Sunday, May 1, 2016

Take a Picture of the World, It'll Last Longer

I picked up Social Construction: Entering the Dialogue (Taos Institute, 2004) by Kenneth J. Gergen and Mary Gergen, which appeared to be a brief, handy introduction to the concept. The Gergens are a husband and wife team, both psychologists and academics, both dedicated to social constructionist thought, so they should be qualified to explicate it, but they didn't manage very well. The book turned out to be something of a trainwreck, but maybe that's not the Gergens' fault; maybe it's the fault of the concept itself.  But the confusion they foster could useful for anyone who wants to understand what "social construction" means and how it's used (and misused) by some of its proponents.

The Gergens take a false step right away:
The foundational idea of social construction seems simple enough, but it is also profound.  Everything we consider real is socially constructed.  Or, more dramatically, Nothing is real unless people agree that it is [10; bold type in original].
This is the kind of rhetoric that confuses people, and enables critics of social construction to misrepresent the concept.  I think the Gergens realize this, so on the next page they try to clarify:
We must be clear on this point.  Social constructionists do not say, "There is nothing," or "There is no reality."  The important point is that whenever people define what "reality" is, they are always speaking from a cultural tradition [11].
The thing is, the Gergens themselves came very close to declaring that "there is no reality," and they did so more from an apparent wish to sound dramatic than from a need to explain their concept clearly.  Since the book is intended to introduce social constructionism to people who don't know much if anything about it, and who can't be assumed to have much experience with philosophical discourse, saying "Nothing is real unless people agree that it is" might just be the worst formulation the authors could have chosen. It might have been better to put "real" in quotes, but not by much.  Most readers, from undergraduates to psychologists, will remember "Nothing is real" as the core (or "foundational idea," another revealing choice of words) of social construction theory, which it isn't.

Ironically, the Gergens undercut themselves, because they are "defin[ing] what 'reality'' is" here -- their formulation is itself a social construction from a specific cultural tradition (namely the American Culture of Therapy), but they state it as the nature of the real world.  (They're aware of this problem, but that awareness doesn't inform their writing.)  To clarify my own criticism, consider the well-known case of "homosexuality" as a social construction.  Many proponents of that position say that there were no homosexuals before, say, 1868.  What they mean is that the word "homosexual" wasn't invented until then, and different concepts of men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women were used in a specific cultural context -- in this case, western Europe in and before the nineteenth century, and especially by lawyers and doctors in that era and place.  Again, it might lessen confusion if such writers were careful to put "homosexual" in quotes -- "There were no 'homosexuals' before 1868" -- but they seldom do.  True, scholars may choose which definition of a term they wish to use, but in general they don't use their chosen definition consistently.  Often they even retroject "homosexual subcultures" into the period before 1868, and to other regions.  Most seriously, like the Gergens, they clearly consider these claims and statements to be the reality of homosexuality, and they forget that their discourse is a social construction in a particular cultural tradition, namely Western academic philosophy and critical theory.  I'm not being pedantic here, since one of the assumptions of social-constructionist discourse is that terminology is important, that it shapes how we view the world, and words create worlds -- so it's vital to examine the words we and others use, and to use them accurately and consistently.
Could all that we construct as "problems" be reconstructed as "opportunities"?  By the same token, as we speak together, we could also bring new worlds into being. We could construct a world in which there are three genders or a world where the "mentally ill" are "heroes," or where "the power in all organizations lies not with individual leaders but in relationships" [12].
This is another good example of the careless use of concepts.  It's not surprising that many people understand social construction to mean that people freely and consciously choose how they see the world, when social constructionists talk as if it were so.  Consider the popular accusation that social constructionists claim that gay people "choose" to be gay.  It mistakes social construction for an account of the nature and origin of sexual orientation, an antagonist to "born this way," when (according to my understanding, my construction if you will) the whole problem of social construction is explaining how people come to think of customs as "natural."  I have the impression that many people who talk about social construction think that they are exposing illusion and getting at the reality of whatever topic they're discussing, be it sexual orientation, sex/gender, race, language, or whatever.  (If it's not what they really think, it's what they say.)  It's precisely what we assume to be "real" and "natural" that we must question, and it's not as easy as "speak[ing] together" to "bring new worlds into being."  ("Worlds," by the way, is another much-misused word, a sign that someone is socially constructing carelessly.)
Take the simple process of naming.  There is Frank, Sally, Ben and Shawn.  Now these individuals were scarcely born into the world with nametags.  Their parents assigned their names. In this sense, they are arbitrary.  Except perhaps for family traditions, for example, Frank could have been named Ben, Robert, Donald, or something else.  But why were they given names in the first place?  The most important reason is practicality.  For example, parents want to talk about Sally's welfare; is she eating properly, does her diaper need changing, is her brother Frank jealous of her? ... More broadly, the words we use -- just like the names we give to each other -- are used to carry out relationships.  They are not pictures of the word, but practical actions in the world [14-15].
In that last sentence the Gergens seem to suppose that "pictures of the world" are real, or at least "real."  At the very least, they're constructing a false dichotomy. Language is used both to make "pictures of the world" and to make actions in the world.  (I suspect that a sloppy understanding of the performative use of language is lurking in there somewhere.)  Neither of those uses, which don't exhaust the options, expresses the "real nature" of language, which no one knows anyway.  This section is headed "Language: From the Picture to the Practice," but it would be as accurate and useful to reverse the order, since "pictures" are often constructed to explain and justify practices.

On naming, the Gergens oversimplify drastically, evidently because they're thinking in a middle-class American cultural tradition.  Names are seldom "arbitrary": like language in general, they are often believed to invoke the nature of the world.  Even when someone, say, names her baby "Britney" because she's a big Britney Spears fan, it's not an arbitrary choice.  It seems to me that "arbitrary" is as serious an error as "real" or "natural": the Gergens suppose that naming just happens, without any social or cultural meaning.  Naming is another social construction.  One custom is "remaking" ancestors, as Richard Trexler discusses in Naked Before the Father in the context of medieval Italy, and in Orthodox Jewish tradition down to the present.  A child's name isn't picked out of the air, but chosen so that a dead relative can live again through his or her name -- and in this construction, a child is never named after a living relative.  In other constructions, a child may be named for a living relative, and it would be interesting to know why it's acceptable in some cultures but not in others.  Names generally have meanings (mine means "brown warrior," for example), even when those meanings have been forgotten.  Often they aren't.  In China, ancient Israel, and in at least some Native American cultures, the meanings of names are known by the parents who give them and by those who use them.  In traditional Korea, males' names consist of three Chinese characters, and they are not chosen arbitrarily but with some thought and care, sometimes by divination or other systems.  Girl children were often not given names, however, which is a reminder that it's not necessary to use a name in practical, day-to-day parent-child relations anyway: in Western and non-Western cultures alike, parents can and do address children not by name but by status ("son," "daughter,"), just as their children address their parents by status ("mom" and "dad." My Mexican friends address each other this way all the time: Uncle, Aunt, Cousin, Nephew/Niece, etc.  In Korea, people almost lose their names when they become parents, and are not only referred to but addressed by others as "Young-sook's Mother" and "Jung-min's Father"; there are titles for status in family constellations that are used more often than an individual's name ("Elder brother," "Youngest child," etc.).   Invoking parents' concern for children's welfare as a reason for naming them is a middle-American social construction, yet the Gergens appear to think their explanation describes reality.

Examining the customs and understandings of other cultures often informs social construction theorizing, but the Gergens seem to have only the barest -- and not very well-informed or thoughtful -- awareness of other cultures.
What is more obvious than the fact that our social world is made up of separate individuals, each normally endowed with the capacity for conscious decision making.  It is because of this that we favor a democracy in which each adult citizen has the right to cast a vote, courts of law in which we hold individual actors responsible for their deeds, schools in which we evaluate each student's individual work, and organizations in which we subject individual workers to performance evaluations?  It is largely for these reasons that we characterize Western culture as individualist.  

Yet, for a constructionist, the obvious fact of "the individual as a conscious decision maker" is not so obvious.  Rather, we see it as only one way of constructing the world.  In fact, the individualistic orientation to social life is not so old historically (possibly three centuries), and it is not shared by the majority of people on earth.  This does not make it wrong, but it does allow us to step out of the box and ask about its pros and cons [30].
This is odd, for voting, courts of law, schools, and organizations are much older and widespread than the "individualistic orientation."  "We" certainly don't have these institutions because we see persons as atomized individuals; they're compatible with a non-individualist worldview, and are found in non-individualistic cultures.

The individualist / collectivist dichotomy is itself a social construction, a narrative about cultural difference, though the Gergens write as though it were a real difference between societies.  It's also inadequate as a description of a society except in very broad terms.  The difference between an "individualist" society like the US and a "collectivist" society like Japan is one of degree, not of kind, since every category is made up of individuals, and every individual human being belongs to various collectivities.  But speaking of relative differences as if they were absolute differences is a very popular social construction.

Even within the same society, these aspects are stressed more or less according to the situation or problem involved.  (One reason I love Koreeda Hirokazu's very Japanese film After Life is that it tells stories about individuals with love and respect, with no suggestion that doing so is un-Japanese.)  It might be that the US has moved farther toward the individualist pole than most other countries, but we have certainly not eliminated categories or collectivities, as the use of terms like "America" and "Americans" alone is enough to show. 

I'm skeptical of most of the Gergens' sweeping generalizations, or constructions as they should be called.  For example, "most human conflict can be traced to the processes of meaning-making" (66).  Conflict also occurs between non-human animals, who have no language but still manage to have conflicts.  The same goes for the experience of loss.  "For you to 'lose' something (a job, a close friend, the love of others) means that you carry around a story of yourself as a major character, embarked on a course of progress or fulfillment (end-points of a good story), and have suffered a setback" (49).  Non-human animals experience loss without having language, and therefore without having narratives.  And, of course, among humans, narratives of loss are not limited to individualistic cultures.  These experiences go along with having/being bodies.

The Gergens, consistent with their status as helping professionals, proceed to describe what they present as non-individualist, "relationship-oriented" ways of dealing with human problems.  It never seems to have occurred to them that it would be instructive to examine how supposedly non-individualist societies deal with such problems.  After all, we have not only vast amounts of sociological and anthropological data about such societies, but plenty of literature and traditions from the history of Western culture, in the days before we became individualists.  Why re-invent the wheel?

Well, for one thing, it's hard to justify your status and salary as a science-based academic helping professional, working with "solid data" (90), if you're just going to appeal to tradition.  But as the Gergens are aware, hardly anyone wants to go back to the old days, even those who claim that they do.  Getting rid of tradition hasn't eliminated the abuses that were common in non-individualistic societies, but there were good reasons why people tried.  Relationship-oriented ways of dealing with conflict don't automatically lead to good outcomes, and it's arguable that even as the Gergens proclaim their rejection of the individualistic tradition, they are still working within it.  "Dialogue," for example, as the Gergens practice it, is an activity performed between individuals.  Social constructions are not something you can change, let alone escape, just by saying so, or even by setting your mind to it.

The Gergens, like many other social constructionists, skirt close to a blank-slate social construction of human beings and culture.  I think it was the philosopher Edward Stein who argued that the verb underlying "construction" ought to be "construe," not "construct."  I like that idea, but I think "construct" is a good metaphor, as long as it's remember that construction works with materials, and materials (animate or inanimate) are not infinitely malleable.  Our bodies cannot always follow where our ideas go.  Perhap more often they can't.

Social Construction: Entering the Dialogue is not a good introduction to the concept for beginners; it will probably just confuse and misinform them.  I must look for more basic texts on social construction and see if there better ones out there.  It seems to me that while the idea of social construction is a valuable and useful one, as the Gergens and many other people use it, it is not an idea or a concept but a brand -- something like I Can't Believe It's Not Essentialism!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Quest for the Historical Francis

Richard C. Trexler's Naked Before the Father: The Renunciation of Francis of Assisi (California, 1989) would have been worth reading just so I could learn about this 1980 Marvel Comic book about St. Francis of Assisi.  Unfortunately I couldn't find online the panel Trexler reproduced, showing a hunky young Francis standing naked (but visible only from the waist up) after renouncing his inheritance, including the clothes he was wearing, in front of his father and the local bishop, but maybe I'll try to scan it myself.  I checked Trexler's book out of the library out of curiosity about his other writings, having found his Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995) very useful.  Naked Before the Father was also very good, and I'll be checking out more of Trexler's work before long.

Trexler's subject here is one key episode in Francis' life, the renunciation of his property.  Trexler begins by summarizing the surviving documentation of Francis' family, then analyzes the earliest accounts of Francis's life and career, which began appearing just a couple of years after his death in 1226.  It turns out that there are fewer contemporary records of Francis' father than of his mother, though his father plays a much more prominent role in the hagiographies.  Trexler concludes, with proper caution, that Francis' mother's role was downplayed because men were trying to shut women out of public life in thirteenth-century Italy.  Up to that point women could own property, participate in legal action, and so on.  If Francis could have inherited an estate from his mother (who Trexler speculates may have been richer than his father), his father would have seen him as a competitor for that estate.  This was not a trivial issue, because a postulant's property would go as a dowry to the order he joined.  The cult of Francis as a saint also had economic aspects, since it drew tourists ("pilgrims") and created jobs in the region.

I'm just sketching this, partly because it's not my main point here, but also because I don't know how scholarship on Francis has developed since Trexler's book.  What I found fascinating was that so little is known about Francis' family and background, even though archives preserve written documents from the period, and the Franciscan order preserves a fairly stable and unbroken tradition dating back to his lifetime.  The surviving "notarial" documents never mention Francis' father by name, for example, and barely mention his mother by name, though not as Francis' mother.  Francis' father is named in the hagiographies, and his mother is barely present, nor is her name mentioned.  By contrast, we know, or think we know, the name of Jesus' mother from the first three New Testament gospels -- but though she's a prominent in character in the fourth one, the one "according to" John, she is never named.  In Mark, the gospel that most scholars agree was probably the first to be written, Jesus' father is never named, and he's referred to in his home town (Mark 6:3) as the son of Mary.

One important difference between the early hagiographies of Francis and the gospels (canonical and otherwise) is that the accounts of Francis can be dated much more closely, and the sequence in which they were written is known.  The differences between them, then, can be examined.  We also know the identities of their authors, unlike the gospels.  The author of the "official" one, Bonaventure, who later became a saint himself, wrote explicitly to supersede his predecessors, and tried to have their work suppressed.  This reminded me of beliefs held by many people nowadays about the New Testament, that the Church deliberately rewrote history and revised the biblical canon to suit its agenda and consolidate its power.  These beliefs are lightly dismissed as conspiracy theories by most scholars, and I don't share them myself, but as the case of Francis shows, they are not inherently implausible.

Consider: we know almost nothing about the development of the Jesus cult in his homeland.  It's reasonable to suppose that Christianity persisted in Galilee after Jesus' death and resurrection, for example, but we have no information about it.  We have very little information about the first Christian generation in Judea, or even just in Jerusalem.  (The Book of Acts is not reliable as a historical source, as shown by its many conflicts with the letters of Paul.)  Nor do we know much about Palestinian Jewish Christianity; the New Testament writings are the product of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles in the diaspora around the eastern Mediterranean.  To some extent this can be explained by the cataclysm of the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE, which resulted in enormous changes in Judaism, including the establishment of a doctrinal center in Babylonia that engendered rabbinic Judaism as we know it today.  Christianity virtually disappeared among Jews and became a primarily Gentile cult by the beginning of the second century.

By contrast, the cult of Francis, though it spread widely, remained based in Assisi, with continuities that can be traced back to his lifetime and the years immediately after his death.  Though important documents were written in Latin, the language of the church, others were written in Italian.  We have authentic writings by Francis in Italian, and none by Jesus or his original followers in any language.  Most of the paintings Trexler analyzes were produced in and for churches in Italy, with a couple of later ones elsewhere in Europe.  There weren't the kind of upheavals that disrupted the history of early Christianity.  And yet there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about Francis' life, his family, his motives for becoming a friar, and so on.  It's fascinating to see, for example, how Francis' mother advanced and receded in depictions of his renunciation, and how his father becomes increasingly angry and even violent: some later paintings show him beating Francis with a stick, although this is not mentioned in the early hagiographies.  Reading Naked Before the Father brought home to me the difficulties of writing biography and history even of figures in literate societies, for whom there's more or less contemporary documentation.  How much more difficult it is to establish the history of figures from the ancient world, be they Jesus or the Buddha or Socrates or Pythagoras.

Monday, April 25, 2016

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Harriet Tubman is going to be on the front of the US $20 bill, with the slaveowner Andrew Jackson bumped to the back, and it's been mildly entertaining to watch the hooting and fist-pumping in the Intertubes as various parties try to spin the news as a triumph for their respective teams.  I keep wanting to dismiss it as a merely symbolic gesture, but I remind myself that symbols matter.  Roy Edroso covered rightblogger reactions in his latest Village Voice column, and retweeted the above meme on Twitter.

So far I haven't seen any evidence that Tubman ever said anything about the Second Amendment, which isn't surprising since the Second Amendment wasn't a big point of contention in her day.  For a slave, however, let alone a runaway who kept returning to the South to help other slaves escape, to own a gun would have been more disputed; to this day, the right of free African-Americans to keep and bear arms is difficult for white conservatives to affirm.  Since Tubman was an outlaw, I doubt she worried too much about the Constitutional issue.

A Libertarian writer at Reason was so eager to claim Tubman for his team that he overreached a bit: "she didn't advocate violence in the mode of John Brown, whose goal of ending slavery she shared."  In fact, Tubman and Brown admired each other, and Tubman supported his plan to attack Harper's Ferry.  The evidence is messy, but it seems that Tubman was down with violence in Brown's "mode."  (Forbes knew better.)  So would this discredit her in Nick Gillespie's eyes after all?

He continues:
A year ago, when Tubman's name was first floated as a possible figure for a new $20 bill, a number of anti-capitalist commenters observed that Tubman of all people shouldn't be on money because, by their reckoning, slavery is the essence of capitalism. As Damon Root noted at the time, this is not just ahistorical in the extreme, it flies in the face of the explicit thought of leading former slaves. I haven't been able to locate specific quotes from Tubman on the question of wage labor, but there's no doubt she believed in self-ownership, which is the actual basis for capitalism. Where today's leftists want to celebrate Tubman for "subverting" capitalism by effectively stealing her own self, Root argues that's just dumb.
Talk about ahistorical!  Tubman wasn't a Lockean social-contract philosopher but a religious nut, and I put it that crassly because her charismatic religiosity made her conteporary white allies uncomfortable, and still bothers some of her modern chroniclers.  The "actual basis for capitalism" could be debated forever, and has been, but like so many others Gillespie confuses free markets with capitalism.  They're not the same thing, and are probably incompatible with one another.  At least some of the American founders were suspicious of corporations, and Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 9 end), who can hardly be dismissed as an opponent of free markets, wrote "Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people."

I'm also skeptical of Gillespie's claim about former slaves' attitudes to wage labor, which is probably oversimple.  The former slave Frederick Douglass, for example, "initially declared, 'now I am my own master', upon taking a paying job. But later in life, he concluded to the contrary, 'experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.'"  I doubt that former slaves spoke with one voice on the subject, but "wage slavery" is a nineteenth-century concept, not an ahistorical idea imposed on the past by modern radicals.

It might also be worth pointing out that Tubman spent many years trying to get a government pension, as a war widow and as a former spy for the Union, without success until 2003.  Whatever her economic views were, she was by Libertarian standards a moocher and parasite.

Roy Edroso, however, is not exactly disinterested either.   In his Voice column he writes of one rightblogger:
Also, he said one academic study had trouble pinning down details of Tubman’s life, which Some Guy took to mean that “most of [Tubman's] deeds were excessively exaggerated or completely made up.”
As it happens, it's not just "one academic study" that wrestled with establishing the facts of Tubman's life.  I suppose we could debate whether Kate Larson's biography of Tubman counts as an academic study, but let's not; Larson is a historian with a Ph.D., so she's an academic and I wouldn't be surprised if her 2003 book was the study Some Guy had in mind.  Larson had to dig through a lot of legend and folklore in her research, and she upset some of Tubman's fans by her conclusions.  Which doesn't mean she rejected Tubman's status as an American history, nor do I.  But Edroso is so busy mocking his right-wing sitting ducks that he can't consider the possibility that one of them might be working with a fact or two.  Larson did not conclude that "most" of Tubman's reported deeds were "completely made up," but she did find a lot of exaggeration and fabrication.  The reality of Tubman's life, as far as we can reconstruct it now, is admirable enough; there's no need to puff her up with fantasy.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Someday My Prince Will Come

Two things are starting to get to me in the flood of public mourning of Prince's death.

One is less serious, but a lot of what I see isn't really mourning, it's whining. Yes, it's sad that Prince died, and that he died relatively young. (Not compared to Mozart, Schubert or any number of other greats, of course.) But the same reaction is applied to people who die even at quite advanced ages.  It was kind of creepy during the years of Nelson Mandela's decline, when many people freaked out every time he went into the hospital. I think that if they could have, they'd have kept him on life support forever, as tired and sick as he was. There seems to be a real panic and inability to cope with the fact that people are mortal. This is especially strange given how many of these people are religious or "spiritual." One reason I don't miss having a religion is that religion doesn't really seem to help most people cope with mortality, their own or others'.

The other is more serious, though a bit less common: the people who are putting up memes and other material lamenting the fact that Kanye West, or Ted Nugent, or Justin Bieber is still alive. If you can't mourn one celebrity's loss without this kind of vicious and mean-spirited attack on anybody else, then something is wrong with you. That goes double for those of you who are ostentatiously religious or "spiritual." That's another reason I don't miss having a religion; it really doesn't seem to improve people's characters. (A more common version of this is the conservative Christians I know who alternate between posting vile racist crap on one hand, and fake-nicey-nice religious platitudes on the other. You're not fooling me, folks, and if you're not fooling me you're certainly not fooling Jesus or Buddha. I'll see you in Hell. Yet the people who are upset at the surivival of West and Nugent tend to be liberals, both in politics and religion. Remember, Jesus said that the vast majority of human beings would be damned. I'll see you in Hell, too, while Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum watch our torment from the bosom of Abraham.)

But at the same time, both of these are reasons why I think that social media like Facebook are worthwhile: it lets so many people show their asses in public, so that any illusions I might otherwise have about them are dispelled. It's not pleasant, but knowledge is better than ignorance to my mind.

And the rest of you who don't fall into either of these camps, carry on; I'm not criticizing you.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wars of Compassion; or, Pacifists Who Kill

I've written before about Brian Daizen Victoria's work on the collaboration between Zen Buddhism and imperialist warfare.  Since then I've read his book Zen at War (Rowman, 1997; second edition 2006), followed by Christopher Ives's Imperial-Way Zen (Hawai'i, 2009), which is critical of some details of Victoria's thesis but overall agrees that the major Zen sects in Japan actively colluded with and rationalized Japanese imperial violence.  Now I've reading Victoria's Zen War Stories (Routledge, 2003), which adds more material to his argument.

The first chapter is a knockout.  Victoria recounts his 1999 visit to the Rinzai Zen Master Nakajima Genjō, a year before the latter's death at age 85.  Genjō told Victoria
that he had served in the Imperial Japanese Navy for some ten years, voluntarily enlisting at the age of twenty-one.  Significantly, the year prior to his enlistement Genjo had his initial enlightement experience (kenshō).

... To my surprise, Genjō readily agreed to share his wartime experiences with me, but, shortly after he began to speak, tears welled up in his eyes and his voice cracked.  Overcome by emotion, he was unable to continue.  By this time his tears had triggered my own, and we both sat round the temple's open hearth crying for some time.  When at length Genjō regained his composure, he informed me that he had just completed writing his autobiography, including a description of his years in the military [3].
Genjō was the first Zen master Victoria had met in person who had served in the military, so he gratefully accepted the master's offer of a copy of his autobiography on its publication.  Victoria then provides a "somewhat abridged" translation of the portion describing Genjō's wartime experience.  He kept in touch with his own master, Yamamoto Gempō, who continued his Zen training by correspondence while encouraging him to be "the genuine article, the real thing!  Zen priests mustn't rely on the experience of others.  Do today what has to be done today.  Tomorrow is too late!" (4).

When Genjō's ship landed in Zhenjiang, China, in 1937, he visited the famous temple of Jinshani there.  He found five hundred novices engaged in meditation practice, and being "young and immature," he remonstrated with the abbot.
What do you think you're doing!  In Japan everyone is consumed by the war with China, and this is all you can do?  [The abbot replied,] And just who are you to talk?  I hear that you are a priest.  War is for soldiers.  A priest's work is to read the sūtras and meditate!

The abbot didn't say any more than this, but I felt as if I had been hit on the head with a sledgehammer.  As a result I immediately became a pacifist [7].
Pacifist or no, Genjō continued to serve in the Japanese Navy.  He dismisses reports of the infamous massacres in Nanking: "... I am firmly convinced that there was no such thing.  It was wartime, so there may have been a little trouble with the women.  In any event, after things start to settle down, it is pretty difficult to kill anyone" (ibid.).  He sketches out the rest of the war from a Japanese sailor's perspective.  In 1943 his ship was torpedoed and, while drifting in the South China Sea, he had another enlightenment experience as he grappled with "life and death."
There was nothing to do but totally devote myself to Zen practice within the context of the ocean itself.  It would be a shame to die here I thought, for I wanted to return to being a Zen priest.  Therefore I single-mindedly devoted myself to making every possible effort to survive, abandoning all thought of life and death.  It was just at that moment that I freed myself from life and death.

This freedom from life and death was in reality the realization of great enlightenment (daigo)... I wanted to meet my master so badly, but there was no way to contact him [9].
Looking back, Genjō waxes indignant, even wrathful, over what he perceives as the cowardice and incompetence of the top brass.
In the Meiji era [1868-1912] military men had character and a sense of history.  Gradually, however, the military was taken over by men who did well in school and whose lives were centered on their families.  It became a collection of men lacking intestinal fortitude and vision.  Furthermore, they suffered from a lack of Japanese spirit and ultimately allowed personal ambition to take control of their lives [10].

The national polity of Japan is characterized by the fact that ours is a land of the gods.  The gods are bright and like water, both aspects immeasurable by nature ... Stupid military men, however, thought: "A country that can fight well is a land of the gods.  The gods will surely protect such a country."  I only wish that the top echelons of the military had absorbed even a little of the spirit of the real national polity [11].
In conclusion, Genjō laments:
This was a stupid war.  Engulfed in a stupid war, there was nothing I could do.  I wish to apologize, from the bottom of my heart, to those of my fellow soldiers who fell in battle.  As I look back on it now, I realize that I was in the navy for a total of ten years.  For me, those ten years felt like an eternity.  And it distresses me to think of all the comrades I lost [11].
Reading Genjō's memoir made Victoria realize that when the two of them wept over the war, Genjō was mourning only the Japanese military personnel who suffered and died in the conflict, especially those who died from disease and hunger rather than from a more fitting and glorious death in battle.  He also considers the war "stupid," not because it was a war of aggression, or even because it was a gigantic cataclysm of destructive violence, but because, "unlike in other wars, Japan had been defeated" (11) due to the leaders' incompetence in planning and strategy.  This immediately made me think of many Americans' judgment of our invasion of Vietnam, which is often touted as the first US defeat; that we killed millions of innocent people who had not attacked the US is of no interest to them at all, only that we failed to extract another victory to add to our large, glorious collection of trophies, at the cost of American lives.

Imagine someone who informs you, while tucking into a big juicy steak, that after a stunning confrontation with a religious teacher, she immediately became a vegetarian, and remains so to this day.  In what sense Genjō considers himself a pacifist, considering that he nowhere rejects war in principle, baffles me, as it baffles Victoria; Genjō's account "suggests that in practice Genjō's newly found pacifism amounted to little more than 'feel good, accomplish nothing' mental masturbation" (14).  To the credit of both men, he followed up this question.  (I say both men because it would not be surprising for a revered senior monk to slap down probing questions from an impertinent junior and a foreigner at that; but as you'll see, Genjō didn't do so.)
In fact, during a second visit to Shōinji in January 2000, I personally queried Genjō on this very point: I asked him why he hadn't attempted, in one way or another, to distance himself from Japan's war effort following his change of heart.  His reply was short and to the point: "I would have been court-martialed and shot had I done so."

No doubt, Genjō was speaking the truth, and I for one am not going to claim that I would have acted any differently (though I hope I would have).  This said, Genjō does not hesitate to present himself to his readers as the very embodiment of the Buddha's enlightenment.  The question must therefore be asked, is the killing of countless human beings in order to save one's own life an authentic expression of the Buddha Dharma, of the Buddha's enlightennment? [14]
A few things should be borne in mind here.  One is that, while Genjō's disinclination to face court-martial and execution for rejecting the Japanese war is understandable during the war -- and like Victoria, I don't condemn him for it, being even less sure than Victoria that I'd have done any differently in his place -- he continued to accept the validity of the war even sixty years later, when the political situation had changed and he would probably have faced no consequences for rejecting it.  This too is similar to many Americans' reluctance in retrospect to condemn the Vietnam War, or the 2003 Gulf War for that matter.  It's okay and quite safe to criticize the way those wars were prosecuted, but to argue that they should not have been fought at all is Going Too Far.  It's popular (both in Japan and in 'the West') to point to the conformism and groupthink of Japanese society to explain the paucity of dissent by Japanese, but Americans are not very different in that respect.

Brian Victoria has a personal history of dissenting within institutions.  As a young American Methodist in 1961 he became a conscientious objector, several years before the rise of a movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, though that invasion was already well under way.  He became a missionary to fulfill the alternative service required of COs, but when he rejected the "political indoctrination classes" he was expected to take he was turned down for service first in Hong Kong and then in Taiwan.  He was sent to Japan instead, which didn't have the same doctrinal uniformity among its Christian groups.  There he became interested in Zen and was ordained as a Soto Zen monk a few years later.  After working in the movement against the US invasion of Vietnam, which brought him into conflict with Zen superiors who didn't think priests should get involved in politics, he became aware of the previous Buddhist role in Japanese imperialism, which led him to the writing of Zen at War.

A reviewer of Zen War Stories for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics commented:
Reading Victoria’s new book in late 2003, as an American reflecting on recent and past U.S. policy in the Middle East, I cannot help wondering about the comparable role of Christianity in the West. In criticizing the nationalistic role of Zen, are we holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards than we have upheld ourselves? To say that Buddhism was distorted by Japanese society: in the end, does that mean anything more than that Buddhism too is a religion practiced by human beings?
This seems disingenous to me.  I haven't seen anything by Victoria which indicates that he's "holding Japanese Buddhism to higher standards" than he would hold Christianity, since he has been no less critical of Christianity, and of the US (his home country).  The reviewer's complaint is typical of tactics used to discredit critics of any tradition: if you criticize US foreign policy, for example, or Israeli oppression of Palestinians, or various misconduct by Christians, you will be accused of considering America (or Israel) to be uniquely bad, perhaps claiming that it is 'the source of everything that's wrong in the world.'  Victoria's thoughtcrime lies not in considering Buddhism unique, but in rejecting the claim that it is unique, a religion like others, and in criticizing it from within.  It's perfectly acceptable, and indeed normal, to treat Buddhism, or Christianity, or America, or Science, as uniquely good; apologists only fall back to the line of "we're just human beings like everybody else" for damage control.

That "Buddhism too is a religion is a religion practiced by human beings" is precisely what Brian Victoria has been saying all along.  As the Austrian-born Hindu monk and sociologist Agehananda Bharati said, one can be a believer and a sound scholar if one "radically criticize[s] the doctrine with which one identifies, pointing out its weaknesses, its foibles, and the clay feet of its founders and sustainers, at every step."  (Which is why I myself criticize atheists along with theists, and my own country along with others.)  Victoria judges Zen and Christianity, Japan and America, by a single standard.  But that is exactly what no doctrine wants its followers to do.

It's also okay to criticize competing traditions as harshly as is expedient.  Christians and other monotheists are notorious for doing so -- see the passages Victoria quotes from Christian scholarly texts on Buddhism on page xiv, for example -- but the tendency isn't limited to them.  Buddhism has a long pacifist tradition, as does Christianity; Victoria quotes a story that the Buddha, questioned by a professional soldier, "informed him that if the latter were to die on the battlefield he could expect to be 'reborn in a hell or as an animal' for his transgressions."  This is a much harsher judgment than anything Jesus is reported to have said; he never condemned war himself, perhaps because he expected to lead the war against unbelievers in the final judgemnt.  (Indeed, according to the gospels, he was quite friendly and helpful to soldiers of the Roman occupation of his country.)  Victoria continues: "Inasmuch as I make no claim to omniscience for myself, I do not know in what state, or even if, the protagonists in this book will be reborn.  But, like the Buddha himself, I do not hesitate to judge them on the basis of their deeds, whether of body or speech" (xv).  Like Christianity, Buddhism has a long tradition of violence and warfare, and it didn't begin in twentieth-century Japan.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sexcraft; or, Which Came First, the Gender or the Sex?

Identity is not an essentialist nugget at the center of things.  It’s a category to put things in. You can’t think without categories; but you want categories that are complex enough that whatever is inside them is always questioning its own boundaries.
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields wrote in their brilliant book Racecraft that even many anti-racist people accept "the objective reality of race":
Racism is not an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence.  If it were that, it would easily be overwhelmed; most people mean well, most of the time, and in any case are usually busy pursuing other purposes.  Racism is first and foremost a social practice, which means that it is an action and a rationale for actions, or both at once.  Racism always takes for granted the objectivity of race, as just defined, so it is important to register their distinctness.  The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.  Consider the statement "black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color" -- a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality.  But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke -- paff -- reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole.  In similar fashion, enslavers disappear only to reappear, disguised, in stories that append physical traits defined as slave-like to those enslaved [17-18].
I began reading a book I'd checked out from the library, Gender Nonconformity, Race, and Sexuality: Charting the Connections, edited by Toni Lester, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2002.  In the introduction Lester begins by explaining that she asks her lecture audiences to name "traits that they think are innately female or male", which of course elicits the usual stereotypes.  She continues:
Some people believe that the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women listed above are biologically determined.  Others, including myself, believe that while biology may play a part in male and female behavior, society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics.  Indeed, certain sites of social power, like the sciences, our legal system, the political sphere, and cultural institutions operate to create and enforce these sex-based norms.  Thus, contrary to what biological determinists think, gender roles are not so fixed.  Men do not own masculinity any more than women own femininity [3-4].
I stopped reading at this point -- not because I intended not to stop altogether, but because I wanted to think some more about this passage.  First, though, I glanced at Peter Hegarty's contribution later in the book, "More Feminine than 999 Men out of 1,000': Measuring Ssex Roles and Gender Nonconformity in Psychology."  Hegarty later wrote an excellent book, Gentlemen's Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men (Chicago, 2013), so I hoped his article would have the same intelligent take on gender.  A look at the opening paragraphs left me unsure, so I put it off till later.  For now I want to concentrate on Lester's remarks.

At the most obvious level, men do "own masculinity" and women "own femininity," depending of course on how one defines the various terms involved.  If you think of "masculinity" as some pre-existent Platonic idea that is totally independent of bodies, perhaps an autonomous spirit that possesses individuals and makes them hunt, weave, cook, fight, or rape (and many people evidently do), then it makes sense to say that men don't "own masculinity"; it's its own person, after all, you don't want to tie it down.

I go with the "woman-identified woman" I've quoted numerous times before, who declared that "whatever women wear is women's wear."*  This is an upsetting idea for many people who believe, on the contrary, that women do not "own femininity" or men, masculinity; it's actually the other way around. The individual must conform to the norms; if anything, masculinity and femininity own us.  Of course that begs the question of what a woman is.  For many, perhaps most people, a woman is a person who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to -- and anyone who looks, dresses, and behaves as a woman is supposed to is a woman.  Another curious point is that these traits, behaviors, etc. are stereotypes; yet people who claim to reject stereotypes will appeal to them in classifying people according to sex/gender, race, and class.  Which brings me back to the starting point -- except that there is no starting point. Which came first, the sex or the gender?

I think that in "the masculine traits attributed to men and the feminine traits attributed to women" Lester was just being sloppy, but that's an awful lot of sloppy for the first page of your book.  Those traits are "masculine" and "feminine" because of the sex they're attributed to.  Why are "aggressive, decisive, rational, domineering, ... strong" associated with males?  Why weren't some other, different traits associated with maleness, though they might be just as plausible?  "Lethargic couch potatoes who watch other males playing contact sports on television," say, instead of "aggressive"?  Of course there's often a gulf between the way people are supposed to act, on whatever assumptions, and the way they actually do act; and both folk and academic psychology stumble when they must try to account for that gulf.  Myself, I'm a lot more interested in that gulf than in collecting and fussing over the stereotypes.

Then consider Lester's belief that "society plays an equal or even stronger role in influencing the extent to which men and women adopt masculine or feminine characteristics."  What is "society"?  It's made up of men and women, of course.  I'm certainly open to the possibility that groups of people might exhibit attitudes (would "emergent" be the right word?) that individual people don't hold and would disagree with.  But where do those attitudes and beliefs come from?  How does "society" decide which norms to "create and enforce"?  People often talk as though "society" were another independent autonomous force or spirit, the Great Other, separable and separate from themselves.  It might be that Lester will answer these questions later in the Introduction, but I doubt it, since she is setting forth her conclusions here, and it seems to me that she's every bit as much in thrall to stereotypical sex/gender norms as the people in her audiences.

As is often the case in social construction discourse, Lester confuses the classification of traits with the cause of traits.  In the case of "race," for example, skin color is a physical trait probably determined by genetic endowment, but "race" doesn't equal skin color.  (In many cultures darker skin is seen as low-class, undesirable.  "You can be dark and rich or you can be fair and poor, but you can't be dark and poor!" exclaims a Hindu woman discussing a girl's marriage chances in Mira Nair's 1991 film Mississippi Masala.)   So, for example, men are on average taller than women, and height is a physical trait determined partly by genetic endowment and partly by diet and other experiences.  Some of women's lesser average height may in part be due to deprivation, where boy children are fed more than girl children; but when a woman turns out to be tall anyway (and what counts as tall depends on how tall most people are in a given society), she'll have problems.  Heterosexual men are socially expected to be taller than their female mates, though not all of them worry about it.  So it doesn't matter what causes a trait, whether it is biologically acquired or learned; what matters is how it is evaluated and classified.

The trouble as I see it is that many people are determined to gender everything as much as they can; from my point of view, most traits and behaviors are not either male or female, masculine or feminine.  This post has been languishing in my Drafts folder long enough; I'll return to these issues soon.

*Quoted by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in Lesbian/Woman (Bantam, 1972), page 81.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

You've Been Telling Me You're a Genius Since You Were Seventeen

Reading Curtis White's The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2013) renewed my respect for Mary Midgley.  I happened on White's book in the library just after I'd reread Midgley's Science and Salvation (Routledge, 1992) and was mulling over the (very critical) blog post I wanted to write about it.  Since White, a novelist and academic social critic, was going over much the same ground, and I enjoyed his title's dig at Richard Dawkins, I decided to give it a try.

I can sum up part of my reaction by quoting this writer at BoingBoing, who says that most reviews of The Science Delusion have missed White's point:
All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong. 
Of course, many writers have had the experience of discovering that the book their readers and critics read was not the book they thought they wrote.  And I must say that I nowhere got the impression that White "totally dismisses" science; only a sloppy and probably biased reader, one with a science-cultist agenda, should have taken that from the book, in much the same way that Obama cultists jump to the conclusion that anyone who criticizes Obama is totally a Republican who hates him and doesn't like or respect or admire anybody. (Or American exceptionalists accuse anyone who argues that the US shouldn't bomb the shit out of countries that haven't attacked us of wanting to see America conquered and destroyed by Al-Qaeda.)

The BoingBoing writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, complains that The Science Delusion "is written in such a way as to nearly ensure that it will quickly alienate anybody who identifies with science as their community, their career, or their passion."  As I've argued before (and Koerth-Baker herself notices), writers like Dawkins and Hitchens can dish it out but not take it -- Dawkins especially has very tender sensibilities when his rhetorical style is turned back on him -- so it's highly unlikely that anyone could write a book critical of any aspect of science that wouldn't alienate anybody who "identifies with science."

Still, a humanities-oriented writer, especially one who's been around the block a few dozen times (White is 65, almost exactly my age) should have, you know, thought about the way his or her writing was coming across.  This is why writers show their work to readers they trust before publication: not just to check for factual or typographical errors, but to get their reactions to the content as a whole.  I've mentioned before how surprised I was when I wrote a satirical piece mocking college fraternities with Christian-right rhetoric, and friends (including graduate students in the humanities, from whom I'd have expected better; hadn't they even heard of Swift's "Modest Proposal"? evidently not) took it literally, exultant that I'd given those Greek-system snots what for.  Satire is always tricky that way.  I often showed my poems to people who weren't academics to get their reactions, as I did with my big anti-Christian project (still unpublished) of the 1980s: to see what non-professionals took away from it.  I had better luck with the anti-Christian book; people seemed to get what I intended.

It's to be expected that scientists might have trouble with tone and balance in what they write for a general audience: that kind of subtlety isn't in their job description.  But if White wanted to show the value of the humanities as well as the sciences for understanding the world, he did a poor job of it.  Since I am also humanities-oriented, critical of science triumphalism, and am predisposed to agree with the point he was trying to make, I'm just the audience he was aiming for, and he still left me dissatisfied.

Interestingly, White told Koerth-Baker in e-mail:
I hope you won’t be entirely surprised if I say that I don’t think anything went wrong. The Science Delusion is much like my earlier work, especially The Middle Mind. One person’s “angry screed” is another person’s “passionate defense.” My native audience tends to be among artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed. This particular book has generated a broader audience, much of which is sensitive to criticism of the sciences. I just received a review by Mark Kingwell, a Canadian philosopher, for the Globe and Mail. It’s a sympathetic review although he complains of the “bad jokes.” (At least he noticed there were jokes!) But the on-line comments about his review hacked him to pieces in the name of the superiority of the scientific worldview. Utter disdain. Baseless contempt. I have to say, the comments made me feel a little better about some of the treatment I’ve received. 
So it appears that it's Koerth-Baker who misunderstood White's intention.  The part about the attacks on Kingwell's review also fits a pattern I've noticed before: those who try to position themselves as moderates, whether philosophically or politically, tend to find themselves vilified for allegedly taking the very positions they were trying to repudiate.  So, when the journalist Richard Goldstein tried to distance himself from Noam Chomsky's supposed anti-Americanism a decade ago, readers attacked him as anti-American.

Similarly, Koerth-Baker wants to take a middle stance on scientism, by mildly criticizing the tone of writers like Dawkins, and rejecting what she calls "pop-culture, self-help neuroscience."  But "pop culture" isn't really the problem, it's actual working scientists who genuinely believe they know more and can explain more than they can.  So she wrote that "much of White's argument against this hinges on framing pop-neurobollocks as a problem created by and supported by scientists, and a problem that very few people have spoken out about. Neither of which is true."  What she calls "pop-neurobollocks" is in fact created by and supported by scientists.  It's true that other scientists have criticized their colleagues -- see Robert A. Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, which I discussed here -- and they locate the problem not in pop culture but in the field itself.  And the criticisms are commonly dismissed by their colleagues as coming from (you guessed it) the humanities, from feminists and leftists who hate science and want to see it destroyed.  Another, superficially milder strategem is to accuse critics of scientific racism of favoring a "blank slate" view of human nature.

Koerth-Baker also claims that
anthropology was once a field pretty much dedicated to proving the superiority of white, Western colonial powers over their brown subjects. The societal context shaped the questions those early anthropologists were asking, it shaped how they chose to study the world, and it shaped how they chose to interpret the data they came back with. The fact that, by the time I got to anthropology school in 1999, the field had been drastically realigned as a challenge to its former self also says something about the influence of culture and the importance of questioning ourselves and our values in ways that are not purely scientific.
This is mistaken.  First, anthropologists were always divided among themselves.  Many were dedicated to justifying Western imperialism, but others weren't.  Franz Boas is probably the most famous example of an early 20th century anthropologist who opposed and criticized racist anthropology in the service of European colonialism. As an effective critic of scientific racism, he was predictably vilified by his colleages, often on racist grounds.  The eugenicist Madison Grant, for example, jeered that Boas "naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."  (Boas was Jewish.)  Second, some anthropologists are still serving Western imperialism.  I'd add that scientific racism based in biology is still very much with us.

But her error is instructive, as an example of the common tendency to speak of "science," "religion," "art," and other fields as if they spoke with one voice and were mutually exclusive.

If Curtis White wants to preach to the choir, that's his lookout.  It's perfectly legitimate to take a side and write for its adherents, to keep up their morale and, if possible, given them good reasons for continuing to believe what they want to.  My complaint about The Science Delusion is not that White picked on science, that he made such a shitty case for the humanities.  I think that's largely because he too thinks, or writes as if he thinks, that "science" and "the humanities," etc., speak with one voice and are mutually exclusive.

White writes, for example:
What scientists / polemicists like [Lawrence] Krauss refuse to admit, perhaps because they think that it creates an opening for their enemies, is that there is any limit on what they can claim to know.  Nevertheless, it is true even for science that there are unknowable things -- unknowable because not accessible to observation or experiment -- chief among which is the question of being's ultimate origin.  That is not an invitation for the God-mongers to set up camp where science cannot go (creating a "God of the gaps").  Rather, it is simply one of those matters about which science ought to open itself to other forms of thinking, if not knowing, and it might if it felt a little less besieged [53].
What are those "other forms of thinking, if not knowing"?  White isn't willing to concede too much to religion.  He dismisses the "God-mongers" as lightly as the scientists and New Atheists do, and though he stresses that "There are still many and large congregations of liberal Christians, even liberal evangelicals, starting with Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. And the liberal, even radical, Jewish community is famously large" (34), he doesn't spend much time on liberal or radical religious forms of knowing.
Not for Hitchens that rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic [sic!], Jewish, and Manichaean thought.  Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called "Platonism for the masses" [29].
What an anachronistic mess!  Didn't Nietzsche also call Christianity a slave morality?  I doubt that he meant "Platonism for the masses" as a compliment, either.  Did Christianity have answers that science knows not of?  Not that I can see, and White doesn't mention any.

White spends some time on various New Atheists' dismissal of philosophy.  He quotes, for example, the same Lawrence Krauss from a 2012 interview in The Atlantic:
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.”  And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. [Well, scientists kind of read it sometimes to give themselves conniptions. - D.M.] … And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it.  And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't [24].
White waxes indignant about these philistines: "What do any of these science writers know about the history of philosophy before Bertrand Russell?  Their comments are merely expressions of an anti-intellectual prejudice.  I would go so far as to say that they are a kind of bigotry" (25).  It might be more to the point to point out that these science writers are still doing philosophy; they're just doing it ignorantly and badly, like the plain-speaking businessman who claims that common sense is good enough for him.  When such scientists try to rebut philosophers and historians of science, they generally get everything wrong.  Philosophers keep worrying away at questions that scientists (and remember, science used to be called "natural philosophy") don't even to answer, perhaps because they're unanswerable.  To my mind, the benefit of doing philosophy is that it brings home so forcefully how much we don't know.

For Curtis White, the best alternative source of knowledge lies in the arts, specifically in the Romantic movement.
At its inception, Romanticism was about the discovery of a social attitude almost entirely new in the history of Western civilization.  Up through the late 18th century, individuals found themselves only in a group identification with tribe, kingdom, church, nation, and, brutally, social caste.  Romanticism offered a revolutionary and enduring alternative to being absorbed by the culture into which you happened to be born: alienation.  Alienation is the feeling that, as Lord Byron's Childe Harold expressed it, "I stood amongst them but not of them." ... I don't belong anywhere in my own world.  In fact, I see this world for what it is, and it is shameful.  In place of this world I feel something nobler within me that poets and philosophers, not soldiers, must make real...

And yet this sense of being homeless was for the Romantics [like the early Christians] a source not only of pain but of strength and potential joy as well. ... They would be heroes.  They would be free.  They would create themselves [59-60].  
A vain fantasy, and not far from the Promethean fantasies that drive a lot of scientists.  (White overlooks the notorious alienation experienced by many scientists.)  I don't believe White is correct about alienation being wholly new when the Romantics took it up.  Alienation is all over the New Testament, especially but not only in Paul's letters, and it's arguable that a feeling of not being at home in the world accounts for the popularity of mystery religions and other initiations around the Mediterranean in Jesus' time.  It seems to me that it's also part of Buddhism, certainly in the Buddha's origin myth (a pampered, sheltered prince, confronted with the reality of human suffering, leaves it all to seek Truth), which reminds me that White thinks almost exclusively in terms of "Western" art, culture and religion; odd that, in one who avows the influence of 1960s California counterculture in his life.

But again, what answers does Romanticism offer?  None that White mentions.  He makes much of its supposed egalitarianism, and throws the word "freedom" around a lot, especially "Schiller's mantra," "Art models freedom" (69).  Freedom is good, who could object to that?  But if Schiller was right, art models freedom through constraint, whether by using established forms or by creating new ones.  Freedom is never absolute. When he tries to get positive about art, White falls as flat as any scientist does.
The more agonistic way would be to say that for the past two centuries artists have hated mop inventors. Beethoven … seemed to hate just about everyone, and wrote his music against them, against his father, against Haydn, against “inkeepers, cobblers, and tailors,” and against the philistine nobility that paid his wages.  In short, [Jonah] Lehrer either has never heard of or simply dismisses the role of social alienation as a driving force for what he blandly calls creativity [117-8].  
What galloping horseshit.  Let's note again the social alienation found in many scientists.  Second, let's note that these alienated kids always expect to be taken care of, usually by women.  White hasn't noticed what a boys' club the arts have always been, no less than the sciences or religion.  Feminism is another alternate way of knowing that doesn't seem to be on his radar.
Lehrer writes, “The story of 'Like a Rolling Stone' is a story of creative insight.  The song was invented in the moment, then hurled into the world” [121]. 
Bullshit, and White recognizes this, but for the wrong reasons. "Like a Rolling Stone" did not spring fully grown from Bob Dylan's head.  Think of the actual process of writing, which was not a moment but went on for some time, producing ten pages of a rant that Dylan whittled down to four long verses.  Then think of the process of arranging and recording, which was protracted and painful.  Some of the versions, including a waltz, have since been released on CD.  The release version emerged in collaboration with other musicians, and Dylan's producer.  Then think of the hostility in the folk community to Dylan's artistic changes.  He was accused of commercialism, though his record label didn't see a six-minute opus as obvious fodder for the charts; but also remember Mim Udovich's rejoinder (from the Village Voice, 29 September 1992, 94-97) to Camille Paglia's lament about commercialism in pop music:
Outrage about the artistic limitations placed on musicians by the marketplace is equally unfounded.  And just to stick on Paglia's elementary level, if Leonard Chess had not told Chuck Berry to ditch the blues for something that would sell, it is arguable that Keith Richards would not be the coolest person living today.  And lastly, if you're going to make this argument at all, you should mention Colonel Tom Parker.
The case of rock'n'roll also brings in the relationship of art and technology -- that is, science.  Dylan could not have made "Like a Rolling Stone" without changes (advances, if you like) in the technology of musical instruments and of recording. The effect of recording on music has not been purely technical -- or rather, technical changes have wrought cultural changes.  A generation, the generation White and I share, learned to think of music as existing in sequence on two sides of a vinyl record. The advent of CDs changed that, and then music on the Internet, and Youtube, changed it again.  Musical performancs used to be ephemeral -- we have no idea what Jenny Lind sounded like, for example -- but we can now listen to the music of long-dead musicians, frozen on lacquer, vinyl, compact discs and now as virtual computer files.
For the scientist, blue is a particular wavelength in the light spectrum that is visible to humans. For the linguist, blue is a sign or symbol carrying meaning (heaven, salvation, Caribbean vacation, etc.).  But for an artist like Messaien, blue is a presence -- both a thing and the experience of the thing -- and only when we are attentive and responsive to this presence can we be said to understand it.  As Messaien shows [except that he didn't, but never mind for now], attention requires a certain non-evaluative openness to the thing [which thing?]; to respond to what the openness offers is the act of music-making itself [162].  
It occurs to me that White always thinks of art from the standpoint of the artist, the Promethean genius who creates, models freedom, and demands our "non-evaluative openness to the thing."  Anytime someone demands "non-evaluative openness," I reach for my critical thinking.  It seems that for White, it's the artist who matters, and the audience exists as a receptacle for "the act of music-making," or poem-making, or painting-making, or philosophy-making.  That's not an "egalitarian" model of the arts, or of life, and it sits oddly with White's insistence, quoting Schlegal, that "To have genius is the natural state of humanity."  Personally, my idea of Hell is a roomful of geniuses, demanding non-evaluative openness to their own products but never paying attention to the products of all the others, who may claim to be geniuses but are just a bunch of posers, man, to say nothing of the stupid sheeple who don't realize the pain of being a genius in an uncaring, un-understanding world.

One should, of course, take artists' philosophizing about their practice as skeptically as one takes scientists' philosophizing about theirs.  But what is blue to the painter?  A technical problem.  The technology of paint is ancient.  You can't draw a neat line between art and science.  Each practitioner, obsessed with his or her own problems, sees himself or herself as the center of the universe; one role of the philosopher is to decenter them.
The important thing to remember, those few of us who do [really? who is "us" here?], is that there are other metaphors than those offered to us by science, and other ways of thinking about what it's like to be a [sic] human.  There is a long, now dishonored tradition in philosophy and the arts that seeks to account for the "interior distance," our personal and species internal landscape.  The crucial thing to say is that this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth, the human-in-itself. ... What's more, these metaphors will also provide insight into something science is mostly clueless about: how we ought to live [167].
I disagree that "this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth"; it seems to me that all these traditions have such illusions, and their "insights" about "how we ought to live" are clueless when they try to prescribe and legislate for everyone.  The religious and philosophical traditions I've gotten the most from acknowledge that "our personal and species internal landscape" can not be accounted for.  People constantly mistake metaphors for reality.  Religious people are especially prone to doing so, with scientists close on their heels. 

White notes that the culture of science "is notoriously thin-skinned and combative" (96), then quotes at length a scientist on the cutthroat competition of science conferences and the scientific professional generally.  I suppose he takes for granted that his readers are aware that this also describes the humanities and the arts, but he doesn't make the point, so let me do it.  He also told Koerth-Baker that he liked a lot of science writing, such as John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, but he didn't discuss it in The Science Delusion because "McPhee is not in the business of using science to produce pernicious ideology."  Of course, the humanities and the arts have often produced pernicious ideology.  (The Romantics' adulation for, and then disillusionment with, Napoleon Bonaparte is not really addressed by White.) The only way to avoid doing so lies not in a given field or a particular movement in a field, but in not producing pernicious ideology in the first place.  How to avoid that?  There's the rub.  In The Science Delusion Curtis White offered an entertaining, though scattershot of the pretensions of scientists, but he merely showcased the pretentions of artists and the humanities.