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Francesca Bordogna begins her 2008 book on William James ‘at the Boundaries’ discussing how the pragmatist philosopher created confusion with his 1906 address of the APA, on ‘the Energies of Men’. According to the closed-in minds of the professional philosophers, Bordogna writes, he only showed his own failure at good philosophy, by mentioning not only psychological and physiological insights, but also unscientific sources from popular spiritual healers and thinkers – in search for what could bring human beings to higher levels of mental and physical energy. An approach like that of James would probably still get the same kind of reaction at most gatherings of professional philosophers. Philosophy is, they hold, about conceptually clear analysis of theoretical and practical problems, or, if one is into continental philosophy, about rich hermeneutic descriptions of structures and ideas. It is not about ideas of what James called “common, practical men”. Philosophers can speak about their beliefs, of course, but not take these beliefs into the philosophical discourse itself – thus works the discipline’s exclusion of voices from ‘ordinary’ life. As Peter Park has shown in his historiography of the modern canon in philosophy, the gradual exclusion of religious and spiritual texts from philosophy, and the rewriting of its history to legitimize this move, has served the racist effects (if not motives) of the modernist, professionalized field. The issue of racism in modern philosophy had earlier already been outlined by Emmanuel Eze. His work and that of Park, implicitly also serve to bring philosophy, in post-Enlightenment times, again beyond the modernist boundaries that were challenged by James.

Pius Mosima’s recent book, which aims to provide a critical discussion of the concept of sagacity, as introduced by Henry Odera Oruka, now adds the case of African philosophy to this growing movement to bring philosophy beyond the boundaries. And it does so in a new, deconstructive, way, not trying to write a ‘grand narrative’ of what’s African (like e.g. John Mbiti attempted almost fifty years ago), but by including (in between the lines of his discussion of the past seventy years of the African philosophy debate, and of the philosophy of Oruka) practical and narrative approaches to problems of life that root in African traditions into the field of philosophy. Thus his book, titled Philosophic sagacity and intercultural philosophy, simultaneously criticizes the Euro-American hegemony in philosophy, as well as the strict policing of its disciplinary boundaries that goes along with it, and does so more by showing how things can be done otherwise, rather than by highlighting once more what’s wrong with modernist thought. At some points in his book Mosima is outspoken about his aim, as well with regard to its critical aspects, as to its constructive contribution to what he names ‘global wisdom traditions’. Below I want to highlight these outspoken moments, that add to a better view of what African philosophy could bring to the dialogical table of philosophy, as well as to a deconstruction of the modernist identification of philosophy with professional disciplinarity. What the book offers beyond that I will leave aside here. But one can also find in it also a well-researched (and much needed) overview and discussion of the different positions in the debate about African philosophy since the publication of Bantu Philosophy by the Belgian missionary Tempels, shortly after WW II. And of course a critical analysis of its main subject: Oruka’s philosophy of sagacity. Besides these two, very clear, main expositions, I was most intrigued by the general approach present in the book – which shows directions for a globalized philosophy beyond what Lewis Gordon has called disciplinary decadence.

What makes African philosophy a special case for doing so, lies in the fact that because “European imperialism and colonialism violently and profoundly disrupted Africa’s social, cultural, and political continuity and integrity” (17) it has had to find it’s voice, as Mosima shows, through and beyond debates about the status of traditional and modern knowledge systems, about whether to adopt an essentializing identity as ‘African’ at all, and, finally, about how philosophy can deal with its universalizing urges and its always localized commitments. This brings the author to adopt the view that “Place and belonging become what we make of them through constructs of meaning and through the construction of community.” This view sheds new light on the now globally so urgent matter of identity in a world that is increasingly interconnected through economical, political and even military processes. What’s more, it allows us (as I understand it) to take the achievements of African philosophy as a model for philosophizing in other places too. Philosophy is then allowed to move beyond a fixed geography of space, and beyond the idea of contained ‘continents’ to a continuous hermeneutical negotiation of the places where we think from. Thus marrying traditional structures of understanding that we commit to, to nonlocal reflections. This movement makes it no accident that a deconstructive (dislocating) approach is pervasive in the book. According to its author “intercultural philosophy enables us to go beyond the particularism of the ethnophilosophers and the universalism of the professional philosophers […] and helps us deconstruct the hegemonic imposition of the North Atlantic model.” (25)

Now the reader becomes intrigued to know what actual insights then, beyond the idea of an essentialized African tradition, African philosophy will bring to the global discussion. Here Mosima is not very explicit, but we can find many indications of where he would want to go to find such a contribution. We find remarks such as “We cannot interpret reality and search for wisdom just as abstract reality.” (70) Or, in a rather harsh criticism of those thinkers rejecting ethnophilosophy (like Hountondji, Towa and Oruka), we read that they are “overrated and promoted merely for the sake of the triumph of the Western, individual, text-based philosophy that they project.” (72) Alternatively, philosophy should take seriously, even include, ‘collectively managed and owned worldviews’ – to put it in James’ words: the ideas and practices of dealing with life of ‘common practical men’. Towards the end of the book, building from and critically dialoguing with Dutch intercultural philosopher Wim van Binsbergen, it becomes more clear what these ideas and practices in the case of the African heritage could be: besides traditional “wisdom of the body, expressed and mobilized in every ritual act of therapy” (120), “there are African local-level practices of conflict resolution and reconciliation”. (121) Thirdly, ‘comparative mythology’ is mentioned, as a source of symbolic knowledge of life available to human beings.

In the end, in the promotion of his radically dialogical version of intercultural philosophy (which differs from the more static approach of comparative philosophy), Mosima proposes to “look for an African sagacity that does not limit itself just to a ‘culture’ but goes beyond borders [taking into account] the oneness and interconnectedness of humanity.” He also clarifies the importance of this move – “to enable us to deal with common problems [for humankind, AR] across borders.” Thus, if we follow this proposal, philosophy will go beyond many boundaries simultaneously: first, it will leave behind the Western normative idea that ‘real’ philosophy consists of abstract thought and should be practiced only by professional philosophers; second, it will move beyond the idea that local wisdom is contained within fixed cultures (but rather is all the time anew performed, while cultures develop and interact with their context); and third it will move towards the most uncommon idea that philosophy can not just be detected or unearthed in human practices (e.g. of justice, of mythological storytelling, or of healing) – but that these practices themselves are philosophical. Philosophy cannot be identified with reason, but is love of wisdom, be it present in abstract thought, in healing practices, or in therapeutic storytelling. Interestingly enough, all this is motivated by a commitment which reminds one of the pragmatism of William James, understanding philosophy as a way of dealing with shared human challenges of survival, and inviting into it therefore practical wisdom from all kinds of venues.

A long time ago I wrote in a Dutch magazine a short article about the philosophy that could be found in the sayings of world famous and now mourned soccer player Johan Cruyff. Some readers found that I had went to far in translating the intriguing words of Cruyff into philosophical language. I might have. Cruyff’s exressions should perhaps be taken to be philosophy already. I am not sure about it. To the practical question of how to include the voices of ‘common men’ into philosophy William James did not yet produce clear answers. Pius Mosima does not provide us with them either. His book is more like a program, a guide of where he thinks a globalized philosophy should go. But with this already quite radical program in hand – to let the case of African philosophy deconstruct and reform the North Atlantic hegemonic idea of philosophy as abstract reason – one is now expecting the next, even more radical step: to include the actual practical wisdom, the actual voices, rituals, institutions and stories from ‘daily life’ into philosophy and bring them into dialogue with each other as well as with those of – now recognized to be local in origin too – Western-style disciplinary philosophy.

 

The page references follow the printed version of Pius Maija Mosima, Philosophica sagacity and intercultural philosophy. Beyond Henry Odera Oruka, published by the African studies Center, 2016. The book can be read online too.

 

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Philosophy is as such a secular profession, taking the attitude of wonder and reflection towards any phenomena it takes in consideration. Sometimes this is seen to create a tension with the search for wisdom that has been present in philosophical tradition over the ages – a tension which can bring thinkers to take religious, agnostic as well as atheist approaches. Whatever one’s specific approach or subject matter, however, the critical instruments provided by philosophical reflection, allows us to gain fresh insights. Also in matters of bible studies, religious studies and theology.

Two weeks, ago, on the 16th of November, I was one of four speakers who were invited to comment on two newly published books on religion in the Netherlands. Religion in the white, Christian section of society, that is – which sociologically gives a distorted image, of course – because while the traditional white protestant and catholic churches are in constant decline, black migrant churches, as well as mosques and islamic communities are thriving.

The traditional churches, however, see so much decline, the authors of both books think, because European christianity has emptied itself from most spiritual practices and experiences – having adapted itself to the stifling influence of the Enlightenment and its consequences. For theology these were either a focus on ‘belief’ as confessing something to be true, or on unearthing the historical basis of the bible from a secular perspective. In my contribution to the book presentation, I suggested, in line with an article I published in 2015 (see below for reference), to circumvent the Enlightenment, and baby-jesus-2reread the gospels as shamanist literature.

Such an approach tunes in with what post-Enlightenment Christians search for, often in non-European religious traditions, to wit: a reevaluation of intuitive knowing, of ritual practice, and religious trust or faith. My own path, which I now call shamanistic, has been inspired by experiences in my childhood that have led me to search to express  these three elements in words, in philosophy. One of the most important philosophers who provides a basis for stretching philosophical discourse to that intent is William James (1842-1910), most well known as the founder of the psychology of religion, with his work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). He describes there how we live in a tangible, empirical world on the one hand, but experience (sometimes) that this is surrounded and influenced by a wider, spiritual reality.

Building philosophically on the work of James, and having studied anthropologists’ works on shamanism and on the shamanistic Jesus, I came to reread the gospels in a kind of direct manner, detouring the critical reflections that sprang from the heritage of Enlightenment rationalism. Although the term ‘shamanistic’ stems from Siberian language and originally refers to mediators between the everyday and the spiritual world in that region, the term has been globalized in our day, and is used as well for new spiritual movements that open up traditional knowledge for individuals in modern societies, as for spiritual practices of peoples that are still in touch with traditional ways of living accross the globe.

With respect to the gospels, several researchers have attempted to reread them in a shamanist framework. For instance the South African anthropologist of religion Pieter Craffert, who shows in his book The Life of A Galilean Shaman (2008) that shamanistic practices were alive and well in the society in which Jesus lived. Or theologian Marcus J. Borg, who in his Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time (1994), using a Jamesian language, describes Jesus as ‘a spirit person’ – someone for whom the ‘screens of consciousness’ that keep the everyday and the spiritual domain apart, are unusually permeable. And there is the theologian who practices trance journeys himself John J. Pilch, who in his book Flights of the Soul (2011), on spiritual experiences in the bible, describes the testing of Jesus by Satan, as fitting the traditional route of a shaman to be: ‘Jesus demonstrates that he has acquired the necessary ritual skills to deal with and control the spirit world.’ (Pilch 2011, p. 116)

In my article “The ‘Shamanic’ Travels Of Jesus and Muhammad: Cross-cultural and Transcultural Understandings of Religious Experience”, published in 2015 in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, I discuss this and other literature and go into some of the shamanistic events in the gospels. To just give some examples, we can read in Luke 4:1-14 that Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the desert, filled with the Holy Spirit. After passing the test, that proves which of the two spirits, the holy one or the evil one, is strongest, he returns into society with the force of the Spirit. When he subsequently starts to tour the country, and console and heal people in spiritual and physical need, he shows shamanistic qualities all the time. He passes through an angry mob that cannot touch him (protected by the power of the Spirit) in Luke 4: 29-30, and has power over demons according to Luke 4: 33-36. Also in Matthew and Mark do we find a wealth of shamanistic stories, such as Jesus’ expulsion of demons from some possessed persons in Matthew 8:28-34, his healing of a possessed man in Matthew 9:32-34, a possessed girl in Mark 7:24-30, and a deaf and mute man in Mark 7:31-37). This last story, moreover, presents a description of specifically shamanist practices by Jesus, who puts his fingers in the ears of the man, and touches his tongue with his own spittle. Even today we can find practicing shamans to breathe or spit over a patient – as an exhalation or a secretion of saliva are understood to serve as a vehicle for the healing spirit that is called to assistance by the shaman.

In the seventeenth century theologians in Europe turned against the belief in spirits as well as spiritual practices, like the Dutch pastor Balthasar Bekker, who proposed to read the bible in a rational manner in his work De betoverde weereld. Although his motive, to get people to take more responsibility for their own moral agency, instead of blaming their evil actions on possession, was in line with the teachings of Jesus too, who stress that those cured should turn their lives around toward the good and away from evil – the effect of centuries of rationalist theological works has been that European christianity has lost its appeal for many people, as they don’t find much spiritual appeal or healing there. So in my talk at the book presentation I proposed that, next to the inspiration the ex, or post-christians get from non-European religions, they might as well try to read ‘around’ the Enlightenment, and try to let the gospel stories about the shamanistic Jesus inspire them. This Jesus makes trance journeys, associates with spirits, heals people from his shamanistic inspiration, and shows them ways to more free, loving and just ways to live.

The photo is from the nativity scene my dear parents made, before I was born.

This post is a reworked version of my speech at the book presentation in Dutch, which can be found here.

 

When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.

 

 

Thanks to Terence Blake, who made me aware of this book, I started to read Feyerabend’s postumous Conquest of Abundance. On the side, I watched the only substantial interview with the famous philosopher I could find on the internet, the Interview in Rome, from 1993. What struck me most in the interview was Feyerabend’s obvious sympathy for times before ‘Entzauberung’ – a word which is hard to translate in English. Max Weber introduced it to signify the disappearance, in modernity, of spiritual experience from the public domain. The world, the public realm in which we live, is not subject to spiritual experiences, nor magical interferences any more – but only to calculation and argumentation. While Enlightenment ideology has convinced us most of the time of the blessings, progress, and improvement of everything modernity brought – Feyerabend seems to have seen the intrinsic relationship between Entzauberung and the ugliness of our world, and also the peril we are in.

In his Conquest of Abundance he approaches this issue in ontology, in the essay ‘What Reality?’ Here he makes it clear that cultures are not closed, that we have to accept pluralism in ontology, as ‘a unitarian realism’ is unconvincing, having to reduce ‘large areas of phenomena […], without proof, […] to basic theory, which, in this connection, means elementary particle physics.’ His plea for pluralism, and for intercultural learning implies that we should take seriously alternatives to modernism as they are present in history as well as in other cultures in modern times. It struck me that even in these texts written in the last years of his life, his coming closer to a more animist outlook is still so hesitant. Just as it was with William James, in his late work A Pluralistic Universe. Of course one might explain this hesitation from their position as philosophers, having to deal with the massive corpus of writings that have tried to make belief in the soul, in life, in change extinct.

In other disciplines this hesitation is less strong – as in the anthropological work of Felicitas Goodman, who by means of practical experimentation found that ancient statuettes show body postures that lead to specific types of trance. Trance that leads one to be able to learn from the spirit realm, about health, living in peace with nature, and about the afterlife. In her book Where the Spirits ride the Wind, she describes her research in this field, and advocates it as a way to rediscover human potential that was lost not only since modernity, but much longer, every time humans transferred from being hunter gatherers or horticulturalists to large scale agriculture. The time when woods are destroyed, wild animals retreat and die, and shamanism gradually gives way to monotheistic theology. Here, with monotheism, starts the belief in the autonomous subject, the individual who is a unity like his God, and who can (and should) bear responsibility in a moral sense – as he lives and moves under the ever present gaze of his God.

We are not finished by far with the task of having to analyze the effects of this event. Declaring all history after the agricultural revolution to be mistaken would be going too fast. As would be a simple declaration that prehistoric life is beautiful, lovely and a great loss. One has to move slowly, and search for negatives and positives on both sides. One has to try to understand, to see, before judging. I do not mind someone like Goodman taking a very unusual approach methodologically, as I agree with Feyerabend that in order to understand one should try his principle that ‘anything goes’. I do not share Goodman’s pessimist conclusion however that myths that are lost are to be mourned, as ‘extinction is forever’. I rather believe in the words of the native healer from Tonga cited by Robert Wolff, the psychologist who came into contact with his own shamanic powers through the training he received from an indigenous people in Malaysia in the sixties. He spoke with this woman about his sadness that so much old knowledge has been lost. She replied, after some thought, to him: ‘[…] there have always been people who know. When we most need it, someone will remember that ancient knowledge.’ And here lies for me the important point: we cannot understand our own position in history, nor do we know whether we already need it, that ancient knowledge, and in what measure. Time will tell.

Books mentioned and cited from are:

Paul Feyerabend Conquest of Abundance. A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being, The University of Chicago Press, 1999

Felicitas D. Goodman Where the Spirits ride the Wind. trance Journeys and other exstatic Experiences, Indiana University Press, 1990

William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures at Manchester College on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [1909]

Robert Wolff, Original Wisdom. Stories of an ancient way of knowing, Inner Traditions International, 2001

My latest post Believing in Existence aroused quite some discussion, the most of which can not be seen here, as it appeared on discussion fora where I posted. This did and did not surprise me. It did for the sense or nonsense of believing in existence is perhaps the most abstract theme I addressed in my blog up till now. It did not, as it relates so strongly to our everyday use of language, and the way we use that language to continually construct our world to make it comfortable, familiar, and fit for doing things in it. The reactions were either philosophical, countering my doubt that we normally ‘believe’ things or persons we are in relation with ‘to exist’. Yes we do, readers reacted. Belief that someone or something exists is the presupposition of being in relation to it. Other reactions were theological, supposing that I had claimed there to be no life after death (as we can only experience the effects a life leaves behind), and answered that we can trust there to be such a life in the knowledge and memorisation of every individual by God.

Well, I started that post by recounting my confusion at the questions that were posed to me about my belief in the existence of ghosts. I also sometimes get the question whether I believe that God exists, a question that confuses me similarly, as I also think ‘believing in existence’ misses the mark when it comes to being or not being in relation with God. As the comments that came to me after writing my post just tended to confuse me a bit more I wondered how to repair an apparent break in communication. I decided to return to the theme, now focussing especially on the question of believing.

In my adult life I never liked the way the word believing is used. When I was a rather devout church-going teenager I perhaps used it without much reflection, but after having had my philosophical training I understood that I used it back then in a way that is entirely different from the common public use – which is much influenced by modern epistemology. Before modernity, believing was not a problematic thing – it meant that you trusted something or someone to behave in a certain way. The concept denoted that you actually surrender to this thing or person without any distrust or doubt. You would care for it or him/her, sustain it/him/her, and expect it/him/her to behave according to it’s/his/her known unique or common essence.

This all changed when trust became existential, in modern times, as exemplified in the famous doubt by Descartes regarding the existence of everything. The only really trustworthy thing – with regard to existence – remained cogito ergo sum: I think, or I doubt, therefore I am. From that time on the rest of all existence came under the suspicion that it had to be confirmed by belief. And that changed the meaning of ‘believing’. Had it referred before to trust and surrender, it now expressed rather distance and having preservations. Now it expressed something like thinking: allright, I believe things and persons to exist, but in the end only because I can rely on the certainty of my doubting ability. The Cartesian way to see things of course went along well with the curious attitude of modern science, the ‘I do not believe anything untill I can measure it’. It is to me a completely strange view where living relations are concerned. When I interact with something or someone (be it my food which I prepare, my child which I help with something, or my God which I turn to in despair) there is no point in doubting it’s/his/her existence, and therefore it would be silly to state my belief in their existence. William James suggested that, in religious matters, doubt is a sign of a depressed soul. It is even more so when one starts doubting the existence of one’s children, or of one’s bread. And my point is that when one expresses one’s belief that they are, one has already implicitly admitted one’s doubt to that regard.

While I interact with the world, doubting it’s existence is nonsensical, and so believing in it is superfluous. Just this morning I watched the Dalai Lama on television, explaing Buddhist philosophy like this: we cannot reach absolute certainty, and nihilism is to be avoided – everything is relative. There are facts, but they are relative. The joyful feeling that I understood what he was saying came over me, as William James’ idea of the ‘strung-along’ universe came in my mind. We cannot find an absolute foundation for our knowledge, but this does not have to lead us to doubting it. It is strung along, shows enough coherence for us to act upon it. We do not have to believe anything, as our experience is enough.

When starting to prepare the paper which I will have to present soon in Bonn, Germany – on Kant’s and James’ dealings with Swedenborg’s thought, I had the impulse to look into Bergson’s work too, as I knew he and James read each other’s work and were approving of it. My interest in the relations between the mentioned authors is an interest in the relation between the concepts of morality, freedom and the spiritual. What, when reading Bergson sprung to my mind is this other fact: that all of these thinkers distinguish between levels or aspects of self – and that this is crucial to understanding the said correlation.

The point is that in modern times, in which scientific knowing is seen as the highest achievement of humankind, the free, choosing, moral agent, is hard to understand philosophically. As Kant has stated: in the world of phenomena, the world as it can be studied by the sciences, there is no freedom and no choice, since we have to suppose all events to be determined by the law of external causation. Think psychology’s attempts to explain the behaviour of people. Behaviour, the word already says it, is what we see when we look from the outside – it is not what I, as an individual, might experience as a free choice. So, when we do not observe free choice in the world as we study it by scientific research, we cannot understand morality. For Kant this was unacceptable, since we also have and need ideas of justice and goodness. His solution was that besides the empirical self (the one which is studied by science), we have to pose a free self, which he called the noumenal self – the self of pure practical reason. 

Bergson, in his study Time and Free Will, makes another disctinction, between the deep self, which experiences differences in quality, but not in quantity – and the surface self, which knows discrete states. The emotions, as they are understood in psychological theory, but also in everyday self-reflection, are states that can be distinguished and named. It is a mistake, however, according to Bergson, to think that free decisions are made at the superficial level of the emotions. This is only done at the deep level: ‘The deep-seated self which ponders and decides, which heats and blazes up, is a self whose states and changes permeate one another and undergo a deep alteration as soon as we separate them from one another in order to set them out in space.’

James, then, made his famous distinction between the conscious and the subconscious level of the self. He and Bergson seem to agree that the freedom to make moral choices can not be localized in the level of the conscious – here we have distinct states, spatially arranged, which are subject to the laws of a time that is understood in spatial terms: first comes an impulse, than a reaction. Freedom cannot be understood scientifically or logically, about this Kant, Bergson and James agree. Still we know freedom, and all three connect it to a different aspect or level of Self. A level which we thus cannot ‘know’ in the only way that modernity acknowledges as valid.

Some writers claim a profound influence of Swedenborg here – who makes the distinction which is well-known in so-called traditional cultures: that between the everyday, material world and the spiritual world. A living human being is part of both worlds, but how? Let us look into a passage from his work on Heaven and Hell:  ‘whatever does not enter into man’s freedom has no permanence, because it does not belong to his love or will, and what does not belong to man’s love or will does not belong to his spirit; for the very being [esse] of the spirit of man is love or will.’ So it is through love/will that a person belongs to the spiritual world. And: ‘Only what is from the will, or what is the same, from the affection of love, can be called free, for whatever a man wills or loves that he does freely; consequently man’s freedom and the affection of his love or of his will are a one. It is for this reason that man has freedom, in order that he may be affected by truth and good or may love them, and that they may thus become as if they were his own.’ Swedenborg’s conclusion is thus that we have freedom in order to be able to choose morally, and we can choose morally to become spiritually good.

So, yes, this text seems to confirm that the argumentation which we saw with our three thinkers is in line with that of Swedenborg: a good will as the source of a free choice cannot be found in the phenomenal world, it cannot be proven by observation nor by reasoning from known facts. It is conditional on our desire for this better place which traditionally is called heaven, and which Swedenborg claimed to be the imaginative world which we create ourselves by our way of being (as we do with hell).

Henri Bergson lived from 1859 untill 1941. I cited from his Time and Free Will, a 1910 translation of the 1889 French Essai sur les données immédiates de la la conscience. It can be read online: http://archive.org/stream/timeandfreewilla00berguoft#page/n0/mode/2up

Dates and works of Kant and James were mentioned in earlier posts. The same goes for the dates of Swedenborg. I cited from his work Heaven and Hell, which was originally published anonymously in Latin as De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, ex Auditis et Visis, in 1758. There are several online versions of the work in English.

In an earlier post I wrote about Paul Feyerabend’s autobiography. The publisher of the Dutch translation of the work changed it’s title into ‘Tijdverspilling’, which is not exactly the same as killing time – the expression is more negative, meaning ‘a waste of time’. It draws a conclusion from Feyerabend’s thoughts, which is not off the point, as the philosopher described his academic career as not living to the full, as a blind state, not more than a preliminary to the joy and love which he discovered only later in life. It came to me, however, that a meaningful ambiguity of the original title was lost in this translation. An ambiguity I will explore below.

Killing time can be understood, as I did in my earlier post, as it is in everyday language – referring to an art we seem to have lost in the modern Western world, but which is still known to men in economically less ‘developed’ countries, who manage to stand around on streets for hours, or who keep hanging around in the barber’s shop long after they have been shaved, just to discuss sports and society with each other. It is an art which prevents the experience of boredom, the boredom which induces one to action. Watching the pace at which people in ‘rich’ countries work and even keep themselves active in their free time, one may draw the conclusion that they have forgotten how to keep boredom at bay, fleeing it in continuous activity – like the lonely, cold, bored young man Feyerabend saw himself to be in earlier life – travelling, studying, singing, working endlessly to forget  that he forgot what life was all about.

There is another meaning to the expression, however, which relates to the main content of his activities: philosophy. Killing time is what Western philosophy has tried to do in the most literal sense, from its beginnings in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosophers (okay, apart from Herakleitos) were fascinated by the eternal, the timeless, which they saw in the heavens. The continually changing aspects of earthly life, they thought, could only be understood when one digged up it’s timeless essence, and expressed this in general concepts. Although time as a concept was never denied, it was itself understood in a timeless manner, that is, in its measurable, discrete, ‘timeless’ form – subjected to the stripes on a clock which cut time to pieces.

There are some Western philosophers who have tried to break away from this view of time, and who tried to stop killing it, most notably Henri Bergson and William James. In his Pluralistic Universe, James searches for expressions to conceive of time in a manner closer to experience. He speaks of the ‘sensational stream’ which makes up our normal, non-scientific, experience, in which there are no discrete elements. This goes together with a reluctant attitude to general concepts: ‘When you have broken the reality into concepts you never can reconstruct it in its wholeness. Out of no amount of discreteness can you manufacture the concrete.’ What he aims to express is that no experience or phenomenon can be isolated and then said to cause or influence another – experiences ‘compenetrate’ each other, time spans overlap each other. While one event can perhaps be seen to wear out, another has, in it and through it, already developed and influenced it, so that they never van be seperated exactly.

A meaningful example for the problematic James has indicated shows itself in medical research: while scientists are trying to find ever new medicines for the illnesses that plague humankind, they need large trials to ascertain their general effectiveness. Therefore they carry out double blind proofs in populations in which individual differences are ruled out statistically. What they are looking for are general truths, and consequently, medicines that obey to the laws of cause and effect – i.e. to time in it’s discrete, measured, ‘eternal’ version. It is a wonderful thing that in this abstracted, dead, time, many medicines have been developed that are effective in the real world, but all the same they have no answer to the complex streams of influences which may disturb the predicted effects in concrete individuals. When this happens, it is put aside as ‘side effects’, or as private complaints and feelings of patients, left to nurses, psychotherapists and relatives to deal with.

One wonders what would happen to science, and to medicine, if it succeeded in combining the  views of Plato and James. If it looked as seriously into concrete phenomena as into general truths. That would mean it had to move beyond conflicting paradigms, which would need revolutionary groundwork by philosophers. A great reason for them to get out of the ivory tower of overspecialized subjects, to stop killing time and try to change the way we conceive of life instead.

Whether Feyerabend himself contributed to the philosophical killing of time is a subject for another post.

Citations are from William James A Pluralistic Universe. Hibbert Lectures on the Present Situation in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, 1996 [original edition 1909].