“The Seduction of Daoist Philosophy: What Was Lost on the Way to Understanding the Daoist Religion?” James Robson (Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University), Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Abstract:  Daoism is one of the better known—but least understood—religions of the world. Ideas about Daoism spread primarily through translations and interpretations of texts considered to be its sacred books: The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue (Daode jing) and the Book of Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi)­, which generated tremendous transcultural appeal. Those texts have been connected with thinkers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Aleister Crowley, Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger, and literary figures like Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Oscar Wilde.  The Western imagination of Daoism has influenced the perception of Daoism down to the present day. It has essentially created two Daoisms, imposing an artificial distinction between the “pure” (philosophy) and the “impure” (Daoist religious practices) in a process similar to the European fashioning of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion. Although modern scholarship has shown that such a stark division of religion and philosophy is inaccurate and untenable, it has resulted in widespread confusion about Chinese religions in general and Daoism in particular. This talk intends to explore the troubling questions surrounding this divide and reveal some of the lesser known facets of the Daoist tradition that have been occluded by the appeal and myopic focus on texts like the Daode jing.

“Poetics of the Sacred,” Richard Kearney (Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy, Boston College), November 12, 2014

Richard Kearney’s lecture looks at how certain artists and poets have been able to retrieve and explore ‘epiphanies’ of the sacred even after the disappearance of God. Beyond the traditional opposition between dogmatic theism and atheism Kearney proposes a third option – ana-theism, meaning faith ‘after’ (ana) faith. The recovery of God after God.

“A Philosophical Framework for Interpreting the Future of Religion and Spirituality,” Wesley J. Wildman, Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics, Boston University School of Theology, October 29, 2014

Abstract:  Intellectuals of any kind, including philosophers, can’t exercise much influence over religion. Religion, after all, is as formidably complex as it is intricately particular, and religious people tend not to care even a little about what philosophers say. But philosophy might be useful for guiding predictions about the future of religion. That’s a big claim. Rather than argue in the abstract that philosophy is useful for guiding predictions, this lecture aims actually to exhibit the usefulness of philosophy. Of course, to proceed in this way implicates me in the questionable business of predicting the future of religion and spirituality. Now that’s an icy road if ever there was one. A lot of vehicles have skidded off that road over the centuries, and this pattern hasn’t changed much in recent years. My claim is that philosophy is like traction control: it keeps the vehicle of prediction safely on the road. At least philosophy can be like this, in principle. In practice, philosophy rarely aspires to be useful in this particular way. But if it’s doable, it couldn’t hurt. From recurring mistaken predictions about the end of the world to the failure of twentieth-century secularization theory, the record of prognostication in regard to the future of religion is dismal. That record certainly couldn’t be made any worse by involving philosophy in the task. How, then, can philosophy help to guide predictions about the future of religion and spirituality? And what specific prediction will I make in this lecture to demonstrate the concrete usefulness of philosophy?

“William James Revisited: Pragmatic Approaches to Religion” David Lamberth, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Harvard Divinity School, October 15, 2014

Click here to see a video of the lecture.

Abstract: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience has long been considered a classic among theoretical texts for the study of religion.  Published in 1902 by the noted American psychologist and philosopher, it animated a turn to experience from doctrine as the touchstone for understanding religion, and set the stage for critical studies that sought to consider not only the plurality of human religiosity, but also its positive and negative effects.

Varieties was not James’s only engagement with religion, nor was it by any means comprehensive of his wide ranging view of human nature.  In this lecture Professor Lamberth selects from James’s key writings concerning religion from the 1880s to 1910, developing a composite of his central ideas and connecting them to the animating philosophical and scientific insights that led James’s to his views.  Lamberth argues that the critical features driving James’s views—taking human evolution seriously in understanding thought and action, noting the affective dimensions in our neural makeup, seeing the critical potential for religion to contribute not only to individual but social transformation—make James a surprisingly productive interlocutor for one estimating the future of religion.

Blogging through the Semester…

Students in the Institute seminar have been blogging all semester about IPR series lectures that interested and provoked them… Check out their thoughts in the posts below…

Reflections on the Semester: Hamlet on Thought and Action

Joshua Niforatos wrote after Prof. Simon Critchley’s IPR lecture on Hamlet (11/6):  “For Critchley, Hamlet represents the inability ‘to pull together thought and action: where we think, we cannot act; where we act, we cannot think.’ This gap—the gap between thinking and acting—can only come together, according to Critchley, through theater.  At its beginning to crescendo, Claudius is so disturbed by the play, which is a reenactment of his actions, that he admits to his wrong doing. Hamlet overhears Claudius’s confession of his guilt. Hamlet has a sword with him. While Hamlet could kill Claudius, he begins to think, which results in thought displacing action. In a moment of craze, one could argue, Hamlet kills Polonius, who is hiding behind a tapestry. Critchley states that this is action without thought. It is only when Hamlet is already dead that he can begin to act. When he knows that he is going to die—“I am dead Horatio”—action is possible and he finally kills Claudius. Critchley argues that with self-consciousness comes the inhibition of action, and this is one of the themes of Hamlet. He goes on to tell us that “what defines the human condition is the inability of thought and action,” and this is exemplified in Hamlet. Outside of this play, Critchley states that humor is a way to bridge thought and action. He cites Freud’s 1927 paper on “Humor” concerning jokes as a relation to the unconscious since jokes are unconscious desire in repressed form. Freud goes on to argue, according to Critchley, that humor is a way to arrest the oscillation between melancholia and mania. If humor is not utilized, then theater provides an emergency break system. Critchley states, “if ideology is committed to different progressive narratives, then theater breaks this by putting attention to the past rather than to the future.” He goes on to state that theater is an illusion machine- if the world is a stage, then the world is an illusion.  For Critchley, Hamlet is an argument against philosophy and argument for philosophy as drama that has a dramatic structure. What is the difference? Well, according to Critchley, a philosophy as drama does not tell you what to think; rather, you are given different situations and told to see how the situation plays out….”

Reflections on the Semester: ‘When Hurt Comes Crashing In: How to Live in Pain’

 Nina Polachek wrote after Prof. Arthur Kleinman’s (11/6) lecture:  “Kleinman’s urgency in calling us to caregiving emphasizes the concrete, the active, side of ethics.  It seems that his late journey with his wife, through tragic waters, brought him to port in a much more immediate and demanding world than the world of ethical abstraction (a world where the self’s responsibility to the world is calculated in terms of one “person” to another “person”). But “person” here is trapped inside the realm of the mind, the abstract, existing as a mere idea.  Can this idea withstand the weight of a living, breathing, crying, screaming, dying woman with a name so intimate that it joined itself to his?
There is something about Joan Kleinman’s immediate and intimate illness which profoundly altered the paradigm by which Kleinman defines a person’s responsibility to the world.  His wife’s illness made concrete (entering into his space and time) hitherto abstract questions of what it means to take care of each other.  Most importantly, this concretization merited a sense of urgency.  In moving from abstract to concrete, the question becomes “how do I care for Joan right now?  She cannot afford to wait.”  A palpable sobriety pervaded the entirety of Arthur Kleinman’s lecture.  Repeatedly, Kleinman directed our attention to the immediate, to the close-at-hand.  I think that the heart of his ethics of social suffering and caregiving comes to life in the very tonality of presence in which he composed his lecture.  There was something more that Kleinman communicated than the ethical argument for social suffering and moral obligation which he built up slide after slide.  Something that resisted the expectations for the topic at hand.  Whatever we all thought that we would gain from such a prolific thinker, what we received was a brilliant man who has experienced the wound of loss.  The manner in which he composes his lectures should offer us all a profound insight into a tempered way to endure a life of social and personal suffering, with a level of candor and reverence for the intimate reality that no one is beyond the need for care.  In a not so ironic way, Kleinman offered us all a little “wisdom for the art of living”.  After a career of struggling to address social suffering on a global scale, the grounding of his message to us all was his personal insight into his experience with his wife’s illness.  We can strive to address the moral dysfunction of society at large, but it is no small thing to remind ourselves of the moral imperatives that each moment brings our way in those faces immediately looking back to us.”

Reflections on the Semester: Dostoevsky and the Problem of Evil

Sahar Habib responded to Prof. Dean Zimmerman’s lecture on theodicy:  Zimmerman began his wonderful lecture by first introducing the argument: there is a logical contradiction in allowing for an all-powerful and all-knowing God who is also perfectly good and benevolent, whilst also claiming that gratuitous evils exist. In this way, we see that Zimmerman is taking the problem to be a theoretical one, as opposed to expressing it as an experiential problem. I want to show that even though there is value in expressing the problem in logical form (that is first showing how the premises of God and evil lead to an absurd or contradictory conclusion, and then solving the problem by rejecting one of the premises, or a disjunction of the premises as Zimmerman attempts), the problem is much more difficult, if not impossible, to solve experientially. For example Zimmerman commented on how it is appalling to try and justify the problem of evil using logical forms to those who have actually faced horrible evils such as holocaust survivors. I think that the idea of being able to solve the problem theoretically while still having reservations experientially is forcefully depicted in a chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Particularly in the chapter titled “Rebellion”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the text, Rebellion includes some heart wrenching tales of cruelty in 18th century Russia. One of the characters Ivan, who is evidently distraught by the appalling acts of cruelty, attempts to give a reflective account as to why suffering exists. His account does not go into as much detail as the theodicy building that Zimmerman indulges in, but it has helped me to understand the general argument of the problem of evil and the theistic, as well as atheistic world views that may solve the problem.  He speaks specifically of the suffering inflicted on children, as love for children does not depend on their countenance or outer appearance, and more importantly because they’re innocent and haven’t “eaten” the apple to have knowledge of good and evil. So it seems to me that he takes the suffering of a child to be a “gratuitous evil” – an unnecessary evil that is inherently bad and no good requires its existence.

Ivan picks a particular story of a particularly pompous general who ruled over his subjects as though they were “dependents and buffoons”. This general locked up an eight-year-old child for accidently hurting the paw of one of his hound dogs. He then proceeded to bring him out the next morning, strip him naked, and commanded that he be torn to pieces by a pack of hounds whilst his servants and the child’s mother witnessed the event. Ivan proceeds to provide arguments that can solve the problem, however He is more concerned to find an answer that he can live with, rather than one which is objectively true or false. Thus he rejects any argument as it brings him no reconciliation. Ivan suggests that perhaps suffering exists because God is mysterious and there is no possible way of knowing his motives on earth. Since God chose our world to make real than it must be the best of all possible worlds and all actions must be for some greater good. Zimmerman’s argument from organic unity seems to be a more sophisticated version of this argument; it seems to extend upon the concept of the greatest good as well as fix the loopholes that philosophers have found over the years. Either way, it may solve the problem theoretically, but something just doesn’t feel right. Ivan puts it perfectly when he says:

“ Surely I haven’t suffered simply that my crimes, my sufferings, and I may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer…. It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? “

For any other solution Ivan comes up with, he has the same feeling that he simply cannot accept it or understand it. He thinks the price of suffering is too high to be justified by any argument and I think people who express the problem experientially have the same difficulty in accepting such arguments.
Link to works cited:

Reflections on the Semester: Sontag, Photography and Compassion

Ron Bernier wrote after Prof. Ann Jurecic’s lecture on Susan Sontag:   Prof. Jurecic’s lecture on Sontag and the ethics of reception – how audiences regard and respond to representations of other people’s pain – clarified and complicated for me Sontag’s shifing positions on the role of photography, from her early (1977) “On Photography” to her final reflections in “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003).  I particularly enjoyed Jurecic’s weaving of Sontag’s conceptual framework on history and its fictions into her analysis of Sontag’s novels.  After rereading Jurecic’s chapter, “Sontag, Suffering and the Work of Writing,” from her recent book Illness as Narrative (2012), and follwing the lecture, I came away with some questions.

1) I wonder if Jurecic sufficiently critiques Sontag’s own self-represenation.  While she opens her chapter, and her recent talk, with various studies’ misreadings or misunderstandings of Sontag’s opening metaphor in Regarding the Pain of Others, Jurecic herself seems to accept Sontag’s own stated positions, at various points,  on the accuracy, reliability, and genuineness of photography’s representations of attrocity.  Sontag repeatedly asks us to trust her in her guiding us, as readers, to a fuller understanding of a certain genre of photography, but readers – at least this one – are always left wondering which Sontag we are reading.  She seems often to be her own best reproduction.  Jurecic herself acknowledged at one point that we must approach Sontag’s project as “performative.”

2) On a related note, I also wonder if Jurecic has sufficiently acknowledged Sontag’s reversal of position on photography – from “On Photography” to “Regarding the Pain of Others,” or at least its nuanced shift.   In the earlier work, Sontag’s stance seems pretty clear on the impossibility of art’s having any sustainable moral-political power in contemporary society, and that suffering enacted in art is merely aestheticized for the viewer’s pleasure in a way that, in turn, victimizes for a second time the people suffering.  Sontag’s extensive review of the “iconography of suffering” in OP seems to make a fresh appraisal of those arguments.  In the later work her position seems, at least to me, to be that photography can indeed be morally efficacious when it asks us to focus on the particularity of the suffering rather than its universal or global dimension.  In the end it seems Sontag’s emphasis on particularity is what ultimately enables her to resolve any lingering ambivalence about art’s moral-political power.

3) Jurecic also, briefly, addressed Sontag’s later focus on “compassion” (and makes the link to Martha Nussbaum on this topic).  Jurecic is right, I think, to point to Sontag’s view of compasion as, at times, a way for viewers to maintain their distance, preclude guilt, and avoid responsibility for the suffering they witness and any action that might change its circumstances – often due to class or some other privilege.  Jurecic, however, seems to want to decouple Sontag’s link between viewing suffering and the privileged viewer, at least when that viewer is Sontag herself; but I don’t think Jurecic, particularly when she addresses Sontag’s time in Sarajevo, sufficiently addresses how Sontag herself sits within her own privilege.

4) Finally, and this may be just a quibble, I would challenge Sontag’s (and Jurecic’s) privileging of narrative as more able to “sustain attention” than images.  Both Jurecic and Sontag seem simply to accept the conventional view of the instantaneity of images and preclude any possibility of extended visual attention.  If we are asked to attend to lengthy descriptive accounts of horror and attrocity in narrative form – say in Sontag’s The Volcano Lover – , and presumably rewarded by such extended narrative attention, how is it that we cannot look long and deep and in a more contemplative way at images of such?

Physician-Assisted Suicide: Confronting End-of-Life Issues

Last year, citizens of Massachusetts defeated a referendum on physician-assisted suicide.  In an editorial which advocated a “no” vote on the referendum, the Boston Globe lamented the lack of sufficient high-level debate and public information on the issue.  It argued:  “Massachusetts should commit itself to a rigorous exploration of end-of-life issues, with the goal of bringing the medical community, insurers, religious groups, and state policy makers into agreement on how best to help individuals handle terminal illnesses… The [lack of] seriousness with which the state is approaching [this ballot question… is, in itself, an indictment of the current state of end-of-life care.”

In the last year, the Globe’s concern about what people know about this issue has only become more pertinent:  although the measure failed in Massachusetts, a similar one passed earlier this year in Vermont.  In putting together this year’s lecture series on “The Contemporary Face of Suffering,” the Institute for Philosophy and Religion wanted to contribute to broadening and clarifying the public discussion of physician-assisted suicide and of related end-of-life concerns.  IPR invited Prof. Dan Brock, a leading medical ethicist and Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics in the Department of Social Medicine, the Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the Harvard Medical School, and the Director of the Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health, to speak on the topic.  His Oct. 2 lecture prompted many thoughtful comments, including those of IPR seminar students Mac Loftin and Julian Julian Lijtszain, who are this week’s featured bloggers.

Mac Loftin writes:  “Around two years ago, my grandfather fell very ill.  He was over 80 years old, and while it was expected he would survive the illness, it was also expected he would need full-time assitance for what little time he would have left.  He was a proud and stubborn man, and the thought of spending his life in a wheelchair having someone help him use the bathroom was too much to bear.  I do not believe he would have hesitated to ask a doctor to end his life, but physician assisted suicide is illegal in Texas, so he looked into private organizations like the Hemlock Society.  He ended up passing before he was able to do anything, but my grandfather’s experience made me a strong supporter of patients’ rights to determine the ends of their own lives.  The entire time my family was going through this ordeal, however, our thoughts were on my grandfather and his desires.  Dan Brock’s writings and lecture brought to light an issue in the assisted suicide debate I hadn’t thought of before: the feelings of the physicians towards taking a life.  While my grandfather was ready to die, and my family supported his decision, not once did we consider the desires of any outside agent that would play a role in the ending of his life.  A family’s decision on PAS (Physician-Assisted Suicide) or VAE (Voluntary Active Euthanasia) should also take into account the wishes of the doctor, who may not be comfortable with performing the procedure.  The physician arguably has the most difficult role in the matter.  The patient passes on from a life they determined was no longer worth living, but the doctor must live on after having taken the life of a fellow human being.  The enormous weight on the shoulders of the doctors who perform PAS or VAE must be taken as seriously as any other factor in the debate.”

Julian Lijtszain writes:  “In his talk entitled “Physician-Assisted Suicide and End-of-Life Issues”, Dr. Dan W. Brock presented and developed his views on the controversial topic of physician-assisted suicide (PAS). During his talk, Dr. Brock established that the American States of Oregon, Washington and Vermont had legalized PAS under the conditions that the patients meet certain safeguards implemented to limit the abuse of this practice. Among these list of strict safeguards, there where two that captured my attention in themselves and on how they relate to each other:  1) The requirement that the patient must sustain a 15-day waiting period after he has filed for PAS in order to re-assure himself of the decision.  - This particular requirement captivated my attention because it forces the patients to undergo the only thing they wish to avoid; more time. 15 days might seem like a reasonable period from an outside perspective, yet they could feel like an eternity under extreme conditions of pain and suffering.

2) The requirement that the patient must be in full use of his mental capabilities in order to be granted PAS.  -I really question the legitimacy of this requirement. It seems to me unreasonable to demand full mental capabilities from a person who is struggling with intense pain, traumas and illnesses that will most likely have a negative effect on the patient’s mental health.

3) The interaction between the first and second requirements seems to me to lead to a catch 22. Requirement 1 asks for time, yet requirement two asks for a condition that will likely get lost with time. Thus, it seems reasonable to ask for either condition 1 or 2, but not both.  -In turn, requiring patients to fulfill both the first and second conditions is not a fair assessment of the patient’s desires. This is clearly seen in the state of Oregon, as we find that “Only one in ten patients who request a lethal prescription actually die by this method. Barriers include …  not meeting the legal requirements, and some die during the fifteen-day waiting period.”(Oregon Encyclopedia) Thus, if the aforementioned requirements where changed or even eliminated, the number of deaths from PAS could potentially increase by 1000%. Some solutions could be reducing waiting times or limiting  the request of full mental health to the time of the original petition, yet, the sensitivity of this topic requires a lot of debate before making any kind of decision.”