Wednesday, August 15, 2012

William James, Absolutism and Dogmatism

In Lecture II of The Varieties of Religious Experience, James says

The theorizing mind tends to the oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested (p. 37)
I like this a lot. It is short, concise, and above all very true.

I have a friend. He works in the metaphysics of causation. When I pointed out long ago, that he presupposed the principle of sufficient reason prior to proving PSR, he flipped his lid. He became irritable, and we have not talked about philosophy for some time. I challenged him to a knockdown argument as to why I might regard PSR as true. Whenever he would frame an argument in its favor, PSR had been presupposed in some way. That was the point of the challenge.

This is not a "knock against him." Rather, this is a confirmation about what Gadamer said long ago. Gadamer claimed that we all have pre-judgments, or what we would find as the root of prejudices. During the Enlightenment, human beings were to achieve a standard of objectivity and avoid prejudices. Prejudices should be embraced, and we should see how they play a part in constituting how we engage the world.

Beyond anecdotes, dogmatism and absolutism are the same side of the coin. Given the limits of human reasoning, I cannot apprehend reality or form a system of metaphysics so complete that the feebleness of reason does not enter into its construction. Try as I might I cannot draw a perfect system of metaphysics anymore than you can draw a perfect circle. These limits are abandoned in the self-confirmed wishful thinking of those that maintain the experience of religion or philosophy as having "all the answers." Such alleged "perfection" of a system is evident to the delusion of a master concept, one concept or category that can overgeneralize the complexity of many into one. For Calvinism, it was the doctrine of the elect, and in Evangelical Christianity that others are motivated by "the Enemy." In Islamism (not to be confused with the actual Islam), it is the "infidel." In every example, the master concept that excludes others for the sake of internal perfection is the root of all evil. When people can dismiss others either through metaphysics or religion, then religion becomes self-undermining enterprise and loses all claim to that which grounds the experience of the ethical.

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