In my IT2 class, we read various interpretations of Gnostic spirituality, including one buy the very famous Princeton University scholar Elaine Pagels. As I read Pagels, I can’t help but notice her numerous references to the earlier scholarship of Adolf von Harnack. He’s not just anyone. Von Harnack was, in fact, the leading figure in 19th-century Protestant Bible scholarship, and a quintessential representative of Christian Liberalism. As such, von Harnack scrutinized the New Testament relentlessly, looking for contradictions, errors and historical accretions. Why? To prove the Bible wrong and Jesus a big lie? Hardly. Von Harnack was in search of the actual historical Jesus, a real person he powerfully believed to be buried somewhere in the Bible, someone he could uncover if only he could dig his way back, philologically, to the original text of the New Testament. Who would this Jesus be? For von Harnack, not a mysterious stranger, and not even a mighty miracle worker, but simply the kindest and wisest of teachers. This view of Christ as the exemplary man, that unique individual who most purely reveals the perfect nobility of our own nature, is part of a general movement called Christian Humanism.

Not that I necessary agree with von Harnack’s position. And, for what it’s worth, Kant would probably have thought it absurd. But perhaps it’s nevertheless impressive to see such a commitment, however strained, simultaneously to uncompromising critical scholarship and earnest Christian faith.


So, where did these Christian Humanist ideas come from?

Below I’ve displayed two classic texts, produced in Germany by two of Hegel’s most brilliant disciples. Both authors were members, along with Karl Marx, of the forward-thinking group known as the Young Hegelians. The first, David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was published in 1835, and the second, Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, was published in 1841. Though producing different results, each uses the dialectical method of debunking transcendental and historical illusions to disrupt some of Western culture’s most cherished notions regarding the origin and function of the Christian faith. Both, immediately upon their first appearance, shook the Western Intellectual world.

Strauss Jesus Feuerbach Christianity

Interesting to note, too, that the standard English translations still in circulation today were produced, at the wage-slave rate of a few pennies per page, by a young woman, Mary Anne Evans, who later went on to publish, under the pseudonym George Eliot, some of the most important novels in all of English literature.


Last thing I’ll say here: Though many people think of Karl Marx as a great enemy of Capitalism, that’s not an entirely true notion. Nor was Marx for that matter a friend of Communism. Marx was deeply critical of both. Though if recent scholars are correct, Marx, by the time he reaches the most mature stage of this thought, emerges, more than anything, as an enemy of Humanism – a stance he would share, for all their many differences, with Neitzsche. In particular, here, see the work of the notorious French Marxist Louis Althusser.

Marx writes about his thoughts on Communism, in the broadest sense, is a variety of places. I’m certainly not a Marx scholar, so it would be hard for me to track down all of his statements. But in the Communist Manifesto Marx famously declairs that a “specter is haunting Europe” – Communism is popping up everywhere! And under a wide variety of names.

As I said, not all of these individual manifestations of a communist spirit were legitimate as far as Marx was concerned. This is because in many cases these were still tied to the communist experiments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as those started by Fourier and Saint-Simon, both of which were bases in overtly spiritual beliefs. Another version of communism about which Marx was dubious was that promoted by Proudhon, with whom he wrangled over the definition of property, that it should be considered “theft”. Marx found Proudhon’s definition to be too ‘sophistical’, declaring that it turned real-life political concerns into quasi-Nicean debates, into the abstract speculations of early-Christian theology and not at all the materialism necessary to revolutionary consciousness. One could formulate such statements, Marxist asserted, only from within an ideology which still obsessed with the notion of private property. Still mired in such ruminations, one could never take the necessary step beyond thinking about property to acting against property.

Marxism’s reserved larger criticism, however, for the forms of state-sponsored social programs which were arising in his day, in particular in Germany. These he rejects because they are still too largely based in bourgeois Humanism and an related set of obsolete ideas which must be entirely liquidated if the proletariat is to be emancipated – something Marx saw as inevitable. Humanism, as far as Marx was concerned, was just a diluted, and for that reason more insidious form of Idealism, a very clear example of which can be found, again, in the “modern” (i.e., secular Humanist) Christianity of Ludwig Feuerbach, whose writings so deeply influenced the sentimental fiction of the British novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).


All that said, outright and committed theism also continues after the Kantian critique of religion. The most important defender of orthodox Christian faith to emerge after Kant was Søren Kierkegaard, a young Danish theology student, whose thought is references in Martin Luther King Jr,’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail”. (You may recall from the beginning of the semester the pivotal role Kierkegaard’s writings played in Leo Steinberg‘s “Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public”. As I said in class, the ‘plight of the public’, and the development of a public Voice on a mass scale, is theme common to both King and Steinberg (who were exact contemporaries), as it was to the leading art movement of the day, Minimalism, which also sought to mold masses of bodies and mass opinion.)

Sol LeWitt
Cube (1969)

Kierkegaard, through his close study of Hegel, whom he soon strenuously rejected, pursued the paradoxes internal to orthodoxy to the point where dogmatic adherence to the tenets of the faith could only appear patently absurd. And it was in wholeheartedly embracing absurdity, through an ungrounded and unjustifiable “leap of faith,” the Kierkegaard became the founder of Existentialism. The notion of reaching a critical moment in thought, and then spontaneously leaping to action, in a way that could well seem utterly absurd, indeed utterly futile; this, along with a powerful faith that only absurd action could lead to redemption; was an aspect of Kierkegaad’s thought that was absolutely central to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, any serious theologian since Kierkegaard (Barth, Bultmann and Tillich, all of whom reject the 19th-century search for the historical Human Jesus, and instead seek Christ through profound literary insight, radical alienation, or symbolic cultural experience) will not have failed to give Kierkegaard’s writings the most serious consideration. If in post-Kantian times Jesus can still remain the Way, then in many respects Kierkegaard is the door to all modern theology.


Image  —  Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

Image  —  Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

A short, provocative book about why “useless” science often leads to humanity’s greatest technological breakthroughs

A forty-year tightening of funding for scientific research has meant that resources are increasingly directed toward applied or practical outcomes, with the intent of creating products of immediate value. In such a scenario, it makes sense to focus on the most identifiable and urgent problems, right? Actually, it doesn’t. In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips.

Judgment, for Kant, is the mental capacity not to add anything new to our basic stock of knowledge, but rather simply the drive to gather, or ‘subsume’, discrete particulars into larger dynamic wholes. For Kant, what separates biology from mere physics or chemistry is the logically necessary, and deeply felt aesthetic need to consider the whole as prior to the parts.

The scientific systems of the 18th century, of which there were many, are compositional systems. They were built out of arranging details according to a determinate positive term. Moral systems set out with a practical goal in mind (such as universal literacy) and then set up a series of steps to arrive at it. Natural systems posit some fundamental principle behind all the operations of nature (like gravity in Newton, impressionability in Locke, sympathy in Diderot, or irritability in Haller) and then they attempt to explain everything visible in Nature exclusively in terms in terms of that unique principle. In other words, systems of this sort are “reductive”. The infinite diversity of the world can be reduced to nothing but various expressions of that same cause.

For example, in a system (such as that of Diderot’s colleague La Mettrie [click]) which posits motion to be the basic attribute of living matter, each species would be classified according to the way it moves. Such a system would strive to develop as complete a taxomony as possible, one which would separate creatures with feet, from those with flippers, as well as those with fins, those with wings, those which wriggle, and gastropods, which sort of ooze forward on their stomachs.

Specola Bird Taxonomy

Such as taxomony which try to lay out, in analytic fashion, the complete and unbroken range of “characteristics”, in this case the possible forms of locomotion, believing Nature to abhor a gap as much as a vacuum. And so we isolate a type of creature, the butterfly, and then go out in search for an instance of every possible shape and color pattern of wing. Some varieties will be more numerous than others, true. But Nature, to be complete, must produce at least one instance of every possible form. This is why in “D’Alembert’s Dream” Diderot is so nonchalant about human deformities, or “monsters”. Of course such things should exists. If they didn’t Nature would be incomplete. And the job of science, or Natural History as it was called then, is to collect and display, each instance of Life’s diversity within a total Order of Nature. This fantasy of seeing all of Nature arranged in perfect order, by the way, is the precise Desire which Drives all the butterfly collecting we associate with learned gentlemen.

The same is true of botanists. (By the way, for you Humanities people, the entire field of Genre Theory in literature, art and film, is based on this very same notion. And this understanding will go a long way toward helping you see why I teach Art History the way I do, in terms of complex textual and historical causes, and not simply in terms of a lengthy slide show presenting the development and crucial characteristics of various styles.) The 18th-century Swedish botanist Linneas invented the scientific naming system, based on genus and species, which we still use today. He considered not motion but reproduction to the single function, or trait, to which all plants could be reduced. And so he classified the entire world of botanical exclusively in terms of flower, which as we all know are the sex organs of plants.

Now, this sort of reductive thinking is exactly what Kant wants to eliminate. Because he sees it is a hopelessly simplistic. And this is especially the case insofar as all these systems have a far too simplistic notion of what a “cause” might be. For Kant, it is not gravity, or an urge to reproduce which causes a plant to take the form it does. Rather, it is an entire complex of conditions which determine the form and function of a plant, which is not simply a function but rather a sophisticated organism surviving within a highly specific environment.

Kant does not want to posit first principles and then construct explanatory systems out of them. Rather, he wants principally to develop an aesthetic sensibility which will allow the scientist to discover systems which already exist in Nature. This marks a radical shift from various systems to a general theory of Systematicity. Kant’s theory “systematicity” does not posit any specific single force or cause behind the order of Nature, but instead investigates systems “as if” there were caused and held together by an unnameable cause internal to the system itself. In other words, to anticipate the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (younger brother of Wilhelm), this is the beginning of thinking in terms of Eco-Systems.

We can never say what the cause of a given system is, only that the system, by its very regularity, functions “as if” some force were working within it. At least that’s what Kant in doing in the 3rd Critique, the Critique of Judgement (1790). Prior to this, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1780), Kant is striving to eliminate the positive grounds of all these various systems, all the metaphysical absolutes, or “realities” which supposedly justify the reduction of the complexity of the world to (mindless) simplicity.

But what precisely are these metaphysical absolutes? The following:
1) a Supreme Being
2) a limit to Time and Space
3) divisible or discrete substance, Matter
4) the human Soul
5) human Freedom

The task of the 1st Critique will be to prove definitely that all these “realities” are mere illusions, or at best only hypotheses completely incapable of being either proved or refuted. Again, for Kant, it’s not that any of these metaphysical realities are true of false. Rather, Kant shows that because of the very nature of the human mind, it is absolutely impossible for us to decide on these issues. And so science has no right to base a system of the world on any of them.

About that which it cannot speak with authority, science must remain silent.


The Critique of Judgment—the third and final work in Kant’s critical system—laid the groundwork of modern aesthetics when it appeared in 1790. Eli Friedlander’s reappraisal of this seminal accomplishment reformulates and elucidates Kant’s thought in order to reveal the inner unity of the Third Critique.

Expressions of Judgment emphasizes the internal connection of judgment and meaning in Kant’s aesthetics, showing how the pleasure in judging is intimately related to our capacity to draw meaning from our encounter with beauty. Although the meaningfulness of aesthetic judgment is most evident in the response to art, the appreciation of nature’s beauty has an equal share in the significant experience of our world. Friedlander’s attention to fundamental dualities underlying the Third Critique—such as that of art and nature—underscores how its themes are subordinated systematically to the central task Kant sets himself: that of devising a philosophical blueprint for the mediation between the realms of nature and freedom.

This understanding of the mediating function of judgment guides Friedlander in articulating the dimensions of the field of the aesthetic that opens between art and nature, the subject and the object, knowledge and the will, as well as between the individual and the communal. Expressions of Judgment illuminates the distinctness as well as the continuity of this important late phase in Kant’s critical enterprise, providing insights for experienced scholars as well as new students of philosophy.

— Harvard University Press (2015)

Reflective Judgement and The Feeling of Life:

We dwell on the contemplation of the beautiful because this contemplation strengthens and reproduces itself.

The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective. Every reference of representations is capable of being objective, even that of sensations (in which case it signifies the real in an empirical representation). The one exception to this is the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. This denotes nothing in the object, but is a feeling which the subject has of itself and of the manner in which it is affected by the representation.

To apprehend a regular and appropriate building with one’s cognitive faculties, be the mode of representation clear or confused, is quite a different thing from being conscious of this representation with an accompanying sensation of delight. Here the representation is referred wholly to the subject, and what is more to its feeling of life – under the name of the feeling of pleasure or displeasure – and this forms the basis of a quite separate faculty of discriminating and estimating [known as judgement], that contributes nothing to knowledge.

–Immanuel Kant, Critique of (The Power) of Judgement

Dawson - Trembley Polyp

Abraham Trembley (1710 – 1784) was a Swiss naturalist. He is best known for being the first to study freshwater polyps or hydra and for being among the first to develop experimental zoology. His mastery of experimental method has led some historians of science to credit him as the “father of biology”.

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
The Hague, Netherlands

After Descartes, we see in Western learning a new emphasis placed on the investigation of the composition and workings, as well as the repair and augmentation, of the human anatomy. Like Locke, many of the leading philosophers will have studied medicine. From mechanical anatomies to the emerging field of histology, the study of bodily tissues and their susceptibility to all kinds of stimulation, irritability, excitation and inflammation. This is crucial to any informed study of the Enlightenment. Along with Rousseau, Diderot and a variety of other authors dwell at great length in their writing on blushes, as well as other less publicly permitted throbs and rushes of blood. We want to remain aware of this because it is quite difficult for us today to grasp just how audaciously experimental the world of the Enlightenment was. We’ve lost our appreciation not just their epistemological but also their moral daring, precisely because we’ve been so thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that the great men of the Enlightenment, as our nation’s intellectual and political forefathers, must surely be upstanding gentlemen of the sort we elect to positions of public trust today. Surprise!

image_mini 978-0-8223-1895-8_pr

An important component of Diderot’s histological view of life is his belief, an extreme extension of Locke’s attack on the Cartesian ego, that there really is no Self at all. The individual Self, or soul, is just an illusion which exists because the fibers of our bodies, through their temper and tuning, are able to retain physical impressions which can resonate either more or less harmoniously with newer impressions. We call this capacity memory, and the soul is nothing other than the chain of memories of everything that has happened to the body. Rather than individuals, unique creatures each animated by a living soul, we are really nothing more than a knot of discrete fibers, each of which is pulsing with a life all its own and moving independently of all the other fibers of the body. These different living animalcules, which Antonie van Leeuwenhoek call “eels,” will at times be attracted to each other and coexist (though Kant will have something to say against this), and eventually they can go their separate ways. What we experience as the death of an individual is really nothing but the moment when these little creatures, for reasons of their own, swim or crawl off in their separate directions.

As John Turberville Needham (of whom Diderot writes in his famous “D’Alembert’s Dream”) suggests, anatomical investigations must necessarily lead us to a “wiggly” world in which microscopic bodies writhe and squirm in a state of constant flagellation, wrapping themselves about one another and then releasing each other again. For these radically materialist thinkers, the body, in both the micro- and the macroscopic realms, is always made, unmade and remade. This continuous sartorial labor (weaving, cutting, suturing, ripping, re-suturing, etc.) is in no way indicative of the operation of any soul or higher power. Quite to the contrary, the body is formed exclusively through the continuous interweaving of an infinite number of (potentially indestructible) living threads; to wit, Trembley’s polyps, the most elementary animalcule of which are other organisms are composed. The body, quite literally, is nothing but a living textile.

This understood, we can begin to grasp the significance of painting of the day. Whereas prior to such insights, how what it ever occur to anyone that the best way to conceive of the work of Boucher would be in terms of the microscope?

François Boucher
(1703 – 1770)
sketch for Portrait von Louise O’Murphy (1752)

These wiggly and intertwined freshwater hydra are the “polyps”, discovered in 1744 by Abraham Trembley, about which Diderot writes in both “Rameau’s Nephew” and “D’Alembert’s Dream”. Note how the voluptuous curvature of the body in the Boucher above seems actually to be woven out of individual strands. It’s as if certain regions of the body were magnified so as to reveal their otherwise invisible texture. Diderot’s world is a “sartorial” reality in which bodies are, as I said above, nothing but fabric endowed with memory. And memory itself is purely material, nothing but the sympathetic resonances arising, either more or less harmoniously, between various vibrating strings.

The body, in Diderot, is never at rest. To use another of Diderot’s metaphors, the body is a kind of harp(sichord) which, because it is constantly invisibly caressed (like the feverish and raving mathematician D’Alambert masturbating beneath his blanket, a bawdy representation of how ideas are “conceived”?). For this reason, the body always strives to sigh and cry out. In an era entirely fascinated with nudity, the restless and loquacious human anatomy in no way stands in opposition to the clothed figure.


The human form, especially the youthful, supple, and voluptuous human form, is really nothing other than a bundle of the most exquisite cloth. No wonder this era of French culture is one we often associate with the fetishism of haut couture. As least when it comes to understanding the 18th century, there may indeed be something to Marx’s contention that social relations exist not between people but rather between the inanimate objects whose servants humans are. Sexual relations, for the Enlightenment, are nothing more than the self-assembling of a costume.

Francois Boucher
Madame de Pompadour (1759)