Philosophy Should Care about the Filthy, Excessive and Unclean

Thomas White | Aeon Ideas

Philosophy traditionally has been about ‘higher’ questions: what is knowledge? What is the meaning of justice? What is the nature of ultimate reality? These questions soar above the petty concerns of the everyday and reach towards a realm of pure ideas. But can the ‘unclean’ – dirt, mud, bodily wastes, the grime of existence – be relevant to the philosopher’s quest for wisdom and the truth? Philosophers don’t often discuss filth and all its disgusting variations, but investigating the unclean turns out to be as useful an exercise as examining the highest ideals of justice, morality and metaphysics.

In his dialogue Parmenides, Plato gives us an inkling of the significance of philosophising about the unclean, which he names ‘undignified objects’, such as hair, mud and dirt. The young Socrates, at this stage but an entry-level philosopher, is discussing the foundations of reality with the venerable Parmenides. While this encounter between these philosophers about ‘undignified objects’ is brief, it is profound, for it shows how insightful thinkers use digressions and marginal comments to demonstrate that not everything is as clearcut as system-builders – including even Plato – might think.

Parmenides quizzes Socrates about whether the theory of ideal forms – the argument that particular material objects have correlated ideal patterns, which are the perfect forms of the imperfect things – can include mud and dirt. Can there be a perfect form of filth? Taken aback, Socrates confesses that he is troubled by this point because it seems to lead to nonsense: ‘perfect filth’ is contradictory. Instead, Socrates prefers to return to discussing the higher ideals of ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’. Confronted by Parmenides with the unseemly facts of mud and dirt, he takes refuge in the beautiful – unlike Antoine Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical novel Nausea (1938), who, in confronting the ugly facticity of the world, obtains a glimpse of actual, albeit repugnant, reality.

Socrates’ puzzlement at how to explain the very lowest (dirt, mud) in terms of the very highest (ideal forms) suggests the limitations of the dualistic, two-world theory that has formed the basis of several millennia of Western thought. The unclean’s ‘undignified objects’ represent a kind of outer twilight zone – a metaphysical no-man’s land – that eludes overarching theories about the meaning of reality. The very resistance of filth’s inclusion into a master philosophical system serves as a cautionary note, and a lesson in Socratic humility, warning the ambitious and overeager intellectual to slow down. Do not try to assimilate every aspect of our diverse experience into grand explanatory narratives. The unclean’s raw existence is a great intractable that rudely interrupts a philosopher’s thinking when it fails to fit neatly into the theory of forms, thus forcing the philosopher to curb hasty, ambitious generalisations, and think even harder and more clearly. (The classicist Edith Hamilton, in her introductory notes to Parmenides, suggests that Plato attacked his own theory of Platonic ideas in order to know the truth, not to defend his own preconceived views.)

Parmenides’ concerns about the limits of the theory of forms presages the empiricist Francis Bacon. In Novum Organum (1620), he argued similarly for the limits of intellectual speculation, and about the dangers of creating idols out of promiscuously generated philosophical systems by exceeding speculative boundaries:

The understanding must also be cautioned against the intemperance of systems, so far as regards its giving or withholding its assent; for such intemperance appears to fix and perpetuate idols, so as to leave no means of removing them.

In our own day, Slavoj Žižek in his book Disparities (2016) echoes the Parmenidean point about how the unclean can disrupt our comfortable theories about reality: ‘[S]hit remains an excess which does not fit our daily reality.’ An experience of disgust in the presence of the filthy and unclean disturbs our sense of systems and order, causing a ‘disintegration’ of our metaphysical understanding of reality, ‘the very ontological coordinates which enable [us] to locate an object “out there”.’

Like Plato, Žižek uses allusions to the unclean to alert the reader to how repugnant, discordant facts can undercut a particular vision of reality. He also expands the use of the metaphor of filth to call our attention to something else closer to his heart: the failings of our modern political discourse. Bacon warned us of intellectual intemperance, but Žižek uses references to the unclean to warn us of modern political intemperance. In the cases of Plato, Bacon and Žižek, the philosophical issue raised is about boundaries and the implications of transgressing them.

In the unclean, Žižek finds the ultimate metaphor for the dumbing down of political thought and speech, a way of understanding the collapse of modern political discourse – itself an echo of Plato’s critique of the false, that is, ‘sophistical’ use of political language – in which ‘public vulgarity’ is used without shame.

He begins his argument with a scene from a surreal film from 1974 in which people at a dinner party defecate in public:

We probably all remember the scene from Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at their toilets around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper: ‘Where is that place, you know?,’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.

Political figures today, Žižek argues, are committing the verbal equivalent of this public defecation. They are violating traditional, unwritten rules and boundaries that are used to guide public conduct by making outrageous statements that were once taboo. ‘They are a clear sign of the regression of our public sphere,’ he writes in Newsweek in 2016. ‘Accusations and ideas that were till now confined to the obscure underworld of racist obscenity are now gaining a foothold in official discourse.’ And citing Georg Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit – the ‘the thick background of (unwritten) rules of social life … that tell us what we can and cannot do’, Žižek further observes that ‘These [unwritten] rules are disintegrating today: what was a couple of decades ago simply unsayable in a public debate can now be pronounced with impunity.’

A discharge of verbal political filth has changed the public sphere into a kind of collective public toilet for language users – lurid speeches full of nasty ignorance, blatant vulgarity and raw prejudice. Plato and Žižek, with some tacit support from Bacon, use the notion of the unclean in similar ways to offer, implicitly, practical advice about how humans should conduct themselves: be wary of intemperately overstepping limits by chasing overweening ambitions, whether intellectual or political, which soil clear thinking and logic, and/or corrupt language, politics and ethics. Discussions of lowly filth, and all of its disgusting variations, are not merely the province of vulgarians, but seem to offer life lessons for everyone, not just philosophers.Aeon counter – do not remove


Thomas White is a Wiley Journal contributing author, whose philosophical and theological writings have appeared in print and online.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article here.

Atheism has been Part of Many Asian Traditions for Millennia

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Atheism is not a modern concept.
Zoe Margolis, CC BY-NC-ND

Signe Cohen, University of Missouri-Columbia

A group of atheists and secularists recently gathered in Southern California to talk about social and political issues. This was the first of three summits planned by the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C.

To many, atheism – the lack of belief in a personal god or gods – may appear an entirely modern concept. After all, it would seem that it is religious traditions that have dominated the world since the beginning of recorded history.

As a scholar of Asian religions, however, I’m often struck by the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism – the view that it is impossible to know whether a god exists – in ancient Asian texts. Atheistic traditions have played a significant part in Asian cultures for millennia.

Atheism in Buddhism, Jainism

Buddhists do not believe in a creator God.
Keith Cuddeback, CC BY-NC-ND

While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion.

The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.

While Buddhism does not argue that gods don’t exist, gods are seen as completely irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.

Jains do not believe in a divine creator.
Gandalf’s Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence toward all living beings, non-attachment to worldly possessions and ascetic practice. While Jains believe in an eternal soul or jiva, that can be reborn, they do not believe in a divine creator.

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and while gods may exist, they too must be reborn, just like humans are. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.

Other Atheistic Philosophies

Around the same time when Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C., there was also an explicitly atheist school of thought in India called the Carvaka school. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu authors describe the Carvakas as firm atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.

To the Carvakas, there was no life after death, no soul apart from the body, no gods and no world other than this one.

Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, similarly argued that gods didn’t exist, although its followers did believe in a soul and in rebirth.

The Ajivikas claimed that the fate of the soul was determined by fate alone, and not by a god, or even by free will. The Ajivikas taught that everything was made up of atoms, but that these atoms were moving and combining with each other in predestined ways.

Like the Carvaka school, the Ajivika school is today only known from texts composed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly what the Ajivikas themselves thought.

According to Buddhist texts, the Ajivikas argued that there was no distinction between good and evil and there was no such thing as sin. The school may have existed around the same time as early Buddhism, in the fifth century B.C.

Atheism in Hinduism

There are many gods in Hinduism, but there are also atheistic beliefs.
Religious Studies Unisa, CC BY-SA

While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism.

The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter.

Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God. The Mimamsa philosopher Kumarila said that if a god had created the world by himself in the beginning, how could anyone else possibly confirm it? Kumarila further argued that if a merciful god had created the world, it could not have been as full of suffering as it is.

According to the 2011 census, there were approximately 2.9 million atheists in India. Atheism is still a significant cultural force in India, as well as in other Asian countries influenced by Indian religions.The Conversation

Signe Cohen, Associate Professor and Department Chair, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Interview with Simone de Beauvoir (1959)

Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory.

De Beauvoir wrote novels, essays, biographies, autobiography and monographs on philosophy, politics and social issues. She was known for her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, a detailed analysis of women’s oppression and a foundational tract of contemporary feminism; and for her novels, including She Came to Stay and The Mandarins. She was also known for her lifelong relationship with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.


You may find two of de Beauvoir’s works, namely, The Second Sex (PDF) and The Ethics of Ambiguity (PDF), in the Political & Cultural and 20th-Century Philosophy sections of the Bookshelf.

Why Our Declining Biblical Literacy Matters

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Songwriters such as Nick Cave (pictured) and the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have often drawn on the scriptures in their work.
Paul Bergen/EPA


Meredith Lake, University of Sydney

Biblical literacy is likely lower in Australia today than at any point since the convict era. General levels of familiarity with the Christian scriptures are difficult to plot precisely, but studies of Bible reading habits, and data on various forms of Christian socialisation, indicate a significant decline in Australians’ exposure to the Bible over the last half century.

A 1960 study found that nine in ten Australians had a Bible at home. It was rivalled only by a cookery book and a dictionary, and far outstripped works by Shakespeare. Sixty one per cent of Bible-owning Australians picked it up at least once a year. Thirty eight per cent had read it within the previous two weeks. (Mind you, it seems that apart from the most regular churchgoers, most people read the Bible in a cursory manner if at all.)


Read more: Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters


A 2002 survey found that 29% of Australian adults still read the Bible at least once a year, with 8% reading it frequently. In 2010, around 10% of Australian secondary students read the Bible weekly or more, and a further 15 to 20% browsed it occasionally.

Overall, though, since 1960 the proportion of annual Bible readers has dropped by half, and regular readers by three-quarters. In less than two generations, the proportion of Australians who never pick up a Bible for themselves has leapt to seven out of ten. The rising use of online Bibles and Bible apps may modify this picture, but 2013 data indicates that Australians read less of the Bible online than their counterparts in the UK or the US.

A working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful in a secular society.
shutterstock

In parallel with declining Bible reading, fewer Australians identify as Christian at the census. Similarly, the proportion of people attending church at least once a month has fallen from 36% in 1972 to 15% in 2014. So fewer Australians have been exposed to the public reading and preaching of the Bible, and to its inculcation through liturgy and hymnody.


Read more: Friday essay: who was Mary Magdalene? Debunking the myth of the penitent prostitute


Does it matter if Australians are becoming less familiar with the Christian scriptures? I would argue that, even aside from matters of faith, a working knowledge of the Bible, and a critical skill in interpreting it, remain extremely useful.

Firstly, the world is still an overwhelmingly religious place.

While Christianity has declined in its former European strongholds, and in related societies like New Zealand and Australia, it has spread widely in the global south. In 2018, it remains the most practised faith in the world. Effective global citizenship can only benefit from a working knowledge of its key text.

Shaping Our Culture

Secondly, biblical literacy is worthwhile because of the Bible’s dynamic role in creative culture.

Shakespeare’s plays contain many biblical references.
First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (and used for three subsequent issues). Published in 1623. Wikimedia Commons

The foundational role of the Bible in shaping English language and literature is well attested. Common phrases such as “the powers that be”, “from strength to strength”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “escaped by the skin of my teeth” all come from English translations of the Bible.

Classic texts from Shakespeare’s plays to T. S. Eliot’s poems to the speeches of Martin Luther King assume some knowledge of biblical stories, images and ideas.

Among Australian creatives, too, literary lights such as Patrick White, Elizabeth Jolley, Tim Winton, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas all make powerful use of biblical narratives and imagery. Songwriters from Nick Cave to the late Yolngu star Gurrumul have drawn on the scriptures in their lyrics.

Biblical stories and symbols have also inspired visual artists such as Grace Cossington Smith, Arthur Boyd and Margaret Preston. Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, “Australian Jesus”, offers a subversive take on the gospels.

Each of these Australians has found the Bible an enlarging influence on the imagination. Audiences can easily miss key elements of their work without a degree of biblical literacy

Reg Mombassa’s popular creation, ‘Australian Jesus’, offers a subversive take on the gospels.
Paul Miller/AAP

A Colonial Legacy

Thirdly, the Bible is a substantial – and unresolved – part of Australia’s European cultural baggage.

It loomed especially large in the process of colonising Aboriginal land and forging settler societies. The legal fiction of terra nullius, for example, drew on a particular interpretation of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it”.

Most British colonists assumed that European agriculture was the proper means of fulfilling this divine command. Failing to recognise Indigenous forms of land use, they deemed the land “waste”, belonging to no one, and ripe for the taking.

At the same time, a minority of colonists drew on verses like Acts 17:26 – “[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” – to affirm the common humanity of Aboriginal people, and to denounce settler greed and violence.

Crucially, as Indigenous Australians interpreted the Bible for themselves, they used it to demand just treatment and to assert their unique relationship to country. As the Mabo case made its way through the courts, for instance, plaintiff Dave Passi liked to quote from the Old Testament: “Do not move an everlasting boundary stone, set up by your ancestors” (Proverbs 22:28).

The ConversationIn all these ways, the Bible has been bound up with the Australian experience of colonialism. As such, a robust biblical literacy can aid understanding of the past and contribute to present day reconciliation.

Meredith Lake, Honorary Associate, Department of History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.