02 July 2012

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice" - King Jr.

 "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." - Theodore Parker

 These are eschatological statements. History has a shape, an arc and moves towards some end.

30 January 2010

David Brooks' Advice to Obama

David Brooks a critical realist? - I think CRists are by nature "permanent outsiders":

"You need to detach yourself from Washington’s ping-pong match of ideological overreach — as each party interprets victory as a mandate to grab everything.

You made a good start in the State of the Union address, I would tell him. In that speech, you began to reclaim the mantle of the permanent outsider."

12 January 2010

Mark 7:1-23 and the Eschatological Decentralization of Israel

I recently had a paper proposal accepted for the Mark study group at this year's Stone-Campbell Journal conference (April 2010). There is no explicit CR argument involved in this paper, though CR certainly is assumed in the project. The paper will be the core of chapter of my dissertation through the London School of Theology. Here is the abstract:

Purity and the Eschatological Decentralization of Israel in Mark 7:1-23


This study employs a speech act theory based methodology to argue that the purity controversy of Mark 7:1-23 is best understood when viewed as contributing to Mark’s larger decentralizing project. The linguistic model foregrounds the role of language in the shaping of community and brings to light the way in which Mark’s gospel seeks to shape covenant communities within the ideological context of 1st Century apocalyptic Judaism, a context defined by its expectation of the imminent climax of Israel’s history. Mark’s Jesus is portrayed as ushering in that climax and as having authority to decentralize Israel by removing the status-function of several centralizing factors- namely Jerusalem, the Temple and a number of related persons and practices, such as those at stake in Mark 7:1-23 (ritual washing of hands, the practice of “Corban” and eating unclean foods). The passage has ramifications for the whole system of graded holiness centered on the Temple and seeks to shape how early Christian communities lived out the notion of holiness in light of God’s eschatological decentralization of Israel.

08 January 2010

Reply to Adam's Reply to "Ideologues and Critical Realists"

Thanks Adam for your reply. First I would like to just say a word about the main point of the post and then define what I mean by Critical Realism. The main point I was making was to distinguish Obama's decision making process from the previous administration. It's not of course that GW did not go through a critical decision making process, it's just that he tended to defer to ideology (at least in my opinion) much more readily and with less epistemological angst.

The decision to go to war in Iraq is what I'm thinking of mainly here.

As far as I can tell there are at least three schools in different disciplines that call themselves Critical Realists.

1. Aurthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne are scientists and interested in the question of religion. 2. Bernard Lonergan was a Catholic philosopher and theologian (he wrote Insight and Method in Theology). His work has had an impact (albeit limited) in biblical studies (Ben F. Meyer, N.T. Wright, and Rikk Watts specifically). and finally 3. Roy Bhaskar and friends which I believe focus on social science, politics, ethics...? (you should correct me here). I believe Alistair McGrath has explored the connections between some of these distinct schools.

Lonergan (along with Meyer, Wright and Watts as well) is the one who has influenced me (my own work is in biblical studies- pursuing a PhD in NT). I know very little about Roy Bhaskar.

The various forms of CR have family resemblances ("ontological realism, epistemological relativism and judgmental rationality" as you put it). Specifically, Lonergan has an understanding of human consciousness engaged in the drive to know as having four levels- From an earlier post on this blog:

The four levels of consciousness consist of relative operations each building on the previous, (1) experiencing leads to (2) inquiry and understanding by which intelligible answers are formed to questions arising from the first level. (3) Judging the veracity of the answers follows and finally (4) deciding a course of action in accord with what has been judged true is the final level of consciousness. The levels of consciousness are a dynamic unity, given as a whole.

Calling Obama a critical realist has more to do with seeing this process in action than anything else. What characterizes CR for me here is that one can have several construals or insights for the same set of data- answers for the questions that arise on the second level. With Obama and the war, these construals include "scenarios" - construals of the reality "on the ground" and projections of how things will play out given distinct courses of action. Ideology provides construals which may run rough shod over evidence, (e.g. U.S. style democracy will make people more free no matter where/how or at what cost it is implemented) but a critical realist is adamant about moving beyond to judgment (attention to cultural specificity socio-historical realities). There is a lot that is given- Obama did in fact inherit the war(s)- but now he has taken ownership of Afghanistan and has argued that there are times when war is justified- he's a moral realist but I think is aware of his position (a discussion of this is really not possible here). He's also a realist in the colloquial sense of the word.

What I appreciate about your comments (which to a certain extent are beyond me with respect to vocabulary and concepts) is that it points beyond the intellectual sphere of inquiry to that of normative ethics- something inherent in CR. Critical realism (in Lonergan's terminology) includes both the drive to know and the drive to the good- which are parallel and closely related (the step of deciding a course of action - level 4 is obviously inherently an ethical one). You say,


Critical theory *must* be willing to analyze the violence inherent in its own categories and scrutinize the effects of such categories. If Obama is a critical realist, how I ask, might he be reproducing, and not transforming (a key purpose of critical realism), oppressive structures of physical and cultural violence?


Lonergan's theory involves laying bare horizons- making explicit assumptions that become embedded in ideology and allows for, even seeks the transformation of horizon and conversion (intellectual and moral).

I'm not sure that Obama isn't to some extent transforming categories (his use of language in contrast to Bush era rhetoric) but ultimately I don't think any sitting U.S. president can truly be a critical realist.

Response to "Ideologues and Critical Realists"

Adam from http://www.nothingfromnothing.net/
has some insightful comments about my previous note on Obama as Critical Realist. I quote his response in full and will make some clarifications and respond in a little bit of detail soon.

Dear Thomas,

I’m reluctant to agree with your assessment on how we might draw a direct line from Obama’s judgmental rationality underpinning his Afghanistan foreign policy to that of a distinctive critical realist position. I worry that your insinuation of the core features of critical realism allows you to draw a weak parallel between your Obama example and CR–a move that both effectively relativizes CR and voids it of it’s definitive ethico-political affinity with emancipation.

For instance, in your attribution of Obama as an embodied exemplar of critical realist discourse, you wrote:

“while critical realists approach each issue with a drive to know- a need for information and a laborious process of weighing options, construing insights and ultimately making judgments”

Apart from an emphasis on the obvious ontological realism, CR places emphasis on a) epistemic relativism and b) judgmental rationality. On the latter two, I am able to see and understand your attempt at reading Obama through critical realism, or vice versa. To fairly restate your point we might say that: Obama was sifting through various discourses (epistemic relativism) and ended up making a decision based on some sort of criteria (judgmental rationality).

However, could we not argue that Thomas Hobbes, for instance, would also be a critical realist based on this limited (or expansive?) criteria due to his emphasis on rational calculative decisions that were derived from book-keeping as the model for rationality in general? Or similarly, would my nephew be a critical realist because he opened the breakfast cupboard and when faced with the laborious process of weighing his options (flakes or krispies!?) he made a discrimination after considering the range of options available to him?

On this metric, wouldn’t *everyone* who engages in social action guided through modes of knowledge and calculative intent be considered a critical realist? In what sense was Obama’s realization or the other examples I’ve provided “critical” in any way, not least that it would reflect the defining features of critical realism?

I think this is the cornerstone of CR and our issue at hand. As I’m sure you are aware, CR relies on transcendental arguments and would analyze historical practices (including present history) in ways that facilitate emancipation. Critical realists, Bhaskar argues, have a moral obligation to change practices and relations that presuppose false theories and discourses. To this end, human flourishing is the bedrock of any generalized conception of emancipation. Other values that we could include in the CR move to emancipation based on truth-claims that come to mind include virtue, ecological care, species-being, becoming, democracy, good, and so on.

In any case, for CRists, truth-claims have to be in accordance with ontology–there has to be some reality to speak about. I’m not entirely sure how, when directing a policy of war, we can actually say that Obama is advancing a project of emancipation. Wouldn’t ontology matter? What is happening on the ground in Afghanistan, or Pakistan for that matter? Would not a critical theorist, bound by social ontology and an ethico-normative political commitment to emancipation resist violence and suffering?

Critical theory *must* be willing to analyze the violence inherent in its own categories and scrutinize the effects of such categories. If Obama is a critical realist, how I ask, might he be reproducing, and not transforming (a key purpose of critical realism), oppressive structures of physical and cultural violence? On these terms, we would see that Obama comes out looking something much more like Hobbes’ theory of the Leviathan than his resembling of a Critical Realist.

From one (sometimes) critical realist to another, I hope you might revisit the ethico-political and normative dimensions of the critical realist position—that which makes critical realism, critical realism, and not, as Bhaskar once said about the naturalizing and normalizing tendencies inherent in positivism, the house-philosophy of the bourgeoisie.

20 December 2009

Ideologues vs. Critical Realists: Obama as Critical Realist in his Treatment of The War in Afghanistan

Ideologues defer to ideology for some reason or another (intellectual laziness or political convenience?) while critical realists approach each issue with a drive to know- a need for information and a laborious process of weighing options, construing insights and ultimately making judgments.

Barack Obama is a critical realist (not his words but my assessment). I say this after observing his treatment of the war in Afghanistan. He was criticized for taking too much time in deciding what his approach to Afghanistan would be, though he defended himself by pointing out that his delaying a decision did not delay action on the ground.

As he laid out the plan for more troops in Afghanistan, he made public the process of his reasoning. This is something that he has done throughout his campaign and presidency- revealed his process of weighing options and ultimately deciding on a course of action. The New York Times describes his decision making process in the case of Afghanistan:

The three-month review that led to the escalate-then-exit strategy is a case study in decision making in the Obama White House — intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating for nearly all involved. It was a virtual seminar in Afghanistan and Pakistan, led by a president described by one participant as something “between a college professor and a gentle cross-examiner.”

Mr. Obama peppered advisers with questions and showed an insatiable demand for information, taxing analysts who prepared three dozen intelligence reports for him and Pentagon staff members who churned out thousands of pages of documents...

Aides...said the arduous review gave Mr. Obama comfort that he had found the best course he could. “The process was exhaustive, but any time you get the president of the United States to devote 25 hours, anytime you get that kind of commitment, you know it was serious business,” said Gen. James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser. “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”


Read the full article here: How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan

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