Category Archives: reformational philosophy

On philosophy as a photograph of nature

havana cigarOne of the things I appreciate about reformational philosophy is the rightful place it gives to our ordinary, naïve experience. Naïve experience does not mean in a pejorative sense,  the gullibility of our experience of the everyday, but rather, it refers to the way in which human beings experience things in their seamless totality: Herman Dooyeweerd’s favorite box of Havana cigars, in ordinary experience, is a box of Havana cigars, in the concreteness of reality. But the moment we confront it with theoretical thought, we start abstracting from it certain of its various sides: the aesthetics, the legal, the economic, the social, the historical, and so on. Naïve experience is not dismissed, but properly accounted for, as part of the the task of theorizing about reality.

Thus, in his first major work, Encyclopedia of the Science of Law, he criticizes what Richard Rorty would call the view of philosophy as” the mirror of nature,” for reducing created reality to a matter of sensory perception:

 For my untheorized conception of reality, this little table is no longer this little table as soon as theory attempts to reduce what is given to a system to a system of abstract psycho-chemical formulas. The full reality of the thing as we experience it in everyday reality also has its objective-sensory form, its objective coherence of logical attributes by which it is differentiated from other things, its objective meaning in language, its function in social intercourse and interaction, its economic value (I can immediately observe whether it is an expensive or a cheap article), its objective beauty or ugliness, its function as a legal object (it belongs either to me or to someone else), etc.

Insofar as a thing also functions in the normative aspects of reality, naïve experience subjects it without objection to norms, not as a responsible subject, but as an object, as a thing. The table, for example, is well or poorly formed, pretty or ugly, nice or not nice, expensive or cheap, etc.

The peculiarity of naïve experience reveals itself in the fact that our thought does not set its logical-analytical aspect over against the distinguished nonlogical aspects of reality; it does not make an aspect into a problem – into a Gegenstand, as the Germans call it – of knowledge, but reveals itself in the fact that our thought instead remains naively incorporated into full temporal reality, that is to say, it experiences the psychical, logical, and the remaining normative functions of things as indissoluble constituents of an in reality.

Wherever, in some fashion or other, we abstract in our thinking a Gegenstand out of concrete reality, we are not dealing with the naïve but with the theoretical attitude of thought. This is the source of the error in the view which seeks a kind of theory of knowledge in naïve experience, such as, for example, the “copy theory.” Epistemology understands this to be the view that a (physical) thing-reality, enclosed within itself, is reproduced in our consciousness like a photographic image, As if all of temporary reality could be reduced to sensory impressions!

It is scientific thought that initially separates temporal reality into its various aspects and sets the nonlogical aspect as a Gegenstand, as a problem, over against the logical function of concept-forming. To this end it must abstract these aspects out of their given indissoluble coherence by way of theoretico-logical analysis. It should certainly be clear that theoretical thought is indeed thought that subtracts something from full reality. The special sciences have broken up reality into compartments; but all of the special sciences together, in their mutual complementing of one another, cannot bring us to a knowledge of reality in its unbroken unity. Piecing together the slices cut from an apple does not give us back the original piece of fruit (HD, ESL, The Collected Works, 27-28, Series A, Volume 8/1 ed. Alan M. Cameron, 2012) [emphasis supplied].

Other reformational philosophers after Dooyeweerd have of course, taken issue with his  discussion of the place of the logical aspect in the Gegenstand relation, but that is for another post. For now, it suffices to note the important implications of Dooyeweerd’s approach to the interdisciplinary approaches to the study of reality: it is not only necessary but inherent to the multi-aspectual nature of reality itself.

 

for the source of the image, click here.

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The state, human rights and the simultaneous realization of norms

human-rightsThe Guardian recently published an essay by the American legal scholar Eric Posner on the failure of human rights to live up to its utopic promise. Posner flails at the top-down approach the UN human rights system has propagated around the world, despite the ambiguities and contradictions that the complex of human rights laws are stricken with. He concludes his essay with a plea for a new approach, thus:

It is time to start over with an approach to promoting wellbeing in foreign countries that is empirical rather than ideological. Human rights advocates can learn a lot from the experiences of development economists – not only about the flaws of top-down, coercive styles of forcing people living in other countries to be free, but about how one can actually help those people if one really wants to. Wealthy countries can and should provide foreign aid to developing countries, but with the understanding that helping other countries is not the same as forcing them to adopt western institutions, modes of governance, dispute-resolution systems and rights. Helping other countries means giving them cash, technical assistance and credit where there is reason to believe that these forms of aid will raise the living standards of the poorest people. Resources currently used in fruitless efforts to compel foreign countries to comply with the byzantine, amorphous treaty regime would be better used in this way.

Those familiar with contemporary discussions of the role of international law in the promotion of democratic ideas will recognize many valid concerns in Posner’s essay. Indeed, democratic theory in international law — by extension includes human rights theory — has often drawn criticisms that it is fundamentally a Western, liberal democratic imposition. For example, the Finnish scholar Martii Koskenniemi rejects the universal claim of international law (specifically democratic theory) as rooted in a European tradition and should not and could not speak for humanity.

He warns that such a tradition of liberal democracy may yet end up as another hegemonic imposition on non-Western states, reminding us of his arguments in his book the Gentler Civilizer of Nations about the international lawyers of an earlier era who thought none of the contradictions that came with assigning to international law a civilizing task and at the same time using it as justification for colonialism:

As international lawyers, the only arguments open to us are those provided by our tradition: jus cogens, obligations erga omnes, and all the legal paraphernalia produced by treaties, customs, international institutions. They do not automatically express anything universal: indeed, more often than not they are used as instruments in hegemonic struggles. As soon as we lose sight of this, they turn into kitsch.

For Koskenniemi, there is nothing special about the modern state, or its democratic aspirations. Yet at the same time, he is not about to celebrate the indigenous that easily either. Indeed, Koskenniemi’s has remarked that : the state can either be used for good or bad. But towards the end of his book’s chapter on sovereignty and international law’s supposed civilizing mission, he says that while indeed it may often be suggested from history that “it is better to live in a political society whose administrators speak our language, share our rituals and know our ways of life,” he quickly adds that “there is no magic” about these relationships. Lest we forget, “communities that are closed to outsiders will rot from the inside.”

For me, this somehow stresses Dooyeweerd’s point first of all about the nature of the state as a differentiated public legal community.

Koskenniemi and all his kindred spirits are correct in locating ideas of democracy in the Western tradition. Dooyeweerd’s own account of the development of the theory of the state in its different stages draw from the Western, if largely European experience (with certain Dutch emphases).

A differentiated society, in Dooyeweerd’s systematic philosophy, could only arise from the disclosure of societal structural principles by human positivation. It is a process that is distinctive for its historical embedded-ness. A society could be closed, so that differentiation could not take place. (Koskenniemi seems to realize this as he remarks about the decline communities slide into if they remain in autarkic existence. For all his hesitations, Koskenniemi has implicitly cast his lot with the comfortable choice, that is, his own Western tradition, warts and all. )

We must not lose sight of Dooyeweerd’s argument from history and the directionality of positivations.

The development of a public legal community is so closely bound up with societal differentiation itself that we cannot measure the rest of the world’s pace against the Western experience (or let alone consider the tragic injustices that most of them have suffered in the era of colonization). Skillen had long ago noted that human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”

In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.

There then, is a certain realism to Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state: differentiation is an historical process that demands public commitment. At the same time we must also realize that Dooyeweerd’s theory of differentiation also shines through with a fundamental Christian conviction about the direction societal structures may take: differentiation by itself is not to be equated with development. An integral part of the state’s historical task of disclosure is what the kindred philosopher and economist Bob Goudzwaard has  long called the “simultaneous realization of norms,” following his mentor, Dr.  T.P. van der Kooy.

This means that the realization of one norm cannot be separated from the others. It also means that the realization of one norm is dependent on those of others. Economic development cannot be pursued for its own sake, independently of the others. The state will have to consider as well considerations of justice and mercy, for example. (For those interested, Goudzwaard discusses the need to simultaneously disclose economic norms with others in his first full-length work, a critique of the Western ideology of progress as embodied in Capitalism, here).

Perhaps, this is Dooyeweerd’s answer to Koskenniemi’s worries that international law is turning into kitsch, (by which he means an imperialistic and racist instrumentalism that looks at the Other as the savage, and the Western self as the epitome of human rights and civilization).

And this does not in any way let off the hook the formers of the cultural way of being from the historical task of building a public legal community. They can only hold it off at the risk of grave injustices to their own constituencies.

The normative view of the state is in fact a strong critique of the supposedly “civilizing” purpose of colonialism. The continuum between power and justice found in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state suggests that much. No political project can disregard the requirements of justice without risking its adverse consequences. While power is foundational to the state – the monopoly of the sword – it simply cannot survive on that count alone. Power must reach, or anticipate, justice. Power must open up to, and be deepened by, justice.

*human rights themed image  taken from the oxfam website.

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Filed under Dooyeweerd, Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Law, Public Interest, reformational philosophy

Blasphemy, the “Christian state” and the Cross

After reading Douhat’s piece  in the New York Times on blasphemy,  I offer these further thoughts on #Charlie Hebdo in relation to blasphemy and its place in the Christian society:

1. A state inspired by Christian ideals will nevertheless allow room for blasphemy, for the right to offend, precisely as demonstration of God’s grace and Christian civility, of the conviction, to borrow from  Mouw and Griffioen, that while we await the eschaton, we live under an “open heaven” and cannot see what lies beyond the horizon. This calls then for a certain sense of humility and openness to critical dissent. This is the heart of the Cross as symbol, message, and historical reality.

2. A state founded on Christian principles will not criminally prosecute blasphemy. Such a state will have a good grasp of justice deepened by ethics; it will understand why the contemporary differentiation in society where various institutions have their respectively marked out spheres necessitates the separation of “religious offenses” from the jurisdiction of the state as a political institution.

3. This calls to mind Jim Skillen’s reworking of Bishop Newbiggin’s take on the Cross: Skillen, proceeding from Newbigin’s view of the cross, argues that Christians should be arguing that an open, non-totalitarian, religiously plural society cannot be grounded in intolerant secularism but is, in fact, grounded in God’s patience and mercy in upholding the creation.

4. What they need, according to him, is a strong and distinctive doctrine on which to anchor this robust view of political pluralism; they too, must realize that the fair treatment of all faiths –including the atheist faith – in the public arena should, as a matter of principle, be one aspect of a ”Christian society. “

5. This Protestant idea of “principled pluralism” (or also known by its older name as “sphere sovereignty”) holds that if the right thing for Christians to do in obedience to the truth of Christ’s cross and resurrection is to defend religious freedom in public, then they must not tolerate the power of political untruth that would deny religious freedom to non-Christians or to some other religious group.

6. For Skillen, this means pushing a normative political principle for a Christian society that is consistent with the gospel demand that Christians should make some room for untruth and not try to act as God at the final Judgment. “If the political principle consistent with this truth is that all citizens should be treated fairly and equitably in regard to their religious way of life, then the political principle of tolerance is a normative truth-consequence of the gospel.”

7. Of course, the truth of political fairness for all citizens excludes the untruth of political discrimination or persecution of one or another religious group. Thus, precisely in order to live and proclaim the truth of the gospel, Christians should be willing to lay down their lives even for religious enemies in order to defend the truth of equal public justice for those enemies.

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Filed under Art, Civility, Free Expression, Freedom of Religion, Libel, Principled Pluralism, reformational philosophy, Religion

International Law as Process

515EilmX7mL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_AA300_It’s time once again to teach public international law. As I’m wont to do before the start of the new semester, I re-read my notes on Rosalyn Higgin’s book. Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It, the first two chapters of which I discuss with my class in great detail for the first two meetings of the semester. In this book, Dame Higgins famously advanced the view that international law is not rules but process — in fact, according to her it is a process  involving a normative system  of “authoritative decision-making”; In so doing, she wished to avoid the rigidity that is perceived to attach to international law conceived as rules.

Dame Higgins’s definition, drawing from her Yale mentor Myres McDougal’s policy-oriented approach,  emphasizes the dynamic  and formative process set in motion by various institutions to arrive at binding international legal norms. It appears to me that from a reformational view,  this method surfaces two aspects, the kinematic and the historical. Process implies movement; authoritative decision-making implicates institutions that give form to the norms of international law. What it fails to grasp is that international law itself must not be seen as a “thing” but as part of the jural dimension of reality.

While Dame Higgins’s definition is able to capture the dynamic movement that yields international legal norms, that is, through various actors in international law (hence, it also involves the historical, formative  competence that gives positive shape to principles, as expressed  legal norms), it does not see that these aspects form part of  the necessary conditions — the constitutive elements — of the international legal norms themselves.  They form part of the “structural building blocks” of any legal order; they  are presupposed, to begin with, by the idea of an  international legal order.

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Filed under International Law, legal theory, reformational philosophy