Tag Archives: philosophy

Can we make space for reasoned deliberation?

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE in paperback. In this post, historian Martin Jay suggests that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Recently reading the stimulating collection of Raymond Geuss’s essays titled A World Without Why, I was stopped short by a casual reference to the distinguished British philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams had been a much- valued colleague of mine at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s.

“Williams,” Geuss wrote, “took an extremely dim view of the powers of reason to persuade. He once told me that he had only one time in his life seen a case of a person convinced to give up a deeply held belief by the force of rational argumentation.”

Williams was universally acclaimed as himself a reasoner of uncommon brilliance, whose career had been built on his ability to demolish the arguments of his opponents, so his skepticism about rational justification as a means of persuasion was particularly sobering. It was made even more so against the backdrop of the episode that gave Geuss’s collection its name: the chilling passage in Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz in which an SS officer capriciously ripped a thirst-quenching icicle from his lips, with the cruel anti-explanation explanation “Hier gibt es kein ‘Warum’” (here there is no “why.”)

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential space of reasons, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a… Click To Tweet

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential “space of reasons,” to cite Wilfred Sellars’ famous phrase, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a space where no justification needs to be given, pure coercion trumps any attempt to persuade, and the better argument is never allowed to be voiced, let alone win.

In a way, the background of the story I tell in Reason After Its Eclipse is the still potent tension between these two models of human interaction. That is, the first generation of the Frankfurt School had fled from a world in which the concentration camp threatened to banish any vestige of reason, save its debased instrumental variant, from the world. The second generation, exemplified by Habermas, sought to rescue reason by identifying it with its intersubjective role in communication. No longer able to believe in an emphatic notion of objective reason, which had motivated many thinkers in the Enlightenment Age of Reason, they fell back on a more modest faith in the power of giving reasons to justify decisions, which had its political correlate in deliberative democracy. It was this hope for an expanded “space of reasons” that Williams’ remark explicitly deflated.

There can, of course, be no questioning of the resilience of deeply held beliefs, such as religious convictions or political allegiances. But in many other cases, beliefs are held more tentatively, a learning process is not impossible, and minds can be changed. Communicative rationality does not assume that all beliefs can be justified rationally to the satisfaction of adversaries in an argument. Nor does it believe that an ideal speech situation can ever be achieved in which asymmetries of power, expertise, eloquence, and so forth are completely effaced. But it does hold out hope that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Reason Today

That such a hope is not entirely utopian became clear to me a few years ago when I served on a jury deliberating a case of alleged drunk driving. Initially, we deadlocked six to six. I joined the vote for guilty. But, after several days of deliberation, we concluded that there was not really enough evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What struck me most about how we reached this consensus was that the most powerful arguments made for acquittal were advanced by a juror who was a postal carrier, someone whose station in life might have led one to believe he would be no match for a professor with experience in the often disputatious world of academic discourse. But as the model of the public sphere advanced by Habermas suggested, station meant nothing and the power of the better argument was able to win out. Our ultimate verdict was reinforced when we had a chance to conduct exit interviews with the two competing lawyers. The prosecuting attorney admitted that he had been dealt a weak hand and doubted he could get a guilty verdict. I ended up feeling far more encouraged by the process than disappointed by losing the argument.

Now, of course, it should be conceded that I really had no long-held belief in the guilt of the accused party, nor any interest in the outcome besides a desire to see justice done. But the point is simply that, to a still significant extent, we live in a world in which “why?” needs to be answered and justificatory reasoning can provide at least some guidance for how we should act. The eclipse of reason, in short, is not total, and some light manages to shine through.

Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of fourteen previous books, including The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50, which has been translated into thirteen languages; Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to HabermasAdornoPermanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to AmericaDowncast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French ThoughtSongs of Experience: Modern European and American Variations on a Universal Theme; and The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.

A vision for a modern, democratic Muslim nation

An interview with James Rush about Hamka’s Great Story: A Master Writer’s Vision of Islam for Modern Indonesia 

Just published, Hamka’s Great Story by James R. Rush explores the life and work of of an influential Indonesian thought leader, his vision for his emerging nation, and his lasting influence on Muslim religious culture. It is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies.

By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal.

Hamka’s Great Story focuses on a single individual. What drew you to Hamka? And what’s the big picture? I am first and foremost a historian of Indonesia. I went to Hamka to understand Indonesia better. By immersing myself in his prolific body of public writing, I sought to see Indonesia through his eyes instead of through my own. This was my first goal. But because Hamka was such a widely read and influential thought leader, I felt that seeing Indonesia through his eyes could also help us understand the large and important Muslim Indonesian subculture from which he spoke and to which he spoke. This became my second goal. I believe that this is immensely valuable for those of us who are interested not only in modern Indonesia, but also in national identities everywhere, and how religious ideas and identities are enmeshed within them.

If Benedict Anderson was right that nations like Indonesia are imagined communities, we should be asking: What sort of community, exactly, is being imagined for Indonesia? And by whom? To Hamka and other members of his generation (including seminal figures such as Sukarno) fell the remarkable opportunity of “imagining” the nation of Indonesia in the very moments of its historic formation as the Dutch East Indies gave way tumultuously to the Republic of Indonesia. Hamka’s Great Story is exactly this: Indonesia imagined as a modern Muslim nation.Indonesia

Who was Hamka? Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, 1908–1981) was a prodigious writer with a popular touch. He wrote beautifully in the Dutch colony’s lingua franca, Malay, which was also adopted in the 1920s as the aspirational national language for Indonesia and called Indonesian. Hamka’s early magazines, books, and novels found readers throughout the far-flung nation-to-be. What gave them their traction, aside from Hamka’s easy style and good stories, was their message. We are living in an age of profound and destabilizing change, he said. We can embrace this change hopefully if we embrace Islam as our guide. Islam can shape our new society and provide its values. Indonesia, our dreamed-of nation, can cohere around it. This positive message touched the zeitgeist. Hamka embellished it prolifically throughout his lifetime, which eventually stretched from the colonial era well into the life of the Republic.

What sort of Islam did Hamka propagate? Like the vast majority of Indonesians, Hamka was a Sunni Muslim. But as a self-described modernist, he declined to identify with the traditional schools of law, or madhhab (Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i), and claimed “the Madhhab Salaf, being the school of the Prophet and his companions and of the ulamas who follow his footsteps.” In this, he followed Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida and other reformers based in Egypt, whose ideas he streamed into Indonesia. Like them, he rejected many traditional Muslim practices as superstitions and sought to reconcile Islam with the modern sciences and political advances of the West. Our country, he told his readers, can be both thoroughly modern and thoroughly Muslim. He envisioned a literate, prosperous, democratic Indonesia in which the values of Islam permeated the society at large and provided the basis for ethnic and religious tolerance. In his imagined Indonesia, monogamous marriages would replace polygamous ones, strong nuclear families would supersede shambling extended ones, and rationality and knowledge would overcome myth and ignorance.

Was Hamka an original thinker? Hamka was a brilliant synthesizer of facts, ideas, and arguments that he gleaned from the works of others, most significantly (as he often remarked) from modern Egyptian writers and intellectuals whose work he read in Arabic. Even the plot of his most famous novel was borrowed. Yet, in transposing all of this to Indonesia, he created something new. We can say that the master narrative that underlay his entire body of writing—what I call his Great Story—is both original and unique in its depth and complexity. Its ubiquity in the public sphere in the form of his multitudes of books, pamphlets, newspaper columns, novels, interviews, and, eventually, radio and television programs and audio cassettes made his Great Story a foundational frame of reference for generations of Indonesian Muslims.

Was Hamka’s vision for Indonesia contested? Very much so. Indeed, it was part of a huge public argument about what sort of society and nation Indonesia should become. His ideas comported with the views of the modernist mass organization Muhammadiyah, of which he was a leading figure and popular theologian. But they stood in contention with the more conservative views of Indonesia’s other mass Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama. Moreover, Indonesia’s much smaller community of Christians found Hamka’s assertive propagation of Islam overbearing and, at times, threatening. And its communists, who surged intermittently during his lifetime, belittled Islam and religion altogether. Hamka played a key and sometimes controversial role in this contest over the fate of the nation, which came to a bloody head in the 1960s in a bitter culture war that ended in the massacre of the country’s communists and rule by the army. As all of this played out, he spent more than two years as a political prisoner and, subsequently under the new military government, served ambivalently as head of Indonesia’s first national council of Muslim religious scholars.

Hamka died in 1981. Do his ideas matter today? Some of Hamka’s books remain popular today and his thirty-volumes of commentary on the Qur’an are still widely read. More significantly, however, Hamka’s modernist formulation of Islam for Indonesia underlies much of the discourse about Islam in Indonesia today, even though his role in shaping this discourse has been obscured by the passage of time. As Indonesia struggles with the surge of angry and exclusionist Islamic movements that have found so much traction elsewhere—and, to a degree, in Indonesia, too—his complex, inclusive, and hopeful vision, still so prevalent, makes it harder for the ideas of extremists to take root and grow.

James Rush

James Rush

James R. Rush is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hamka’s Great Story, as well as Opium to Java: Revenue Farming and Chinese Enterprise in Colonial Indonesia, 1860–1910, The Last Tree: Reclaiming the Environment in Tropical Asia, and numerous biographical essays about contemporary Asian activists, humanitarians, and public intellectuals in the Ramon Magsaysay Awards book series and website.

 

Bascom planted seeds of the “Wisconsin Idea” in the 1870s

A guest post by J. David Hoeveler. His new book, John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea, has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Bascom Hall, c. 1870

Bascom Hall, c. 1870

Hoeveler-John-Bascom-and-the-Origins-of-the-Wisconsin-Idea-cThe majestic building that sits atop the University of Wisconsin in Madison bears the name Bascom Hall. Thousands of people pass by the building every day, and some may wonder who “Bascom” was. “The guiding spirit of my time,” was what what famed Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette called John Bascom. La Follette felt that Bascom was the real inspiration for what we now call the Wisconsin Idea.

John Bascom served the University of Wisconsin as its president from 1874 to 1887. He came from upstate New York, born in Genoa in 1827, and graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. He then attended two theological seminaries. Bascom taught at his alma mater for two decades before coming to Madison. He was a prolific scholar and wrote books and essays on theology, philosophy, sociology, and economics. But he did more than that as UW president. He committed himself to social reforms and, in fact, became as outspoken on these matters as any major figure in American higher education at the time.

Bascom’s political philosophy grew out of his liberal Christianity and his understanding of evolution. The latter concept gave Bascom his notion of society as a complex organism, all of whose parts must work in integration with the whole and in cooperation with each other. So believing, Bascom set a higher priority for the collective good, the public interest.

An iconic "W" banner hangs between the columns of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Nov. 10, 2007. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Bryce Richter Date: 11/07 File#: D200 digital camera frame 6778

Today’s Bascom Hall

Three causes especially gained Bascom’s commitment. First, he advocated for temperance and even voted for the Prohibition party. That cause may suggest to some a moralistic, puritanical strain in Bascom, but it had its progressive side. Some labor leaders and almost all women’s rights leaders of the day supported the campaign against alcohol.

UW women's basketball team, 1897

UW women’s basketball team, 1897

Second, Bascom spoke out strongly for co-education and women’s rights. At the time, respected medical literature often warned against the toll of mental labor on the female body. Bascom ridiculed such notions. He spoke not only for co-education but insisted that the UW abandon the separate curriculums that then existed for men and women students. Bascom defended some policies that leading feminists themselves did not always support. He advocated for woman’s suffrage. He would allow divorce. He even criticized the styles of dress imposed on women—the corsets and bustles popular in the Gilded Age. They conspired, he said, against females’ full and active participation in American public life.

And third, Bascom championed the rights of labor. Here especially he feared the deprivation of a class of people, the workers, and their alienation from the large social organism. Bascom defended the right of labor to organize unions and he justified the right to strike. He also denounced the excessive power of money in America. Who else, among American university leaders of this era, would dare condemn by name the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers? Bascom, though, strongly opposed socialism. He admired business enterprise, and he thrilled to the marvels of technological creativity so visible in the United States. These activities, too, he believed, create the expanded social interconnections that grow and advance human society.

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Robert La Follette and Charles Van Hise

Robert La Follette graduated from the UW in 1879. So did his classmate and friend Charles Van Hise. La Follette became Wisconsin governor in 1901, and Van Hise was inaugurated UW president in 1904. The first graduates of the UW to hold these positions, both La Follette and Van Hise had been students of Bascom. And both drew inspiration from Bascom’s urgent advocacy for the good uses of the state and the ideal of public service. Together, they put the Wisconsin Idea into place.

Fola La Follette, daughter of Robert and Belle Case La Follette, later wrote: “Two students of the class of 1879, Bob La Follette and Charles Van Hise, profoundly influenced in youth by a great teacher, were now, as mature men, collaborating to sustain former President Bascom’s ideal of the relation of a state university to the State.”

So, as discussion about the Wisconsin Idea again rises among us, we might gain in historical perspective and in contemporary understanding if we remember John Bascom, the intellectual source of this “idea.” John Bascom: philosopher, humanist, and a man of religious faith.


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J. David Hoeveler

J. David Hoeveler holds a Distinguished Professorship in History at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He is the author of seven books, including Creating the American Mind, The Evolutionists, and Watch on the Right.

New Books in March 2016

We are excited to announce six books forthcoming this month!Whitaker-The-Blue-Hour-c

THE BLUE HOUR
Jennifer Whitaker

Winner of the Brittingham Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

Fairy tales both familiar and obscure create a threshold, and the The Blue Hour pulls us over it. With precise language and rich detail, these poems unflinchingly create an eerie world marked by abuse, asking readers not just to bear witness but to try to understand how we make meaning in the face of the meaningless violence.

 

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THE BOOK OF HULGA
Rita Mae Reese

Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry
Selected by Denise Duhamel

The Book of Hulga speculates—with humor, tenderness, and a brutal precision—on a character that Flannery O’Connor envisioned but did not live long enough to write: “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth.” These striking poems look to the same sources that O’Connor sought out, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Edgar Allan Poe to Simone Weil. Original illustrations by Julie Franki further illuminate Reese’s imaginative verse biography of a modern-day hillbilly saint.

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REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE
On Late Critical Theory
Martin Jay

Martin Jay tackles a question as old as Plato and still pressing today: what is reason, and what roles does and should it have in human endeavor? Applying the tools of intellectual history, Reason after Its Eclipse examines the overlapping, but not fully compatible, meanings that have accrued to the term “reason” over two millennia, homing in on moments of crisis, critique, and defense of reason.

 

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FEEDING MANILA IN PEACE AND WAR, 1850–1945
Daniel F. Doeppers

Policymakers and scholars have come to realize that getting food, water, and services to the millions who live in the world’s few dozen megacities is one of the twenty-first century’s most formidable challenges. As these populations continue to grow, apocalyptic scenarios—sprawling slums plagued by hunger, disease, and social disarray—become increasingly plausible. In Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945, Daniel F. Doeppers traces nearly a century in the life of Manila, one of the world’s largest cities, to show how it grew and what sustained it.

 

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SEVEN YEARS OF GRACE
The Inspired Mission of Achsa W. Sprague
Sara Rath

Distributed for the Vermont Historical Society

Seven Years of Grace is a dramatized account of the life of Achsa Sprague (1827–1862), who in the decade preceding the American Civil War lectured to audiences of thousands on Spiritualism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform. She presented herself as a medium, lecturing and singing hymns in a state of trance. Alone on stage, she drew acclaim and admiration but also jeers, ridicule, and condemnation. A skeptic in Oswego, New York, asked, “Why is it that all the world should run nightly mad to hear her in a pretended trance?” A Milwaukee newspaper proclaimed her words “profound twaddle from beginning to end.” Yet Achsa’s crowds continued to grow in size and enthusiasm. Grounded in the extensive collection of Achsa Sprague’s papers at the Vermont Historical Society, Seven Years of Grace is both a fascinating tale and a revealing window into the past.

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DEATH STALKS DOOR COUNTY
Patricia Skalka

The first book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series, now in paperback

Six deaths. A grief-stricken investigator. Betrayal. Why?

“Can a big-city cop solve a series of murders whose only witnesses may be the hemlocks? An atmospheric debut.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Murder seems unseemly in Door County, a peninsula covered in forests, lined by beaches, and filled with summer cabins and tourist resorts. That’s the hook for murder-thriller Death Stalks Door County, the first in a series involving ranger Dave Cubiak, a former Chicago homicide detective.”—Milwaukee Shepherd Express

Read more here.