Grow a soul

Grow a Soul

“One of the attractions of the UU approach to religion and life is caught in the assertion that divinity and spirit are to be found not through blind faith but through finding and sending down roots to the deepest part of one’s unique self. As is true in botany, those roots spread out into the wider community and can nourish us and give us a healthy life. How do we know when we are living in the best place for those roots to grow? In so much as we do indeed “grow a soul” we should consider carefully the garden in which that soul grows.” – Bob Lane

Book review:

Full Title: Speech Matters: On Lying, Morality, and the Law
Author / Editor: Seana Valentine Shiffrin
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2015

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Review © Metapsychology Vol. 21, No. 19
Reviewer: Bob Lane

Long before I studied philosophy my father taught me a profound lesson about speech. He was a proponent of the old observation that one should “say what you mean and mean what you say”. One day as he left for work he asked me, a boy of six, to pick up some trash from the back yard. “I will, Daddy!” said I with enthusiasm.

Upon returning that evening he asked if I had completed my chore. Having completely forgotten about my promise, I nevertheless responded “Oh, yes, Daddy!” not even considering that he would have seen the back yard when he drove his pickup into the back.

“Good boy,” he said. “go get your piggy bank and I will pay you for your work.” I got the piggy bank, sat on his lap, and he dropped two nickels into the bank. Each one seemed to shout “LIAR” as it landed in the ceramic pig.

I ran outside and did the cleanup I was supposed to have done during the day. Those coins dropping into that bank taught me that speech matters.

On women!

2022.06.07 View this Review Online  

Manon Garcia, We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives, Princeton University Press, 2021, 234pp., $22.95 (pbk), ISBN 9780691223209.

Reviewed by Ellie Anderson, Pomona College Five years after the climax of #metoo, a surprising development is afoot: women’s submission is trending. The tradwife movement in Britain and the Christian US celebrates housewives submitting to their husbands “like it’s 1959,” as blogger Alena Kate Pettitt puts it. In a more ironic vein, TikTok videos about smooth-brained bimbo feminism encourage young women to give in to the objectification that society inevitably places on them. In such a landscape, the question arises: Why do so many women consent to their own submission? This is precisely the question guiding Manon Garcia’s book. Garcia’s answer is that femininity is itself…

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Even with limited options, nevertheless, we can change

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing craft book Never Say You Can’t Survive isn’t a philosophy book, except that, well, take a look at this. Here, she talks about how characters can change. As writers and readers, we view their fictional world from the outside, and we also see that they have free will. Maybe we see things about the characters that they aren’t aware of about themselves. When the character has fewer options, they — and we — might perceive their situation as worsening. Still, despite their limited options, the character can change. Almost always, a breakthough is possible.

Here are three brief passages from the book:

“Fiction can work all kinds of magic during horrendous times: inspire us to resist evil, expose the reality of the world, create empathy, and help us to understand complex systems from a vantage point that could be hard to reach in nonfiction. But the most powerful thing that fiction can do is show that people can change, and that we all have the potential to be different. That’s where I get a lot of my hope when everything around me feels hopeless.

* * *

Almost every story is some mix of character stuff and plot stuff, and the mix can vary from page to page and chapter to chapter. Character is action: people aren’t just a collection of feeling and opinions and habits, but rather the sum total of all the choices they take. Meanwhile, even the plottiest plotfest needs to have characters who we root for, or else none of the secret codes and countdowns will matter worth a damn.

* * *

I increasingly find it helpful to think in terms of ‘options become constrained,’ rather than ‘things get worse.’ It’s not so much that the situation deteriorates — it’s more like doors are slamming shut, and the protagonists have fewer and fewer courses of action open to them.”

— Charlie Jane Anders, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, Tordotcom (2021), Chapters 8, 9, 10

I appreciate philosophy wherever and in whatever format it appears.

Objective discovery, subjective interpretation?

My latest read was Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (University of California Press, 2000). They counter the falsehoods of Holocaust deniers.

(I’ve written one, two, three, four prior posts for this blog about conspiracy theories.)

I picked up Denying History because I’d read some comments by Michael Shermer on an entirely different topic and I disagreed with him strongly on that other topic, and I wanted to learn more about what else has interested him over his career. So, although you should not understand me as endorsing anything in particular that Shermer has recently said on any of a number of topics, nevertheless I do want to point out a helpful framework within this 22-year-old book Denying History.

Historical objectivity

The 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke explained this approach.

History is outside our minds; we discover the past and discern its causal structure; we can know the past; we can become objective; we should describe what really happened.

The hardest part of this approach is denying how we are influenced by our own standpoints. How can we pretend to be objective, when it’s obvious that we have biases?

Historical relativism

In the early 20th century, thinkers like Friedrich Meinecke, Benedetto Croce, Carl Becker, and Charles A. Beard took a more relativist approach.

History is inside our minds; we construct the past and assign it causal structure; we can know the past only through what’s documented; we’re always biased; we should present our own interpretation.

The hardest part of this approach is maintaining that nothing can be known. If that’s the case, then why attempt to present history at all?

Historical science

The authors believe that this approach, having evolved from and beyond the former two approaches, is the correct one:

History is both outside and inside our minds; the past has a causal structure, which we discover objectively and describe subjectively; our knowledge is bounded by the data available to us; we should examine our biases; our interpretations are provisional.

They note that James Kloppenberg (American Historical Review, 1989) has called it “pragmatic hermeneutics.”

I like the simplicity of the breakdown between objectivity and relativism and the presentation of a third approach that bridges them. I also like that they’re talking specifically about writing history.

I don’t necessarily agree, though, that the third approach is correct. The discussion is too short to persuade me (Chapter 2, pp. 19–35). From my own lifetime of thought, for my own reasons, I tend to come down more strongly on the relativist side. But I think it may be a fine place for someone to start exploring the question, and there’s room for discussion here.

If we don’t know what we’re promising, is the contract valid?

Do you read the internet’s endless pop-ups by which you’re asked to “consent” to “cookies” every time you visit a new website? You may know that “cookies” essentially mean you’re being tracked, and you may be aware that you’re passively receiving a report of this tracking rather than actively consenting to it. The tracking probably already started when you landed on the webpage and were first presented with the question, right?

You probably don’t read the pop-ups. I don’t. You probably don’t go to each website’s ten-page Terms of Service to learn more about the supposed rules of each individual webpage. I don’t. Reading those legal documents would require more effort than reading the brief article you showed up for.

We know we’re being tracked all the time, whether we actively consent or not. Why waste time reading documents that are designed to be impenetrable? Why try to memorize the stated legal differences between websites? Especially when those documents may be obsolete or false?

Shoshana Zuboff points this out in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs, 2020):

“In many cases, simply browsing a website obligates you to its terms-of-service agreement even if you don’t know it. Scholars point out that these digital documents are excessively long and complex in part to discourage users from actually reading the terms, safe in the knowledge that most courts have upheld the legitimacy of click-wrap agreements despite the obvious lack of meaningful consent.”

—Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

She explains how this may be a devolution or degradation of the original idea of a contract.

“Legal scholar Margaret Radin observes the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of such ‘contracts.’ Indeed, the sacred notions of ‘agreement’ and ‘promise’ so critical to the evolution of the institution of contract since Roman times have devolved to a ‘talismanic’ signal ‘merely indicating that the firm deploying the boilerplate wants the recipient to be bound.’ Radin calls this ‘private eminent domain,’ a unilateral seizure of rights without consent. She regards such ‘contracts’ as a moral and democratic ‘degradation’ of the rule of law and the institution of contract, a perversion that restructures the rights of users granted through democratic processes, ‘substituting for them the system that the firm wishes to impose. … Recipients must enter a legal universe of the firm’s devising in order to engage in transactions with the firm.’”

—Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (citing Margaret Jane Radin’s Boilerplate)

When we don’t act consciously, we aren’t using our free will, and then it’s hard to describe ourselves as “agreeing” or “promising.” In this situation, what is a contract? Is it only an assertion of power? Someone telling us: By reading this, you agree…?