Tuesday, 24 April 2018

We're all sick

Speaking about the development of values in the early modern period, Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom writes that "The individualistic relationship to God was the psychological preparation for the individualistic character of man's secular activities." Obviously, there are shades of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism here, and not surprisingly Fromm cites Weber with sympathy (although he is more fully dependent upon Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but that said it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tawney himself was quite rightly cognizant that the whole discussion was labouring in Weber's shadow). But what interests me more than the Weberian resonances and the ongoing questions about Protestant Ethic is that Fromm explicitly apprehends two distinct domains of human experience, what we might call the psychological ("the individualistic relationship to God") and the social ("the individualistic character of man's secular activities"). But I would in fact argue that Fromm implicitly apprehends three distinct domains in this quotation and certainly throughout Escape from Freedom, with "the individualistic relationship to God" properly defined as cultural and "psychological preparation" as a distinct matter of psychological appropriation. Put otherwise, I think that Fromm in 1941 apprehended at least in part the insight that Doran would make explicit in 1990's Theology and the Dialectics of History: that culture serves as the domain mutually mediating between the personal and the social.

If Doran is correct, then we should not be surprised by Fromm's argument that the psychological and the social are essentially isomorphic, and I would again make explicit the implicit presence of the cultural. Socially, the human animal under capitalism--arguably "late capitalism" all the more so than early modern)--is an atom, defined not by the force it exerts upon or experiences from other such atoms but rather by its wholly autonomous self; this can only be sustained of course if persons living under such an social regime psychologically adapt by accepting themselves as such atoms; and such widespread adaptation can only be achieved if a culture emerges that presents the person as standing in such an atomistic relationship with foundational reality. Only persons who believe themselves to be atoms because everything around them tells them that they are atoms can function fully as an atomistic social regime needs if it is to sustain itself. Isomorphism between society, culture, and person seems necessary for any community--from the smallest units up to the largest states and institutions--to sustain itself long-term.

This insight has tremendous value for those of us whose primary research interest is in a period other than the modern, for if such isomorphism is necessary to sustain any community then we now have the basis for a powerful set of analytical tools. When we see long-term sustainability of a given social arrangement, we have reason to suspect that such isomorphism existed. Perhaps the best example of this from the ancient world is ancient Egypt, whose pharaonic model of government survived in its broad outlines for three millennia; even in the interregnums between the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, it seems that in general this pharaonic model of government persisted, albeit less effective at meeting its own intended ends than at other times in Egyptian history. We might also cite the endurance of the Confucian model in East Asia up until modern times, or perhaps the Indian caste system. Conversely, when we see a community rapidly disintegrate, we have reason to suspect that isomorphism has not been sustained or alternatively has not been maintained. This probably helps in part to account for the collapse of various twentieth-century communist regimes: never able to develop communist cultures as deeply embedded as the capitalist culture of "the west," these regimes were plagued by various instabilities as person's psychic lives were seriously out of step with their social lives. (By contrast, capitalism's capacity to sustain itself despite the clear evidence that it is facilitating gross inequality unparalleled in human history, and that--by reducing the nature upon which we depend to a set of resources that we might pillage for profit--it has in fact become an existential threat to the human species, can probably only be explained by the high degree of isomorphism between society, culture, and person that it has managed to achieve. The problem is that in the face of these clear dysfunctions such isomorphism is itself dysfunctional: a fact that no doubt helps in no small part to explain the deepening mental health crisis. One rather suspects that much--one also suspects far from all--that we define as mental illness is the normative response of healthy psyches to profoundly unhealthy situations).

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Inter-traditional Antagonism

I've been reading Kieran Allen's excellent little book, Weber: Sociologist of Empire. Allen rightly addresses Weber's antagonistic relationship towards Marxism, an antagonism generally reciprocated by Marxist scholars. This intersects quite neatly with David Pavón-Cuéllar's Marxism and Psychoanalysis, which more extensively treats the at times mutually ambivalent relationship between Marxist and psychoanalytic thought. I'm sure it wouldn't take much work to find tensions between Weberian and psychoanalytic thought also. Following upon my post of the other week, this raises a legitimate and urgent question: how can intellectual traditions that have often stood in tension be thought to mutually enrich one another?

Here I am reminded of the first pages of Lonergan's Method in Theology, in which Lonergan identifies three "channels" in which method can run. First, it can run in the channel of the Great Teacher: one finds a mentor and aims to more or less slavishly follow her or his example. This mentor might be a living person, in the case for instance of a doctoral supervisor, or it could be someone from the past, such as a Marx or a Weber or a Freud or an Aquinas or a Calvin. Frequently--but hardly always--this is the methodological channel followed by those most vigourously identify themselves as Marxist or Weberian or Freudian or Thomist or Calvinist. A second channel seeks to identify those disciplines or schools of thought that have been particularly successful in one's time, and again to more or less slavishly follow their example. This often takes the form of faddism. Whether it was imitating Wolf's Homeric source criticism in the formation of Pentateuchal and thus Synoptic, or folkloristics in the formation of form criticism, or the linguistic turn in the formation of (the new) literary criticism, or postmodern suspicion in the development of biblical minimalism, biblicists have long been inveterate band-wagon jumpers.

None of the above should be taken to deny that insights haven't emerged from (say) Marxist biblical scholarship or Pentateuchal source criticism. Quite the opposite is the case. It is to say that insights that emerge from work undertaken in the first two methodological channels will tend to suffer from a lack of coordination with insights that emerged from Great Teachers or various sciences. The above points us towards the need for a third methodological channel, which is precisely what Lonergan proposes. This is a transcendental channel, in that it aims to transcend both particular Great Thinkers and Great Traditions, and also particular sciences. This however is an inclusive transcendence: it does not dispense with these thinkers and traditions and sciences, but rather seeks to operate at a level that methodologically allows us to first identify genuine insights in their work, and to second integrate these insights into a coherent whole. The movement to the third methodological channel often consists in deciding that one aspect of our collective existence is particularly foundational. For instance, Marxist thought at its best has always aimed towards such a transcendence, and when people talk about "reductionism" in Marxism what they very often mean is that they object to the Marxist decision to foreground material conditions as the foundational principle of a transcendent view of human existence.  Likewise the psychoanalytical decision to foreground personality structures and unconscious impulses, often at the expense of material conditions, or the Weberian decision to foreground cultural values. Such decisions apprehend genuine albeit partial insights into reality, and properly objectified can open and facilitate discussions about the nature of transcendental method.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

On Max Weber

This blog has been idle for a couple months. The reason is that towards the end of January, I accepted the executive directorship of the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario, and the work of transitioning from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia to Regis College in Toronto has occupied more of my attention than I would have preferred. And I find myself increasingly thinking about how the LRI might contribute to developing and implementing Lonergan's thought, and this has me returning more and more to my first love: social and cultural theory. I find myself increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and those who have built upon his work can help us integrate the genuine insights achieved by what we might call the "great traditions" of the social sciences (a term somewhat misleading, as the social sciences deal not only with the social but also with the cultural and the personal, but we will work with what we have), which I would identify broadly as the Marxian, the Weberian, and the Freudian (or psychoanalytic).

In thinking about this, I have the good fortune of being able to build upon the work of one of my predecessors in the directorship of the LRI, Robert Doran, whose Theology and the Dialectics of History remains the most thorough synthesis of the social sciences from a Lonerganian perspective. As it is precisely synthesis with which I am concerned, this is a salutary contribution. The work is chock-full of insights, of which three are particularly relevant: culture is that which mediates between society and the person; the Marxian tradition speaks most fully to the matter of society; the psychoanalytic tradition speaks most fully to the matter of the person. There is much of value here, and I would affirm all these insights as necessary and indispensable for thinking synthetically about the social sciences. As a movement towards fuller synthesis in my own articulation, I would perhaps say that the Marxian tradition starts with the social and moves towards the personal; the psychoanalytic starts with the personal and moves towards the social; and the cultural is where they meet each other halfway. Articulated as such, we would very much want to complement the Marxian and the Freudian traditions with a third tradition that starts from culture and moves towards both the social and the personal. I would suggest that this is precisely what we find in the Weberian tradition.

Of course, Max Weber is not unproblematic: for instance, many of his particular historical arguments—advanced over a century ago, by a synthesizer often working outside his primary area of specialization—have hardly withstood the test of time, and his advocacy of empire raises legitimate questions about his morality. Yet, what interests me is the way in which Weber seeks precisely to account for the dynamic between economic development on the one hand and the person on the other. The best-known example of this is his justly famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he argues that modern European capitalism emerged from a specifically Calvinist ethos that sought worldly affluence in order to demonstrate to self and other that one is among the elect of God. The pursuit of divine grace was translated into the pursuit of worldly goods. Although this is the best-known example, the dynamic between economic development and the person resounds throughout Weber's work. We see it in his subsequent studies of the relation between economics and world religion—The Religions of ChinaThe Religions of IndiaAncient Judaism (at the time of his premature death in 1920 from the Spanish flu--a belated and indirect casualty of the First World War--Weber planned to continue this series, with studies of early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Islam, among others; one of the great tragedies of modern knowledge is that he never was able to produce these volumes)—and his unfinished Economy and Society (which includes the three or so hundred pages excerpted as the monograph known as Sociology of Religion). We can quibble about whether or not Weber’s interpretation of Calvinism, capitalism, and their relationships, or of other any particular, historical matter holds up empirically. What interests me is the way in which Weber situates culture at the centre of his analysis, rather than as the secondary consideration that it constitutes in both Marxian and psychoanalytic thought. Weber, I think, significantly contributes to thinking foundationally about the “third term” between society and the person, and more crucially about how that third term functions precisely as mediator. It allows us to adopt a multi-faceted strategy for building the synthesis of social-scientific insights: two flanks moving towards the middle, and a middle moving towards the flanks. The dynamic intersection of these movements moves the entire discussion to a new level, one where the seemingly intractable dispute about whether to foreground the personal or the social dissolves into the need to foreground precisely the relationship between the two.