Friday, January 06, 2006

Attack of the Tiny Thinker

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This "attack" represents two comments form the comment section in response to my last article. They are both by a good friend I've known as long as I've been on the net, calling himself "Tiny Thinker." This is an ironic screen name, sort of like Robin Hood's friend "Little John" being called "little." I don't know how tall the guy is, but from his photos I bet he could play on the line. Intellectually tiny? guess again, he's one of the sharpest people I know. He's also one of the nicest. I thought his comments were involved and acute enough that they deserved to be front and center.

I'll be the one to find something to critique, then. I don't think it is as simple as saying that preoccupation with empiricism=seeing society as infrastructure=soundbyte materialistic culture. That is a haphazard, crooked line of thought that is essentially held together by the premise that your preferred notion of Christianity=virtue and everything else is a slow decent on a paved highway to Hell.

Let me say two things:

(1) I grant you that the notion I portrayed is laden with a kind of Protestant fundamentalist stigma that looms over the thinking of southern intellectuals; that of the eschaton, the end times, the decline of society because it has departed form the sacred values, et. That's sort of what we might call an "occupational hazard" for anyone seeking to live in the south and be a serious thinker. Nevertheless I think there is truth to it, and its not just me. This was the thinking of Albert Schweitzer, Oswarld Spanger, and others who were neither American, nor southern. I am basically just following what Schweitzer said in his The Decay and Restoration of Civlization.

(2) As to the simplicity of blaming empiricism for all the ills, well naturally one could paint a much detailed picture of it. I admit I'm painting with a broad brush. But I think what can't be denied is that there has been a steady departure form what we might call "spiritual values," (I use that term in the broadest sense, to mean love of the arts, not just religious values) and that departure from those values, since the enlightenment, has been marked by a tendency to take up the slack with reliance upon technology, finance and "the bottom line." Now is that due to empiricism alone? Probably not, although I'm sure empiricism has a part to play in it. Is it due to the decline of Christianity? I don't think I really said that Christianity is in decline. I didn't mean to give that impression. I think what's in decline is education, the understanding of learning for learning's sake, being well read. What's in decline is civilization, being civilized people? But then lacking that background and that understanding cuts us off form the intelletucal heritage of Christianity and we can no longer see how Christianity forms the heart and soul of Western culture.

The shift in personal values from intellectual freedom and creative expression to personal property and creature comforts can just as well be placed (to whatever degree one feels appropriate) on the mix of Calvinism and Capitalism in the US--where material wealth and comfort is seen a reflection of being in line with God's will.

Yes, excellent point! Don't forget, Calvinism has always been one of the dragonheaded windmills that I love to chase. But I don't really see those two things, Calvinism and Capitalism as separate from empiricism. All three of those ideas go together very comfortably. It was William "Billy" Abraham of Perkins School of Theology, who, in his cutting edge work Canon and Criterion: From the Fathers to Feminism, who argued that Calvinism destroyed the sacramental theology of the middle ages and transformed it into an epistemology. Rather than bestowing Grace upon the reader, the function of Biblical text became a sort of epistemtic test. There is a complex development I wont go into, involving Cranmer and the English civil war; but suffice to say the Reformation transformed Christian sacramentalism into epistemology and set that epistemology on the empiricist tilt. By the time Newton and Boyle got hold of modern science, and erected a Christian apologetics based upon science, and a science based upon Christian values, doctrine and tradition and experiential Christianity had been placed on the back burner and empiricism was placed front and center and almost baptized as a new form of piety.

I wont take the time to draw the link between capitalism and empiricism, but I think a hint will be sufficient. Capitalism depends for its survival as an economic system, the ability to discover the bottom line, to study the financial situation, the socioeconomic situation and to produce products that are scientifically tested and that do the job. Thus empiricism clearly figures in this process and both feed on the value of sticking to that which can be quantified and letting fall between the cracks and a waste of time and of no value anything that cannot be quantified. Thus, all three of these ideas, Capitalism with its demonstration of riches and prosperity as a sign of God's favor, capitalism with it's emphasis upon the Bottom line, and empiricism whit its love of the quantifiable all work together to produce an inftrastrucure that takes the place of civilization itself. The ideals of civilization just become those things which fall between the cracks, then their valueless nature is self evident in their lack of utility.

In that formula those who succeed financially and materially were meant to do so and deserve their lifestyle because they have honored God's will. Those who are destitute are unrepentant sinners, backsliders, blasphemers, heretics, and those who have failed to follow the proper formula of Christian piety, self-discipline, and hard work.

It's the same stuff you hear on Limbaugh and Savage and other "conservative" radioheads--we need to bring back those traditional values and then everyone will get a good job and live comfortably. It's why that whole line of Prayer of Jabez books was so popular, and why people send in large financial donations as "prayer seeds" to even the most transparently shallow and self-serving televangelists.

I really don't see this as a contradiction to what I said. I agree with you completely, but it's because we as a society are taught to value the bottom line, the quantifiable, the cash value, rather than the intangibles that we allow them to flourish.

As a less obvious example, it's why so many people want to be seen in their finest Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes at church--there is a subtle implication for many who do so that those who can afford to dress better are better favored by/better serving the Lord.

For that we might consult sociobiology. It's part courtship thing, Consult Thorstine Veblan, conspicuous consumption.

Hence it isn't just being nicely dressed for God, since God is everywhere and every house, in Christian theology, is technically God's house. Of course, to actually point this out loud is a no no, as the policy is supposed to be that all are equally welcome, but those who've ever shown up to many Christian churches in ragged jeans and a faded Metallica t-shirt know the kinds of looks you get. Even many who may really be welcoming often have it in the back of their minds that when this poor soul receives the Lord they will get a better job and clean up their appearance and be able to afford nicer clothes for church. It's so ingrained into many regions as a part of the local culture that it doesn't even occur to some folks that outward signs of material success are irrelevant to spiritual maturity or growth.

that's the explaination they give children, dressing nice for God. Sadly the truth is, in social groups we are dealing with people and their social prejudices. One of those prejudices is the need to display wealth to show that one is worthy, and powerful, and to attract a mate.

I am not suggesting this historical trend of cultural values explains 100%, or even 75% or 50% of the problems to which you allude. However, it is an example of a much more relevant and directly connected contributing factor than "empiricist values that translated Renaissance autonomy into personal gain and financial achievement".

O I think my empiricist value ties it all together and unite the tendencies in a coherent explanation. That's the glue that holds the reductionist edifice together as a social movement, or a truth regime.

10:25 AM

tinythinker said...

To clarify, my suggestion is limited to the explanation of the overvaluing of material goods and crater comforts as a societal focus. I don't think this has any direct relationship to the soundbyte mentality, whatever explanation of the former one prefers.

Sure it does. That's a manifestation of dumbing down which is due to the precedence of financial considerations over content. We don't have time to study, we would detract from our all imprint jobs if we took the time to study, so we need quick handy references though snappy short quotes, soundbytes rather than real substance. We also need shallow backgrounds and training that doesn't' involve all that time consuming art appreciation. Without a cumbersome intellectual background taking up all our time, we can't be expected to understand anything more complex than a sound byte anyway.

Also, it should be pointed out that it is advances in knowledge and technology that allow people more time to ponder philosophy and create art in the first place.

For this you really need to read Schweitzer and also Marcuse. The illusion of more time is created but sapped of energy and lacking a background it doesn't' help to have the time anyway.

Domestication of plants and animals, use of pottery and masonry to build food storage and wells, the establishment of trade routes, the switch from stone to metal tools, etc, etc, etc are what permitted surplus goods, social stratification, and the emergence of full-time specialists such as astrologers, artisans, philosophers, etc. The advent of paper, writing, etc further enhanced such endeavors which were previously limited to an oral tradition. This in and of itself creates a natural connection between infrastructure and civilization. The Renaissance would not have been possible in the Stone Age.

Precolumbian culture in North America, we find an inverse relationship between more efficient techniques of grinning corn and production of artistic artifacts. As they got better technologically they got less interested in art. While it is true that the accouterments of which we speak are the infrastructure of Civilization, and I call it that for a very good reason, because it truly is. We could not have a civliztied society if we had to spend every walking movement slaving to make dinner and keep the house marginally clean, and were never able to go anywhere for lack of roads and transportation. If we could not buy books, hear symphonies on Radio or TV, or watch great cinema on TCM, we would be in a a very uncivilized state. While we cannot afford to confuse civilization with its infrastructure, we also cannot afford to think that we can do without that infrastructure. But that doesn't' mean that securing the one secures the other. We must have a commitment to those spiritual values of which I spoke, We cannot allow the reductionist mentality to convince us that unquantifiables are worthless as values.

The soundbyte culture has a lot to do with the size of society and the need to appeal to the most people with the most suitable format for media such as television and radio, especially when the average time people have to listen/read/watch programming is limited. There simply is not the time nor the interest in making a serious effort to become informed about various issues.

you just said we have more time due to technology.

Soundbyte populism, however, cannot be reduced to a problem with empiricism. Anyone who has regularly read your blog or your message boards posts knows it is your personal boogeyman and whipping boy, but I don't think making that reach is actually addressing the very genuine problem you have highlighted here.

You are right about that. You know me too well. Empiricism is one of the most pesky windmills that I love to chase. But that is not for no reason you know. I am not trying to say that everything reduced to the evils of empiricism, empiricism itself is just one of the many hydra-heads on that monster of modern decline. But I think it's an imprint one because it fosters the value of reducing everything to quantifiable bottom line. Look at the way atheists use it on message boards. So often they reduce "life transformation" to "so religion makes you feel good." And they say things like "that's just psychological, but you can't prove God exists." So to them the value is hard cash currency, we must have fingerprints and DNA on a glass side or there's no proof, and don't waste my time with these arm chair reflections. I think that value, which is killing the world of letters, is precisely the result of empiricism and it is exactly what has made the difference in a populace that is educated and equipped to understand the post war challenged we had to face at the end of the 20th century, and a mostly illiterate, fearful population drowning upon supernstion magical thinking (if I give preacher Smith 20 bucks God will give me 40 bucks back) and a species that has predicated itself survival upon cultivating the means of its own extinction.

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