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Ovi Symposium; Seventy-Sixth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Seventy-Sixth Meeting
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2017-01-18 18:10:31
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

Between Professors Emanuel Paparella, Ernesto Paolozzi, Michael Newman and Azly Rahman
Seventy-sixth Meeting: 15 January 2017

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Symposium's regular participants

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

 

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

newmanProf. Michael Newman received his Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Eastern Michigan University.  He discovered his love for teaching English as a Second Language while living abroad. He moved to South Florida and began his journey for a tenure track position at Broward College where he has recently earned a tenured position teaching English for Academic Purposes.  Another great passion of his is that of philosophical writing and discussion.  

azlyDr. Azly Rahman holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University, and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, and Education. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. He has edited and authored seven books. He resides in the US where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural and American Studies, and Political Science. His interest in research and writing lies in the cultural interplay between Cybernetics, Hegemony, and Existentialism.

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Subtheme of session 76: Ethics, aesthetics and historicism within the Humanistic cultural approach of Western Civilization and the search for the Self—Part II

Indirect Participants within the Great Imaginary Conversation across the ages: Vico, Croce, Hegel, Geyer, Hume, Kant, Pirandello, Plato, Shakespeare, Darwin, Aquinas, Jung, Mao, Marx, Durkheim, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Strauss, Momigliano, Berlin, Sarkozi, Merkel, Wilder, Grillo, Le Penn, Bossi, Vattimo, Heidegger, Gadamer, Christ, Croce, Olivetti, Socrates, Arendt, Horkheimer, Adorno, De Sanctis, Ortega y Gasset, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Mann, Rousseau, Santayana, Habermas, Sartre, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Bakhtin Rendra.

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Table of Contents for the 76th Session of the Ovi Symposium

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

First Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella: “Philosophical Reflection on Journalism, Objectivity, Truth”

Second Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi: “The Aesthetic Dimension and the Dehumanization of the Ethical-Political Judgment”

Third Presentation by Azly Rahman: “Thinking about Thinking in the Age of ‘Post-truths’:  Reading our personal book of signs, seeking out the history of questions

Fourth Presentation by Michael Newman: “Towards a Better, Beautiful Multi-Faceted Culture”

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 Coordinator’s Preamble to the 76th Meeting

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In this 76th meeting we continue our search for the modern conception of Truth and the Self within the parameters of Crocean and Vichian aestheticism.

To be sure, many volumes have been written on this theme within the three thousand year plus of Western philosophy. Socrates for one urged us to “know thyself” and Plato reflected long and hard in his Symposium on the nature of art and the transcendentals which govern our rational lives: Beauty, Goodness, Truth. In more modern times we have the work of Croce (Aesthetics) and Kant (The Critique of Judgment) on the subject of Art.

In this dialogic 76th encounter of our Ovi Symposium we will attempt to focus on our currently trendy modern concepts of Truth and Beauty (the rational and the aesthetic) and how their downgrading as fundamental concepts of philosophy; a phenomenon this which has vastly impoverished our cultural lives, not to speak of philosophy proper and the danger to our  democratic institutions.

We have previously dealt with this sub-theme: it is the conundrum of   positivism vs. humanism. We have already discussed the proposition that  to reduce a transcendental reality (the world of the intelligible, Beauty, Goodness, Truth) to measurable, quantifiable empirical phenomenon is to be engaged in a reductionist operation leading eventually to what Vico in his philosophy of history dubbs “the barbarism of the intellect.”

We return to such a sub-theme in the light of a disturbing trend which unfortunately is becoming more and more pervasive among public intellectuals, editors, authors of scholarly journals, professors: the trend toward reductionistic positivism understood as the ultimate stage of the intellectual development of human kind, as inevitable progress with which it is unwise to interfere in any way. To entertain any doubt on the Enlightenment is to be considered a “barbarian” of sort, somebody still living within Medieval Times with Thomas Aquinas as his/her mentor.

This hidden agenda or ideology is hardly ever expressly mentioned, but it is there nonetheless as a steady diet, reducing the holistic reality of any issue to a series of calculations, measurements, categorizations, reductions, all done, mind you, in a few hundred words, but dispensed as a steady daily diet. One begins to feel as if one were in a cave (Plato’s cave?) chained to a boulder with a steady drip-drip of water falling on one’s head every few seconds. I have never had that particular physical experience, but it is well known that, given enough time, it can turn into a veritable torture. At the intellectual level, it may seem harmless enough to be exposed to a a few hundred words column daily as a glimpse into the another alien world, but it too with time may become an intellectual torture chamber, what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” presenting itself as the “enlightened” point of view and tolerating no opposition.

The first presentation to explore this challenging theme on the nature of truth is by Emanuel Paparella. It analyzes in some detail the present conception of Truth and objectivity among journalists and editors of learned publications; those who usually proclaim themselves the disseminators and defenders of the borders of our Western culture, known as the culture industry, not to be confused with the information industry.

Ernesto Paolozzi’s presentation deserves particular attention in this context. He offers us a kind of masterful historical dialectical survey and analysis of how we ended up in the sad state of affairs in which we, the children of the information age, find ourselves as regards to schools, politics, and in the so called “science” of communication. He narrates how, in short, truth and beauty have been prostituted as fundamental concepts of any philosophy worth its salt. The analysis is conducted utilizing a Crocean (and I would add, a Vichian) paradigm of aesthetics; namely that of aesthetic intuition.

In the third presentation the reader is offered another relevant deeply philosophical and literary exploration and analysis of the concept of truth in our post-modern times by Azly Rahman. It begins and ends with this provocative question “What’s after post-truth?” Is it all relevant to the exterior phenomena or is it an interior discovery within the self? The exploration is even more relevant and effective because it is conducted on a personal existential level and placed within the concrete historical circumstances of the author and a particular geographical place in the far East: Malasia.

The fourth presentation by Michael Newman is a personal narration of how one may go about forging a self and some kind of cultural identity by incorporating diverse cultures and customs, those one was born into and those one encounters in one’s life journey. It also gives us a glimpse in the underlying philosophical problem, very much alive today: are all cultures equally valid or can they be assessed and judged? And if so, by which  criteria? Should we distinguish what is best and what is worst in each culture or is it all a subjective, or perhaps relativistic assessment? Which are the criteria by which to judge what is best and what is worst in a particular culture? 

Indeed there is much to learn and ponder here and I for one wish to personally thank you Ernesto, Azly and Michael for offering our readership so much food for thought and discussion. It is your generous collaboration that makes this special project of Ovi magazine possible. It is to be hoped that our dialogue will be an ongoing and fruitful one, in the august philosophical tradition of the Greek symposium.

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1.

Philosophical Reflections on Journalism, Opinion, Truth
Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

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You may have noticed lately that the popular slogan “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” has slowly evolved to “everyone is entitled to their own truth.” This is particularly evident among the very young, the millennials, so called, but it is not something brand new. In philosophy it goes by the name of Relativism or Humian Empiricism, or Utilitarianism, or Positivism, as opposed to Kantian deontological universalism. To be sure, those two strands of epistemology and ethics within philosophy have a long and respectable history.

Be that as it may, somehow, in our troubled times, the word “opinion” has come to slowly substitute the word “truth.” It even substitutes the word “interpretation.” Meaning that, ultimately, each and everyone of us is entitled to create and hold on to one’s facts interpreted according to one’s mind-set and beliefs, no matter how they are arrived at or on what foundations of knowledge or ignorance those facts may be resting. That is to say, we are all entitled to our own ignorance of the facts; that too is guaranteed by the Constitution and democratic principles. It’s part of being free. One may try knowledge, but one remains free to try ignorance as well, as he chooses. As Pirandello used to quip with the title of one of his plays: “To each his/her own!” If there is an absolute right at all, it is the right to choose.

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We now have people’s representatives who, with a straight face, will flatly deny that there is such a thing as climate change. When challenged about their naive assertion (usually tied to their economic ideology) with purely scientific facts, they will declare that scientists are entitled to their own opinion on the facts, while they are entitled to theirs. In any case, vote for me and follow me, and don’t pay too much attention to scientists and their findings. What do they know!

This puts media editors in a veritable quandary. If all opinions are to be respected, does that necessarily mean that all opinions have equal values? That no opinion ought to be attacked by any other contrary opinion? Is explaining what may be misguided and erroneous translate automatically into an ad hominem personal attack, or a lack of respect for those who hold the contrary opinion, or a witless twitting or Face-book trolling a la Trump? It gets quite confusing. So stratagems are devised to mitigate the complexity of the issue. Daily column are instituted to repeat as a steady daily diet an opinion or a point of view that has not been well thought out or explained. Thus an editor may hope to cover all points of views. But the issue, it turns out, is less journalistic and more philosophical. Let’s see.

Indeed, when the blind lead the blind, can the demise of democracy be that far behind? De Tocqueville had a few things to say on that aspect of democracy, so did Plato, more than two thousand years ago. Plato has over a couple of millennia been accused of demagoguery based on his theory of the philosopher king in The Republic, but all he was saying is that democracy based on falsehood and ignorance was doomed from the very start. That ought to be common sense even to those with room temperature IQs.

What operates today is that science seems to have been degraded to the subjective while truth seems to have been reduced to the sphere of the private, the subjective and the personal, to what is convenient to one’s own persuasions and agenda. In psychology this stance toward objective truth goes by the name of narcissism and it is considered an anomaly. It is usually associated with paranoia and authoritarianism. Examples abound in modern times.

The argument goes something like this: my truth is sacred to myself and so much the worse for the scientific evidence of the facts. The facts are what I say they are, and in any case I am entitled even to my own ignorance; my ignorance is just as important as your alleged knowledge. If the CIA gives me facts I determine if they are true or false, depending on how convenient to me those facts are. After all, we live in a free country and nobody can impose his views on anybody else. I own my own truth, whatever it may turn out to be. If I don’t own it, then how can I speak truth to power, how can I stand up for my beliefs and confront those who have different beliefs? It’s all a matter of what one believes in.

At first blush, the above rationalizations seem rather reasonable and in defense of individual rights. But make no mistake about it, this is a very dangerous operation as Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” (found in his Republic) has powerfully been intimating for the last 24 hundred years. That myth continues to appeal to our imagination because it points to a crucial distinction between appearances or taken for granted misleading assumptions and the truth of an issue, which lies not in the dark cave but outside the cave where the sun (an allegory of truth) shines in all its splendor.

Not to speak of the fact that to insult and accuse of incompetency those whose duty is to defend one is to invite those who are so charged to prove the point. Case in point: Caligula and the Praetorian guards in charge of his security. Eventually they got a bit tired of having to kneel before a living god, and proved that the god was mortal after all.

Leaving historically bizarre situations and epistemological controversies, and Plato’s myth of the cave aside for the moment, let’s briefly reflect and analyze this ominous modern understanding of the nature of truth. The first question that arises here is this: Has truth become a fad like any other? Obviously, the slogans “my truth” and “your truth” are on the rise. A pseudo-solution, a veritable temptation to editors, is that of eliminating all interpretations and  comments to  statements of fact, “just the facts madam, just the facts…”; after all there are already so many contradictory facts around, we don’t need more confusion with comments and interpretations; Indeed, some editors have resorted to it, they simply eliminate all comments, period; but alas, that solution loses sight of the fact that it is contrary to any respect for the principle of freedom of speech which demands that opposite opinions and views be freely circulated and discussed; that to hamper any of them, as inconvenient as it might be personally, is to dabble with censorship and propaganda.

But we seem to be going around in circles here. Let’s deepen a bit more. Could it be that we are going back to a more ancient definition of truth understood as fidelity? Fidelity to what? Surely not to the facts, not to reality as it is a concept which only appears with the 16th century, the century of Galileo, Francis Bacon (the father of the scientific method) and later on David Hume. What was in place before? Well, so the argument goes, it was “living one’s truth” understood as “being faithful” to one’s Self or perhaps something outside one’s self and one’s personality; something greater than one’s puny narcissistic self or ego; the gods perhaps. After all, did not Shakespeare himself, a consummate humanist of the Renaissance, proclaim “to thine own self be true?

So, on this road of faithfulness to one’s own self (which all narcissists love with a passion) we end up with “my truth” and “your truth” on parallel worlds never to meet. Consciously or unconsciously, we end up with owning our own brand of truth. That could mean the truth according to my own state of mind at the moment, or according to the human condition differently interpreted (the social Darwinist certainly have a different understanding of human nature than the Platonists), or what is simply convenient or inconvenient for me personally at the moment. After all, there are plenty of inconvenient truths that I’d rather not dwell upon and wish to simply disown.

But is it a mere question of “out of sight, out of mind?” Could it be that Shakespeare’s advice was ultimately meant as a warning against self-deception rather than an advice to consider one’s personal state of mind always objective and self-justifying? Could it really be that “owning one’s truth” simply means stubbornly sticking to my own opinion regardless of the evidence of the objective scientific facts? Is the Self involved in Self-deception? Is every opinion really as good as any other opinion? How does that lead to any kind of meeting of minds or any kind of union?

More to the point, could it be that such a state of mind leads to inevitable disaster? Could it be that this owning of the truth as a personal possession of sort, reduced to the private sphere, the sphere of the private interest and aggrandizement, not only will not redeem or free us from the chains of the dark cave, but, to the contrary, will further divide us from one another, destroy our democracy, make us lose sight of the common good, and thus lead to our ultimate perdition as a civilization and perhaps even as a species? Could it be that our real dilemma that will determine the fate of Western Civilization will turn out to be our interpretation of Plato’s myth of the cave and how it shapes our conception of truth? Pilate’s question to Jesus Christ seems to have returned with all its vehemence and urgency: What is truth? Have we reached that point in our so called Western Civilization. Does the election of a Donald Trump portent it?

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Be that as it may, despite the bridge that Aquinas built between reason and faith, modern journalists who believe that religion is a non-rational retrograde activity to be avoided at any cost, are legions. They are usually of a positivist mind-set and have substituted ideology to religion or science to philosophy, never mind that positivism is in itself a philosophy of science.

The usual rationale adduced for giving up God-oriented religion is that there is not sufficient empirical evidence for God’s existence. God is a chimera, an illusion of the human mind wrapped in a delusion. It is in short a sign of retrogression. But then the question surfaces: why do the same people not give up ideologies as well when they find out that they too may not be empirically or scientifically proven? Many ideologies have been scientifically discredited but people continue to hold on to them as a life-boat of some kind.

Could it be that ideology constitutes a substitution of sorts? That ideology functions as a value system, a necessary substitution for those who repudiate a religious belief system, as Jung certainly believed? That ideologies provide people with a community of like-minded people? We may look different, but the ideology unites us: we are all good Republicans, we are all good Communists, we are all good Fascists and we are all faithful to the ideology. Ideology seen as a Club of sort or a mutual admiration society of sycophants but wishing to pass as something almost sacred and ritualistic and religious.

But the question persists: why, as a rule, do ideologies see religion as an enemy and a competitor? One thinks of Marx famous quip “religion is the opium of the people” proffered while substituting Marxism to Christianity. One thinks of Mao’s “religion is poison” proffered while substituting Mao’s little Marxist red book as a Bible of sorts for the adoring masses of China. One thinks of the positivist approach to reality of modernity declaring the scientific approach as the only enlightened modern approach and religion mere superseded ignorance and  superstition.

Emile Durkheim in his Elemental Forms of Religious Life called religion and ideology “moral communities.” Why did Durkheim make such a comparison and what, if any, is the nexus between the two? Let’s see. What has happened all too often since the Enlightenment is that religion has been all but subsumed under ideology. This is most apparent not only within modern ideological movements which present themselves as universal movements applicable anywhere at any time, but also in modern journalism.

This rather bold statement about journalism may surprise the journalists among us, but I dare say that it is not very difficult in modern journalism to detect socially constructed notions of the sacred reduced to a mere economic belief system. Marx’s ideology jumps to mind here. It works this way: the question is turned up-side-down so that rather than to ask how can religion be a cultural need for a community or an entire polity and what are the benefits, the centripetal force that accrue to that need, one ends up asking this spurious question: how can religious beliefs help the overall economy? More crassly put: how can religion help bankers and CEOs increase their profits? And of course, if it doesn’t do that it is usually assessed as pretty much useless.

For example, extreme nationalism can be construed as an ideology although it wants to pass as patriotism. It has the overwhelming power to motivate men to die for one’s country via the nobility of patriotism. Nationalism seems to share with religion the same power of motivating humans to lay down their lives for what they believe. It is a socio-culturally produced power that some call the sacred which more often than not deals with sacrifice and redemption. Here the question arises: how is the sacred produced in cultures and societies constituting a nation or a confederation of nations, the EU for example? Quite often monuments to the unknown soldiers are called “altars” of the country. How does it function? Do human beings move between religious and secular sacralities such as nationalism or communism or fascism or progressivism for that matter?

Nowadays we see a media landscape littered with opinionated talk and ideology-driven websites galore. But of course in the world of journalism it is considered the kiss of death to reveal openly what one really believes in, which are one’s sacred beliefs. To do that is to be perceived as subjective, opinionated, biased, rather than rigorously objective in one’s reporting. One needs to remain open to all intellectual currents, or at least appear to be so.  And so naturally journalists tend to hide what they really believe. Very few journalists have the courage to reveal who their admirable cultural heroes are, and who are their despised cultural villains, not to speak about revealing their own personal core convictions.

But the stratagem fools few people; they sense the liberal or conservative bias of the journalist or the editor in question. As Socrates put it: “speak that I may know you.” Most intelligent people can intuit the position of a journalist or even a whole publication on the political spectrum from the very moment the journal opens its doors, or to return to our metaphor opens its mouth. It is most apparent in the question that are asked, or those, just as revealing, that are ignored. If nothing else, the readers intuit it by the assumptions the publication takes for granted and never challenges. Quite often the shallowness and superficiality of a publication is revealed by the superficial questions it proposes. They may not reveal a belief system but they surely reveal a mind-set at work. One wonders if it would not be more honest by far to admit to certain ingrained biases and then examine them carefully to determine if they are in any way reasonable and tenable.

But one may further ask: how is one to know where a journalist is coming from? How is one to rate his/her trust-worthiness when one is confronted not with “where one is coming from” but “the view from nowhere” which seems to have become the media’s true ideology? The media wants to give the impression that it is neither on the right nor on the left since generations of mainstream journalists have come to believe that they can be trusted only if they remain or give the appearance of being neutral, having no dog in the fight, so to speak. To disclose one’s beliefs simply goes against the grain. Most journalists when confronted with this conundrum will reply that they did not get into the business to parade their opinions but to uncover the facts. Just the facts, madam!

“Where I’m coming from in news reporting is no partnership or ideology” most newspapers editors would proudly proclaim to their readers. They would also add that the reporting speaks for itself and is not coming from any point of view. They are just being impartial or to use a slogan utilized by a very partial news media, Fox news, we are being fair and balanced. That slogan in itself makes intelligent people even more suspicious.

Then there is the editor who claims that “we present all opinions objectively with no bias added on.” This is to admit that any opinion is as good as any other. The opinion of an ignoramus, especially one who may have managed to be elected president of a country thus proving his “brilliance,” is as valid as that of a professor of political science at a prestigious university. Truth is also an opinion, and that too is an opinion. Now we are into Nietzschean nihilism, consciously or unconsciously.

Were one to insist on a sincere answer to this typically modern conundrum any journalist worth his/her salt will tell us that he/she is in the business of uncovering truths that are not easy to uncover, in following leads no matter where they lead. Put that way, it sounds like an admirable heroic enterprise, almost Socratic. Here the question arises. Can a journalist interpret and analyze the news for the benefit of his/her readers rather than having readers figure it out for themselves and perhaps arriving at the wrong conclusions? Is that being too condescending with readers? Usually one will get no answers to those questions from journalists or editors.

And so the debate goes on. Conservatives complain about the liberal sensibility of the media in general. Liberals complain about the veiled ideology apparent in conservative media circles such as Fox News. The result seems to be that they both wish to claim “objectivity” with the view from nowhere allegedly removing all biases.

They are two sides of the same coin. All too often this ploy will lead political observers to obsessing about winners and losers rather than the harder work of finding out who is telling the truth and what are the effects of policies adopted by politicians. Enter the reality show politician. Winner takes all. It can hardly be doubted that that’s where we presently seem to be and to deny is equivalent to keeping our head in the sand.

It would appear that “the view from nowhere” or the attempt by many journalists to substitute religion or a belief system with an ideology, kept well-hidden of course, in order to be perceived as objective and unbiased journalists, far from removing biases and prejudices from their narratives leads directly to them. So our geo-political confusions turn out to be rooted in a  philosophical confusion on the very nature of truth and objectivity.

Thus we get to the greatest of confusions, that between history and geo-politics which is all but apparent in today’s media. It is of course the task of pundits and political science experts to elucidate, explain and untie our geo-political conundrums and knots, so to speak. It has become a veritable academic cottage industry whose father arguably is none other than Niccolo’ Machiavelli. But to judge even by only what can be empirically observed, it seems that the greater the effort of elucidation, the greater the confusion. This is a puzzling paradox which is sure to keep academics of all stripes up at night and very busy for the foreseeable future.

I’d like to modestly propose that this strange paradox of geo-political confusion can perhaps best be explored by analyzing the underlying philosophical confusion, that is to say, a confusion at the level of ideas. For example, one of the most frequent, most brazen attacks on modern thought is the one carried on by assorted Straussian classicists and absolutists of many stripes and persuasions. Straussianism is a respectable conservative philosophy held by the Chicago University philosopher Leo Strauss, which attacks modern relativism, reductionism and positivism. It views “modernity” or modern philosophy as a sort of cancer on today’s body politics and resorts to the ancients for answers to modern political perplexities. As it could be expected it is vehemently opposed by the vast majority of liberal progressive philosophies in academia (indeed the predominant majority in academia) which at least attempt a synthesis between the ancients and the moderns even when the tensions between the two remain and the synthesis is not achieved.

The Straussians’ stratagem seems to function this way: show that modern and post-modern thought leads to relativism, then that relativism in turn leads to pluralism and multi-culturalism. Thereupon attack multiculturalism and pluralism as a cancer on the body politic and the very unity of NATO, the EU and Western Civilization in general, never mind that quite often these attacks are redolent of the xenophobia and rabid nationalism, even fascism of old. Now, if the reader initially finds all this rather confusing, it is because it is. Without an examination of the underlying philosophical confusions it will probably remain confused.

We have the famous case of some years ago of Strauss and Momigliano branding Isaiah Berlin a shameless relativist and stubbornly persisting in the charge even when Berlin defended himself and denied it in the New York Review of Books. In politics we have none other than the former PM of France Sarkozy and the present PM of Germany Merkel encouraging the demise of the multiculturalist experiment in the European Union. The two don’t exactly advocate a return to good old nationalism or fascism, they are far from being right-wingers, but the message come through loud and clear nonetheless: you need to conform and assimilate to European ethos and culture or your life will become quite uncomfortable in the EU. In effect, the issue of multiculturalism has been slowly transformed in one of clash of civilizations; a dangerous explosive issue if there ever was one.

Without going into the more complex political and social aspects of this issue, which I have discussed elsewhere, I’d like, more modestly, to show here that it is a logical and philosophical fallacy to equate pluralism with relativism; that in fact the arguments in that regard are a gross equivocation, a red herring meant to distract from the real agenda of those anti-multicultural right wing politicians (I am thinking here of Wilder, le Penn, Bossi and Grillo, etc. etc.) bent on bringing back good old nationalism, totalitarian regimes, fascism, even advocating secession from the countries in which they operate.

This exploration will focus mostly on the philosophy of hermeneutics of a current modern philosopher: Gianni Vattimo who was a European parliamentarian for a while and whom I had the good fortune of having as a teacher at Yale University in the late seventies in a course he taught there on Giambattista Vico. I distinctly remember some face to face conversations I had with Vattimo. It soon became apparent that he follows a philosophical line which goes directly from Vico to Nietzsche through Heidegger to Hans Georg Gadamar (as student of Heidegger like Strauss and an influential Vico scholar in his own right). In that genealogy Vattimo would be the philosophical great-grandson of Vico, the grandson of Nietzsche/Heidegger and the son of Gadamer. As was the case for his predecessors in the field of hermeneutics beginning with Vico, for Vattimo hermeneutics which etymologically means “interpretation” is much more than one branch of philosophy; it is the constitutive element of philosophy itself. It is well known in philosophical circles that hermeneutics acquired great importance in the 20th century, especially in the “turn to language” as advocated by Heidegger and pioneered by Vico in the 18th century via The New Science.

After this necessary preamble, we will begin with this crucial question: Is pluralism possible without relativism? Some clear definitions may be needed at the outset. What do we mean by pluralism? Essentially this: the idea that there are multiple avenues to truth, multiple forms of truth, and multiple diverse (and potentially radically different) cultural lifeworld expressions operative at the same time and this forms are historical as well as geographical situated in time and space. The Straussians of course debunk this as historicism unconcerned with universals, but then some of them become self-declared experts in Far Eastern cultures to better stand apart from the unwashed ignorant oi polloi. The whole operation begins to smell of elitism. They even go around speaking Mandarin knowing full well that few can judge and assess their knowledge of the language. Oh my, are we confused.

What do we mean by relativism? Basically, the belief that all of these various expressions are in some sense "equally true" and/or the notion that even if there were one right final truth to the universe we humans would never be able to ascertain it. As Vico put it, man can only know with absolute certitude only what he himself has made (languages, institutions, history) and to whose origins he can return, not what God and only God has made: i.e., nature and the natural world. Even Plato, who is generally considered the grandfather of absolutists of all persuasions, after recounting the myth of the cave as an allegory of knowledge and truth, exclaims: “only God knows if this is true.”

Nevertheless those two views are conjoined so that relativism gets portrayed as a sub-set of pluralism. But is that really the case? Pluralism may indeed be hallmark of postmodernism but not so relativism. Pluralism does not necessarily need to hold that all views are equal, as relativism does. Relativism takes the existence of plurality and then makes a decision that we cannot know how to judge between these various expressions of life and says that they are all equal and not to be compared and not to be judged.

Paradoxically, the statement that all views are equal is an absolute position, and it undermines relativism. The statement that all views are relative and in relation to one another is, in fact, correct. The idea that all views are related to other views and that no view springs out of the ether of Mount Olympus or outside of time and space completely on its own does not mean all those views are equally valid. That is to say, post-postmodernism accepts the pluralism that is already there in the postmodern world and then seeks ways to integrate it. This approach is different than any attempt to reinforce a single narrative (i.e. the modern world as positivists tend to do) upon the various diverse forms of expression in existence.

Enter Gianni Vattimo. His work is built around what he calls "weak thought". Weak thought refers to the station of thought and philosophy in the context of life after modernity--that is after the death of European colonialism, the 20th century's horrors, the rise of globalization, and the end of the Cold War. The opinions, views, and commitments we hold must necessarily be "weakened" in this age which Vico would place in the third era of extreme rationality. Vattimo, as I remember is quite fond of quoting this famous saying of Nietzsche: There are no facts only interpretations and this itself is an interpretation.

Nietzsche called the coming dissolution of modernity (and he was a prophet in that respect), the "fabling of the world." The postmodern world is a fable; or in Vattimo's terms, weak thought, which is to say the kind of logic one sees in fables, myths and fairy tales, is now the “weak” reality of life. According to modern thought which begins with the Descartes and Enlightenment rationalism, life follows an objective system of progress and rationality. But for Nietzsche the modern world's self-view was not fact but interpretation. Vattimo insists in keeping both halves of that Nietzschean aphorism in mind: 1. There are no facts only interpretations and 2. Number 1 is itself an interpretation. The first point undercuts the modern view of pure objectivity. The second point prevents the postmodern insight concerning interpretation to become its own "fact."

Hermeneutics is nothing else but the study of meaning and interpretation. This was brought home to me in the Vico course I took under Vattimo at Yale University in the late seventies, as mentioned above. Later, after writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico I ended up writing a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, 1993). For Vattimo, what hermeneutics has revealed is a thoroughly pluralized world. He writes that we can no longer believe in a final objective all-encompassing absolute metaphysical view of the universe—that is to say, a universe that perfectly describes the way things actually are.

Heidegger persuasively argued that the attempt by metaphysics to describe rationally all of life under a single heading (God, Being, Truth, etc.) has destroyed our ability to actually live in the world and that the manifestation of this trend in our day is science and the scientific approach (positivism). For Heidegger this tendency to describe, control, and frame existence under the term of metaphysics led to the "oblivion of Being" or the human inability to live graciously in the world.

Instead of first living in the mystery of existence, we seek to control, describe, and explain life and end up dehumanizing ourselves. For Heidegger as indeed for the anti-Cartesian Vico earlier, the best way to relate is through a kind of poetic-like relationship to the world. We let it arise and speak to us in its mysterious language instead of trying to impose upon life our categories of thought, for Nature is a shy maiden and will not be violated and dominated and observed naked. The truth too may be a shy maiden not to be used as a weapon of sort. This is what Heidegger describes as the post-metaphysical world. This is redolent of Vico’s idea that rationality is composed of the rational but also, and just as importantly, of the poetical and to separate the two is to dehumanize oneself.

Vattimo too argues that this trajectory arises from the early foundations of Christianity, that Christianity eventually destroys an absolutist metaphysics. Atheism is another form of metaphysics for him. The post-metaphysical world, the post-modern world, the world that is an interpreted fable, is one in which there are a plurality of cultures, languages, and life-worlds enacted by various beings on the planet. No one of them can ever be final.

So the crucial question becomes: how do we deal with plurality without falling into the trap of relativism? Vattimo nowhere says that all views are equally valid and, like Berlin, he never declares himself a relativist. For Vattimo the ethical implications of “weak thought” is charity. Love is better than the rejection of love and therefore not all views are equal and we must love each other in our differences or perish.

It is not hard to see that for this version of a postmodern worldview which recommends the “weak power” of love as a guiding ethical construct of a plural world would find unacceptable any theory that denies or represses plurality denying charity and forgiveness. Some of these world views that Vattimo would find flawed include religious fundamentalism, scientific materialism, and last but not least cultural relativism. Vattimo is concerned with bringing views, languages, and peoples at the periphery into the middle of the discourse. Vattimo in effect has given an answer to the Straussian classical absolutists’ debunking modern thought. Pluralism can hold on to ethical values that have meaning, practice love and forgiveness across cultural differences, reject violence, intolerance and relativism. Paradoxically, “weak power” unsure of itself overpowers intransigent absolutism sure of itself.

What did Shakespeare say: Maturity is all! I suppose part of maturity at every level is the ability to live with ambiguity. The greater one's ability to live with ambiguity, the more mature one is. Most absolutists seem to be unable to accomplish such a feat; they need absolute certainty and are too clever and elitists by half for their own good. Vattimo's weak thought on the other hand, as a form of pluralism seems to be quite mature, the way cultural relativism can never be. Cultural relativism recoils from the ambiguity of pluralism, of post-metaphysics and historicism taking refuge in the easy position of everything being equally right and so no view can ever be judged.

Indeed one can do worse than becoming a pluralist and a multiculturalist; one can become a relativist or an absolutist with an agenda which looks progressive because tied to science but is in reality a repudiation or the first principle of philosophy: that truth is objective and has nothing to do with one’s own preferences and conveniences.

I don’t pretend that the above has suddenly made the present confusion in our geo-politics and philosophical ideas and our journalistic principles suddenly clear and certain, but perhaps it can supply to thread to follow that may hopefully get us out of the confusing labyrinth in which we seem to be stuck in. A rereading of Plato’s Myth of the Cave would certainly help. Most importantly, a renewed reflection on that ancient question asked by Pilate to Christ may be necessary: What is Truth?

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2.

The Aesthetic Dimension and the Dehumanization of the Ethical-Political Judgment
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
(translated from the Italian by Emanuel L. Paparella)

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Benedetto Croce (1866-1952): originator of the philosophical concept of “aesthetic intuition”

The demonstration that as foundation of rational knowledge, of judgment, there is an intuitive kind of knowledge which possesses (as in part Vico had already discovered) its own autonomy, is not merely an original theoretical position; it is also an affirmation laden with consequences at the philosophical level, not to speak of the level of praxis, ethics, economy, politics.

With the passage of time, the theoretical space increases and to Croce’s interpreter it appears more and more evident, almost urgent, to attempt to fill it with new contents, new suggestions. Indeed, what we could define as aesthetic dimension, encompasses the entire horizon of human life and activity. As per common sense this activity fundamentally deals with art and calls to mind the sphere of the beautiful and of taste. Within it one can list great works of literature of all times, architectural constructions, the paintings, the musical melodies, dance, cinema. There is an ongoing debate as to what constitutes the criterion by which to measure the artistic poetical value which distinguished them.

Even in everyday life, the aesthetic dimension is identified with good taste which guides us,  when, for example, we choose how to dress and how to decorate our homes. Were this the only space of the above mentioned dimension, we could still affirm that it undoubtedly renders life more refined and our spirit kinder supporting us in difficult moments. This was probably the intuition which led Adriano Olivetti to make his factories not only places of work and production, but also places of beauty.

That interpretation seems to make the aesthetic dimension an obviously important one but one that is not indispensable; it would meet certain important fundamental exigencies of human-kind which, however, could still survive without them. But such is not the case, because the aesthetic dimension coincides but at the same time it does not coincide with the beautiful, with the tasteful, with good taste. It does not live in museums, anthologies, catalogues. It is above all theoretical, which then, as such, invades the practical sphere of human activity, conditioning choices and daily behaviors, but also the law, the life of political states, the legislation of governments, the managing of the economy.

Come to think of it, all human actions, be they theoretical or practical, begin with the aesthetic dimension, since it regulates our first relationship with the things of the world: the people we meet, the objects we see, the places we visit. In fact, it regulates our thoughts, our relationships, our decisions, the goals that we set for ourselves.

Even in our most abstract thoughts there is the presence of an aesthetic image. Even our most concrete material or physical action is illuminated from a thought with the presence of an image. For example, if I am looking for a stone which I need to defend myself from an aggressor, it’s because I have thought of a stone as a defensive weapon. If I am thinking of  it because I am imagining a heavy, hard, compact stone well sharped, and not that of a rough spongy-like object.

Intuition as foundation of the ethical-political judgment

If what we have said so far makes sense, it will not appear paradoxical that the aesthetic dimension also proves fundamental for ethical-political choices, together with a practical sentiment which aims at solving practical problems. Those of us who walk into a space crowded with people will immediately feel either a feeling of attraction or one of repulsion, or perhaps even one of indifference. Whatever the feeling it will be accompanied to the knowledge (or intuition) of that particular place, which makes it unique, different from any other place, even when similar. Only later, theoretical reason, or practical reason will elaborate a thought and take a decision: they will consider the place or the company pleasing or displeasing; that is to say, they will express a judgment to tarry on or to leave.

It would be quite different if this judgment and the consequent choice were predicated on the statistics of judgments of others who have preceded us: we would not then have an authentic judgment since our choice would be less consonant with our personality and our taste, and would therefore be subject to error. This is more or less what happens when we allow a person with tastes different from ours, convince us to go and see a certain film. All we would need is a visual representation of his aesthetic sensibility to avoid any disappointment. Quite often, judgments based quantitative analysis end up confirming the real situation in which one happens to be, hence the quip “the operation was successful, the patience died.” A quit which hides the recognition of a good common sense vis a vis abstractions.

More and more frequently we confuse numbers with things and people, abstract concepts with reality proper. Our political stage resembles at times the staging of a famous social game, in which there are fake money, fake business men who buy and sell fake real-estate built on a fake net of streets drawn on a card-board. It happens at times that some fake business-man gets so involved in the game that a fake financial collapse occurs, thereby losing all his fake wealth: houses, hotels, money.

So it is with political choices, even those which are strictly speaking considered economic choices. Given that in our unidimensional society we tend to rationalize every choice and every behavior, the most frequent error is that of neglecting the aesthetic dimension. To a complex reason, which attempts to understand even the reasons for intuition, of sensibility and sentiment, we oppose a calculating reason, precise but not true, neglectful of human reality. This is not an issue of emphasizing the intuition of political man at the expense of rational discourse. Indeed, political intuition, just as well as political reasoning, are essential part of the more generalized practical behavior, but they are both founded on an aesthetic dimension. This is the point, the issue that we’d like to underline.

If we devalue the aesthetic dimension of political action we risk not understanding those deep movements, those real movements of society, not being able to grasp the humors which buffet our lives which determine our political choices and, with them, the destiny of an entire community. How often have we heard politicians and pundits rebel against politico-logical explanations, against geometries construed at one’s desk, against the long and seemingly profound arguments on political spaces that need to be filled, against the definitions of political or sociological categories which, when confronted with the truth, melt away, or break up unable to withstand the surprising original vitality of social life!

This discontent for political geometries, for abstraction of analysis as complicated as they are empty, of programmatic indications which will never be realized because of the continuous social changes on the ground, the historical conditions, often provokes a dangerous reaction, a vehement rejection. So against a calculating reason we oppose vitalistic irrationalism, dramatically troubling, and the so called populisms return on the stage with their confusing passions, envy, anger, narcissism or abstract moralisms, as a general appeal to a murky kind of honesty, thus placing at risk an entire civilization.

Within this dimension the so called political communication returns, constituting opposing extremisms: calculation and irrationality, which threaten our social life. Communication and aesthetic expression look alike, they seem related to each other, and yet, to the contrary they are in conflict in so many aspects. And this tells us a lot on the necessity to confront the theme of the aesthetic origin of every judgment and every ethical-political practice.

Communication as a surrogate of authentic narration and aesthetic representation.

And so, with the expression “political communication” we tend, for some time now, to justify every kind of political propaganda, as we would have said some time ago. It’s like a magical expression that somehow justifies everything, pardons anything. It represents the communication, the beauty we could say, paraphrasing H. Bogart exclamation in the famous film The Last Threat, which becomes a symbol of modern freedom of speech and freedom of the press and media. Only trouble is that, within our present historical instance, the situation seems up-side-down. It is this communication that seems to put at risk freedom, including that of the press and media which the film wished to defend placing it above all special economic or political interest.

With this argument we have no intention to demonize political or economic communication. It can perform an important task, perhaps necessary. It serves, as the word itself hints at, to communicate ideas, projects, passions, sentiments to the largest numbers of people possible. It is a fundamental instrument of every democracy. But that is the point; it is just an instrument; a means, and as such it can only be justified if placed in relation to the goal that it pursues. In fact, means and end, ideas and projects, passions and communication, when they are authentic, they coincide.

Political communication, after all, and in many aspects is the new Prince. To reject it completely, moralistically, parasitically (and this is the accusation heard most frequently directed at those who protest against the excesses of communication), is a mistake. Communication (like political myth), can have the fundamental function of overcoming the barrier, that becomes progressively a greater barrier, that has been put in place between the managing classes and the popular masses of workers. The expressive force of an image, the efficacy of brief post on a social event may guide, if not exactly form, a public opinion which is incapable by itself to understand and analyze complex and delicate issues, which can even be dramatic and require specific competencies and particular preparation.

But it remains obvious that that same expressive force can be used to fool and even manipulate public opinion, the masses as it was said at one time. In other words, we need first to understand what are the means and what is the goal we’d like to reach. Here there is nothing new under the sun. In some way, communication is the propaganda of the political parties of old; however, progressively it has incorporated the rhetoric of old and seems to incarnate a new sophistic, echoing with the term a negative aspect of a philosophical movement which is much more complex and deep: to have a bad argument become a good argument, with the simple force of oratory competence, with the technique of a dialectic understanding as the ability to speak, to reason and to persuade.

And this is our problem, which has nothing to do with a parasitic and nostalgic opposition to the new methods of communications, which become more and more refined. We need to ask some profound questions on the very nature of this new form of sophistry; and so the dramatic questioning of a Socrates or a Plato on the search for truth, on the possibility of making an ethical choice, returns with all its urgency. We are talking about a choice, a research which are fundamental and not exclusively the search for a consensus. Given all the limitations of Platonism, remains primary, as it was in ancient Greece; primary to the organization of a society, of a society which does not wish to surrender to the bullying of the stronger, whatever the instruments of repression might be, be they physical violence or psychological persuasion.

Nowadays, with the arrival into history of a mass society (not understood as the amalgamation of social classes or groups but as an indistinct unity of atomized individuals, be they rich or poor), and this tremendous power of communication which via interned and TV is able to penetrate on a daily basis our daily lives plus the arrival of this mentality into political and civil life, the situation seems to be getting worse: democracy itself appears to be in serious jeopardy.

We need to keep well in mind the distinction of Hanna Arendt regarding totalitarianism (a new phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century) and dictatorships, tyrannies, authoritarian governments. Within totalitarianism the masses have no need of a head of state to guide them, but it is the head of state who needs the masses to legitimatize his power. This means that political power, that is to say, the managing classes, pursue the masses, or better, pursue the mass mind-set, relinquish any role as guides or stimulation, so that the normal democratic dialectic is extinguished within this constant pursuit of the masses’ reactions, even the most brutal and dangerous. Communication is then put at the service of this perverse mechanism which may result eventually in a new milder form of totalitarianism. Communication is no longer useful to persuade the people, but in reassuring it that the head of state are like the people, rather, they are worse than the mass of people, and they will answer to all the desires that the mass expresses since those desires are also their desires.

It is here, even more than on the field of economic crisis, that the game of the destiny of democracies is played out on a global level. These new phenomena, summed up, perhaps too superficially, as populist, find their strength within the weakness of the managing classes, imposing their rhythm, their anger, envy, resentment, superficiality and banality, breaking up the old distinctions between right and left and storing away the great political movements, beginning with Communism, Liberalism, Socialism, and Catholic Democracy. Thus within this context, even the struggle to reduce social economic injustices becomes that much harder, given that the class social differences are either hidden or manipulated within and indistinct spirit of revolt. What gets substituted to the generosity of the struggle for human rights is the anger of personal revenge.

Public opinion then gets possession of information, not in a critical spirit, or even to control it, but in the sense indicated by Arendt within totalitarian regimes: information follows public opinion, it caresses it, thus contributing to a dangerous game of procrastination of reforms, of cultural  and etico-political degeneration. Here the analysis of the Frankfurt School are invaluable. According to this analysis, the canons of cultural industry which used to depress and impoverish the free expression of culture, are today extended to the information industry. The Format, for example, as a fundamental tool of the organizing of information, clearly shows how the ultimate goal of information is that of pleasing, of achieving a consensus. All critical spirit is expunged, while the fundamental function of the media of control or mitigation of consolidated power, even amidst a thousand contradictions, simply vanishes.

Thus is the betrayal of aesthetic truth accomplished,  also that of knowledge, of individuality, all instrumentalized  by communicative imagination at the service of some organized power system, within a system that tends to extrinsic goals, often tied to personal interests.

The Information Industry and the Prison House of the Classificatory Thought

The information industry is a difficult danger to identify. It’s like dressed with the clothes of the good. Quite often, when the criticism and the accusation seem anti-conformist, they reveal themselves as instruments of mass conformism. The accusation or protest, with economic motives, diminishes the credibility of the accusation or protest. Even the most severe critique turns out to be false: the cards are marked, and there is the real risk that the ancient struggle for freedom of the press (from information which is not free and it is not even information) is eventually transformed in the struggle for the very existence of the press. With which tools is this done? This is indeed the political question which ought to be asked with increased urgency and responsibility.

In this dramatic journey of history it is necessary to recuperate the aesthetic dimension of the political judgment to oppose to the merely instrumental manipulation of the techniques of communications. We need to recognize the aesthetic cognitive foundation representing our humanity and individuality in its fullness. We need to oppose that to the danger of neo-sophistry, relativism, cynicism on which the so called “communication” is based in tandem with bad information. We need to critique the industry of information which wishes to pass as industry of culture. But the critique needs to be rigorously philosophical without rhetorical moralisms.

Here too it is not a matter of demonizing the economic organization which is often found at the root of the information system. Rather, it is a matter of healing a phenomenon which has gone beyond its proper function placing on the discussion table the fundamental principle of freedom of information. Information needs to remain autonomous from political or religious or economic power. To preserve this autonomy means to recognize it first as autonomy of expression, that is to say, of art as a form of knowledge.

Only if we recognize this peculiarity of art, this function which is distinct from other functions or constitutive categories of life, we can oppose this authenticity of expression to the possible manipulations of communication. It turns out that aesthetic imagination, the knowledge of individual existential social conditions is a form of truth which cannot be usurped by politico-logical abstractions, while communication as an end in itself loses the content of truth which art contains. One is not moved by the news that “ten thousand have died because of a hurricane” but one is moved to tears looking at the image of a child saved from the wind’s fury from his mother who sacrifices her life to save him. This is the strength of individuality vis a vis the abstraction of generalizations. Nevertheless, the border between individual expression and the instrumentalization of the same remains porous.

It is not by chance that Max Horkheimer, the founder, with Theodore Adorno, of the School of Frankfurt, which, to the Italian culture of the post-world war II era, seemed so distant from the historicist philosophy of Croce to the Italian culture of the post-war II period, took notice. Horkheimer, in a letter written to Croce’s widow on the occasion of the philosopher’s death in 1952, says that: “Not only for this reason and not only within the scientific circle, do we perceive nevertheless the fact that he is no longer with us. What he was able to accomplish in the field of aesthetic concerns any man who is still in control of his own spiritual existence and does not submit blindly to the mechanism of the industry of culture. He, who came from literary criticism, was perhaps, since the times of Hegel, the first important philosopher who carried on in our times a lively spontaneous and original relationship with art, reflecting in full theoretical responsibility on the issue of art. His fundamental vision, according to which the work of art cannot be measured on the basis of its genre, without losing the basic question relative to the truth or the falsity of the same, has had a liberating force which is still alive in the artistic experience of innumerable persons who may not even be aware that such a theoretical contribution, the emancipation of aesthetic from classifying thought, is due to Croce.”

Indeed, classifying thought, quantifying, measuring abstractly, when it manages to break free from the limits of its instrumental function and becomes the dominant thought, the only theoretical justification of ethico-political action, becomes a veritable cancer which slowly but inexorably erodes our very civilization. It transforms itself in a real pedagogical tragedy which runs through academic institutions and even family education which are often conditioned by pseudo-scientific procedures.

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The myth of objective evaluation represses creativity expressed as a divergent thought, it frustrates the originality of scientific and historical research which quite often emerges and develops outside cultural institutions. In the past moral prejudices, religious preoccupation, political cautions have sometimes obscured scientific progress, philosophical research, free artistic expression. Today, however, the major obstacle, at least in Western societies, seems to be the myth of the objectivity of classifying thought, of a purely calculating reason.

The system of formation and instruction is in a crisis in the whole Western world. No reform has so far managed to slow down its decline. There are many causes for the crisis, but there is a fundamental error that remains constant and it is based on a pedagogical conception built on a mediocre philosophy, almost an ideology, although not explicitly stated as such: the classifying, quantifying ideology.

To be more specific, it would be enough to think of the modern returning to a false kind of philology (false because devoid of a vision) in the study of art and literature. In between the 19th and 20th century both De Sanctis and Croce opposed a certain kind of pedantry and rhetoric founded on a positivist ideology and a misunderstood classicist rigor. Today, as educators, we are forced to fight, often in vain, against the humiliating post-structuralist critique which manages to reduce works of art to useless pedantic textual analysis. Those literary genres, that classificatory thought to which Horkheimer referred to have returned with a vengeance, announcing the death of art, of historical and aesthetic critique and the consequent distancing of the young from poetry, from beauty, from the knowledge of the human spirit.

It appears that even in this specific sphere of culture, we are fighting a fierce battle for liberty. We are dealing with nothing less than the liberation of art, in conjunction with a more general battle for liberty.

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3.

Thinking about Thinking in the Age of “Post-truths”:
Reading our personal book of signs, seeking out the history of questions
A Presentation by Azly Rahman

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There is an overdose of talk these days on the word “post-truth” and “fake news” and the way the corporate media especially is trying to make the discourse of relativism par excellence go viral true to its ethos of profiting from reporting about conflicts. From “all the news that’s fit to print” we now have “all the views that count as equal truths.” Anything goes as well as long as they sell, in an age of the globalization of packaged and branded nothingness. Daily, especially when one is living in America and chose to be watched and washed by television, consume the news, get amused by the programs, entertained by Hollywood, transformed into televisual and online consumers, get informed by newscasters and talk show hosts in parallel-talks arguing at each other, or even simply be made to doze off by the hundreds of cable and non-cable channels, one is confronted with cruel choice of accepting “truths”.

We continue to live in a world deeply mediated by the corporate media that is now mutating in all forms: from those emanating from the regular TV broadcasts to the self-aggrandizing personal podcasts others create in the age of post-humanism and intelligent machines.  The media and the way truth is “epistemologized” or how they are produced – through sound bites, click streams, fake-reproductions, or even sensationalized and viralized -- is mediating and, in fact, creating us in ways we still do not know how and to what effect.

Herein lies the complexity of the world we live in. Herein lie the need, I feel, for introspection and the occasionally to “leave our mediated self,” or the Platonic Allegorical cave we are forced into en masse. Now is the time look at what we have been made to become by the words, thoughts, concepts, and definitions we consume. This is a complex task understandably: a paradox of absurd proportions. How do we get out of the “Reality-defining language” we are in – this “prison-house” and look critically at the crystal-ball that is “us” or “we” or “I” and find out the process of how we become “constructed”? In other words, how do we “step out of ourselves” and see who we are or what we have become and then, ask the question, “what then must we do”?

Absurd.

That is the word to describe my proposition above. But engage in a phenomenological inquiry on the nature of cognition we must. Below are my thoughts on the phenomenology and the dialogics and dialectics of “truth production” I propose we need to look at in order to at least question what we know or made to know.  I shall draw examples from the culture I grew up in as well as examples of how concepts become ideologies and installations shaping institutions in Malaysia. My interest is in the process of truth-construction and how they define social-relations of production.

The self as a text, hypertextualized: a book of signs

We are a book of signs. We are also living in a book of signs. We must learn how to read it.

"Read, in the name of thy Lord who created thee, from a clot (of Blood)."

This foundational and genealogic Quranic verse suggests the importance of reading. We can interpret this as reading being more than an act of understanding; that reading is an act of knowing, naming, de-constructing, and reconstructing the world.

What are we to read in our lifetime? How are we to live a life that has been pre-determined by the ideological framework that awaits us at the point of departure from that clot of blood?

"Man, in a word, has no nature . . . what he has is history," said the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gassett.

" Cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore, I exist)," said the French mathematician Rene Descartes.

The Western tradition suggests that circumstances and historical-materialism create the conditions of human existence. This seems to suggest to the idea that we must use our mental capacities to master our environment and the possibilities that await us, provided that we recognize the structures of oppression we are in.

This seems to further suggest that to exist, as a "free human being" one must first be aware of the visible and invisible systems created by other human beings. One must be aware in order for his/her existence to be one of "being and becoming" and in order for the human self to live with its own "global positioning system". These sayings suggest the idea of "reading" the signs and symbols of the world we inhabit. They ask us to understand the significance of language we use, the culture we inhabit, the ideologies our consciousness are shaped  by, and the way we as human beings are "produced and reproduced" by those in control of the historical march of "progress".

But how are we to read, what is the history of our existence, and how is the human self-degenerating?

Many have labored on with this issue - philosophers of the Eastern and Western worlds, from ancient times to the frontier thinkers of the post-modern tradition.

Socrates taught people to ask questions so that they may be free from the state and from the gods created by the Athenians, Plato suggested the principles of ethics, metaphysics, poetics, and through 'The Republic', wrote what utopia is.

Modern philosophers of the Western tradition - Nietzsche, Locke, Hobbes, Mann, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Santayana, Habermas, Sartre, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida - continued the legacy of defining what free human beings ought to be.

The texts of the Judeo-Christian traditions, of Chinese and Hindu philosophies, and of other grand and subaltern voices have spoken on the need for the human self to be recognized as the highest form of existence. These texts have also explained the relationship between the human being and the universe he/she inhabits.

How might human beings be totally free in the entire scheme of human control?

Foundations of a dialogical self

I think we now ought to understand what the foundations of civilization are and understand the complexities of the structures of human control. If we understand what the creative, critical, and ethical foundations are, we might be able to read the society we live in better.

We might even have to labor less on the question of for example, "how to reduce corruption in society" or "how to make politics more ethical" or "how to educate citizens to become more obedient to the dictates of the state".

These questions have their own unique history. We must learn to ask the right questions.

From our understanding of the foundations of civilization, we can then comfortably explore what it means to be free and to be liberated from the prison of structures that have been erected by those who own the means of economic and intellectual production.

We can then understand how language can free or shackle us by the very nature of language as part of the system of signs and symbols. We can then understand the maxim “language is power" and whoever owns the language owns the knowledge to control others, or that whoever is in power can further produce systems of control through the use of specialized knowledge.

From our understanding of the foundations of knowledge and the tools to explore issues of power/knowledge/control, we may begin to examine the structures that oppress us and others and learn to be critically aware of unique spaces of power and knowledge we inhabit or to understand the "cartography of our existence", so that we can then fully appreciate the thoughts we possess as a human being who is born free.

We therefore must first learn to "read", in order to be free.

Dialogical thinking, as the Russian philosopher and linguistic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin might agree, will prepare us with the foundations of building new ideas and breaking new frontiers in the way we conceive what life might possibly be.

Dialogical thinking can help us examine the way we think what history can alternatively be, as in the manner many counter-factual historians might think.

Many of us have the urge to learn how to demystify age-old dogma, recognize faulty styles of thinking, and analyze flawed systems of perceptions. The urge to de-construct can be turned into a set of principles we can adopt on our road towards becoming a thinking being and on our road towards "illuminations".

The phenomena of globalization, the repudiation of technology, the control of resources in the hands of the global few, the increasing fragmentation of nations and the rise of "post-modern post-industrial tribes" is making this world an increasingly complex place.

Signs and symbols

We were born into pre-designed economic conditions and systems. In traditional societies, we were born as agricultural beings. In modern societies, we were born into structures defined as "modern".

In this age, we are born into Homo Cyberneticus (Cybernetic Beings), especially when we declared ourselves inhabitants of a Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor living in the intelligent cities of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya.

In Malaysia for example, the economic design is one of an amalgamation of post-colonialism and Oriental Despotism, a legacy of nationalism and laissez faire economic structure and superstructure. We inherit these structures from the historical march of dominant economic ideologies chosen out of political preferences.

The knowledge we acquire is dependent upon/tied to the economic condition. The more sophisticated the ideology, the more hegemonic would be its impact on the way we acquire knowledge. We define our existence from this ideological point of view.

Following Rousseau, we were already born in chains; chained by the ideology of the political and the economic condition. The spiritual belief system is also of our own construction; based on packaged knowledge of myth and magic and manifestations of the nature of economic practices transplanted from faraway lands. This manifestation becomes culture.

The synthesis and interplay of narratives, myth, and political-economic structures become culture; as we see in the culture of the nomads of the Bedouin desert as well as the "post-industrial" nomads of Silicon Valley, California.

The structure of the development of the historical-materialism of things can be read from the nature of the development of culture and its interplay with technology and the development of human consciousness. Culture may become belief systems. Belief systems in turn become neutralized through the installation of ideologies based on dominant inscriptions.

We consume whatever that is termed as history; memories based on recollections of human experiences, archived by human beings and written by those "who know how to write" and "those who own the pen."

We are taught packaged knowledge, through the process of education as social reproduction and the process of schooling as a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate and tame the mind, so that these minds will not rebel against the structures they are born into.

Creatures of perception

Let us now look at some examples in Malaysian history of how institutions and ideologies shape the human self. I shall draw examples of how we have become creatures of perception, constructed by signs and symbols of the institutions that reproduced us.

During the early days of the elitist and British-modeled Malaysian school Malay College Kuala Kangsar, for example, children were taught packaged knowledge based on what was then the beginning of Eton-styled education system. That was the dominant installation of the British ideology.

Later in the 1970s, the Maktab Rendah Sains Mara system installed an educational ideology based, among others, on the model of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science using an American-styled curriculum.

There were also models of indoctrination using Islamic-based principles of teaching and learning. One can go farther back in history and analyses how Christian missionary schools were built to have the minds reproduced according to the designs of the producers.

Another example will be the development of vernacular schools and ideologies based on race and ethnicity dictates the development of the self.

In the heyday of the "Islamization process" in Malaysian politics, then minister of education prepackaged an "Islamic" version of knowledge and called it The (Malaysian) Integrated Curriculum or Kurikulum Bersepadu to indoctrinate children into believing what political reality is about and to ensure his truth and the aligned truth of a prevailing doctrine be broadly disseminated.

Much later, in the heyday of Malaysia's conversion into an "Information Age" society, educationalist pre-packaged knowledge by introducing other means of disseminating truths and educating by designing Smart Schools (aligned with the demands of the Information Age).

In the Muslim-dominated states of Kelantan and Terengganu and in other similar Malay-Malay economic belts, other forms of schooling and indoctrination rule. Those in power and in their capacity to design systems of control install stronger structures of control; control of the minds of children who possess the ability to become frontier thinkers.

Human creativity is curbed to ensure that dogma will reign. Regimented truths are systematically forced into the curious young minds. These truths are borrowed from faraway lands and disseminated through specialized language.

Such are regimes of truth we have created out of our political-economic conditions. We must learn to read the meaning of how our learning institutions have produced us, as well as the power structures that produce such regimes of truth.

In all these examples of the social and ideological construction of reality, where would be the source of knowledge that? Where is locus of control of the production of “truth” oftentimes crafted as Official Knowledge and force-fed into human consciousness through schooling, training, and indoctrination?

We ought to be more interested in the history of questions rather that their utility primarily. In the following paragraphs with further reference to the case of hypermodern Malaysia, I expand this notion of genealogy over structurality. However, I can only provide more questions.

Seeking out the history of questions

We live in interesting times with questions concerning our existence.

How are human beings controlled by those who own the means of intellectual and economic production? How does power, in its raw and refined form, operate in our society? How is it dispersed? How is power sustained? How is truth produced? How is truth multiplied?

Still more questions plague me.

How is the self constructed? How are we alienated? What is inscribed onto the body and into the mind, in the process of schooling? How is human imagination confined and how might it be released? How is the mind enslaved by the politics of knowledge? How is historical knowledge packaged? How do we define our existence in this Age of Information?

Still more questions:

Who decides what is important in history? What is an ideal multi-cultural society? How has our ideas of multi-culturalism influence the way we live our lives? What historical knowledge is of importance? What tools do we need to create our own history?

And as I grow older, there are even more questions:

How is the individual more powerful than the state? How is a philosopher-king created? How is justice possible? Who should rule and why? How are we to teach about justice?

And finally, how might we realize a democratic-republic of virtue - one that is based on a form of democracy that is meaningful and personal?

Inadequate answers

Throughout the course of my study on the origin and fate of this society, I have learned how much the work of these people have contributed to the social construction of the Malaysian self and the democratic ideals that this nation aspires to realize.

I have learnt what the early philosophical journeys of the Malays look like, what kind of statecraft was practiced what the metaphysical system of this group constitutes, what form of social-humanism is to be fought for, what a Malaysian social justice may mean, what a multi-cultural Malaysian might look like, and finally, what brand of nationalism must be embraced in an age wherein "the Centre cannot hold".

I want to explore the history of the questions asked and to find out how we arrive at this or that historical juncture. I believe these questions will help us go back to the origin of things and in the process, to understand the world in which we live.

I believe that these questions can help one way for human beings to go back to the Centre and its Primordial Nature, through what Rousseau calls "sentimental education" or, to explore, as the Indonesian poet W S Rendra once said in his play 'The Struggle of the Naga Tribe', the "world within and the world without".

Through these questions, I believe one can break free from the shackles of domination and release the imagination. And as Rousseau continues: "Man is born free... and everywhere He is in chains", and that the first language he needs is the cry of Nature.

Transcultural flow of ideas

Based on a thesis I produced on the origin of Malaysia’s new city of Cyberjaya, I am currently further developing a "social theory of how nations develop and hypermodern as a result of transcultural flow of ideas and in the process of developing, how the human being loses its essence, gets alienated, and become conditioned by the system of signs and symbols; by its genealogy, anatomy, chemistry, and its cybernetic properties".

Ideas dance and do the hip hop and flow gracefully from one nation to another; from the mind of one group of people to another, from a nation at the Centre to the peripheries and the hinterlands. But in their dance, there is always the beauty and the deadly persuasion.

It is believed that in this age, we are born into a matrix of complexities, and we will spend our lifetime understanding it, possibly escaping it, and consequently constructing an understanding of our Existential self.

We are born to be makers of our own history. In this world without borders, are all essentially, transcultural citizens differentiated only by our national identity cards and our passports.

What comes after “Post-truth”?

In today’s world of multiple truths of knowing as well as the speed of technological diffusion of “truths” we ought to increase our effort in developing the human mind and in the teaching multiple perspectives of knowing not only to learn more but to critically examine further claims and assumptions bombarded onto us.

At the end of our writings, I hope we can name the inherent contradictions between our existentialism and the world of cybernetics we inhabit.

Still, my question is: What’s after “post-truth” then and how do we live an intelligible life without starving for knowledge yet drowning in information that keeps growing out of the womb of “Post-Truism?

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4.

Towards a Better, Beautiful Multi-Faceted Culture
A Presentation by Michael Newman

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Figuring out who you are is a valuable and challenging task anyone can face.  It is at the heart of what everyone usually wants to know, as that special knowledge is what guides each of us through life.  The challenging part is that who you are is not entirely static.  Indeed, we can choose to be someone, and strive to become a better version of who we are.  The aesthetic we strive towards is covered in the shadows of our own minds and, as Kierkegaard noted, we are often afraid to uncover our own capability of doing and becoming. 

Still, this is lauded in many movies and even taught to children, as seen clearly in the latest Disney animated film, Moana.  We see the quest of self-discovery set to the heroine by her grandmother, and so many of us identify with her search for her identity and her recognition of her inner calling.  As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but think about that inner calling we all have.  I reflected on my own journey of self-discovery, and I thought about how my children seek it.  Sometimes, that inner call is elusive!  It takes a great deal of honesty, reflection, learning (and sometimes experience) to find it! 

Indeed, the lens through which we see ourselves is often clouded in this day and age by the media (social and otherwise) we consume.  The shadows on the cave wall are reported in a biased fashion, and so prevalent is it now, that we use that to interpret our own reality, rather than do the hard work of constructing one that is true to ourselves.  Many of us are unaware of this bias, and wrongly believe that facts can exist without their interpretation.  Nietzsche comes quickly to mind.  Yet, if we accept and understand biases that exist, by studying the philosophers and art that shapes our world, then we can account for them, and hopefully reconstruct the true form of ourselves, or indeed build that we wish to be.    

I started this work many years ago, as I gave up my (erroneous!) dream career of being an engineer in university, and needed to find my way and who I was.  I looked to my family history, which didn’t help me, though it did provide insight into my grandparents!  That inner call and talent seemed just out of reach.  In retrospect, Kierkegaards teaching seems to ring true, “A man… is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.”  It wasn’t until many years later, when I found myself in front of a classroom, that I discovered my calling:  to teach.  I pursued it, studying the art of teaching in my master’s studies, striving to build upon that which has come before me in my attempt to create a world which is better than the one I have found myself in.  As I pursued that, I began working on other areas of my life, striving to answer that inner call to create a better me. 

Interestingly enough, it is that inner call of what to do which guides us, but it is our external influences that help define that expression.  By merging who I am with where I and my family come from, I have been able to joyously choose to adopt the strengths of many different cultures I can draw on to help define who I am and how I should be.  In my own life, I can directly draw on many different cultures, including American, Latin, Armenian, and Jewish, to name a few.  One benefit of living in South Florida is that you can find both Latin and American cultures very easily.  I mention these two, because I enjoy going back and forth between them, while personally bridging the world between them in my own identity.

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Allow me to illustrate how I have done so in my own life with some concrete examples.  I have incorporated influences from Latin, American, Armenian and Jewish cultures, among others, into my own identity, and am raising my family to appreciate and embrace that. 

One of the strengths of Latin culture (as I have experienced it) is being where you are, enjoying the moment, and not worrying about tomorrow.   During a Latin party, whatever problems you have, they are all on hold while the party is on!  Indeed, the prevalent attitude appears to be, “Eat, drink and be merry, for who knows what tomorrow may hold!”  While Americans can sometimes do this, I often feel that they are fitting the time into their schedule, and are not able to fully relax and be in the moment they have carved out.  Often they talk about problems they have and often can’t seem to slow down enough to enjoy the moment.  Another strength from Latin culture is frequently making time to eat, relax and enjoy your meal with your family.  While for Latin families this is traditionally lunch, having that mindset has allowed me to adopt a regular dinner time with my family, which was once a hallmark of American culture, but now seems to be relegated to Sunday dinner, if the family is close!  I’m able to adopt these two virtues into my family, easily justifying them from my background. 

From the American culture, one of the key virtues we cherish is honesty.   I remember when I played Monopoly with my family with Venezuelan rules.  Basically, you had to count your payments, change, watch your cash and make sure you didn’t miss your turn!  I remember thinking how clearly this matched living in Venezuela!  I decided not to play that way.  I want my family to learn and practice fair play, cooperation and honesty in their dealings.  Games are one place this is learned first, and that’s how we play.   Another American cultural icon we have is musical theater.  I have always loved musical theater and since my daughters are gifted musically, I have encouraged them in their love for performing.  Whenever I talk to people from Latin America, this is something that is not a part of their culture, but it is in mine.  So my daughters have been involved in many shows, including four Disney musicals. 

Two other cultures have been incorporated as well.  I am also ethnically Armenian, and to incorporate that culture, I have drawn on the excellent cuisine that culture affords.  We have done Armenian dishes for Christmas (in addition to the Venezuelan dishes!), and often our barbecues are just as I had them growing up, full of lamb, grilled vegetables, rice pilaf, and tossed salad.  Interestingly, coming from so many cultures, I get to see how the values of one culture mirror another, in this case, Jewish values.  Major Jewish holidays (with their accompanying values) are also celebrated, with food, songs, prayers and games. 

In this way, I hope I have demonstrated how I have been able to draw on the myriad cultures I have in my background, and woven them into unique cultural whole, which I call my Newman family culture.  In my case, the next step of looking at the underlying principles of truth, absolutism, pluralism vs. multiculturalism, await.

I am proud of these different influences, and I have seen how often these different cultures are able to interact, and how my children are learning how to move between the different cultures with aplomb.  I don’t believe it’s easy, but this has created a strong culture of tolerance as well, since so often, it is seeing the same world from a different perspective. Many perspectives can have aspects that are valid.  The key is to take the validity from each, as warranted by the facts, again, understanding and accounting for the bias used to interpret them.  By looking at the facts of the results of our beliefs and cultures, embracing who we are, and allowing the common and valuable principles of our different faiths and cultures to rise to the top, we can then celebrate them as a new culture and a new understanding in our lives!  We can let the beauty of these principles shine through whenever the occasion calls for it!  We can apply it to our journalism, our arts, our politics and our whole way of life.  European, American, and Latino cultures, in my experience, can blend well into a whole.  In this way, we can claim the highest values that produce a renewed magnificent culture of our own!

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 END  OF 76th SESSION OF THE  OVI  SYMPOSIUM (15/01/2017)

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