Monday, March 10, 2014

Secularity, Philosopher Style

I have just listened to an interesting talk by the English Philosopher, Daniel Whistler, courtesy, called Utopia, Abstraction and the critique of religion.  His title is a bit misleading as  he never gets to a critique of religion.  Rather, he uses German Idealism, specifically Fichte and Schilling to do what he calls, 'rescuing secularity'. This involves and attempts to describe secularity and to free it from an immersion in the realities of politics and to transcend the Hegelian dialectic, that is, to be abstracted from the particular and to exist as a pure idea. This pure idea he hopes will be indifferent to any ideology.

He begins in an interesting way for a philosopher by dissecting a court case in modern Europe.  The Italian government fought a European court ruling that crucifixes must be removed from classrooms. The reasoning used in part by the Italian lawyers was that secularism was itself an ideology and by removing all religious symbols from classrooms you were not presenting a neutral space, but in fact promoting the ideology of atheism.  This seems a reasonable argument as far as it goes, though I have trouble with the second half, which is that the Italian government argued that Christianity, as a religion of negation - basing this on the crucifixion - was itself a neutral ideology.  I don't see that myself, but understanding this is unimportant to Prof. Whistler's intent.  What he goes on to attempt, is to find a secularity that is not subjective.

To do this he takes his listeners through the German idealism of Hegel, Fichte and Schilling.  One of the regrets of my academic self is a lack of training in Philosophy, even an introductory course.  Keep that in mind as I do my best to summarize Daniel Whistler's thesis here.  Firstly he dispatches Hegel, as a dialectic involves subjectivity.  Next he looks at Fichte who argued that the philosopher must transcend the objective but can never do this.  Finally, he looks at Schilling, from whom he gets his idea presented here that there can be (possibly) a state of indifference that transcends the always dialectical particular of the ordinary world.

I should not comment as I am hardly versed at all in Philosophy, let alone German Idealism, but this being my blog, I will anyway!  One questioner in the Q & A session following the talk,  defended the dialectic by noting that every an idea that transcends the particular is in itself defined against that state, so you have not abstracted secularity from a dialectic.  I would note that seldom do pure ideas survive the reality of life as it is actually lived.  The fate of Marxism is a good case in point - this philosophical idea was altered to suit the reality of Russia, China and other smaller countries.  The claim was made that if the entire world adopted Marxism, then it would work, but that is a chimera and to be frank, nonsense.  The only philosophical ideals that function are those that take into account the realities of human nature and human nature in groups, and how these change over time.  My thinking, such as it is, concludes that religion will always exist whatever your opinion of specific claims because both human individuals and human societies need religion.  Of course, that is an historian's opinion and is therefore based on what I do know about history in general and the history of religions.  A smart intellectual could well argue, as does Daniel Whistler here, that one can conceive a fully abstracted and indifferent philosophy where religion is neither included nor excluded, but I don't see it.

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