Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The arguments we have with ourselves

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~ Anton Chekhov

Dr. Brendan Myers at Northwest Passage has some insightful and very honest things to say about the passing of the Deo's Shadow website and the reaction of some Pagans to the podcasters switch from Paganism to Atheism. The entire post is worth reading. I was struck by his thoughts about the ways in which some in the Pagan community relate to philosophical vs factual knowledge; this is something I've pondered for some time. He writes:

Many pagans are highly knowledgeable about history, archaeology, language, folklore, and the sciences. This I think is undeniable, and indeed praiseworthy. But most of this knowledge is factual knowledge, not philosophical knowledge.

Factual knowledge is welcomed and encouraged in pagan society: indeed people can obtain some prestige in pagan society by being well informed on obscure yet interesting topics. Factual knowledge, however, is not by itself enough to make the pagan community flourish. Factual knowledge of the social order in Iron-age Scotland, for instance, simply does not logically imply knowledge of how we today ought to live. To claim otherwise, as in the argument "The ancient Scots (or whatever culture) did ritual / family life / trade / etc in this way, therefore we should do so too" (or some variation thereof, perhaps with disclaimers and caveats to accomodate the realities of 21st century life) -- is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

Philosophical knowledge is the knowledge of how to separate the real from the unreal, the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the beautiful from the trite. This kind of knowledge is philosophical when it is a product of sustained systematic reason. This kind of knowledge, however, is often specifically rejected by pagans. This happens when, for instance, pagans claim that reliable knowledge can be obtained primarily (or only) through non-rational means such as magical sight, through "gut intuition", etc. This also happens when someone says that "head knowledge" or "book knowledge" is worthless, and that intellectual reasoning about our problems is "too hard", "too scary", or "missing the point", or even "an obstacle to true spiritual experience".
As a man once said, "Out of the arguments we have with ourselves come poetry" and in the best poetry we find truth. I would argue for emotional truth, for poetic truth, as a Pagan value. That said, I would never live a life based simply on what I thought my ancestors I did. I will not deny facts in favor of fantasy. That, too, is a Pagan value. I may be inspired by my heritage, I may be guided by those who went before and use their example to find my own way, but I do not need to copy them slavishly, even supposing I could.

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
~ Carl Sandburg

I have found the Pagan path intellectually and spirituality fulfilling because I have been willing to question my assumptions and beliefs from day one. For me, these questions are important for many reasons, not least of which is that by asking them I will learn what it is I do not know.

I think that asking questions all along our path, and not being afraid of the answers, is a vital Pagan value. What do you think?


Posted in honor of Pagan Values Month

The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse... the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.
~ Aristotle, On Poetics


Rhondda said...

Ah, but what he does not say is that every philosophical position is based on a first premise and then the logic proceeds from there. The most important thing is what is that first premise and what is its foundation? I realized this when I took existentialism at university and every very first premise was based on a male experience of life and it did not reflect anything I had experienced. I was told by my professor that he was raising me to his level. Really? I asked him just what level that was? It is the same old question, who decides what is false and what is true? I am not anti-intellectual in any way. However, I now look for the first premise before I bother to follow the logic.

northwestpass said...

Good morning Rhonda,

To look at the first premise of any philosophical argument is a standard and essential part of logic itself. It's like the work of a forensic scientist, following the evidence back to the beginning. The observation that the first premises of every argument you studied at uni is a very interesting and I think astute observation. Philosophy has been a male dominated discipline for centuries. Philosophy progresses when the unexamined presuppositions are brought to light, just as your comment here has done. Since you followed what appears to be a perfectly sound logical process to make that observation, I wonder if your objection is not with logic as such, but with its reduction to masculine narratives. I wonder if you would think differently about it if you looked at female philosophers. Ever read Iris Murdoch, for instance? Or Hanna Arendt?

Rhondda said...

Dear Northwestpass,

Yes indeedy. I read Female philosophers. How about Mary Daly or Paula Gunn Allen? I adore Emma Goldman. However, what I was trying to say is that at university and studying 'male existentialists' which included Kierkegaard, Sartre,and Camus, (the first and the last were most interesting) my professor was more a Sartre person who saw women as slime. None of them had any idea of what life was like for the female half of the species and none gave a flying leap that it just might not be in relation to them.
I would have to refresh about Iris Murdoch and Hanna Arendt, so I dare not comment about them.

Riverwolf, said...

We have to keep asking questions and avoid the pitfalls of ever thinking we have the answers.