Friday, May 17, 2013

Forty Days Later on a Thursday

Ascension Day blew past this year, and I didn’t take notice. But I felt something lock into place last week, as if spring finally got its act together. The gardens on my street exploded in color, and the trees tentatively began to leaf all around the city. It had been a long winter, but by Thursday of last week, spring had finally taken off.

Forty days after Easter on a Thursday, the Anglican Church commemorates the day Jesus sprung into the heavens, leaving his earthbound followers dumbfounded and grounded, full of unanswered questions and half-formed hopes.

“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples asked Jesus (Acts 1:6). But the question hung suspended, burning in the air, as Jesus responded, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Wait and see. The kingdom will come when it comes; the seasons will change when they change.

I’ve heard Christians talk again and again about how the first century Israelites blew it, and how the priests and teachers of the law were malicious bad guys. The Son of God was right under their nose, but all they did was sneeze him out of Jerusalem like spring pollen.

But I think it’s more complicated than that. The Hebrew scriptures gave them legitimate reasons to expect that the Messiah to come would literally usher back in the golden age monarchy of the Davidic kingdom, ending Israel’s exile from their homeland and from their God forever. Israel would finally escape the bonds placed upon them by the foreigners holding them in political captivity and be their own people. So let’s give first century Judaism a break. If Israel’s God is who he says he is, Israel was right to expect a grand return from exile and a re-gathering of its scattered people.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus jumped ship right when Israel needed a strong political revolutionary most, leaving his followers scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. So what about the great deliverance? What about Israel’s return from exile? What about the reestablishment of the kingdom? What about the promises of Israel’s God?

I can imagine the disciples, and us with them on Thursday forty days after Easter, staring slack-jawed on Ascension Day as the one upon whom they placed all their hopes and dreams floated away like a helium balloon, leaving them with nothing but a tremendous sense of loss and the feeling of being stranded in a place that was just beginning to feel like home.

Throughout the history of Western culture and philosophy, we seem to have never fully recovered from the loss of our balloon. Keeping company with Plato, philosophy has looked up and beyond, trying to peel back the superficial layers of reality and peer inside to find its true shape. When the disciples stood stuck staring up, philosophy followed their gaze, searching for the realm where the true forms of reality reside. Both look upward, wishing they weren’t so earthbound, and ache for a world that is more than just a dirty mirror like this one.

The past century or two is filled with thinkers from all over the world struggling to push past this intellectual inheritance that points to the hidden reality beyond, just out of reach, and they urge us to forget about our helium balloon and take a look around. Maybe, just maybe, we can say meaningful things about our world here and now without appealing to the great beyond, what’s really out there, the truth hidden inside reality. The philosophers catch us lost in longing for a ghostly plane that most properly exists and for a language to speak that captures the truest truth, and they ask the same that the men robed white asked Jesus’ followers: “Why do you stand looking up?”

This, it seems to me, the default tendency for many of us Christians, as it was for the disciples and for the philosophers of the past. We have this idea that the ascension of Jesus somehow translated everything that matters into spiritual, intangible reality, always occluded from view. The best world is the next one; the most valuable things are the ones we can’t see, hear, taste, or touch.

But each time I read the Ascension Day speech of Jesus according to Matthew, I hear spring, rebirth, the revitalization of what is now. I hear echoes of the words of King Cyrus, the Persian king who called Israel back from their exile in Babylon, under the God of Israel’s authority inviting the people into restoration (Ezra 1:2-4). Likewise, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Now go and gather the exiles, the lost and confused, brokenhearted and hurting, throughout all the world.

So here’s the punch line. I think it’s a mistake to read the New Testament as something “new,” something more spiritual than what came before, something that points us upward and pulls us out of this world. On the contrary, it pushes us deeper into the world, calling us to discover the strangers and invite them in; we are in the business, as Jesus was, of gathering the exiles to form a unity centered around the Messiah who ascends, not into the ghostly ether where we should wish we could be, but to the center of what is here and now. As Martin Heidegger might say, we are not just floating ghosts who happen to be located in a body and a world; we are always already in the world, constituted by it, and inescapably connected to it.

My hope for faith and for philosophy is that each can fasten its gaze firmly to what matters most. If we can tear our eyes away from the tragedy of our faded helium balloon and take a look at what is right under our noses and before our eyes, we might just be struck slack-jawed again by what we find in the stranger, the neighbor, the friend. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / to the Father through the features of men’s faces” (from “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame”).

Ascension Day blows by, and when we finally slow to catch our breath and take notice, we find that life in all its richness has sprung up and taken off, breathing freshness into the most regular things at the most ordinary times. Maybe the ascended Christ hasn’t abandoned us after all.

Matthew E. Johnson is a current junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.


  1. thanks so much for this, Matt!

  2. Thanks Matt! Lovely.

    I wonder whether Christian eschatology (and likewise Platonism) aren't potential allies in seeing what's 'right under our noses and before our eyes'. When we look around, we can't help asking: What are we looking at? What are we looking for? Why should we care? God's promises, and Plato's forms, can help us understand and answer those questions, I'd say. What do you think?

    Beautiful post! Keep 'em coming!

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Great questions.

      First of all, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your view on the compatibility of God's promises and Plato's forms. I suspect that you're right and that there's actually two distinct ways to "return to the world," one rejecting traditional metaphysics and the other reforming it. From the "post"-metaphysical perspective, we can answer those example questions by appealing to social norms and our thorough social conditioning; on a basic level we're made up of the various relations (physical and social) that we find ourselves in. Theology then might turn to some sort of pantheism or panentheism. I'd love to hear the other side of this from your perspective. How do we anchor ourselves in the world in a more Platonic model?

      I also feel the need to apologize to Plato. Plato so often gets set up as a straw man so that we can take cheap shots, but when I actually read Plato's work I'm surprised at how concerned he is with this world. So sorry Plato, I shouldn't pin everything that's wrong with metaphysics on you. It would be more appropriate to, as many philosophers do, aim this criticism at Descartes and the way that he took up Plato. If we look for it, we can find some proto-metaphysics that might be problematic already in Plato, but for the most part, it's probably more fruitful to pick apart Descartes here.

      I think the potential problem with metaphysics, perhaps with the parallel problem in Christian eschatology, is that it gives us the ability to think of ourselves in a pre-relational way. Heidegger says that the biggest problem with Descartes is that his whole project "led him to pass over the phenomenon of world" and unable to notice the way that we are already in the world, even before we start theorizing (section 21, Being and Time). So Heidegger proposes a flip from mind first to being-in-the-world first, because he thinks that there is no possibility of a non-relational consciousness that theorizes pre-world.

      What I like about this move is that it is a way of saying that it is impossible to be ourselves apart from others and the world. We are ourselves only because of our world. I think this provides us with a richer understanding of our individuality that comes from the fact that each of us stands in a particular relational web, connected to others and to the world in unique ways. For a robust sense of individuality, then, we don't have to appeal to a pre-relational consciousness that governs all our interactions with the world.

      So what do you think? Does Plato offer a satisfying alternative? Or perhaps there is a way to read Plato as compatible with something like Heidegger's being-in-the-world?

      (Sorry this is so long!)

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  4. Hi Matt!

    Thanks for writing back. It's good to hear from you.

    I think that both Platonism and eschatology tell us about realities that are beyond our direct experience, but which are also inseparable from such experiences. So, if Christian eschatology teaches us to be generous and brave and compassionate, that doesn't draw us out of the world, it draws us into the world, and not as hedonists but as saints. And if Platonism gives us a love for justice and beauty and truth and virtue and friendship, we're inspired to engage the world, and not like tyrants hungry for power or tycoons hoarding money, but as teachers and artists and friends. The value of things like Christian eschatology and Platonic metaphysics, is that they help us to desire not only to be a part of the world, but to be a good part of the world.

    I don't know Descartes that well, and I know Heidegger even less, but it does seem to me that Heidegger's criticism of metaphysics (as you've stated it) doesn't quite fit for Plato. Plato doesn't care where the eros for knowledge comes from; for example, some people desire knowledge of justice because they're politicians who don't want to give stupid speeches, and that's a good motivation. If they're diligent, and they don't take shortcuts or give up early, and especially if they find a good teacher, their desire can lead them into the good life of philosophy. For Plato, philosophy grows inevitably from embodied, political, social, economic life, and it always returns to the same.

    That's why I think eschatology and metaphysics help rather than hurt our attempts to live good, post-ascension lives.

  5. Hi John! This is great stuff. Thanks for thinking this through with me.

    I think part of what’s difficult here is how we’re talking different languages a bit. I’ve had my nose in Heidegger’s Being and Time for the past couple of weeks, so I’ll try to pull myself out of it and clarify your terms for myself.

    When I hear “eschatology,” I hear something like God’s vision of future redeemed creation that already breaks into “the now,” not just what is going to happen in the “last days.” On the other hand, when I think about Plato’s forms and metaphysics in general, I think about an invisible reality that exists concurrently with our own reality and within our time. So eschatology sort of is grounded in the future whereas metaphysics is a realm full of non-physical entities; one is “temporal” and the other is more “spatial.” With these definitions, I think I’m missing a way to connect the two.

    But if we’re talking about invisible things that influence our actual life, I think I can see how both eschatology and metaphysics could have similar practical effects. Both allow us to envision something different than the current state of affairs and orient ourselves toward ushering in a better reality. Is that something like what you’re getting at?

  6. Yeah, that's basically how I meant it. I wasn't trying to say that eschatology and metaphysics are one and the same, only that they are similar in how they can and should affect people in the here and now.

    Now, in fact, I do think metaphysics and eschatology are closely linked: when God's promises are fulfilled, justice itself, and beauty as such, and the fullness of truth, will have triumphed in the material world (just as, in the resurrection, the soul will have triumphed over the body; cf. Aquinas on the resurrection, and G. M. Hopkins' poem "The Caged Skylark"). But although metaphysics and eschatology are related, they are also distinct and distinguishable, and in my earlier posts I was treating them as similar, not identical, following your lead from the main post.

    I don't know; do you suppose Heidegger would have room for that sort of idea?

  7. I think I'm beginning to understand now. Maybe I should have been a little more specific in my original piece. I meant to take issue with a particular way that Christian eschatology sometimes manifests as an unconcern for the present world. When the eternal soul and the world that comes after this one perishes are all that matters, why care about the here and now? But I think you're right to say that metaphysics and eschatology don't have to go down that road. Like I said earlier, I think there may be a legitimate answer to be found on both ends, by either rejecting or reforming traditional metaphysics.

    Where things get a little slippery for me is when we talk about forms like "justice itself" as entities that exist somewhere. I really can't speak for Heidegger on this because I'm only familiar with Being and Time, but I can speculate that Heidegger might say that "justice itself" shouldn't be reified as an entity because it just doesn't "show up" in our experience. It's an orientation toward things that show up, maybe a mode in which the human person relates to the world. Or it could be a feature of the social world into which someone has been socialized.

    The kinds of questions we need to consider, though, are about whether or not it pays off to appeal to metaphysics. Do we believe in metaphysics because it's the real reality? Is the belief in metaphysical reality a necessary tenet of Christian belief? Is it motivating us toward the ethical life better than any other way of thinking? If the answer isn't a resounding yes, maybe it's time to consider either profound reform or a new path entirely.

  8. I think the answer we hear through a good portion of history (including the majority of Christian history) actually is a resounding yes, and that's where I'm at too. I think Plato makes a convincing case for the utility of the forms, but even more, Aristotle, in his Metaphysics and his Posterior Analytics, argues strongly that we have to believe in and be concerned with metaphysical questions if we want to be intellectually honest. He's got me persuaded. Reading up on Aquinas's treatment of the angels has also helped me realize the importance of metaphysics for Christian doctrine.

    I think it's worthwhile and even important to discuss how metaphysics relates to truth/morality/orthodox Christianity and to discuss what is and isn't true about metaphysics, but I don't know how much hope there is for trying to set off on a new, entirely non-metaphysical path. At the very least, we should do our best to walk in the way that's already been set out for us by many centuries of the world's greatest minds to see if we can find anything there that's salvageable. We might not be totally disappointed. :)

  9. I do also think that "justice itself" (which could just as readily be called "justice") works very well as a metaphysical "entity."

    There's a verbal definition of pi, something to do with a circle's radius and circumference, and it's an unchanging truth. It was true long before humans learned to calculate numbers, it is just as true every time some high school kid gets it wrong on a test, and it'll be true forever, timelessly.

    If "justice" has any meaning at all, then the meaning is similarly unchanging (even if the word we use for it may change or fall into disuse). Justice is a matter of the best distribution of goods, which will always be relevant to every human community. Even before or after the existence of humans (if there will be an after for humanity), the meaning stays the same—just as the meaning of "tyrannosaurus rex" (or, derivatively, "a tyrannosaurus rex family") doesn't change or pass away with the extinction of the species.

    You're right, we can't see justice as such, or hear it, or picture it in the mind's eye, but we can't picture pi either; we can't even picture twoness, duality, in itself, but we have to imagine two somethings instead. Now, that doesn't make justice, or pi, or duality any less real; it just means that they're real in a different way than sensible reality, which is of course the whole point.

    Yeah? Maybe?

    1. Hello, John and Matt. I've been following this thread with interest, and I thought I'd pick up on two things you've said, John. I think you make a good point when you wryly note that we might not be disappointed if we look along the "way" that has been set out for so many centuries. There are resources there. I think I would word it differently, perhaps saying that the tradition under discussion has weight not merely because it is old, but because there is material in it that still speaks truth to us, here where we are situated. There are still things that are "salvageable," as you put it: concepts and ideas and practices we can make use of in understanding our own place in time, space, and this world--and, for Christians, our human relation to God. You and I may or may not agree on what, exactly, constitutes that material, but the historian of philosophy in me does feel the need to pause along with you before declaring any path that has spanned centuries completely null and void, or futureless. (I don't think that's what Matt was saying either, but it bears saying.) Perhaps what is needed, as Matt does seem to be suggesting, is a new direction. Paths are always built on some form of ground (even if that "ground" is something like air, such as with the migratory paths of birds) and without that ground, no path at all is possible. But changing the direction in which we are going does not necessarily entail rejecting the ground itself. In fact, changing direction *well* requires understanding that ground, to see which path(s) it best supports.

      But that takes me to my second point; "Ground" is never really eternal. It changes, shifts, transforms. Sometimes that happens slowly and sometimes quite rapidly, but even when we speak "metaphorically," if we speak of ground, we are speaking of something changeable and constantly changing. That's part of the beauty of creation--it's never static. It's like call and response. When I think of a concept like "justice," it strikes me quite similarly. My understanding of justice, engaging with the long and varied tradition surrounding it, is not so much as a metaphysical entity whose meaning is unchanging, as you have put it here, but rather a way of interacting that fits well (where "well" entails all kinds of nuances of ethics and truth) with the circumstances. Justice has to do with right responses and right relationships--raising, of course, more questions than answers. What is "right"? How does one properly or best navigate ethics and truth? Best distribution of goods, which you mention, is certainly one aspect of responding with justice, but there are many other sides as well. I think too that conceiving of justice in this way does not make it any less "real." Just as relationships really do exist, whether we can "see" them as "things" in and of themselves or not, so also justice exists, and its presence in any given circumstance (or its absence in the presence of injustice) has real effects on this world; on humans, on creatures, on creation.


  10. Hi Allyson! We haven't met, have we? If not, it's good to meet you.

    I anticipate that if I try to extend your metaphor of grounds and paths I'll probably end up complicating things too much and confusing everyone (most of all me). So I'll pick up where your metaphor leaves off, at the intersection of temporality and eternity, or of change and unchangingness, of perfectibility and perfection.

    Both exist: the perfect, unchanging eternal, and the perfectible, changeable temporal. And they relate to one another. Let's return to the number two. Twoness has been consistent and unchanging all day today. I have two socks, two shoes, two pant legs, and two shirt sleeves. Although it applies to several very different things, the meaning of two remains the same. Even when I stepped in a puddle and went from wearing two shoes to suddenly wearing two muddy shoes, the number two remained the same.

    When the changing and the unchangeable relate to one another, what is the nature of their relationship? It's changing, of course—not because both parties change, but because one does. If not only my shoes would be constantly changing but also the twoness of my shoes, it would be pointless to count them. If not only political situations were constantly changing but also the nature of justice, there would be no point in desiring justice. We are able to hope for justice because justice doesn't change, even while the relationship of justice to a given situation is changing as quickly as the situation itself changes.

    If we think that justice is historically relative, is changing from one century to the next (and from one decade to the next, and one year to the next, month by month and day by day and minute by minute), then justice is meaningless, a rhetorical trick used by people hungry for power. Many, I think, believe that, and I feel sorry for them.

    What is constantly changing is, of course, the changeable. The world around us is a different place than it was a century ago, and so how we articulate, say, justice, if we want to communicate clearly, may need to change. But it's a dangerous step to mistake that for a changeableness in justice itself.

    This is getting long, but I should clarify one last thing: when I talked about distribution of goods, I meant goods in the broadest sense, not only in terms of material resources or something like that.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts. Peace.

    1. Hi John. I'll echo all of Allyson's reply and add just one more thought. I'd suggest that a MORE dangerous step would be to assume UNchangeableness in justice. With that assumption, sooner or later two people or two nations are going to believe that they've actually found the perfect conception of justice in some particular matter and wind up in violent conflict over it. Too often only hindsight is 20-20.

    2. Hi Daryl, nice to meet you.

      It's difficult to compare measures (less or more or MORE) when we're measuring different things. When I said that it's dangerous to mistake justice for something changeable, I meant that it's dangerous, gravely dangerous, for a person's soul. People may never fight, or they may win every fight they get into, but if they really don't believe in unchanging justice, then regardless, I think we ought to feel sadness and compassion for them.

      Your own version of danger, that if people believed in real, knowable justice they might get into fights, hardly deserves the name. You're correct, they could fight. (And what you seem to forget is that it may actually be a fight worth having.) But even if it's not, even if both sides are in the wrong, the solution then is not for everyone to be agnostic and run away from fights. The thing to do, rather, is to learn about what justice actually is, and try to conform your life to what you learn.

      Of course, it's pretty tough to discuss utility at this point in the conversation. If there is such a thing as justice, then it's worth pursuing knowledge of it, as I've said. If there's not, then pursuing knowledge of justice is at best useless, and at worst it could be terribly disastrous. So, before anything else, I suppose we'll have to return to the question of whether justice is really or only nominally true.

    3. Nice to meet you too John.

      While I would agree that fights are sometimes worth having, and that justice can be worth defending even if it means a fight, I can't agree that belief in "unchangeable justice" or "justice itself" adds anything but excessive zeal of the sort that can result in fights becoming, oh, thermonuclear exchanges. Utility can trump principles, or at least point to the need to devise better principles.

      Justice, unlike mathematics, is an area in which I think we have to rely on love and compassion to guide us. We have to be ready to be yielding and weak as well as resolute and strong. On the question of whether justice is "really" or only "nominally" true, I'm quite happy only believing that justice is important. Is it truly necessary to find a way to believe it is "real" before commiting to it?

    4. Hi Daryl!

      The apocalyptic nuclear scene you paint sounds like the standard propaganda, but it's worth noticing that there's a huge logical problem with it. Let's outline some of the relevant facts:

      Nuclear winter could come about as a result of metaphysical convictions.
      Nuclear winter need not come about as a result of metaphysical convictions.
      Nuclear winter could come about as the result of non-metaphysical convictions.
      Nuclear winter need not come about as a result of non-metaphysical convictions.

      So, there's no necessary logical connection between nuclear war and metaphysical knowledge. Although, I don't suppose you brought it up because there's a necessary logical connection.

      In truth, there are some good arguments against metaphysics, but I don't think any of them have to do with hypothetical nuclear holocaust.

      In reference to your final question, I'd give an emphatic yes. Committing to justice that isn't real would be just as worthwhile as committing to a girlfriend who doesn't exist, or to a relationship that never began. You could do it, I guess, but who would want to?

    5. Hi again John. I'm really enjoying our exchange.

      I would point out that unlike women, and roadside bombs, justice is intangible. I do not need to consider whether women are real or merely nominal, and in general they will tell me whether or not I am acting in accord with their attributes. (Sometimes unpleasantly but that's another topic.)

      So, given that we obviously agree that justice is worth pursuing, and that so far I haven't found its nominalness problematic in this regard, what would I gain by trying to consider it "real"?

    6. Likewise. This is fun.

      In your first paragraph you're starting to sound like a philosophical materialist. (Are all nominalists materialists? Maybe I should have seen this coming again.) That paragraph reminded me of a wonderful passage from a wonderful book, actually, so I'm grateful for that. Here's the quote:

      “Plato in some sense anticipated the Catholic realism, as attacked by the heretical nominalism, by insisting on the fundamental fact that ideas are realities; that ideas exist just as men exist. Plato however seemed sometimes almost to fancy that ideas exist as men do not exist; or that the men need hardly be considered where they conflict with the ideas.”
      -Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 125

      I'm not sure how you feel about Chesterton, but even if you aren't a fan, I think this passage might help clear things up a bit for you and me. Your fear earlier in the conversation, it seemed, was that realists will treat ideas as real and people as not real; but it isn't an either-or. Realists treat both as real. Chesterton did.

      I've realized that I'll have difficulty answering your question until I get a little bit more information from you. I can't say what you'd gain, of course, until I know what you already have. I'm not actually sure what it means to pursue nominal justice, and since you seem to know, would you be willing to tell me a bit about that? How do you pursue something when you don't know what it is? How are you able, in practice, to distinguish between justice and injustice?

    7. It sounds like we're moving beyond the war scenario, but I just read a passage of Philo that seemed relevant to that earlier conversation, and it's too lovely not to share:

      "If any one contemplates the history of the greatest public or private quarrels that have arisen among men and among cities, he will not be wrong if he looks upon all of them, whether upon those which took place long ago, or upon those which are now raging, or on all that will ever arise hereafter, as being caused either by the beauty of a woman, or by a love of money, or, in short, by some desire for the excessive indulgence of the body, and for some superfluity of external things: but no foreign war and no civil war has ever existed for the sake of instruction or virtue, which are the good things of the mind, which is the best part of us; for these things are in their nature peaceful, and by them good laws and tranquil stability, and whatever else is most beautiful to the sharpseeing eyes of the soul, not to the dim perceptions of the body, are seen to be established."

    8. Hi John. I don't know if you are still following, but I wasn't ignoring you, I was on vacation!

      You ask good questions. One, "How are you able, in practice, to distinguish between justice and injustice?" I would answer with the same question. I don't see what considering justice as "real" brings to the solution of that question. I see perfectly well what we would /expect/ a justice that is real to bring. It would allow us to believe that we can make determinations that are as reliable and clear as the logic we employ in making them, but in the absence of a tangible sort of "real" that can be explored by empirical means, all that is available to us is assertions that we can pick and choose for their logical consequences. Reason then becomes a tool of deception at least as easily as a tool of reliable determination. So, in my view, the value of seeing justice as "real" vs. not doing so is a wash, at least, but the attempt to find the justice that is real adds a layer of effort that is ultimately futile and would be better spent doing what we humans are quite capable of: attempting to live with each other.

      I am not a philosopher but I will say that some things that seem to pass for worthwhile distinctions don't seem so worthwhile to me. Real vs. nominal is one of those. I would not characterise my sense of justice as either "real" or "nominal" except that this distinction is significant for the sake of this discussion, since it begins there. You can see how this makes it difficult for me to answer as if I believe that I know what a "nominal" sense of justice is. My sense of justice is only "nominal" if that is the only alternative to "real". When I replied that I didn't have any trouble with its nominalness (should that be "nominality":) I may have mislead you a bit into thinking that my opposition to the idea of it being real meant that I could or would champion the opposite. Now, if forced to choose, I would state that thinking it nominal might be more productive because it is easier to draw a line between that and the need to negotiate with others over it, but not because I accept the implication that justice is merely an invention subject to the whims of whoever decides to define it.

      I would part with Philo in that while I agree that the reasons for war are usually not idealistic the main tool for getting people to support a war often is. We demonise the other and foment outrage in order to get support for wars, and the language of justice is employed for this.

      Not being a philosopher I had to ask Wikipedia how to respond to the suggestion that I may be a "philosophical materialist". (You know, to find out if that was an insult or a compliment.:) Wikipedia tells me that I should ask whether or not you mean that I resemble a "metaphysical naturalist".

    9. Hi Daryl! It's a pleasure to hear from you again.

      I don't know Wikipedia's lingo quite so well, but what I was suggesting is, you seem to believe that only physical, material things can be known. I think you made that point again in today's post, when you mention "a tangible sort of 'real' that can be explored by empirical means." A thorough-going materialist would either deny the existence of God and angels, or would portray them as some sort of very subtle, intangible physical substance, or would describe them as representing the relations between physical things. There are some big problems with thinking of the world in this way, but it's a popular way of talking about the world, because after all, if anything immaterial did exist, how would we ever know?

      You've rightly pointed out that so far, I have only argued for the existence of a "real" justice, I haven't described it. However, if real justice does exist, and if it is knowable, then it can take a definition and it can be expanded and divided and described. However, if there is no "real" justice, then the word justice becomes at best useless, and at worst deceptive, because there is no way of distinguishing justice from injustice. You're right, the pursuit of knowledge about justice will turn out to be much more difficult than a mere denial of justice; however, it is also a most worthwhile pursuit, for a person and for a community, however difficult it might be.

      Your objection to Philo is very impractical, if you think about it. If our country entered a war and claimed to be fighting on the side of justice, would you just say, "Oh, I don't believe that stuff about justice, that's just a trick"? Or would you ask whether the war is actually just or unjust? The fact is, you've already admitted that you believe sometimes going to war can be the right thing to do; but how can you ever know when it's right or when it's wrong, if you never go beyond the observation that unjust wars sometimes pretend to be just? Sometimes ignorant people pretend to be educated; that doesn't disprove knowledge. Sometimes bad people pretend to be good; that doesn't disprove virtue. Sometimes unjust countries pretend to be just; that doesn't disprove justice. In fact, if anything, it proves it. Don't you think?

    10. Right, how *would* we ever know if something "immaterial" existed or not? In fact, if we allow that even things such as the relations between things are part of the material world, and that our mental processes are also part of the material world, we've cut off every avenue to even assert that something transcendent exists, or at least admitted that where we make such an assertion all we mean by it is that the thing in question is a mental object that lacks a sensible referent. Numbers are like this.

      So, I will say that how I "know" justice is by means of experiencing examples of the idea in many contexts and in relation with many people. This seems a perfectly good way of approaching it, and one that ultimately serves well for the purpose of knowing when a state is abusing the idea of justice. It also seems more economical than having an unnecessary added mental process thinking about whether or not the principles I've inferred from these interactions are eternal or provisional. They don't *seem* to change, at least not most of them, and that's good enough. It's also unsurprising, since I'm human and like the rest of us have roughly 46 chromosomes, 10 fingers, two eyes, a dependency on protein, vitamin B12, oxygen, nitrogen and so forth.

      I think that strengthens my objection to Philo, rather than rendering it impractical. In reference to your last two sentences, no, it doesn't prove it. It only proves that we acknowledge having largely equivalent ideas about the concept of justice.

    11. Hi Daryl! Wonderful to hear from you again. I only have a minute or two to reply here, so I'll keep this relatively short.

      I'm trying to make sense of your answer. It would make me very excited to understand it, as a matter of fact, so I'm hoping you'll be able to give me a hand.

      I'm having a chicken-egg problem as I read your post. I asked how you recognize justice, how you distinguish it from injustice, and you said that you do so on the basis of experience. You've experienced enough different examples of justice that you can now recognize it with some reliability. It seems as though you've just pushed the very same problem further back. I'm still confused: How did you recognize justice back when you were experiencing it? How did you distinguish it from injustice when you were experiencing it?

      If you couldn't tell the difference at the time, all the experience in the world wouldn't help you now. So you must already have known how to recognize justice even before you began experiencing it. So how was that possible, if knowledge of justice can only come after experience? And what is it that you knew back then that allowed you to distinguish justice from injustice?

    12. Hi Daryl! I tried posting a reply to you, but it doesn't seem to have worked. Here's the basic gist of it:

      Chicken and egg problem. You are able to recognize justice now because you've had so many experiences of just things during your life. But the same problem remains; you've just pushed it back. How were you then able to recognize them as just things?

    13. Hi John. Actually your reply did appear. Maybe a temporary glitch in Blogger was to blame. I've seen that before.

      I think there is no real chicken and egg problem. A sense of justice is a composite of things. To illustrate, we have early experiences of things we find objectionable, and we eventually learn to expect certain things, and for them to be expectable under particular circumstances. We also develop a sense of self and the ability to compare our circumstances to those of others, and learn jealousy and a beginning sense of fairness. Eventually we employ our capacity to put ourselves into the minds of others, and develop empathy and all the clues necessary to infer universal rules, principles that we can reliably expect others to understand rapidly and which we can collectively file under the category "justice" in our minds.

    14. Hi Daryl,

      You may be correct in saying that there's really no chicken-egg problem inherent to your notion of non-real justice. However, the chicken egg thing was certainly present (at least superficially) in your second-latest post, and your latest post doesn't address that problem—in fact, it seems like you've only extended the same problem. It's not quite so obvious this time, but I'll do my best to show what I mean.

      We were asking, earlier, how you could know what justice is. You said it's because you'd experienced justice enough to recognize it, and I pointed out that such an answer is effectively meaningless. Now you've clarified that justice is a composite thing and demonstrated how a person learns the different parts of justice at different stages of their development.

      Here's the difficulty, though: How do you know that justice is that particular composition of things? Your story of learning justice assumes a particular definition of justice from the very beginning; you could have left out some of the elements of your narrative, or you could have included others, to arrive at a different picture of how people learn justice, and of what they will have learned when we say they know what justice is.

      That leaves me with a few questions for you. How do you know that the people of your narrative aren't lacking vital components of their sense of justice, or that some of the things they've learned aren't terribly unjust things? If others gave a different story about learning justice, a story about coming to understand the value of vengeance and anger and fear and preemptive violence and deception and cruelty, would their story be just as valid as yours? If not—again, how do you know?

      In other words, I still want to hear how you can say that there is actually a difference between justice and injustice, if you don't believe in the existence of justice. All your answers to that question so far have, it seems to me, left that question unanswered.

    15. I can't agree with your criticisms of my arguments John, because they presume that your position is correct. They are tautological. For example, you say that my story of learning the concept of justice assumes a definition of justice from the very beginning, but it does not. I contend that there is no a priori definition of justice so I am hardly going to make an argument that is dependent on having one to begin with. Yes, the way that I think people learn a sense of justice does in fact leave open the possibility that others will come up with conceptions that I consider unjust, but these shortcomings do not amount to a refutation of my position; they only affirm it, because my position has been thus from the beginning. You have only said why you find it unsatisfying.

      I don't believe in the existence of the kind of justice that you assert as "real", by which you mean that it is independent of the minds that conceive it, and therefore not subject to change depending on which minds it exists in. You have yet to give me a single reason to do so. There are plenty of reasons to *want* such a real justice. I have acknowledged those, but wanting is not believing. Unless you can propose a reason that I should *believe* in justice that is real in the way you mean "real" I don't see a way forward in this discussion.

      I will close by answerring the question "how do you know?" If by "know" you mean having the same kind of confidence that I have knowing that the square of 11 is 121, I don't know. If by "know" you only mean having enough confidence to act, then I do.

      Now, as it turns out, the reason your replies are showing up late is that after a post is 21 days old on this blog, replies to them go into the moderation-required hopper. So if you don't see your reply immediately in this thread, or in any thread that follows a post that is more than three weeks old, don't be surprised, be patient. This slows down the pace of discussion on older posts, but it prevents older posts being used as places to drop spam while no one is watching anymore. It might not be just, but it is effective. ;)

    16. Thanks for the explanation of why posts get delayed now. By this point I'd guessed that something along those lines must be going on.

      Far from assuming my own position to be correct, I was actually assuming yours to be consistent. It had seemed earlier in our conversation that you thought justice was more than just a made-up word used to deceive and oppress the masses, but either I had misunderstood you before or else you have changed your mind, because now it seems like you'd have no trouble with that sort of justice. Even just a couple posts ago you were talking about universal rules and a common idea of justice, but now it sounds like justice is at best some kind of cultural thing, only binding on a person for the sake of honour (no one desires to be be despised) and for the sake of lawfulness (nobody wants to be jailed). "Justice" keeps the common people ordered and happy, but when the rich or powerful act contrary to "justice" and get away with it, all the better for them. They just have their own idea of justice that they're obeying, and that's perfectly legitimate. If one country conquers and enslaves another, we shouldn't evaluate whether they've done something just or unjust; obviously it was just in their own eyes, or they wouldn't have done it, and that's the only justice that matters. There is no bigger or truer justice by which we can measure them.

      That sounds closer to what you are saying in your most recent post. It ends up being the moral theory of "might is right." Before I continue this line of thought, would you tell me if this is an accurate description of what you believe about justice, or, if I've got you wrong again, would you set me right? Thanks.

      You're right when you say that I haven't offered a single reason to believe my thesis, that justice is real. I should point out that you haven't offered a single reason in defence of your own conclusion, that justice is not real. The closest you've come is to say something like, if I ever convince you that justice is real then the nuclear weapons of the world will be unleashed and all we know will dissolve in flames. Even if you're right about that (I suspect you're not), it has nothing to do with whether or not my thesis is true.

      But in fact, there's another thing you haven't done: you haven't tried to poke any holes in the idea that justice is real. You haven't said, "assuming you're right, look at all these contradictions." I've been doing that to you, but there's no reason you shouldn't be feeding it back to me in kind. There are two main reasons I can think of for why you haven't already pointed out the flaws in my conception of justice: either you don't understand the position that you've already so confidently and completely rejected (never wise), or you've been saving up your many devastating arguments.

      Well Daryl, if that's the case, then now's the time. Show your hand. Release the kraken. I think you'll find my defence much more substantial once you start giving me something to respond to.

    17. When I spoke of "universal rules" it was clearly in the context of the developmental/cognitive point I was making about how we humans come up with principles. I wouldn't have expected that to be so easy to mistake for an assertion of transcendental kinds of rules.

      If the standard has to be a "real" justice before we can appeal to justice in a complaint against, say, a nation that conquers and enslaves another, then that is no better than allowing that the aggressors in that situation are entitled to assert their own view of justice as being as good as ours -- "might is right" as you put it -- because we cannot produce that "real" justice to refer to. The theory, your thesis, that there is a "real" justice, does nothing to solve that. In fact, it leads directly to it. Logically, it is exactly your assertion; that there must be a "real" justice for the very concept of justice to have meaning; that leads to the tenability of a philosophy of might is right.

      You yourself have tied the value of the concept of justice to the necessity of a "real" justice. The concept of justice that I assert is one that emerges in negotiation and communication between people. It demonstrably allows us to put a lot of rules into our common toolkit, and therein lies its value.

      My lack of assent to "real" justice does not amount to a positive assertion of its negation. Neither does my defence of the utility of not subscribing to the concept of a "real" justice.

      Even a direct statement such as "there is no real justice" wouldn't amount to a positive negation (except to a grammarian, perhaps) since in the absence of a conception of "real" justice that has something to work with "there is no real justice" is merely an observation that there is nothing to work with. For example, if someone asserts "there is a theorem that shows that the sum of the squares of the lengths of the sides of a triangle that meet in a right angle is equal to the square of the length of the side that opposes the right angle" I could ask for that theorem and evaluate it for myself, or I could evaluate the statement by doing some empirical work with a pencil, compass and ruler.

      So, I cannot "show you my hand" as you demand because there are no cards, and since you are the dealer and the one proposing the game, that's your problem not mine. You can go "ha, you aren't showing your hand because it's a losing hand" if that satisfies you. I've offered the alternative of playing a game that we can play without cards, namely viewing justice as something that emerges from human interactions and negotiations.

    18. Hi Daryl,

      This last post of yours had a very vigorous energy, perhaps because you're getting impatient with me or perhaps because you know you're defending an indefensible conclusion. I don't mind an enthusiastic conversation partner in the least, but I bring it up only to say that your line of reasoning in that last post was at times difficult to follow. I think I can piece together enough of it to offer a brief response to you, but if I've misunderstood you'll have to be patient with me and correct me (as clearly as possible, if you would). And if I've missed replying to any important point of yours, feel free to repeat it for me.

      You seem to say that "justice is real" is useless because no one knows what that real justice is. But that's incomprehensible to me. How do you know? Have you ever looked at the stuff Aquinas wrote about morality? Whether or not he got it perfectly correct, it's evident that "real justice" doesn't constrain anyone to moral agnosticism; in fact, I'm arguing that it's the only escape from moral agnosticism.

      You say that "justice is real" is just as bad as "might is right" (a little bit funny because you have no way to call either of them wrong), and that real justice is the only way one could really affirm that might is right. Now, you're on to something, but remember that the converse is also true, which was exactly my point all along: justice as real is also the only way to /denounce/ the idea that might is right. You certainly haven't tried to denounce it yet.

      In fact, for all your attempt to distance yourself from the idea that might is right, all your "you could only believe that if you think justice is real" talk, that's where you seem to have ended up. Justice, you say a couple times, is about negotiation. Okay. And in that case, the one who has an advantage in the negotiations, the person or nation who is bigger, stronger, louder, meaner, angrier, sneakier, more dishonest, will get the better end of the deal. Might is right.

      And it's true. You're correct, to a point. But it's also woefully inadequate.

  11. Hi John, no I don't believe we've met before, pleased to meet you. Sorry it's taken me a few days to respond; I am frequently gone on weekends.

    I understand what you are saying about the number two, but we differ in that I don't believe justice is a concept of the same order as "twoness" (if we can speak of two that way--even numbers become increasingly complex the more you look at them, and the concept of whole numbers applied to things is more difficult than it initially looks; as my shoes are worn and begin to fall apart, at what point do they cease to be two things, and begin to be three or four? Or one and a half, if the sole falls off, as did with a recent pair of mine that I had worn for years? But that is a side point, and another discussion for another time.) Also, I disagree that understanding justice in a more contextual sense somehow makes it meaningless, or a rhetorical trick used by people hungry for power. "Justice," whether it is understood as eternal or not, will always be claimed by the power-hungry, even when it is patently false that they are practising anything resembling it. But that is why people like you and I (and really, all people) have to pay attention to justice claims and determine whether they are a true description of what is going on. Is it just, for example, for RBC to outsource its work? Is it just to cut funding for emergency housing to marginalized people? Would it be just for the UN to enter the war in Syria--is what the UN is currently doing just? Justice claims could (and often have) been made about all these situations, and more. What is the/a just response to these situations? And for who--for me? For the UN? For the CEO of RBC? For the activist working for housing policy reform? Of course, answering those questions will necessitate having and navigating other conceptions--truth, flourishing, oppression, power, and the like. All those, and other, concepts need to be in play in order to decide what a just response would be in any given situation.

    I am thinking the disagreement between you and I stems from the way we conceptualize justice. In your disagreement with me, if I am reading you correctly, you see me as proposing that justice is a changeable thing that shifts from situation to situation. But I am not thinking of justice as a thing that could change from one discreet form to another, as though one could say "justice was X, but today it is Y and tomorrow, it may be Z". Rather, I am using justice as a descriptor of a way of interacting that fits well with the circumstances, where "fits well" entails responding appropriately to such calls as truth, and need, and ethics. It is a relationship between two (or more) "changeables" as you put it, and not "something that changes" whenever it enters a situation (as I think you are reading me as saying) nor is it an eternal thing that exists on its own, separate from any context, to which we must aspire (as I read you as saying).

    In any case, if these are our respective positions, it turns out that our debate is not about justice as such, but more about the nature of reality. And in that case, it's a bigger debate that can't really be solved on a blog, though it can be fun to have a poke at such questions. Am I reading you correctly?

  12. Hi Allyson!

    No apology necessary! Life beyond internet philosophy conversations is a good thing.

    I think it's worth noting that the conversation was about the 'nature of reality' all along; Matt and I took justice (or 'justice itself') as an example, and then you and I picked up on example as a for-instance--and I think it's a good for-instance. With that said, your point is well taken. We won't solve the mysteries of the universe chatting on Ground Motive. At the same time, we might help one another take seriously some ideas that we otherwise would have written off--or, if not that, then at least we get some good practice at articulating our own views. :)

    One thing that did become clear to me in your last post is an important point where we disagree; it's something I probably should have realized much earlier in the conversation. When you say that justice is not a thing that's unchangeable, and it's also not a thing that's changeable, you'd be speaking nonsense except for one thing: you say, justice isn't a thing at all. It's just a word. For me, as a 'realist', justice is a thing--it must be. For you, as a nominalist, justice is not a thing--it can't be. And that's the disagreement that I should have seen earlier. I tend to assume that other people are also realists, even though I shouldn't; we realists are probably the minority, today. But maybe you aren't such a thorough-going nominalist that we can't find common ground. When we talk about different 'just situations', it is true that each of them is individual and unique and different from every other. And yet, at the same time, they must all have something in common, if they can all appropriately take the same adjective. So when I talk about 'justice itself', I'm asking--what is it that those situations have in common?

    That leads into the one other point I wanted to make. When you say that there are false claims to justice, and there are true claims to justice, I'm not sure how exactly that works with what you've already said about justice. How can you distinguish false justice claims from true ones? They seem to be on a level playing field with one another; if there is no 'justice itself', then any group has a legitimate right to claim that justice is on their side, and if that's the case, then it seems as though justice ends up just being the story of the victorious group, whoever that may be, because there is no objective way to say who was in the right or who was in the wrong.

    So maybe I should ask, using language that's a bit closer to yours: what are the conditions for justice? How do you distinguish justice from injustice? Can you? (It sounds like you think we can.)

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

  13. Oh, and to clarify, briefly: I don't think that justice will always manifest itself in the same way, everywhere and at all times. Maybe monarchy is better than democracy sometimes, or maybe a large city is better than a small one in some places; maybe it is best to tell the whole truth in some situations, and to tell part of the truth in others. I'm a casuist, and happy to be so; but I can only be one because I do think that there is such a thing as justice, an unchanging principle, and so casuistry is not just relativism or anarchy or might-is-right. Does that make sense?



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