The standout chapter of the book must be the one on the history of Chinese magic. Painting in broad strokes, Chinese culture has always been one of the most secular in the world, emphasizing the here and now over the transcendent and devoting more energy to cutting deals with ancestors than to venerating gods. As Gosden writes, “Chinese cosmologies were closer to a double than triple helix, with magic and science taking up most cultural and intellectual space.” Magic, being a kind of instrumental transaction between a human and the universe, took on much of the responsibilities that in other cultures might fall to religion. And science was affected by the immediacy and instrumental nature of magic. As Gosden explains:
"Science stands back from the world, which an older Chinese culture refused to do, because it felt deeply involved. Science developed abstract quantities, such as an undifferentiated form of time in which each minute is the same as every other in terms of duration. ... For Chinese culture, time was a series of qualities, pertaining to favourable or unfavourable moments for action. Mathematics was well developed but helped to map the shapes of time, the topology of good and bad."
It's an interesting chapter set alongside many others, but I think it also underscores what might be the book’s only weakness: I’m still not convinced that magic should be put on the same footing as science and religion. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke coined the dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but it’s not if you understand how the technology works. And for all of Gosden’s insistence that magic is a rational activity, it still can’t explain itself. Magic, lacking critical distance, is inarticulate to its adepts. Lacking the transcendent, or metaphysical, distance of religion, it’s morally mute as well. Magic, like science, can’t tell you what you should want but simply provides a method of getting it.
Plotinus was the last great Hellenic philosopher active during the rise of Christianity just as Christianity was just beginning to supersede the pagan Hellenic world. It remains to be known how much engagement he had with Christianity, though it is undeniably the case that latter Christians were familiar with his work. His only surviving work, The Enneads, was composed by his student Porphyry—himself radically anti-Christian—and was influential on Christian figures, the most important being Saint Augustine.
There remains an outstanding question as to the significant influence that Plotinus had over Augustine. In his famous work, St. Augustine’s Confessions: The Odyssey of Soul, Robert J O’Connell writes that Augustine’s account of the “Fall of Man” and the journey of man’s soul after the Fall, “is more faithfully Neo-Platonic and more specifically Plotinian than heretofore commonly acknowledged.” O’Connell’s work sparked a fury of new Augustinian scholarship to address this question. Going back to Bertrand Russell, or even to the Renaissance Catholic humanists, there has always been an acknowledged debt from Plotinus to Augustine to Catholic theological anthropology. In fact, this is one of the other major bones of contention between the Latin West and Greek East in Christian theology. However, O’Connell was the first scholar (himself a Jesuit priest) to assert the essentiality of Plotinianism to understanding Augustine, that is, without Plotinus there would be no Augustine, or without Plotinus, we cannot understand Augustine.
The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.”
Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:
木 末 芙 蓉 花
branch end magnolia flowers
The character for “branch” 木 begins to transform at its tips 末 and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.
Many simple characters can be incorporated into a single ideogram—the word, Cheng writes, “never succeeds in completely repressing other, deeper meanings ever present within the sign”—and ideograms placed beside one another generate further significance. Transference, parallels, metonymy, and correspondences across words and lines generate a radically different poetic realm than lexical meanings produce in English-language poetry (with its own rich universe of etymologies and literary associations). Each of the twenty ideograms in, for instance, a pentasyllabic quatrain, are considered independent “sages” and personalities; words are not only denotative but have their own “reality.”
This is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around; the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.
In current American “leftist” discourse, “progressive,” its sister term “liberal,” and their distant cousin “socialist” all tend to overlap in general use. So it shouldn’t be surprising that all three terms are poorly understood by their opponents and adherents alike. Even admirable populist critics of America’s establishment left like Thomas Frank and Glenn Greenwald miss what progressivism truly represents and the key, degrading, historical role it has served in the development of American political culture.
Progressivism originated as an Anglo-American alternative to socialism and populism in the late 19th century. More specifically, progressive political culture was a way for the Gilded Age’s new self-styled “cosmopolitan” wealthy elite class to feel good about fighting for reforms of America’s laissez faire economic structures—but, in a manner that didn't threaten the larger Anglo-liberal tradition, or the Protestant moral norms it relied upon.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, as railway workers, brutal Pinkerton “security” forces, and even battalions of the Army battled it out in violent clashes, the reform tradition in the United States took shape in two distinctly American modes: populism and progressivism. Populism was a bottom-up movement of Middle American struggling farmers, poor working folk, and tradesmen frustrated with a late-19th-century banking and monetary system they saw as “rigged” against them. Progressivism took off as a movement of the guilt-laden offspring of coastal industrialists who looked down their noses upon the Middle American populists and the “Jays” of their “hay seed” “bumpkin” culture.
Where populism was a rural revolt against the overweening power exercised by big cities over the rest of the country, progressivism was an urban movement led by a well-educated, urban, coastal elite, which was top-down in conceptions and mannerisms. While the radical element of this new progressive class identified with what they thought of as the “other half of society” (what we would today probably call the “marginalized” or “underprivileged”), it’s important to note that progressives did not necessarily wish to give voice to the poor or the suffering. Instead, progressive intellectuals sought to elevate themselves as spokespeople for the downtrodden, on terms that cemented the grip of their own class on power.
Rather than a break or interruption in the WASP chauvinism that characterizes most of the country’s political culture, progressivism is little more than a peculiar variation of it —and wokeism is merely a new version of progressivism, updated for the secular mode of the “anti-racist” age.
the anabasis of michel serres: hermes-trickster knowledge and the ambivalences of modern communication technology
Serres was thus not only outside the main political and intellectual currents of post-war France, like Marxism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis or structuralism, but took up a position against most of the classical figures of modern Western rationalism, in particular Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, tracing instead his own genealogy through Montaigne, Pascal, and Leibniz.
Modern philosophy, even social science, is much about ‘methodology’, but Serres has little patience for conventional methods. Charging (neo)Kantianism at its core, he refused the primacy of concept formation, populating his works instead with complex, figurative characters (personnages), taken from mythological or literary sources. These figures, like Hermes, Don Juan, Proteus or Arlequin had the advantage of being widely known, concrete but also complex, through which Serres could express and elaborate his ideas. This recalls the way Max Weber developed ideal-types in his sociological classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, considering Bunyan or Benjamin Franklin as steps towards such a spirit, even though Weber was not known to Serres, as for a complex set of reasons he was hardly known in France until recently.
Another crucial methodological tool was his use of language. While refusing to develop concepts, words mattered to Serres, more than for those constructing an artificial and unintelligible terminology. His approach lay through the ‘royal road’ of etymology. He consistently explored the original meanings of terms he found helpful, convincingly demonstrating that the wisdom behind coining words is a primary starting point for any serious thinking, instead of assigning arbitrary meanings to constructs, refusing the structuralist dogma of arbitrary signs.
A similarly striking, though potentially more problematic, methodological device is the importance attributed to algorithms, procedures, and codes. For Serres such techniques are important as they enable connections between concrete and universal, local and global, outside abstract formalisations, divisions and exclusions, and generalising deductions. Such procedures are ‘supple and agglutinant’, having the character of ‘walking one step at a time’ (Watkins 2019; see also Serres 2014b: 85-6). These metaphors are particularly interesting, as they evoke the practice of walking and features of the ‘walking culture’ that existed before settlement and the Neolithic (Horvath and Szakolczai 2018), thus during the development of human language for many thousand years; and also agglutinating languages that build complex word structures around few short roots. Intriguingly, the mother tongue of John von Neumann, developer of game theory and computer programming language was Hungarian, which is agglutinating, and he famously quipped that computer language really should have been based on Hungarian.
The United States has never been good at producing public intellectuals, but new trends in the present century bring our country’s public discourse even further from anything one might dare to call the life of ideas. As in every other domain of public life, a peculiar political polarization has occurred: On the right (and among the defenders of classical liberalism, “reason,” and the “Enlightenment”), the guiding lights are coming from psychology departments, or from that strange hybrid zone between psychology and business. Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and others are thus put on a public stage and expected to hold forth on all that is human, but their model of the human is one that for the most part extends back no further than the late 19th century, and for the most part takes us as bundles of instincts nudged this way and that by stimuli. They are not humanists, in the significant sense of this term that extends back to the Renaissance, and yet they are adjuncting as humanists for a culture that does not know to expect any better.
Meanwhile, on the progressive left, the academic fields that are churning out public figures are even more tenuously rooted in humanistic tradition. Roxane Gay, Robin DiAngelo, Freddie deBoer (who is great when he’s talking about anything other than his academic specialty), and many others first entered public life on the basis of their advanced credentials in the field of education, or of scholarly work focused on what happens in the classroom. I suppose if we were reading Rousseau or Dewey on the subject (just as if we were reading William James on psychology), we would maintain our connection to humanism. But this is not typically what goes on in graduate schools of education. There you are more likely to find books with titles like How College Affects Students: 21st-Century Evidence That Higher Education Works, to cite the title of one of Mayhew’s co-authored works.
As far as I’m concerned, universities are where you go to learn how to read Akkadian cuneiform tablets, the scansion of Ovid, and stuff like that. Of course, someone has to think about how to actually run the universities, and the laudable principle of self-government would seem to require that at least some academics devote a portion of their energies to compiling data on how well higher education works, though ironically this principle is being eroded at the same time as we are witnessing the proliferation of new epicycles of academic self-reflexivity.
Mine is to some extent an echo of a line Stanley Fish was pushing for a while (Fish’s postmodernism now appears positively humanistic in comparison with what followed it): A university is a place for discovering universes in grains of sand, drawing these universes out for others to see, enriching society by connecting to and preserving bonds with things that lie beyond our society (Mexica temple architecture, quasars, Great Zimbabwe, whales). The large-scale turn to identity-focused topics and the self-referential preoccupation with the university as an object of study — not the history of the university, but the university in its current administrative functions and social dimensions — are a betrayal of the legacy of humanism. I have resolved to spend the rest of my career, come what may, trying to preserve what I can of its surviving threads, like some sombre Isidore of Seville in the very last moments of late antiquity.
In today’s episode of the Telos Press Podcast, Camelia Raghinaru talks with Steven Knepper and Robert Wyllie about their article “In the Swarm of Byung-Chul Han,” from Telos 191 (Summer 2020).
Expressive individualism, in its purest form, takes the individual, atomized self to be the fundamental unit of human reality. This self is not defined by its attachments or network of relations, but rather by its capacity to choose a future pathway that is revealed by the investigation of its own inner depths of sentiment. No object of choice—whether property, a particular vocation, or even the creation of a family—is definitive and constitutive of the self. In Michael Sandel’s words, it is an “unencumbered self.” Because this self is defined by its capacity to choose, it is associated fundamentally with its will and not its body. The individual—the person—is thus understood to be identical with the exercise of this particular type of cognition. Therefore, expressive individualism is inevitably dualistic—privileging the mind while subordinating the body in defining the person.
Flourishing is achieved by turning inward to interrogate the self ’s own deepest sentiments to discern the wholly unique and original truths about its purpose and destiny. This inner voice is morally authoritative and defines the route forward to realizing the authentic self. The truth about the self is thus not determined externally, and sometimes must be pursued counter-culturally, over and above the mores of one’s community. In Sandel’s words, the expressive individual self is a “self-originating source of valid claims.”
Relatedly, as Rodercik Long and Charles Taylor point out, expressive individualism does not recognize unchosen obligations. The self is bound only to those commitments freely assumed. And the expressive individual self only accepts commitments that facilitate the overarching goal of pursuing its own, original, unique, and freely chosen quest for meaning.
This is the anthropology that will emerge from an inductive analysis of several of the vital conflicts of American public bioethics. Before proceeding to that analysis, however, it is important to examine some of the general criticisms leveled against expressive individualism, as well as some of the alternative virtues, goods, and practices that can correct the errors of this anthropology.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor