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Friday, September 4, 2020

Sex, Human Rights, and Natural Law


In the news is the feud between the French philosopher Jean-Paul Enthoven (age 71) and his son Raphaël Enthoven after Raphaël's 500-page autobiographical novel was published.

Jean-Paul reacted angrily to the publication of Le Temps gagné (Time Saved), claiming it has left him “heartbroken” and loved ones “drowning in a sea of ingratitude”.

Jean-Paul dated the model Carla Bruni who later married his son, Raphaël (age 44). Raphaël fathered a child with Bruni in 2001. Both men had been married before.

Raphaël and Bruni separated in 2007. One year later, Bruni later married French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

However, the Enthovens’ clash has nothing to do with Bruni. It is about Raphaël's fictional tell-all in which he portrays family and friends in a bad light.

French philosopher Pierre Manent (Wikimedia Commons)

In a stark contrast to the lives of the Enthoven's, the French philosopher Pierre Manent recently discussed the harms of the human rights ideology and called for a restoration of natural law within Western societies. 

He says, "Alexis de Tocqueville often said that democracy was threatened by a despotism from the majority, and today we see in our regimes that there is a tyranny of minorities, of individuals, who are the most minoritarian minority. We don’t realize that we grant illimited power to a right that cannot be formulated and which has no reason to be, apart from feelings. But a feeling is nothing but an affect which can also be very unstable and changing."

In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (University of Notre Dame Press), Manent shows how modern civilization progressively made human will the ultimate source of law within societies, denying that nations can be governed by universal principles that should be acknowledged and preserved rather than constantly reinvented.

Manent taught political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for many years and is now visiting professor at the Boston College Department of Political Science. He is the author of a number of books about the history of political thought and the relationship between politics and religion, including Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic and A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State.

In this interview with the Register, Manent warns against the excesses of the modern human-rights doctrine and discusses the importance of natural law for civilization's sustainability.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Leszek Kolakowski's Assessment of Marxism

Leszek Kolakowski (© Anka Ptaszkowska/Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw)

It takes at least a decade for the life's work of a 20th century philosopher to come out of the shadows. That is true for the Polish philosopher and historian, Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009). Kolakowski began is career as a Marxist and later became a vocal supporter of Pope John Paul II.

Kolakowski produced a wide range of work in five languages, communicating well in German, French and English, as well as Polish.

He produced seminal critical analyses on Marxism and religion. He understood the true nature of Marxism in practice, having joined the Communist Polish Workers' party as a teenager. During the Stalin era he become one of Communism's most distinguished teachers.

Twenty-three years later, in the spring of 1968, he began to speak critically of the ossified Marxist ideology. He was forced to leave the Party. This coincided with a rise in anti-Zionist sentiments and Kolakowski's wife was Jewish. The Kolakowskis were glad to leave Poland for Canada where Leszek took a teaching position at McGill University in Montreal.

After a year at McGill (1968-69) he went to the University of California where he often confronted student radicals, some of whom revealed ignorance about orthodox Marxism. Kolakowski told the newspaper columnist Zbigniew Mentzel that all the people he met considered themselves Marxists, although their knowledge of Marx was often scant. Students fancied themselves the most oppressed class on earth and sought liberation “from everything.” They told him there wasn’t “the least difference between the conditions of life in a Californian university town and one of Hitler’s or Stalin’s concentration camps.”

Kolakowski spent only one year at the University of California. In 1970, he became Senior Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a post he held until his retirement in 1994.

Kolakowski's thought continued to influence thinkers in his homeland. Adam Michnik, a leading intellectual of the Solidarity era described him as a prominent figure of contemporary Polish culture.
His 1959 essay “The Priest and the Jester” explored the roles of dogmatism and skepticism in intellectual history, and brought him national attention in Poland. In 1955, Kolakowski traveled to Rome, seeking conversation with the French neo-Thomists Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. These appear to have been pivotal conversations because Kolakowki emerged as a historian of religion.

In the 1950s and ’60s he published books on the history of Western philosophy and a study of religious consciousness and institutional religion. He continued his interest in political theory, and in 1967 he define a humanistic Marxism in his "Towards a Marxist Humanism".

Kolakowski became a popular author in Poland after 1990, often appearing on television. His Mini-Mini-Lectures on Large Issues (Mini-wyklady o maksi-sprawach, 1997) became a bestseller in Poland. 

His many academic honors include an honorary doctorate from the University of Lódz and one from the Central European University in Budapest. His life achievement was recognized in 2003, when he received the $1m Kluge Prize from the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski’s daughter Agnieszka has collected twenty-seven of her father’s essays in a volume entitled "Is God Happy?" Ten of the essays appear in English for the first time. The book provides a glimpse into Kolakowski’s intellectual versatility.

One of the essays, "The Death of Gods,” appears in Agnieszka’s translation, and in it Kolakowski announced that state socialism called itself "scientific" and he exposed that as a myth. He argued that instead of eradicating inequality, state socialism had created new social classes and its own forms of privilege, as well as a central planning system more injurious to civil society than any democracy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Philosophy for Children in a Pandemic

Assuming that U.S. schools will reopen this fall, how can students be given the opportunity to process the months of isolation from their friends and classmates? Perhaps this is the ideal time to introduce basic methods of philosophy: asking questions, reasoned discussion, and critical thinking.

The following excerpts from this article in The Conversation address this.

One way we can help children respond constructively to future existential threats is by teaching them philosophy. In the face of uncertainty, critical thinking skills that can assist with ethical decision making and reasoned argumentation are vital. These are particularly necessary for democracy to work well. How can we make and defend good decisions? Philosophy can help.

The best place to start discussing philosophy with children is with their own questions and topics about which they are already curious. Children have been asking questions to do with the pandemic and the restrictions on their freedom. The adults in their lives have had to explain why they can’t go to school or play with their friends, why washing their hands is so important, and why they need to keep two metres away from others.

With the possibility of future disruptions in the form of new or ongoing pandemics, severe weather and the effects of global warming, political upheaval or economic instability, all school children would benefit from studying philosophy.

Learning philosophy, particularly reasoned argumentation, dialogue and respectful disagreement, equips us with vital critical thinking skills. These skills will support the problem solving and ethical decision making required during uncertain ti; mes.

Related reading: Schools Discover the Value of Philosophy; Philosophy for Primary Students?; Why I Teach Philosophy in Primary School by Giacomo Esposito; Teach Philosophy in Primary Schools; The Benefits of Philosophical Studies; Philosophy: The Most Impractical Practical Tool; Philosophy Education in France; Popularity of Philosophy in Germany

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Wisdom is Expressed in the Practical

Alice C. Linsley

It is said that Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. I taught Philosophy for 14 years I doubt that my students took the courses because they were motivated to pursue wisdom.

Wisdom is not valued in our time because it is perceived as impractical. Fortunately, some educators and employers have begun to see Philosophy's value in the sharpening of the intellect.

For the ancients, wisdom was not intellectual, but practical. It meant reading the stars to predict seasonal changes that affect agriculture. It involved understanding tensile strengths of metals and different rocks. Wisdom built the pyramids using geometry. Wisdom excavated mines. Wisdom enlarged herds through animal husbandry. Wisdom conquered the Nile and the seas through the development of sailing. Wisdom pioneered medicine.

The rabbis taught that study of the Torah leads to Wisdom. However, wisdom came before Torah. It was gained through observation and experimentation. The ancients were motivated to gain wisdom in order to solve problems and make improvements in their lives.

In ancient times philosophy found expression in science and technology. Before the academies of Greece, there were mines and tombs to be excavated. Before Plato, there were priests keeping records of remedies for thousands of ailments and diseases. 

Philosophy has value. The value is not in ego aggrandizement through winning an argument. The value is expressed in the practical ways wisdom serves humanity.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Does Philosophy Have Value?

Alice C. Linsley

Stephen Hawking and other scientists have maintained that philosophy has no point, because science does a better job of seeking and verifying truth. This is an attitude characteristic of scientism rather than science. As the late Dr. Austin L. Hughes said, "Scientism is taking the mantle of science and claiming for it an authority that it doesn't have."

Philosophers cannot do that honestly because they do not agree on the nature of authority.

Philosophy has become an academic profession and philosophy professors are touchy about authority. It has been said that "philosophical clashes, unlike scientific ones, cannot be resolved by appeals to data; they are battles of wits." (From here.) That appears to be true of professional philosophers, but not of the philosophical project.

Science and philosophy have different tasks and different methods. The scientist and the philosopher both find pleasure in the hunt, but they are not hunting for the same things. The scientist is seeking proof of hypothetical models, testing the validity of his or her work or that of the community specializing in physics or chemistry. Scientists work for consensus by repetition of outcomes from controlled tests.

Philosophers, on the other hand, find answers by disagreeing. They agree that there are great questions and great ideas of the past. However, the philosophical project isn't driven by attempts to build consensus. It is driven by polemic and dialectic. The advances in Philosophy come through the tensions and polemic that refine the language of philosophers and clarify the questions.

Philosophy is an expression of love for wisdom. Wisdom is not a solid substance with a continuous reference. It is both bounded and scattered as water drops in lakes and ponds and rivers and puddles.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sophie Oluwole and Her Work

The Nigeria philosopher Sophie Bosede Oluwole died on 23 December 2018 at age 83. She was the first female to hold a doctorate degree in philosophy in Nigeria.

She rejected the sensibilities of a British education system in which she was educated, and lifted up traditional Yoruba metaphysics, seeking to empower fellow Africans.

Oluwole urged western Africa to reclaim its philosophical heritage, contending that the body of knowledge she found in the Yoruba tradition was as rich and complex as any found in the west.

“Reality contains matter and non-matter,” Oluwole told the Dutch filmmaker Juul van der Laan last year, highlighting a faultline. “In the west, the two cannot go together, they are in opposition. The African says yes, it has two features, but they cannot be separated. There is nothing that is absolutely material. There is nothing that is absolutely non-material. And in all phenomenons in the world, the two are there together.”

If Socrates could be considered the father of western philosophy, having left behind no written work of his own, then why shouldn’t Orunmila, who is believed to have predated Socrates, be considered the father of African philosophy? Oluwole urged western Africa to reclaim its philosophical heritage, contending that the body of knowledge she found in the Yoruba tradition was as rich and complex as any found in the west.

In 2015 she published Socrates and Orunmila: The Two Patrons of Classical Philosophy, directly comparing the two philosophers who had shaped her life’s work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Learning From a True Leader

Alice C. Linsley

Of the many patriots and valiant leaders who have served the United States of America few measure up to George Washington. Why did the founding fathers choose George Washington, a forty-three-year-old gentleman farmer, to be Commander in Chief of the United Colonies? What did they see in him that persuaded them that Washington was the man to face such seasoned British generals as Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and Charles Lord Cornwallis?

Born in 1732 into the family of a Virginia planter, young George exhibited strength of character and a willingness to serve. He learned surveying as a teenager and traveled as far as the Shenandoah Valley with Lord Thomas Fairfax’s survey team. A few years later, Washington joined the Virginia militia and began military training.

In 1753, he was selected for a difficult mission that would secure the Ohio River Valley for the British. The French were preparing to build a fort on land the British had claimed but not yet settled. Washington was to head an envoy through hostile wilderness, meet the French commander and deliver a message from the Crown, demanding that the French leave the region. The assignment required stamina to travel through rough wilderness, courage to face hostile Natives, and diplomatic skills to negotiate with the French. Washington completed the assignment, successfully delivering the message and returning with the French response in the dead of winter. All along the return route, Native Americans had tried to hunt him down and kill him. Washington was only twenty-one years old. He was then promoted to lieutenant colonel and selected to lead 160 soldiers back to the region to fight the French.

A year later, Washington returned to the disputed region as a volunteer aide to General Edward Braddock. When the British and colonial forces were ambushed by French and Native American fighters, Washington charged to Braddock’s side to inspire the regular troops to fight their way out of the ambush. Then he rode to the rear to bring the Virginia militiamen up into the fight. As officer after officer was killed or wounded, Washington rallied and directed the troops. In all, sixty officers lost their lives. Washington had two horses shot from under him and four bullets had torn through his coat. So many Natives tried to kill him and failed, that they finally gave up the effort, believing him to be under the protection of the “Great Spirit.”

A month later, Washington was promoted to colonel and became the regimental commander over all Virginia forces. He was twenty-three years old and wanted to make a career as a soldier. However, poor pay and inconsistent governmental support of the colonial officers frustrated him. He began to seek other ways to serve. In 1758, he won election to the Virginia House of Burgesses and resigned his commission, retiring to Mount Vernon to serve as a political leader for the next ten years. During this time, he was also elected as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. In 1775, he was appointed leader of the Continental Army and masterfully commanded the army against superior forces, finally defeating the British and forcing the surrender of General Cornwallis in 1781.

George Washington’s exemplary service to his country won him the trust of the nation. More than once people recommended that he become king. In March 1783, a group of army officers who had not been paid, urged Washington to seize power with their support, but Washington refused. James Flexner wrote, “This was probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States.”

Many Americans do not realize how close our nation came to a military coup. Instead of grabbing power, Washington tried to persuade the soldiers to give their new government time to do the right thing, but the officers persisted in their way of thinking. In a final effort to calm the officers, he read them a letter he had recently received from a congressman. Washington paused, looked at the letter with difficulty, and finally reached into his pocket for eyeglasses. He quietly remarked, “I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind.” The stunned officers took his words to heart and relented in their plan.

A month later, Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Army and retired to Mount Vernon. It was his intention to live simply as a gentleman farmer among the people of Virginia, but the country still needed him.

When it came to selecting a President for the new nation, the Electoral College unanimously chose Washington. Never again would a President receive the unanimous vote of the Electoral College. George Washington earned the right to lead because his entire life was dedicated to the service of his country. He was chosen because he was proven.

Admiral James B. Stockdale rightly said, “Leadership must be based on goodwill. Goodwill does not mean posturing, and least of all, pandering to the mob. It means obvious and wholehearted commitment to helping followers.”

If you lead, you have the opportunity to do new things, explore new ground or defend what is good and true. If you are a follower, you are not part of the decision-making process and you must be content to go where you are led, even into unfamiliar territory. If you are not willing to go there, you must act in a decisive way. You must begin to act like a leader.

The present crisis of leadership in the United States emerges from discontent, polarization, the purchase of politicians, and apathy. Many do not care enough to be well informed and to get involved. Edmund Burke truly said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The nearly universal crisis of leadership entails morally lax and ethically corrupt leaders, arrogance, and those more motivated by political self-interest than by public service. Recognizing the link between character and leadership, retired General Norman Schwarzkopf wrote, “Leadership is a potent combination of character and strategy. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

Good leadership is an act of the will combined with training and discernment. One must decide to lead, intentionally develop leadership skills, be a person of integrity and stand up for what is right and good. Honest, humble and hard working people can become extraordinary leaders, especially if they have a stiff spine. Good leaders keep the greater good in sight and do not succumb to pressures to conform to what may seem right in many people’s eyes. Margaret Thatcher once said, “No great cause has ever been fought and won under the banner of consensus.”

The seven fundamentals of leadership are:

1. Serve others, not your ego.
2. Learn humility.
3. Pray for wisdom and to see others as God sees them.
4. Be passionate about all you do.
5. Develop discipline and rely on it, rather than on emotion.
6. Evaluate where you can make peoples’ lives better.
7. Share your power. You have it because God gave it to you.

As we approach another national election, let us pray for the gift of good leaders. We need them badly, and God can raise them up “for such a time as this.”

Related reading: Washington and Freedom of Expression; What Donald Trump Doesn't Get About George Washington