Friday, February 22, 2008

Story And Argument: Jerusalem and Athens?

On Tuesday I floated the following quote from Robert Webber’s book Divine Embrace:

But in the postmodern world, the way of knowing has changed. We now live in a world in which people have lost interest in argument and have taken to story, imagination, mystery, ambiguity, and vision....

I wanted to know what you thought. Four of you weighed in on this. I also mentioned the recent row in the UK over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks concerning sharia law. Here too I wanted to know what you think. One weighed in. Let me share with you my thoughts on Webber’s quote and then tie those in with my assessment of what has transpired in the UK following Rowan Williams’ remarks. If you want, you chime in.


To begin, let me say that I don't believe that very much has changed over time with respect to how we human beings know. The world—pre-modern and modern—was never such that most people came to know very many things through argument. Read Plato’s Republic (4th century before Christ), for example, or any of his dialogues. They are not treasure troves of careful argumentation. They are instead rife with stories.

That story—not argument—is what captures the human imagination, moves us and serves as a significant mode of knowledge is not unique to postmodernity. And whereas mystery and ambiguity seem more like ways of unknowing than ways of knowing, story surely seems to be one sort of invitation to knowledge. In fact, I would have to say that the most important thing I've ever come to know I came to know through story, not argument. What is the most important thing I ever came to know? The most important thing I ever came to know is this: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me; the bible tells me so." And it tells me not in syllogism and argument, but in story, complex stories involving all the ambiguity, pathos, mixed motives and twisted intentions that characterize human life in human skin.

Now, I agree that mystery and ambiguity seem today to be valorized and readily embraced more so than in days gone by. But, again, they ought not, I think, to be thought of as ways of knowing. Rather, they seem to me to function more at the level of a psychological milieu, a milieu that is more hospitable to story, liturgy and sacrament than to argument. Story, liturgy and sacrament engage us much more holistically than does argument. They engage the affective, the passional and the sensual dimensions of human existence, whereas argument seems to engage us almost exclusively along the cognitive/cerebral dimension. So those whose experience of life and God have the feel and flavor of mystery and ambiguity will resonate more readily with story, liturgy, sacrament and the imaginative. No surprise, I think.


Now, here’s what Webber goes on to say in the next sentence, following the ellipses:

However, this does not mean or at least should not mean the complete loss of reason. Reason has a place in story. It is Christian rationalism that has failed, not intelligent discourse.

And this brings me to the sharia law kerfuffle involving the Archbishop. Intelligent discourse has in fact failed, and is failing, in the sound-bite culture postmodernity has helped to create. Mystery, ambiguity, story—all good and fine, but there are public spaces, occasions and contexts where argumentation is both necessary and helpful. And one such space is the public square of debate concerning how to negotiate an increasingly pluralistic and global society/world. But to a culture with the attention span of a squirrel, a consumer culture characterized by fragmentation, montage and sound-bite, the features of nuance, care and settling in with a lengthy text—features characteristic of argumentation in the best sense of that term—are found to be difficult, annoying and...well... downright “modern”.

Here’s how I see it. To the extent that postmodernism involves deconstruction, and deconstruction involves memory and omission, the sharia law kerfuffle precipated by the Archbishop’s remarks presents a deconstructive moment, a moment both for liberal democracies and religious faiths. Let me explain.

To my mind the most important point made by the Archbishop in his speech to the Royal Courts has gone systematically overlooked by the mass media and general public, both in the UK and the US. This point has been omitted from the story the media tells partly because it threatens claims of loyalty near to the heart of secularism and secularized liberal democracy and is, therefore, spectacularly unsettling to secularism. One of the Archbishop's major points--the idea that one’s loyalties and allegiances should be and should be allowed to be split or shared--is unthinkable to the secularizers of liberal democracy. Yet for a person of religious faith living in a pluralistic society governed by the rule of law, one’s loyalties are split or shared. “I am Christian. And I am an American.” “I am Muslim and I am a British citizen.” “I am Jewish and I am American.” The secularizers cannot tolerate the identity forming features of confessional religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam because, they think, confessional religion threatens social cohesion. Religion is fine, the secularizers would have us believe, so long as it is kept in its cage, domesticated at home, taken out for leisurely strolls within synagogue, mosque or church one day a week (or year); but, we mustn’t let it out of its cage to run amok in the public square.

The Archbishop had the audacity to suggest in the face of the monopolizing claims of the state—and so to remind those of us with religious identities—that with respect to who we are we are joint species, dual citizens. And what he urged upon the state was to make fair accommodation, accommodation in law, accommodation that simultaneously recognizes one’s identity as Christian, Jew or Muslim (say) without in effect introducing into society barbaric tribalisms of various sorts.

But. But one must actually read his remarks—complex and nuanced as they in fact are—in order to see that he was not advocating the adoption of sharia law or suggesting a parallel legal system. So reading, dwelling with nuance and complexity, i.e., the stuff of argument, is absolutely essential to our well being and flourishing. It has its place and must have its place, especially in a pluralistic and increasingly global market place of ideas and identities.

So, while I am glad that the bible is not chock full of argument with propositions, premises and conclusions I am also enormously grateful for the clarity of argument. And grateful too that when it came to public debate, the Archbishop employed reasons and argument--the economic currency of public discourse--not story, liturgy or mystery. My disappointment and sadness is in the fact that we--the religious and the (ir)religious-- seem to have become impatient and deaf to careful argument. To the extent that we have done so we have done so, I fear, to the very detriment of civil society.

The End.

10 comments:

Luis Oliveira said...

You continental, you! Never ceases to amaze me.

Dan Brennan said...

Kevin,

I wondered how long a philosopher with a new blog could resist the temptation of putting Jerusalem and Athens in the subject heading. :-)

Great piece.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Luis,

A rose is a rose is a rose. (-: This is quite a distance from the metaphysics seminar, isn't it? Ah, but the world (and life) is big. Big and beautiful, and many are the ways of engaging it.

Pax vobiscum, my friend.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Dan,

Apparently not very long!!! (-:
(When the weather gives up its ferocious assault I look forward to meeting you in chi-town.)

Cheers.

Peter B said...

Kevin
Thanks for your helpful thoughts on the issue. I want to push the thought a bit partly as a result of curiosity, but primarily because I have wrestled with the issue myself. The distinction that story and reason are completely separate ways of knowing seems to be a false notion, and as you say, story can have reason and logical argumentation at its core, and vice versa. What I am trying to get at is the relationship of each medium to truth... Fundamentally, I am trying to get at the way we know, what we are able to know, and by what mediums we are best able to know these things. I know... not an easy question!

In the distinction between story and argumentation, I hear you saying a few things:

1) “Story—not argument—is what captures the human imagination, moves us and serves as a significant mode of knowledge”
2) “Complex stories involving all the ambiguity, pathos, mixed motives and twisted intentions that characterize human life in human skin.”
3) “Story, liturgy and sacrament engage us much more holistically than does argument. They engage the affective, the passional and the sensual dimensions of human existence, whereas argument seems to engage us almost exclusively along the cognitive/cerebral dimension.”
4) “Those whose experience of life and God have the feel and flavor of mystery and ambiguity will resonate more readily with story, liturgy, sacrament and the imaginative.”

Your 1st, 3rd and 4th points speak of the impact of story, how we are engaged by stories, and who stories are most likely to impact. Your 2nd point describes the composition of story and how it relates to humanity. I guess I am trying to understand a separate (though related) question. Namely:

1) Does story allow its audience access to a fundamentally different type of truth than argumentation?
2) Are certain truths more amenable to story or argumentation respectively?
3) Do story and argumentation speak of the same truths, just at different levels of analysis (e.g. “God created the world” and a scientific account of the worlds development and evolution)?

Quinn said...

Dr. Corcoran,

Your Tuesday entry jogged my memory and I'd meant to post this quote. After this post, it seems even more fitting in a strange sort of way. I don't know if Montale would agree with what you write, but (to me, at least) you both seem to be hitting on something similar, although I can't grasp the connection:

"But for this to happen we must also come to another conclusion: that we no longer live in a modern era, but in a new Middle Ages whose characteristics we cannot yet make out. Since this is a personal conviction of mine, I shall refrain from discussing the reasons for it here, where it serves only as an hypothesis. The era which lies before us does not allow for short-term predictions and to speak of a new Middle Ages is to speak equivocally at best. If the future sees the ultimate of triumph of technico-scientific reason, even accompanied by the weak correctives which sociology can devise, the new Middle Ages will be nothing but a new barbarousness. But in such a case it would be wrong to speak of them as 'medieval,' for the Middle Ages were not merely barbarous, nor were they bereft of science or devoid of art. To speak of a new Middle Ages, then, could seem a far from pessimistic hypothesis to the man who does not believe that the thread of reason can unwind ad infinitum; and yet an entirely new barbarousness is possible, a stifling and distortion of the very idea of civilization and culture. . .

"The greatest exemplar of poetic objectivism and rationalism, he remains foreign to our times, to a subjective and fundamentally irrational culture, which bases its meaning on facts and not on ideas. And it is precisely the reason for facts which eludes us today. A concentric poet, Dante cannot furnish models for a world which is progressively distancing itself from the center, and declares itself in perpetual expansion." ~ Eugenio Montale in his introduction Dante's Divine Comedy

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hi Peter,

You ask:

"1) Does story allow its audience access to a fundamentally different type of truth than argumentation?"

Well, I guess I would put it this way. The truth arrived at by means of story need not be different from the truth arrived at through argument. While I think there are different truths, I guess I don’t think there are types or kinds of truth. There’re just different truths. 'Water is made of H20', 'I am a male', 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself'. I don’t think of these as different kinds of truth, just different truths. And I think that story is more effective at getting us to see, accept or embrace certain truths than is argument.

You also ask:

"2) Are certain truths more amenable to story or argumentation respectively?"

I think I answered this one in answering the last one.

Next question:

"3) Do story and argumentation speak of the same truths, just at different levels of analysis (e.g. “God created the world” and a scientific account of the worlds development and evolution)?"

I think I answered this one, too. But if I didn’t, let me know! My very modest point, I think, is this. That reconciliation, redemption and love are at the heart of human existence and flourishing is a claim I could try to mount a philosophical argument for. It is also a claim I could (if I were so talented) present in a dramatic novel or movie. I believe the latter mode of presenting that claim is much more likely to capture the imagination and even persuade most human beings than is a sterile philosophical argument. Alternatively, if I wanted to persuade someone that water-boarding is torture and that torture is morally repugnant and impermissible, I’d begin in the public square with argument. I might supplement with a good story, but I’d lean on argument, I think.

Make sense?

Peter B said...

Hey Kevin

Yes, I do think that you response make sense. Perhaps my follow-up is related not only to argument, but more specifically to the belief that coupling logic and empiricism is the best (and perhaps only) way to access truth. This is in contrast to 'story' or even logic and argumentation without empirical support.

Being immersed in the social science research as of late(more specifically, work of empirical psychology and sociology), I am constantly around the dominant view that 'truth' is defined as that which stands up to empirical measurement and analysis. Thus, truth claims that are best addressed through means other than empirical analysis (e.g. story, revelation, or even theory without empirical backing) is seen as being less verifiable as truth. This I think leads to the view among some scientists that science 'crowds out religion,' an arguement put under some scruitiny by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age.

I guess my question is then how you see truth (and perhaps religious truth specifically) taking non-empirical form, especially in so much as you propse a materialist Christian worldview, and therefore one that is (perhaps) more open to empirical analysis.

Peter

ps- sorry if this post is a bit jumbled... running off to class.

Shannon Nason said...

Kevin,

Thanks so much for your careful thoughts on this issue. I had been following the controversy with utter disdain for how the sound-bite happy media portrayed Rowan Williams' words.

I don't know much about deconstruction, but I'm wondering to what extent your portrayal of it (namely, that it abjures argument, clarity, etc.) is correct. Could the symptoms that you point out about our culture rather be a sign of something else? I'm thinking, here, of, say, the standard sophistic response to Socratic, reasonable, dialogue. For example, the kind of weak, atrocious reasoning Meletus evinces in his accusations against Socrates in the Apology; or, the half-baked and totally misguided responses Crito gives Socrates when he tries to convince him to escape prison. It seems to me that it is a lack of understanding the nuances that clear argumentation and dialogue demands that is more the culprit here.

If this is so, then there is nothing distinctly postmodern about the response that Rowan Williams has gotten--except, perhaps, that the lack of understanding, reason, and dialogue, filtered though a entirely different medium (the sound-bite and the digital image).

Any thoughts?

Thanks for your blog. I'm really enjoying it.

All the best,

Shannon

Kevin Corcoran said...

Okay, this a twofer. First, to Pete. I think we've got ourselves a big, beautiful world on our hands. Science and empirical means of understanding aspects of it have been stupendously successful. But I don't happen to believe that science and empirical means are the only means of understanding the world. And that's b/c I think that the empirical/physical world is not exhaustive of reality. I am a Christian theist, after all!

Okay, now to Shannon. First, thanks for dropping by! I appreciate what you're saying very much. I didn't intend, however, to suggest that deconstruction dispenses w/argument and clarity. At least I don't think I suggested such a thing. I did say that I think postmodernity is partly responsible for creating certain features of the society we inhabit. So, I was thinking of postmodernity in this context not as a philosophical school but rather as a cultural phenomenon. The response to the AB was not itself postmodern. But the cultural milieu of image/montage/sound-bite does have, I think, the smell of postmodernity about it.

Does that help?