The Test of the West I
This is the transcript of an extremely stimulating and insightful conversation between Alex Omidvar and philosopher John Artibello. John Artibello had taught philosophy for 22 years at Centennial, George Brown and Humber Colleges in Toronto, Canada. He did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Toronto where he met, and was inspired by Marshall McLuhan, Bernard Lonergan and Jean Vanier. His special interests are in ethics, spirituality, the psychology of meaning and ecology. Many of the writings contained at this site are attempts to synthesize ideas from a variety of sources and reflect the contributions of countless thinkers and writers engaged in the humanities and global learning. The conversation between Artibello and Alex has been divided into three chapters (I,II and III). The first chapter is as follows:
Chapter I - the fundamental values of the West
Can we first articulate and clearly define the most fundamental principles that the ‘West’ has recently subscribed to? For the sake of this dialogue, we shall speak about trends, as I think culture is a rather complex term made up of various elements. And for this reason, this dialogue I think should focus on major trends and cultural phenomena. So to begin this dialogue, what do you think are those key fundamental principles?
John A Artibello
Clearly, the ‘West’ has identified freedom as its most essential principle. There are to be few constraints on our individual decisions allowing the individual to choose any set of norms within the law. The philosophical or ethical backdrop for this principle is Utilitarianism, and the implied assumption that no one set of ethical principles is better than any other. There is also the belief that I should be allowed to develop principles out of my own subjectivity because universals do not exist or should be considered “dogma” rather than rationally defensible imperatives.
For example, freedom to choose principles around end of life decisions must take precedence over professional principles, which in the past, were seen as important breaks on imbalanced power relationships. A woman may choose to have as many abortions as she desires despite concerns by her physician that harm increases with each procedure. That is, a doctor can lay aside her oath to “do no harm” if a patient requests a procedure that is legal and without restriction. In countries where assisted suicide is legal, medical colleges are tacitly agreeing with the idea that freedom of conscience for professionals cannot override a patient’s reception of a medically assisted death. High court decisions that support such laws base their judgements on three principles : 1) absolute autonomy over self; 2) relativism of personal or professional ethics; 3) the presumed calculus that benefits of such principles and practices outweigh potential harms.
I agree with you John that it seems as though individual freedom is the most fundamental principle of the West. And as I see it, individual freedom has many benefits as it keeps the government limited for the advancement of individual sovereignty. However, recently, I also see a negative aspect to freedom. A naive and narcissistic claim that defines freedom as having the ability to do whatever one wants. One need not give examples of this as the current culture screams of such patterns of behaviour such as the so-called sexual freedom that both men and women supposedly enjoy. Similarly, I identify a couple of things as hanging upon our culture. First is the claim for group and individual rights, and second is an overload of postmodern ideas that are simply about ‘deconstruction’ that are taken so dramatically as though we are to take them, ironically, as ‘truths’. And the third fundamental principle is freedom as you identified. However, there seems to be a serious clash between individual freedom (the positive aspect) and the postmodern thinking that sees everything and everyone as motivated by power. So John, can we talk about some of those points that I think are important for this discussion? I would really like to know how you see our culture unravelling in this so-called postmodern era? Also, can we expand a little bit on what I identify as the clash between individual freedom and the post-modern thought such as that of Michel Foucault.
I think the post-modern notion that truth is a cultural construction is the source of the narcissism of the current secular culture. Foucault and Derrida show the problem with objective claims but then use this to discredit much of the history of thought. Imagine a physicist who said we cannot know much with certainty about subatomic particles, so physics is a waste of time. This is blatant arrogance, a form of intellectual hubris where only Foucault and Derrida understand what is really going on. Postmodernism also came into its own on the coat-tails of Freudian psychology whose reduction of meaning to little more than the frustration of erotic instincts is almost humorous for those of us who lived through the last half of the 20th century.
Traditional cultures never deify instincts or claim that meaning needs to be constructed out of individual sentimentality. Martin Buber notes in Eclipse of God that the Enlightenment (and post-modern) motif of “deifying instincts instead of hallowing them in faith” is a replay of ancient Gnosticism, the notion that intellectual humility and self-questioning is a kind of naivety. Nietzsche and Marx are also contributors to the grand illusion that the transcendental is an illusion perpetrated to keep people in line.
So this is the cultural backdrop for the modern notion of individual freedom. Freedom cannot be expected to be ordered to a specific religious or ethical code because this means denying INSTINCT. But this does not mean we are all petty animals. We can use our instincts to create meaning for ourselves which is genuinely one’s own. And society must not interfere with this marvellous creative process with any appeals to any ‘higher’ principles than those which I create for myself.
The outcome is what appears to be a culture so boring that people discuss tattoos but not books or nature, because boredom is what you get when nothing matters but ME, ME, ME. Meaning, real meaning, is only possible when you acknowledge something other than the self. Medieval masons did not read theology, but they built cathedrals out of a sense of profound mystery. Many knew that the work would not be finished in their lifetimes. They sensed that life had a horizontal and a vertical dimension and that holding both in mind made life bearable even in the face of poverty or other challenges.
I couldn’t agree anymore with your analysis of the intellectual facade of Foucault and Derrida. I am yet to discover why this intellectual discipline is so attractive amongst intellectuals and especially in our universities. Many might not have even read or heard anything about postmodern thinkers but are the partial embodiment of those ideas. For instance, the idea that everything in nature including human intention is motivated by power (in the negative sense) started with Nietzsche originally when he wrote the book Beyond Good and Evil. His claim was that most philosophers did not have an ‘instinct for knowledge’ but that essentially their philosophy was a tool to further their instinctual interests in some way or the other. And that I think is partly true but the hunger for generalisation is greed. And this idea, as it occurs to me, was expanded by Foucault when he institutionalised it in the political arena while generalising it into every domain of human life. I see this doctrine or ideology as the ‘vampire’ who sucks the life out of things that are noble, beautiful and transcendent. And, as scary as it seems, I do think that this ideology is embodied in many people as I see it acting out in our culture in a way that it is hard not to identify and its role is to ‘deconstruct’ and destroy. Metaphorically, John 10:10 is perfect to demonstrate this: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” And I think all postmodernism as a doctrine and as a cultural phenomenon (important to make the distinction) is concerned with is to steal, kill and destroy while sucking all life out of the beautiful and the transcendent.
No wonder as you correctly pointed out that people have deified their instinctual desires as we have metaphorically and literally killed the soul. And in Platonic terms, we have killed the white and noble horse and have enabled the black and ignoble one to fully take over the charioteer. I suppose that our culture has gone a step further and developed the third horse of mirrors. It is a horse of mirrors as all you see is ‘yourself’ and the direction of the charioteer of our culture seems to be under the full control of the horse of mirrors which is even stronger in our world of ‘social media’.
Also, when I am thinking about the clash between the idea of individual freedom and the post-modern thought, what screams at me is that for the postmodernist, there is no individual that is transcendent of his desires and especially the ones associated with power and dominance. And therefore, there cannot be an individual who is free. And this has two important implications. First is that you are always a victim of others or of ideas attempting to take power over you, which I think fully destroys all human relationships as you are constantly under threat. And there is no possibility of a healthy relationship with anyone. And this is, I think, why Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre agreed that their relationship was all about their own self-interests. And, I think, the second implication is that there is no redemption for you as you too are a perpetrator or a potential one as you are not an individual, but a sort of an AI that is coded to achieve a certain self-interested function.
We have talked about the madness in which we have drained ourselves, John. What do you think is the solution to all this, since people seem to think that this culture has figured it all out? I mean, I am starting university in a few days and what struck me was how much the university used the nightlife culture as a tool to convince students why Oxford is a good place to study. I am not against partying but I see the problem much deeper that there are an enormous amount of other reasons why one should study there and the nightlife should not be something that the University encourages as there are other forms of enjoyment, but what are they? Have we forgotten those? Again, what is the practical and real solution to all these, John?
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