeed it was, his faith in the origin myth and the religion of science had been shaken. I fairly regularly get mail from members of the public who have read my more popular books and lectures, and while I routinely critique the claims of both religionists and scientists, I rarely hear anything negative from the religious side. But when I present well-established historical evidence that undercuts the simplistic warfare version of the Galileo and the church narrative, or enumerate scientific and logical features of medieval theology, or, perhaps worst of all, point out false historical claims or sloppy reasonings made by scientistic prophets like Carl Sagan, then the criticism, the expressions of disbelief, and the declamations of ulterior motives fly freely. Two features emerge: first, any positive statement about historical figures traditionally placed in the religion camp is unacceptable. Second, most such critics rely entirely on the origin myth mentioned earlier, and simply will not accept any evidence to the contrary, responding to such evidence with a simple no or by repeating now-discredited accounts. This is why I must conclude—as others have done—that the strong scientism of the modern day is not merely a religion, but is in fact a kind of fundamentalism.

from “Scientism and the Religion of Science,” in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, Eds. Daniel Robinson and Richard Williams (Bloomsbury, 2015), 50-51.

Gordon Graham on imagination in worship 

The greatest poetry is an imaginative achievement, not a biographical report. It would be absurd to think, for instance, that Shakespeare had to experience all the jealousy, ambition, love, despair, remorse, paranoia, light heartedness, or grief that he powerfully depicts in the poetry of his plays. It is his astonishing, and seemingly unlimited power to give imaginative expression to these many states of mind without having experienced them, that constitutes his unsurpassed literary gift.

So too with religious poems and hymns. When ordinary worshippers sing some of the finest Christian hymns, for instance, the religious sentiments expressed often far exceed their own. They may also exceed the religious sentiments of those who wrote the hymns. Contrary to what is often supposed … this need not imply either insincerity or a lack of understanding. Religious worshippers set their sights on higher things, hoping to connect with something that transcends ordinary experience. Emotional elevation by means of hymns, poems, and prayers that imaginatively express ideals of feeling play an important part in this endeavor.

from Philosophy, Art and Religion: Understanding Faith and Creativity (Cambridge Univ Pr), 110-111.

David Brooks on politics as a limited good

To fix politics, care more about other things. […]

It should be said that people on the left and on the right who try to use politics to find their moral meaning are turning politics into an idol. Idolatry is what happens when people give ultimate allegiance to something that should be serving only an intermediate purpose, whether it is money, technology, alcohol, success or politics.

[…] we…need to put politics in its place. The excessive dependence on politics has to be displaced by the expulsive power of more important dependencies, whether family, friendship, neighborhood, community, faith or basic life creed.

[…] our politics probably can’t be fixed by political means. It needs repair of the deeper communal bonds that politics rest on, and which political conflict cannot heal.

from “When Politics Becomes Your Idol,” New York Times, (Oct 30, 2017)

I’d add, don’t care more about other things only for the sake of fixing politics, but also to fix yourself.

Raimond Gaita on Some Varieties of Courage

[Walter] Bonatti [a mountaineer] says … that he curses the need to prove himself, wishing he were free of it as most people are. For him, the need was not to prove himself to others, but to prove to himself that he possessed certain virtues even in the face of death — not death in the mountains but in the face of death period.

Most people live their lives without worrying about whether they would have the courage to face death. For others it can be very important to know what they would do if they were sitting on the train next to a person whose safety was threatened by a gang of thugs. Would they intervene, or would they sit quietly, hoping to be left alone? What would they do, they ask themselves, if they lived in a country in which a neighbor might disappear in the middle of the night at the hands of the secret police? Physical courage has been devalued in most Western democracies, where people are lucky that moral courage seldom needs physical courage to support it. Most of the peoples of the earth are not so lucky.

It is not therefore because they are morbid that men like Bonatti are tortured by doubts about their courage. In the mountains they seek to know not what kind of mountaineer they are, but what kind of human being. That is why it is so shaming to know that one has proved a coward even when no one has suffered the consequences of one’s cowardice. … But though it is devastating to learn that one is a coward, to have been brave in the mountains is not a good reason for believing that one will be brave elsewhere. It is one thing to risk death, to face it courageously in a blizzard or when someone has fallen, and another thing to face it in the guise of a slowly degenerative illness, and another thing again to have the courage to remain human in a concentration camp.

from The Philosopher’s Dog, (Random House, 2002), 151-152. [Not one of the sort of reflections I would have expected from this title. Gaita’s good for surprises like that.]

On directions in which to extend one’s critical vocabulary

1. Raimond Gaita

There is a permanent tension between academic practice and the example of Socrates, which is why philosophers cannot simply appeal to their authority as people who have mastered a subject to justify their entry into a discussion that requires some depth and wisdom. If they do enter it then they must not only expect, but also accept as proper, the extension of the critical vocabulary in which their remarks are to be assessed – that, for example, they are shallow, naive, callow, fatuous, or even corrupt.

from Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004), 322.

2. John Webster

Much can be discerned about a theological proposal … by observing the sequence in which … topics are addressed and the proportions allotted to each, as well as by probing the material claims made about them. [89]

Sometimes [dubious proposals] may be warranted by appeal to elements of the Christian faith, often rather randomly chosen, abstractly conceived, and without much sense of their systematic linkages. [202]

from The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2014), emphases added

See also: Lash and Tanner