Monday, February 15, 2010

On Seeing the Point

"Our blindness to the point of primitive modes of life is a corollary of the pointlessness of much of our own life."
     -- Peter Winch, "Understanding a Primitive Society" (1972)

This line comes in response to some arguments made by Alasdair MacIntrye, in a paper called, "Is Understanding Religion Compatible with Believing?" MacIntrye's ultimate answer appears to be: No. But he takes a long way round to this answer, via the attempts of sociologists and anthropologists to understand primitive (read: non-Western) cultures. Upshot: primitive belief in witchcraft is empty because the discourse can only be made intelligible (i.e. non-contradictory, rational) if the "theory" of witchcraft is rendered unfalsifiable. (This is roughly the story MacIntryre tells.) Ditto for Christianity in the eyes of the skeptic, viz. it's empty, pointless (read: explains nothing).

Winch doesn't take up MacIntyre's discussion of (Western) religion, but focuses on what he sees as M's minsinterpretation of his own views about understanding primitive cultures. But I can see a version of what Winch says being exactly the sort of thing a religious person might say to a skeptic...

(Something that puzzled me about the MacIntyre paper is that while he argues that religion has lost its context (read: point) in the West overall, he is resistant to what he sees as a Kierkegaardian embrace of the apparent paradoxes of religious views, and the internalization of religion, as "too easy." I don't know much about MacIntryre, but the description of a Kierkegaardian approach to religion as "too easy" strikes me as something someone could only say as a result of not reading Kierkegaard very I missing something?)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

More Understanding without Agreement

I've recently expanded (and hopefully improved) the paper I've been calling "Understanding Without Agreement". You'll notice that the paper actually questions how to make sense of the thought that we can understand people without agreeing with them, at least on certain issues of moral judgment.

In this newest version, I've added a couple examples, treated in some length, to help illustrate the difficulties in grasping other perspectives--at least, that our disagreement might reasonably lead one who has that perspective to say, "Well, you haven't really understood." (One example involves Elizabeth Costello of J.M. Coetzee's "The Lives of Animals", later included in the novel Elizabeth Costello. The other has to do with Amish forgiveness, as exemplified a few years ago in the Nickel Mines shootings.)

Comments here or by e-mail will be greatly appreciated!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Words Can't Express

A Google search of "words can't express" gives 864,000 hits containing that phrase. That's a lot of things, written in words, that words can't express!

I don't mean to be flip. (See my previous post.) But someone has some explaining to do here. Here's a shot:

"Words can't express x" --> whatever one says about x will fall short of expressing all there is to x. (So, words can perhaps partially, but not completely, express x.)

As I said before, this is why we do other things, like paint pictures, write songs, make films, and (I might add) buy people flowers, as those activities are expressive in ways that get beyond language (i.e. word-use).

At the same time, it seems like one might find these non-linguistic modes of communication equally dissatisfying, such that we are tempted to think that nothing can fully express something, as it were, "inside us." Is that thought an illusion?

(I'm thinking here, for those who know it, of Wittgenstein's remarks aimed at debunking the notion that there are "private objects" or could be a "private language"...)