Thinking about Feminism

I know, I’m wading into controversy. I want to share some thoughts about feminism. But actually, I should say up front that my whole approach to feminism aims to minimize the opportunities for controversy and self-superiority and bitterness, from all sides. It probably doesn’t succeed fully in that goal, but it’s the best thing I’ve found yet.

girl holding fight like a girl-printed paper beside woman holding plastic pack
Image credit https://unsplash.com/@rochellebrwn

(In fact, maybe feminism is not as controversial today as it was half a decade ago. I know there are many feminists who, in trying to stay true to their feminism, are today considered regrettably bigoted, so please forgive me if I’m too far behind the times. See my post-script at the end of this post.)

I started out staunchly opposed to feminism. After some initial confusion and uncertainty, I had a professor who was very bright, very engaging, and quite dismissive of feminism. I remain indebted to this professor for so much of my intellectual development, but in some respects it has taken me several years to extricate myself from a few of his more flamboyant positions and think through the questions for myself. Thus, for some time I was convinced against feminism.

The first cracks in my anti-feminist position appeared when I observed how often my feminist friends would accuse those who were self-avowed non-feminists of being opposed to higher education for women and votes for women, since those things came from feminism. At first these accusations caused no trouble for my views, since they seemed an obvious instance of the fallacy of composition. Just because we call the people from a century ago by the same name as the people from today, that doesn’t mean they are or represent the same thing.

However, at some point it occurred to me that there was something implicit in the accusation which I had missed the first several times I encountered it. If not being a feminist meant you were opposed to women having higher education and votes, then was it also true that if you were in favour of higher ed and votes for women, you would be right to call yourself a feminist? The conclusion seemed to follow. I wasn’t sure about this, but it was something to consider.

Some time later, I heard a short staged debate on the radio between three women: a “radical feminist,” a “moderate feminist,” and someone who denied that she was a feminist. What was fascinating to me was the way the two feminists related to the non-feminist; everything she said about feminism, every reason why she didn’t like it or disagreed with it, was answered with something like “well you don’t have to believe that to be a feminist,” or even, “I’ve never met a feminist who believes that!” The non-feminist was very intelligent and brought up many of the points which were convincing to me, and many more besides: feminism thinks there are no differences of significance between men and women, or it thinks we should try to make men and women as similar as possible, or it thinks that women should be shamed for not being more like men, or it tries to hold men today guilty for what past generations have done. For each point, the other two didn’t try to defend the positions but simply said, you don’t have to believe that.

Hearing this debate was a real turning point for me. It helped me see the diversity in what had seemed the unified edifice of feminism. There is room within feminism for disagreement. It sounds so obvious, saying it now, but at the time it was a revelation! Being a feminist doesn’t mean signing off on a particular creed or agenda. There is a small non-negotiable core to feminism, and beyond that core there is room for debate.

So then what is this non-negotiable core? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says there are two basic propositions which must be affirmed by someone who wishes to be a feminist: that women should not be treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women, and that there are women in the world today who are being treated badly or unfairly on account of their being women. Thus, there is a normative and a descriptive component.

According to this standard, a great many people who don’t consider themselves feminists actually are.

It will be immediately clear what is lacking from the non-negotiable core: an account of fairness/unfairness, justice/injustice, goodness/badness. Different feminists will construe justice differently, and that is completely acceptable.

Why then waste time arguing about who’s a feminist and whether feminism is good or bad? Let’s all count ourselves feminists, since by this account we all are (or certainly we all should be). Then our quarrels will all become quarrels within the family, rather than conflicts between distinct tribes. That won’t solve all our problems, but it may bring us a considerable step closer to resolving our differences, and that seems eminently worthwhile to my eyes.

PS: It is my guess that I would try to follow this same approach with those other intellectual approaches which have been offshoots of, or greatly intermingled with, feminism, such as those contemporary theories dealing with race, disability, sexuality, gender, etc. However, I have not thought this approach through as carefully in those areas and so for now that idea remains only a conjecture.

Mysticism and Memory

Is it possible to remember experiences of God?

selective focus photography of photos
Photo credit sarandywestfall.com

If someone isn’t thinking of God in such a way that God’s presence (or absence) can be felt, might it be at all comparable for that person to be thinking of a memory of such an experience? And if not, what do memories of God actually recall?

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about the relationship of memory and mysticism, and the ways that memory can assist us in the mind’s itinerary toward God, or can even be a part of that journey.

In one sense, memory can never take the place of mysticism. Mysticism is necessarily characterized by immediacy. It is the flight of the alone to the Alone. Memory, however, always mediates, and so it is something entirely other, something entirely unlike mysticism.

Not to mention, mysticism is always within grasp. What it requires is not any special equipment or preparation but only an orientation of the soul, a turning away from the changeable toward the eternal, a movement of the will. We can do this even in the midst of the mundane distractions of life in the world. So then, what could be the point of focusing on memory when it is always possible to seek mysticism itself?

In another sense, we must rely on memory to sustain and direct us. We can’t reach a destination without some sort of map or set of directions, which will have to be held in memory, just as much for the mystic as for anyone else.

Of course the map doesn’t replace the reality. Or does it? It seems to me that perhaps this is where the analogy breaks down. I have an intuition, I suppose, that memory and mysticism can fade into one another. At some point, remembering the experience of turning toward God becomes the act of turning toward God. How could it not?

And that’s where things get really interesting to me, because remembering doesn’t only have to take the form of personal recollection. It can also be dwelling on the testimony of other trusted voices from past and present. I can remember what has happened to me, but I can also remember, in a sense, what has happened to others who share their own experiences of a transcendent reality. I can remember their experience with them, because they have shared it and made it available to me, even though I was not experiencing it with them at the time. I can know, from them, what I have never known for myself. And what might that mean for the mystic?

Moral Disarmament

What I am calling “moral disarmament” refers to the idea that a person can’t stop being a cheater, a liar, a thief, a thug, a flatterer, a glutton, a philanderer, until everyone else has done so as well.

Photo credit https://unsplash.com/@dmey503

Perhaps that position sounds ridiculous (it is), but then again, it’s also shockingly common. Perhaps on reflectionit will be clear to some why this idea can seem so compelling.

Let’s suppose many people around us are regularly and casually lying to enrich or protect themselves. To tell the truth would be a great disadvantage in such a situation. In such a case, we might hear “I’d love not to lie, but if I don’t then everyone else still will and I’ll be the one who ends up getting punished! I don’t want to be punished for doing the right thing while everyone else goes unpunished for doing what is wrong.”

Suddenly, it’s not so hard to imagine feeling that way.

Suppose that it’s possible to cheat the system, and that there’s a small number of people who do so, taking scarce resources that others should have access to. “If I don’t cheat and get someone else’s share, then someone else will cheat and get my share. How would that be right? I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to blow my chance and come out of this looking like a fool.”

One person is on a diet, trying to eat in a way that is healthy and reasonable, while it seems like everyone else eats whatever they feel like with no care for the consequences. “It’s awkward for me not to eat like them. It makes them think I’m judging them, and it makes me think they’re judging me. Plus it makes me so sad not to be included in the things they enjoy together and to share in the conversations inspired by their enjoyment.”

There are many different situations which can bring about the condition that I’m calling moral disarmament. (I know it’s not at all a precise phrase, by the way, but it captures something of the dynamic I’m trying to describe.)

I’m willing to try to be better, we might say, but not until everyone else is ready to try as well.

It seems sensible. After all, why should I deliberately choose to be worse off?

The solution to this problem has to do with a complete inversion of how we see the world and what we care about.

We have to see as most precious, beyond anything else, our moral maturity, our interior strength, our integrity, our virtue. We need to learn to see these things as far more desirable than material goods or reputation or superficial friendships.

Once we start to make that switch, we can catch glimpses of the truth: that those who do the right thing, even without reward or praise or recognition, already have their reward because of who they already are, and because of who they are becoming and will soon be.

It is challenging to see the world in that way. We will need to be constantly fighting against how we are naturally inclined to perceive things, especially at first. But I can hardly think of a more worthwhile endeavour.

The Harmony of Philosophy and Religion

I really like Leo Strauss and the Straussians. I even appreciate much of what he has to say about religion, insofar as he recognizes that philosophy does not have (and cannot have) the capacity ever fully to disprove the possibility of revelation, which means that the philosopher must always keep open the possibility of the truth of revealed religion.

However, I have never been entirely impressed with his thesis that a person must ultimately (as I understand it) make a choice between the philosophical way of life, which questions and challenges established orthodoxies, and the religious way of life which is characterized by such orthodoxies. No one can really be both, according to the Straussian view (or maybe I could say instead, according to Straussian orthodoxy?).

I realize that to many today, including many religious people, and to many intelligent people on both sides, it will seem like a reasonable line to draw, and more than that, it will feel intuitively true.

However, in my experience so far, the dissonance which is felt is something that belongs to those who have not progressed far along either path. (I don’t mean to say that Strauss himself had not progressed far, only that this fact makes me wonder why he spoke of the matter as he did.)

Of course, we must all start in immaturity. And it is a very real dissonance we encounter in those early stages! I don’t want to discount that in any way. It can be a serious, unsettling, dreadful dissonance to endure. I’ve felt that, lived it, passed through it.

Thus, speaking in social terms, there truly can be an uncomfortable tension between those with more of a tendency to embrace religion and those with more of a tendency to embrace the questioning stance of philosophy. Strauss recognizes this, and points out traces of it through the history of philosophy, and he’s not wrong to do so.

However, if we think the challenge is insuperable, I suspect it is only because we have not thought about it sufficiently.

In philosophy, we start out exhilarated and awed by the weight of all the questions we can ask, all the doubts we can summon. Did you know that people haven’t always and everywhere thought parliamentary democracy was the best political system? Hey, were you aware that natural science was long ago already proven to be built on a foundation of fallacies, fallacious all the way down? Say, how would we really know if God actually spoke to us sometime in history, and then how could we even be able to understand what the revelation itself meant?

All good questions, and worth investigating. But just as we don’t have to end up rejecting politics or science because of all the questions we have about them, we likewise don’t need to end up at odds with religion — although we will surely start out at odds with all of them, if those are the kinds of questions we find ourselves inclined to ask.

The philosopher cannot help but begin with questions and doubt, and some never progress past that stage. But many others will apply themselves to finding what answers there may be, about how the world is and how it should be and who I should be within the world. As part of that quest, it is entirely possible that a person will end up reconciled to revealed religious faith in one of many possible ways.

In religion, something similar happens. Earlier on in a life of faith, there is a temptation to see hard lines drawn everywhere, where the believer must be right and so everyone else who isn’t on the same side must be wrong. Even if in principle the zealous believer can admit that others might possess some portion of the truth, in practice everyone else looks like a blood-stained idolater in need of repentance, and to find any agreement with them would almost feel like making a pact with the devil.

With maturity, though, what can happen (and in my view it can be beneficial that this not happen too soon in a religious person’s development) is that the religious person comes to see the truth and beauty contained in other ways of seeing the world, and can begin to discern a friendly desire to learn together and grow further with others from outside one’s own particular tradition.

In this way, just as the rebellious philosopher can develop an openness to the dogmaticism of a religion, the faithful religionist can develop an openness to the philosopher’s search for truth and wisdom wherever it may be found and in whatever form it presents itself.

Now, let me anticipate one more set of objections, one from each side. The philosophers may think that a religious philosopher has ceased truly to be a philosopher, and the religious might say that a truly philosophical believer has ceased to have proper faith.

Even if it is possible for a philosopher to accept religious faith, on this view, in doing so one must choose to renounce the life of philosophy. Likewise, the believer who becomes so catholic and ecumenical that every possible source of truth will seem worth learning from, has transcended religion and ceases to owe allegiance to any one revelation, we might be assured.

Neither objection needs to be true. Faith and philosophy can coexist. They can be treated as different and complimentary ways of knowing which need never come into conflict if we have understood them properly.

It is nonsensical to say that a philosopher ceases philosophizing by coming to a considered conclusion about religion, just as it would be nonsensical to say the same about a philosopher who came to considered conclusions about politics or science. And it is the same from the side of religion.

But let’s just say that the philosopher did cease to philosophize, and that the believer ceased to have faith, when either one approaches the other, so that we keep being sent back and forth between them and end up somewhere in between or outside, occupying a position not really comprehensible from either of these other partial and partisan viewpoints. Who is to say that where we will have ended up is somewhere inferior or undesirable? If nothing else, we should expect to find it a place inhabited only by the few and the brave.

Partisan Tribalism

You’ll occasionally hear someone or other point out how unreasonable it is for a person to believe something just because it’s what conservatives believe or just because it’s what progressives believe.

They note that it’s astonishing how often a person’s views on questions about guns and climate and conscience and equality and life issues and taxes will all seem to coincide with one side of the culture war division, even though the different agendas are not obviously connected to each other apart from their happening to coexist in parties that represents the “right” or the “left” for a political community at a particular moment.

Those people are quite right. If our policy conclusions seem largely to overlap with whatever our favourite political orientation happens to be hyping up at this moment, we should probably question whether we’re really as clever and clear-thinking as we’d like to believe. More likely, in that case, we’re just easily manipulated, and we’re being influenced to support some larger agenda which we don’t understand and which we wouldn’t appreciate if we did.

This definitely happens on the left end of the political spectrum, but the right is more where I live, and so it’s a bit easier for me to talk about the biggest warning signs of not thinking for yourself on the right.

First though, the most obvious warning sign, for anyone really, is a double standard. If something is fine for our side and not for the other, then we are not thinking for ourselves, but are thinking what we’re told to think. Both sides do it. It’s always easier to see it when the other side is guilty, but still, it’s really not that difficult to notice it in oneself. Just try.

And then some special warning signs for my friends who lean to the right.

Anti-science and anti-experts. This is an easy one. If we have to go against a scientific consensus to hold a political opinion, or if we have to say “Well it’s not really a consensus because I found someone on the internet who’s really smart who doesn’t agree with everyone else,” then we need to stop and think twice, especially if many of our friends happen to question the same bit of science.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s actually good to have an intellectual distance of sorts from science, to recognize that it’s conclusions are always impermanent and changeable, and to remember that science is not the final arbiter of meaning and truth over all other ways of knowing. This theoretical distance enables us to see the structures of knowing and the structure of reality more clearly, and it’s a rare and valuable attribute today.

However, that’s different from the people who say that they know better than the scientists about scientific matters, that they’ve found some dissenting opinion online which shows that their conclusion is better than the scientists’ consensus.

In that case, you’re probably just falling prey to a propaganda effort orchestrated by some large, profit-driven industry like oil and gas, or big agriculture.

I believe it’s possible to be conservative and also to be intelligent and informed.

Anti-morality. The only good reason to be a conservative is because of morality. I do know the progressive movement has some wonderfully moral causes, and many other intuitions which, though perhaps ultimately wrong, are also motivated by a desire for justice and flourishing. Still, plenty of people today find themselves drawn to the conservative movement as a place that is more protective of traditional morality and less prone to the moral chaos of the passing fads of progressivism. I am sympathetic.

However. When conservative leaders and thinkers claim not only that the world is cruel, but that we must be cruel, must form the world for cruelty by our decisions and plans, that is a worthless conservatism in my view. I have in mind, for instance, the sort of hardline “fiscal conservatives” who would say that poverty, and staggering household debt, and subsistence wages, are a necessary evil, or even a good thing, and that excessive and unnecessary concentration of wealth in a few hands is protected by basic human right and is beneficial to all of society. If we are not setting up society to help those most in need of help, then shame on us.

A conservatism that exists for good is a wonderful thing, but a conservatism that tolerates and promotes evil deserves all the condemnation that the left can conjure. If we’ve been convinced that in order to be conservative we must be able to celebrate suffering and injustice, then that’s a huge flashing warning sign. Don’t go that direction.

Wishing for Latin

I’ve met a good number of people who want to learn Latin, and a much smaller number who have succeeded in becoming proficient in it.

I count myself in the former category for now, though I am hopeful that someday I will graduate to the latter. Surely just about everyone who gets proficient was at one time only wishing to become so.

For me, part of the desire to learn Latin originally comes from, and is always reignited by, learning about the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, Latin was a sign of erudition and was really the only way to be able to understand and investigate the greatest questions, and to participate in the community of those who seek knowledge.

The only other language at all like it for us in “the West” is Greek, also worthwhile and desirable but somehow simultaneously more distant and almost insubstantial in its command of the contemporary imagination.

There are of course other languages that hold a similar status in other civilizations further afield, such as classical Chinese or Arabic. For any that have trouble understanding the appeal of Latin for the people who are more or less directly derived from the European Middle Ages, it might be helpful to look at something less familiar for comparison and consider the status of those other foreign classical languages among their present-day descendants.

Learning Latin is pretty tough, and the tangible benefits for most of us will be slim indeed. Still, even if only as a mostly symbolic act, I suspect it can be a powerful achievement.

The Many-Gods Objection

I’ve annoyed many of my less-theistically-inclined friends over the years with my desire to discuss the arguments for and against God or religion with them.

Originally, this probably had a bit of a proselytizing aim to it, but from the beginning, and increasingly over time, there was another reason for the activity as well: it’s a chance for me to explore more about myself and my beliefs, and my reasons for belief.

I’m convinced that there’s a God, and that it matters if we live and think like there’s a God. It’s a conviction that I arrived at after much consideration. For a couple years in my early twenties this was very much an open question for me, and doubt was even winning the day for a considerable time. It was in no small part through my focused reading of texts from the history of philosophy (especially ancient philosophy) that my mind was eventually changed and led to my current conclusion.

And it’s a question that still deeply interests me. Just a few years ago I published a small book titled The Gentleman Atheist, in which I discuss some of these arguments from different angles.

So when I have an intelligent friend who’s reached a different conclusion, on this question that seems so important to my mind, I’m often interested to converse about it, if the other person is willing and if the conversation doesn’t look like it’ll go in too cantankerous a direction.

I couldn’t necessarily even articulate why (perhaps I’ll try in a future post), but I love thinking through the constellation of questions that attach to this discussion.

One point that usually comes up sooner or later (generally sooner) is the “many Gods” or “many faiths” objection. Even if an atheist wanted to believe in God, the question goes, which God should be chosen? Which religion?

I was reflecting on this objection recently, and since it comes up so often in such discussions, and appears so compelling in a way, I thought it might be worthwhile to write up a few thoughts I have on the subject.

Let me lay out a few analogous exchanges to introduce some of the directions I’d like to take this discussion, and then after anticipating and answering a predictable response to my analogies, I’ll make explicit the significance I intend in each case.

1. Okay, so in the first place how about we imagine someone saying, “I don’t believe in ties. After all, the word ties can have lots of meanings. Do you mean a bow tie, or a tied game, or a railroad tie? So I just don’t believe in them.”

(I know what you’ll say … but just hold on and let me get a few more of these out!)

2. Second, we can imagine this person: “I don’t believe in lions. After all, I’ve heard stories about lots of different lions in this jungle, and I don’t know which one I might meet, so I just don’t feel the need to believe in any of them. I just walk around the jungle as if there’s no such thing as lions.”

(Stay with me! I know these seem ridiculous, but this is how the many-gods objection sounds to me, and I’ll explain why soon.)

3. Third, how about this person: “I’ve turned off the lighthouse because I don’t believe in boats. After all, different people describe lots of different kinds of boats, and I don’t know which of them will see the light, if any. So I just leave the light off as if all boats are fictional.”

4. Fourth, this one: “I don’t try to communicate with people anymore. I never know if my messages will reach their intended recipient, and even if they do I can never know if the intended recipient was the right person to speak to in the first place. So I don’t try anymore, and furthermore, while I’m at it, I also deny that there are people out there who could hear me even if I did try.”

5. And then last, we could imagine a person like this: “I don’t believe in houses anymore. After all, some people talk about walls, other people talk about doors, other people talk about windows, other people talk about ceilings, or carpets, or roofs, or rooms, and then there’s this confusing business about residences, or homes, or abodes, or mansions. I just don’t know whom to believe anymore, so of course I have to disbelieve all of it.”

Okay, we made it. Now, the foreseeable rebuttal to each one of these, which I know has probably been bursting out of all of us from the very beginning, is:

“But it’s not like that at all, John, you smug little sophist!”

That’s the tried and true defence against any opportunity to learn from a comparison or analogy. “It’s not the same!” And of course it’s not. That’s the whole point. But it’s intended to be instructive.

Let me just promise that it is possible to find an instructive similarity, in each of the above five analogies, something to give us a different angle on the ways that the “many gods” objection might be problematic. If you read my explanations below and then still want to take issue with the analogies, I’m all ears!

1. Okay, so the word “God” has a lot of meanings. Those meanings might all refer to real and meaningful things, or maybe none of them do. But in any case, the number of meanings attached to the word will tell us nothing about whether belief is possible or if people should find themselves perplexed about what to believe.

2. If we’re asserting that there is a whole pack of (perhaps unproven) deities out there, any one of which could hold the power of life and death, misery and happiness, I can’t see that it really makes sense to say, “and therefore I’ll live as if none of them are real.” Surely it makes at least as much sense, and probably a great deal more, to draw a conclusion like, “and therefore I will live the sort of religious life that in my estimation will provide the best possible chance for them to be more favourably disposed toward me, just in case I do ever find myself needing their help or their mercy.”

3. So let’s say we’ve chosen to forego praying and worshipping and living religiously, because we don’t know if it’s Allah or Zeus or the Trinity (etc) who’s out there listening and seeing, or perhaps none of them, or perhaps somehow a combination of the different options. Here’s the problem. How does one start with “I can’t be sure who’s paying attention, how many or how few or what kind” and then get all the way to “I’m pretty sure I should act as if no one is paying attention.” We can turn off the lighthouse if we like, stop up the prayers and the gratitude and the piety, but we’ll have to realize that the reasoning which got us there is about as solid as a rotting log.

4. Say we don’t know who’s getting our prayers. We’re worried that if we pick a religion and enter it, it will be the wrong one and so the real deity won’t give us the goods that we’re looking for, whether that be inner peace or miracles or everlasting joy or all of the above. But consider that maybe the God we’re praying to is the real one. Or maybe it’s not, but the real one doesn’t hold it against us and so listens to our prayer anyway, just as if we had addressed our prayers to the right one in the first place. There’s no reason to think that we have to have everything figured out before our prayers will be heard. Even if there were reason to think so, we still wouldn’t be justified in saying, “well then I guess that means I shouldn’t pray at all.” Better to start somewhere, and then adapt over time as our knowledge (of our faith and of other faiths and of the philosophy of religion) increases.

5. Most religions admit that other religions possess some part of the truth. This means that even if the religion we become a part of does not possess the whole truth, if it has part of the truth then it will bring us closer to truth than we could have been had we remained entirely irreligious and disbelieving.

This list is not meant to be a systematic or all-encompassing response to the many gods objection. It just brings together some of the intuitions that were floating about at the surface of my mind just now, after my having thought about these things let the course of many years. To me, the many-gods objection seems deeply flawed and unconvincing, and from multiple different angles. This list brings together just a few examples of why that is so.

If anyone wants to help me continue to think through these questions, please feel free to chime in below, in the comments! I look forward to learning from you.

Falling Asleep to Languages

I like to experiment with different ideas that come to me, and see which ones work out. Sometimes they end badly (a word to the wise: putting herbal teabags into the wash with your laundry doesn’t actually make your clothes smell like peppermint or chamomile or whatever you expect it to do).

Usually the ideas end up taking a lot of refining and reframing before they come anywhere close to working. But often, the results do end up being worth the time spent in self-experimentation.

I recently started listening to foreign languages while falling asleep. This combines two strands of experimentation: listening to text while falling asleep, and learning languages. Let me quickly say something about the first of those two.

I discovered in college that I can generally fall asleep more quickly when I am listening to an audiobook or a lecture or a podcast or something along those lines.

I also discovered that it has to be just the right program, though. I have to be listening to something I’m interested in; if it’s something I find boring or irrelevant, it becomes an annoyance, and it keeps me from falling asleep. It can’t be too interesting either, though; if I’m listening to a Dan-Brown-esque page-turner of a story, then I can be up all night wanting to know what happens next. And it can’t be too challenging; if I’m listening to the Critique of Pure Reason and trying to understand each word and keep track of each step in the argument, then I’ll be working much too hard to be able to slide away softly into sleep.

And finding the listening material that is just the right balance is always tricky, because for some mysterious reason, it changes from one night to the next. The very same book that was perfect for putting me to sleep yesterday might have somehow become too boring or interesting or challenging to work tonight.

Still, most of the time it only takes a few minutes of browsing and sampling to find the right book, and most of the time I do fall asleep much more quickly with the right book than I do without it, so in the end it’s still worth it and I continue to do it.

So that’s the story with listening to texts before bed.

I’m also trying to learn some languages. I’m focusing on German right now, but also dabbling a bit here and there with French, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian. Mostly that means Duolingo and Drops. I do a little bit of reading as well, slowly and laboriously and with a dictionary for now, though hopefully not forever.

I have fairly poor listening comprehension for anything beyond the most basic sentences. I remember last summer I tried listening to John 1 in Greek, at about half speed. My brain still ached from trying to keep up with it and make sense of it.

Last week though, I had an idea. What if I tried listening to something in a foreign language while falling asleep, without trying to understand it?

So for the past several days, that’s what I’ve done. I listen to Rousseau in French, or Nietzsche in German, or the Old Testament in Hebrew. (And all for free, on LibriVox! What a marvel.) I just let it wash over me. I do catch some words or phrases, even the occasional short sentence. But mostly I just hear the rhythms of the language, and the patterns within the sounds that it tends to use.

First off, I’ve found it to be great for falling asleep. It holds my attention (so far — we’ll see how long this lasts), and doesn’t have mmmm eager to hear what’s next or straining to keep track of what’s come before.

There’s even a sort of meditative feel to it once I get into the flow of the reading. I’m listening pretty intently, enjoying the sound of it, but I’m also not understanding what I hear, just calmly resting in the moment.

And secondly, I think this might help my brain start to wrap itself more fully around these languages that I’ve already begun studying. I can’t give any proof of that, but observing what was going on in my mind during that time, I felt like my brain was gently seeking to make meaning out of this wash of sound.

After all, that’s primarily how our brains relate to language, as far as I can tell: through the ears, trying to find meaningful patterns. That doesn’t prove anything by itself, but it gives me hope that maybe this could be helpful in time.

Now, maybe foreign languages will become a hindrance to sleeping, an annoyance, and will also not help me learn the languages. Or maybe it will not help me learn but will nonetheless continue to be a pleasant and effective way to find sleep.

In the first case, I can just go back to what I was doing before and I haven’t lost anything. In the second case, I’d probably thank my lucky stars and go on sleeping well.

But maybe this idea will both help me sleep and also help me learn the languages. That’s what I’m hoping for! How amazing would that be? Wish me luck. I’ll plan to provide an update in a future post, once I have some more experience with it.

Before Philosophy and Theology

There’s something more primal than either philosophy or theology.

Philosophy and theology each have their own proper fields of investigation. For instance, questions of a purely epistemological nature would seem to rest entirely in the domain of philosophy, whereas the doctrine of atonement is more a theological area of study.

There is a place where the two do extensively overlap, which is in the discussions of what is called natural theology. What can be known about the divine and its relation to our existence through reason and the observation of natures and that sort of thing? In this case, philosophers from their side and theologians from their side can ask the same questions and ultimately will have their answers judged by the same criteria.

But when I speak of the something that is more primal, I’m not even speaking of natural theology. I am thinking of what comes before natural theology, and makes natural theology possible.

I mean the reality toward which the experiences of the mystics direct us.

Among philosophers and theologians alike there is often a bit of an embarrassed silence on the subject of mysticism. That’s not to say everyone is silent — certainly not. There is a thriving literature on the subject, in philosophy and theology alike.

But outside that narrow discussion, there is plenty of silence.

Philosophers writing on any subject would not be shy to invoke contemporary discussions of ethics, or ontology, or logic, if they felt it was relevant to what they were trying to say. These are tools of the trade, after all!

Likewise, theologians writing on any theological subject would not hesitate to bring up the doctrine of Scripture, or of soteriology, or of creation, if there was a valid connection.

For the most part, however, we seem to prefer that mysticism would just stay in its room and not come out to disturb anybody.

I’m speaking too broadly. I’m sure there are some circles where what I’ve said will be untrue, or at least where things are beginning to change. But I do have a sense that overall, what I’ve said here does have some truth in it.

What is beyond philosophy and theology? It is the unified, abundant reality that surpasses all speech. It is that which is somehow like thought but also completely above thought, and without which we could not think.

If our deepest thoughts are like roots, then I am speaking of something like the soil around those roots, the thing which never in itself enters fully into our thought, but which is nonetheless also the source and the sustenance of all thought.

Theology must study God as it is possible to do so in human words, but theology itself admits that God, as God, is always outside the reach of human words (or at least our comprehension of our own words), and thus that theology is always pointing past itself to something beyond speaking, even perhaps beyond thinking. I believe something similar could be said of philosophy, mutatis etcetera.

We lift up our hearts.

The History of Philosophy and Making Sense of the World

I wrote somewhere previously that a knowledge of philosophy is valuable for helping us understand ourselves, products as we are today of a social arrangement that was shaped through centuries of philosophical reflection and dispute.

I certainly believe that’s true, and greater self-understanding has indeed been a beneficial product of my studies of philosophical history.

However, it occurred to me that that’s not actually why I started studying the history of philosophy, and that it probably would not have been sufficient reason for me to do it if someone had proposed the idea in that light.

I wanted to understand the world around me, my experience of the world, the nature of reality, the social and political and logical connections between different things, and over time I became convinced that studying the history of philosophy was the best way for me to do so.

Now, there are two questions which can’t help but arise at this point: why the history of PHILOSOPHY, and why the HISTORY of philosophy?

In other words, why focus on the study of philosophy, rather than on science or political history or social science or literature or myth? And secondly, why focus on history under the aspect of its development through human history, rather than focusing specifically on only one moment of philosophy’s history (namely, the present moment)?

I realize that the natural sciences sometimes seem to have all the answers these days, but philosophy has the advantage of reckoning with our prescientific experience and understanding of the world, the framework of thought on which natural science is constructed (both historically speaking and also conceptually).

And studying literature or history or religion can be very worthwhile, but it doesn’t take long to see how making sense of them requires in turn an engagement with philosophy. As much as their study might illuminate or complicate the philosophical approaches that intersect with them, a thorough study of any one of them will ultimately demand a knowledge of and engagement with philosophy.

Well, fine then. But why the whole history of philosophy? Why not just the philosophies of the present moment, which is what the scholars in other disciplines tend to interact with anyways?

It is because there are no philosophers who can be properly understood apart from the philosophies that formed them and against which they were reacting, and this is true in a chain that stretches all the way back to the first beginnings of philosophy in the ancient world.

And it is because there are no terms or concepts of any importance today which can really be understood simply, directly, apart from their history. There are certainly some today who will try, who attempt to answer purely formulated questions through the careful manipulation of ahistorical notions. It’s a worthwhile goal, but to me it seems like trying to sail around the world without a map; it might be doable, but failure or massive inefficiency is a far more likely outcome.

And so wherever your starting point, if you truly seek to understand, you will find yourself drawn into the study of philosophy, and then into the study of the whole history of philosophy.

And eventually, you won’t be seeking to understand that field of knowledge so much as a means to an end, anymore — its study will have revealed itself to be a satisfying and abundantly beneficial end in itself.