Please, Like Me

January 10, 2018

I’m told that there are “explosive” revelations in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, but so far I haven’t seen anything I didn’t already know. Leaving aside the book’s many inaccuracies and typos, we’ve heard this story before. Since even before Trump’s inauguration, his staff and advisers at all levels have been telling the same tale of an ignorant, undisciplined, narcissistic, petty, and easily bored man who is now arguably the most powerful man in the world. No one should be surprised that Trump has no coherent set of political beliefs, long-term strategies, or goals. It should also be obvious by now that he doesn’t understand government or his role in it, let alone the responsibility for governing the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world. He is, as my brother-in-law put it, a buffoon.

That said, one passage, quoted by Ezra Klein, reminded me of something I had noticed long ago:

“It was obvious to everyone that if [Trump] had a north star, it was just to be liked,” says Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.”

Trump’s staffers confirm the characterization. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” Walsh says in the book. “He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly.”

Either I’m projecting or I’ve just noticed this because of my struggles with this same issue, which I have described in the past as a “pathological need to be liked.” I used to believe that everything would be OK if I could just make everyone my friend, which led me to some rather disastrous interactions with people who clearly were not and were never going to be my friends.

One of the ways people like me try to get everyone to like them involves self-denial and self-sacrifice. I was taught, as Mormon scripture says,

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God (Mosiah 2:17).

Service is a good thing, and people serve others for a lot of different reasons. For me, a primary motivation was that I just wanted to be liked, maybe even loved.

People who need desperately to be liked will do and say just about anything for that impossible goal. When you’re with someone, your immediate goal is approval and acceptance, so you change your attitude and opinion to fit the moment. Even your most deeply held beliefs can be sacrificed to the god of approbation. My wife told me many years ago that, when we were missionaries, one of her companions told her, “I don’t like Elder Williams. He seems to be a different person depending on who he’s around.” I was horrified, first to know that she didn’t like me, but second because I knew she was right. The scary thing is that it wasn’t conscious. Like Zelig or one of those reptilians who live in the tunnels under Salt Lake City, I was a shape-shifter mentally, if not physically (full disclosure: I’ve been in the tunnels, and they are, literally and figuratively, quite pedestrian). We see some of this self-malleability in White House staff observations that Mr. Trump tends to make decisions based on the last person who talked to him.

In a strange but real way, such constant recalibration of the psyche is a profoundly narcissistic behavior, even if it manifests itself as extreme self-abnegation. Nothing is as important as being liked, so your focus is on satisfying your own ego even as you obliterate it. One predictable consequence of such a morphing self is that, eventually, you can’t remember what is actually you and what is just a tactic for being liked. In the drive to build up your ego, you end up whittling away at it until there’s not much left.

I lived that way for far too long in this pattern of narcissistic self-effacement until I encountered people who not only took advantage of my imagined generosity and returned scorn and hatred. I’m not being facetious when I say that I’m grateful for a few people who treated me with disdain and cruelty. I think I’d already begun to come out of these patterns of narcissism, albeit slowly, when I became aware that people I’d tried to help or befriend considered me beneath contempt. I’ll give one example.

At the encouragement of a couple of friends (real ones, mind you), I wrote a series of posts on postmodernism and how it had been appropriated by some defenders Mormonism. I spent a lot of time discussing what I meant by postmodernism and exactly how and why it had been applied to the religion of my birth. Going into it, my goal wasn’t to argue for or against anything but simply to review the interesting ways people had merged seemingly incompatible ideas about truth and religion. One person began asking me questions in an online forum, and I tried my best to explain the concepts I was discussing, but it was slow going because my correspondent didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and instead wanted to talk about Pragmatism and William James, which were outside of the topic I had covered. I tried my best to be patient and kind, but the discussion never seemed to get anywhere. As I had so many times before, I had perhaps unconsciously started to make my primary goal not to explain my arguments but for this person to like me. As frustrating as the direction of the conversation was, I felt like I was making a friend.

Then another friend shared with me a private discussion the Pragmatist was having with his friends elsewhere, boasting of how much fun he was having in exposing my stupidity and “mopping the floor” with me in the debate we were having. And here I never thought we were having a debate at all. I reacted with hurt and anger and vented both at this guy and his beliefs. I suppose I wanted him to understand how hurt I was, which again was quite narcissistic. It was all about me, wasn’t it? For quite a while, I returned all the nastiness he sent to me (openly, at this point). Previously, when someone had treated me like that, I just walked away and licked my emotional wounds. But this time, I couldn’t let go, and I continued an acrimonious interaction with this guy for a few years. (Just writing years is kind of horrifying when I think of it.)

With one phrase he finally broke the cycle: he wrote, sarcastically, that we “love each other like brothers,” and brothers fight. I’m not sure why that struck me, but I finally realized I was the only one of us who cared at all about our relationship, such as it was. For me, the relationship produced nothing but hurt and anger, which I still longed to overcome; for him, it meant nothing at all.

That’s when I realized just how stupid it was to care what someone like him thought of me (he’s not a bad person, but I magnified everything in my quest to nurse my bruised ego). Or anyone else, for that matter. I have friends who like me because of who I am, not because I’m desperate for them to like me. If you have to work hard to get someone to like you, chances are they don’t like you. And the truth beneath the need to be liked by others is that we don’t like ourselves. Perhaps the whittling away of the self is intentional in that there will be nothing left to dislike when it’s gone.

I had to get to a place where I wasn’t consumed by what other people thought of me. Obviously, I’m not advocating living a life with no regard for the feelings of others, in which case I’d be a sociopath. What I have learned is to live so that I like myself and what I do. If I do something good or kind, it’s because I want to be good and kind, not because I’m looking for approval.

I’m not entirely free of this disabling neediness (exhibit A being this rather self-absorbed post), but I’m working on it.

But getting back to Trump:

Trump doesn’t care about policy or politics or ideology or coalitions. He cares about Trump. His dream was to put his name on buildings and in tabloids, and now he has put his name on the most important building on the planet and on the front page of most every newspaper in the world. Yet the coverage he gets, outside of a few conservative outlets, is horrible, the worst of any president in memory. He cannot perform his job well enough to be liked or respected, but he only wanted the job in the first place because it would force the whole world to like and respect him — and he is being driven to rage and paranoia by the resulting dissonance, disappointment, and hurt.

Imagine being Donald Trump. Imagine reading about yourself every day and knowing these awful things are being said by your friends, your aides, your allies, perhaps even your family. Imagine knowing you can’t trust anyone around you, suspecting they’re badmouthing you constantly, raising their social status by diminishing yours.

Imagine seeing your stability questioned, your patriotism impugned, your intellect dismissed. Imagine doing the impossible — winning the presidency! — only to be treated as a national embarrassment.

This isn’t what Trump wanted. And it’s not clear it’s something he can bear. A more capable, competent, and stable person would, by now, have either changed their behavior to receive more of the response they crave or given up on getting the response they crave. But Trump appears to exist in an unhappy middle ground, rage-tweeting through his mornings, retreating to his golf club on weekends, searching for the validation he craves in his Twitter feed and on Fox & Friends but never getting it from the elite tastemakers he’s always sought to impress.

It took me a long time to get over it, but I have “given up on getting the response [I] crave.” I can’t imagine being 71 and still feeling and behaving that way, much less being the President of the United States.


Grant Palmer: A Personal Review of “A Personal Review”

March 31, 2014

This morning I was drawn to Jonathan Cannon’s review of Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins:

An Insider’s View — A Personal Review

I should mention that I didn’t read Palmer’s book until well after I had left the church, so it was not instrumental at all in my exit, though it obviously has affected quite a lot of people. I should also mention that I don’t know Jonathan Cannon and had never heard of him before, so I have no prejudice for or against him.

Let me start with a quote from the review:

Academic authors are generally allowed to make their own interpretations, and it isn’t considered unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to not cite relevant sources, or provide people with resources to find out more about contested topics. As far as I can tell, Palmer cites many useful secondary sources, and can be used effectively as a starting point for a new student of Mormon history.

First of all, I am probably looking at this differently than Cannon is, but I don’t consider Palmer’s book to be an academic or even remotely “objective” review of the issues. Palmer’s intent, clearly stated several times, is to present the problematic issues clearly and succinctly so that a general audience can understand them. As Cannon writes:

First, I hope to alert the reader of An Insider’s View to a fact that Palmer doesn’t hide, but that is easily overlooked because of rhetorical choices made by the author; namely, that the history presented is a popular summary and consciously removes many real ambiguities in the historical record.

It seems a little odd to criticize Palmer for providing a “popular summary” when that’s exactly what Palmer says he is providing. Apparently, however, Palmer’s “rhetorical choices” lead the reader to forget the purpose of the book. I think most readers are smarter than that, but let’s take a look at what Cannon means. We get a glimpse of the problem here, when Cannon is discussing his reaction to some podcasts Palmer recorded:

 And then he presented conclusions with great confidence, as if the evidence compelled him to arrive there.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I think this is what Cannon is talking about when he refers to “rhetorical choices.” Cannon believes–and I agree with him–that the “evidence” (church history and origins in their non-Correlated form) doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief. If it did, there would be no apologists and no “faithful historians.” Palmer, like a lot of former Mormons, likely does feel that “the evidence compelled him to arrive” at unbelief, and I think he’s been pretty clear about this in everything I have read from him. For Cannon, that Palmer is at peace with his conclusions represents an “exaggerated confidence” that affects the contents of the book so much so that it invalidates Palmer’s conclusions. Palmer, he argues, “removes ambiguities” that would undercut his conclusions.

I agree that “ambiguities” and alternative narratives are not presented, but then I wouldn’t expect a non-scholarly summary to provide that at all (it is a short read, after all). What would be “unprofessional” in a peer-reviewed book or article is not so in a book written as a summary for a general audience. Cannon seems to find fault with Palmer for writing a book for a stated purpose while at the same time calling him “unprofessional” for not following the rules that would govern a book written for a different purpose. Cannon finds this quote to be a rhetorical device to shape the reader’s bias:

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school.

It’s difficult for me to find fault with this statement: there is “near-consensus on many of the details,” and the picture these details paint is indeed quite different from what we get in Correlated lesson manuals.

That said, in my view, the evidence is more ambiguous than what Palmer presents but less ambiguous than Cannon suggests. Let’s take one example. Multiple accounts from people who were involved in the translation of the Book of Mormon or in the house at the time indicate a process that was essentially a word-for-word dictation. Of course, no one could possibly know the process except for Joseph Smith. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

I happen to have read a little about this issue, and find Palmer’s removal of ambiguities problematic. This statement appears to imply that all of these individuals each reported all of these facts: that Joseph looked in his hat with a seer stone in it, and that he saw the words to speak word for word in the stones. The quotes that follow do support the stone and face in hat picture. We can be quite confident of this fact. What Joseph saw in the stones turns out to be highly ambiguous, historically. I think ambiguities, like this one at the very beginning, ultimately make Palmer’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith as a translator/revelator much weaker than Palmer’s confident narrative would lead a reader to believe. Instead of glossing over the ambiguities, this brief article examines some ambiguities of translation and the quality of the historical evidence in greater detail, and arrives at a different picture than Palmer. Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

Cannon seems to be arguing that the evidence in support of a word-for-word “dictation” process is ambiguous, but the article he links to doesn’t help him here. Three quotes (two from people involved or in close proximity to the translation process, one secondhand and 70 years removed) are given in the FARMS/MI article, all three of which support Palmer’s “near-consensus” that the process involved the words appearing in the seer stone. The author of the article, Stephen Ricks, tells us why he thinks that method is “problematical from a linguistic point of view,” but he gives no counterevidence except to quote a non-Mormon minister, who was not involved in any aspect of the translation process. And even then, the minister’s statement isn’t at all inconsistent with the “word by word” process, saying only that “the Holy Ghost would reveal to [Joseph] the translation in the English language.” Based on this rather poorly done apologetic article, Cannon damns Palmer as not allowing for a different process, even though there is nothing beyond Stephen Ricks’ linguistic objections to suggest such a different process.

Ultimately, no one knows what Joseph Smith saw or didn’t see, but the issue here is that most members of the church are completely unaware of Joseph’s “seer stone,” its provenance, or its role in the translation process. In short, whether anything came word for word is irrelevant to most people I know. Inventing some sort of ambiguity that you can see only when Stephen Ricks squints at it is hardly damaging to Palmer’s claims. But Cannon seems to think readers have been misled because Palmer promised “near-consensus” (he didn’t) and hid the ambiguous:

Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

I might agree had Cannon presented something here that led to a “variety of interpretations,” but he hasn’t.

Cannon mentions alternative theories for the production of the Book of Mormon. I have to admit I’m always puzzled about the apparent belief that critics must provide a comprehensive theory for the production of the book. Why is this necessary? It’s the text of the Book of Mormon that provides clues to its origins, no matter how it was produced, and as Cannon notes, the text makes perfect sense in a 19th-century context. Insisting that Palmer and other critics provide a production process makes about as much sense as insisting that, unless I know how it happened, I must accept that Gob Bluth really did make a yacht disappear.

I appreciate the compassion with which Cannon approaches people who feel “betrayed.” I don’t believe I fit in with that category, as I was well aware of the issues in church history for some 10 years before my exit, but I completely understand why people feel betrayed by a church that presented only a sanitized, Disney-like version of its history. The contrast with the known history can be quite jarring, to say the least. That Cannon acknowledges that the church has done things that would lead people to feel betrayed is commendable. He goes on:

To those of you who feel betrayed and would like a resolution that leads you back to trust in the LDS church, I would suggest a few kinds of questions I’ve picked up from literary theory, postmodern thought, and economics. A warning, I’m not an expert in any of these and so likely to be misapplying them.

As someone who studied literary theory, including postmodernism in grad school, I always cringe when people bring this into a discussion of Mormonism, so forgive me if I don’t take that seriously. I’ve seen a lot of people misuse postmodernism, from Blake Ostler to Juliann Reynolds and a lot of others, as if it provides a more mature, nuanced approach to Mormonism. It really doesn’t. Postmodernism asserts that “truth” is irrelevant, and even if there were some truth or reality, it would be inaccessible to humans precisely because being human distorts our perception of everything. Because postmodernism is skeptical of science’s ability to approach truth, Mormon apologists have seized on that skepticism to argue that a subjective, spiritual approach to truth is superior. What they aren’t telling us is that postmodernists would say that the spiritual approach is just as worthless as science and reason for arriving at truth. So, I am not sure what to make of his brief allusion to postmodern literary theory.

These questions don’t seem particularly rooted in postmodernism or literary theory, though the notion that there’s always an agenda behind every statement sort of touches on it. (By the way, an excellent discussion of the rhetorical purpose of historical writing is found in Hayden White’s Metahistory.)

That said,  I’ll take a stab at Cannon’s questions:

“What is the purpose of the history being taught (there may be many)?”

The history taught in the church accomplishes two purposes: 1) it presents a cohesive, positive narrative of the foundational claims of the church that makes sense and inspires church members. 2) It almost always presents history to inspire moral choices, which of course are easier to present if there is little or no ambiguity. I suspect the conscious subordination of history to its rhetorical purposes explains why church history reads like something from Walt Disney.

“What are the alternatives to how it is being taught (take the time to think of more than a couple)?”

For me the best alternative wouldn’t require a huge adjustment in the content of what is taught but in how it is presented. Because the history is presented as a sort of inspirational example, it is approached with a sort of reverence and awe that is incompatible with viewing historical figures, such as Joseph Smith, as real human beings. I’m not really sure what it would look like, but I would suggest toning down the hero-worship and showing the history in more human terms. People are forgiving of prophets as humans, but not so much of prophets portrayed as saintly superheroes.

“How would each of these alternatives contribute to or detract from the purposes?”

Showing the human side of the history would be more effective in accomplishing the two goals I mentioned above. If we want to motivate flawed humans to accomplish great things, show them flawed humans who did accomplish great things (assuming of course that Mormonism is a great accomplishment).

“Is it necessary that all of the changes come at the institutional level?”

Yes, I think it is necessary because the institution has created an unrealistic view of its leaders and its history. Individuals can change that attitude, but as long as the church promotes such a hagiographical approach to its leaders and history, those who reject that simplistic approach will be outliers who will probably be criticized by their fellow members.

“How long am I willing to wait for the institution to change?”

I couldn’t care less how long it takes. It’s their church, and they’ll adapt as they have to.

“What signs can I find that the institution is changing?”

I think the recent essays are signs they are changing. At least I hope they are.

“Does my view of Prophets match the present and historical reality?”

I view prophets as human beings with human failings, so yes, my view does reflect the reality.

“Are my unrealistic expectations one piece of my feelings of betrayal?”

This is the reason for such feelings for many people, but remember that it is the church that taught people to have those “unrealistic expectations.” Frankly, the question here seems to do what I’ve seen the church do a lot: passive-aggressively shift the focus to what the member is doing “wrong” instead of acknowledging the church’s actions and intent.

‘Is Mormonism mine, or does it belong to the General Authorities?”

It’s a nice thought to believe that a Mormon can have a Mormonism that is “yours,” but we all understand that “your” Mormonism is still constrained by the acceptable boundaries set by the church and its leaders.

Finally, I’ll comment on one quote that hits the mark:

“I find Palmer’s evidence too incomplete to compel me to more than a guarded agnosticism regarding the foundational claims.”

What Palmer’s book ought to accomplish is to motivate people to learn more about the issues. His book is not the definitive work on early Mormonism any more than a political party’s “voter’s guide” is a complete and exhaustive summary of that party’s agenda. Where I think Cannon has gone wrong is to apply academic standards to a book that is decidedly not academic.

Palmer’s book is invaluable in introducing people to issues they probably have never heard of, but readers should take it as the starting point in their journey of discovery, not the end. Its value lies in summarizing the issues. Having a better and more accurate view of LDS history does not require someone to lose faith or leave the church; it may, however, require an adjustment of attitude and an acknowledgment that life doesn’t fit in a tidy little box, no matter how much we would like it to.

Guest Post: Mormon Apologetics and the Kuhnian Shift

August 24, 2011

I thought this piece was a great addition to my ongoing discussion of postmodernism, and frankly I’ve been too busy to write anything of consequence lately. So, with permission from my friend Mr. Stakhanovite, I’m reposting something he wrote on the subject:

Recently a poster on a message board made brief mention of an apologetic strategy, which he brilliantly summarized as follows:

“Kuhn therefore Nephi”.

I am here today to provide a case study of this specific mopologetic tactic, which I have dubbed, “The Kuhnian Shift”.

The Kuhnian Shift (hereafter: TKS) is a Mopologetic phenomena that is utilized by Internet Mormons [1] to resolve particularly hopeless conflicts with the Natural Sciences; it stands in direct relation to how some Mopologists have attempted to use Postmodernism as a means of understanding their faith [2]. As with most Mopologetic strategies, TKS is borne of desperation, and is almost never used in any sort of responsible manner.

TKS has its origins in a 1962 publication entitled, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by historian of science Thomas Kuhn. While the actual impact upon the Philosophy of Science and Natural Sciences by Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolutions’ is almost negligible, the book was wildly popular in the broader humanities, where it became one of the most cited works in the 20th century, alongside Lenin and Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism” [3].

Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolutions’ pushed a bold new thesis (at the time) that the advancement of the Natural Science wasn’t the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge that results in a better understanding of physical reality, but was rather a series of scientific revolutions that replaced the dominant paradigm with a new paradigm. To Kuhn, a paradigm is a web or matrix of assumptions and values that scientists presuppose. In a more broader sense, a paradigm can be understood as your worldview, though Kuhn meant the term in a much more narrow focus.

An important idea to Kuhn’s thesis is the concept of theory-dependence of observation, which asserts that when two scientists observe a phenomena, the observation they make isn’t neutral, but entirely based upon which theories the scientists hold. Coupled with the theory-dependence of observation was Kuhn’s own anti-realist position and skepticism of Truth. What this means is that Kuhn did not see science as an enterprise that could explain the unobservable, because the unobservable did not exist. It’s important to understand that Kuhn didn’t see this as a limit of science, but as a rejection of Metaphysics [4].

I’m sure it has become clear to many of you now why this work was such a hit in the early 60s, and how tempting it was for many in the Social Sciences to see Natural Science and its reputation for results and progress as subservient to fields such as Sociology and Anthropology. The Achilles heel to this part of Kuhn’s thesis is that he bases this idea of scientific revolutions as paradigm shifts on experiments conducted by gestalt psychology in the late 40s and early 50s at Harvard [5]. Kuhn seems merely to assume that all of one’s perceptual experience and reaction is influenced by whatever theories a person holds, based on research that was conducted in a much limited scope with just playing cards. He provides no solid argument for this assumption, which probably explains why he later rejects this idea (this becomes important later).

The explanation and description of Kuhn’s ‘Scientific Revolutions’ is bit more than a caricature of Kuhn’s thought, but it is incomplete and doesn’t tell the entire story. It is with this incomplete picture of Kuhn that allows for Kuhn’s ideas to be abused by opportunistic mopologists, and has enabled Mopologists like Kevin Christensen to make ample use of TKS.

In the conclusion of his survey of Margaret Barker’s published works, Kevin Christensen’s rhetorical strategy is to attempt a coup de grace against empirical evidence contra FARM’s pet Book of Mormon geography theories, and the broader academic indifference to Book of Mormon Archeology with a well crafted TKS:

Christensen writes:

A few years ago I wrote a long article called “Paradigms Crossed” in which I showed how Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions illuminates the structure of the debates about the Book of Mormon.3 Critics and defenders of the book quite obviously have different methods, problem fields, and standards of solution. We work in different paradigms.

Kevin Christensen introduces Kuhn at the end here, because he doesn’t want to characterize the dispute over Book of Mormon Archeology in the grave terms that it actually exists, but wants his audience to understand it as merely friction when two different paradigms come together head to head over the same observations. In the next paragraph he goes on to complete TKS:

Christensen writes:

In paradigm debates, the key questions are not those which ask “is the paradigm true?” but “which paradigm is better? Which problems are more significant to have solved? Which paradigm should we adopt in approaching the problems that we have not yet solved?” There can be no asking which is better without a comparison. Simply observing that an opponent has made assumptions that conflict with yours is not enough.

TKS has been engaged. Here the Mopologist is trying to shift away from questions about “Is this true?” to questions about “Is this better?”. Here, the utility of a belief is more important than the truth of a belief. Attention has been shifted to more pragmatic concerns, which are made more appealing with emotional concerns. In this case, Kevin Christensen has used TKS as an opener for this:

Christensen writes:

Kuhn describes how scientists make comparisons and make a tentative faith decision based on values, rather than rules, which means that conclusions among individuals will differ. This is fine, since it distributes risks. The most significant values that Kuhn observes are accuracy of key predictions, comprehensiveness and coherence, simplicity and aesthetics, fruitfulness, and future promise. I have long been impressed that Alma 32 describes exactly that same process: we experiment on key issues, and find mind-expanding enlightenment. We discover just how delicious the gospel can be, we learn things that we never would have seen had we not tried the experiments, and we taste through personal testimony the brightest of all future promises.

I’d like my audience to make note that Kuhn never characterizes any scientific decision as a “tentative faith decision,” which Christensen conveniently weasels into his summary of Kuhn. TKS allows Kevin Christensen to utilize Alma 32 and bring empirical science into the realm of faith and religion, where matters of utility and preference are given priority over truth.

An irony of the Mopologetic use of TKS is that it has failed to produce desired results in experimentation. In one comprehensive study, Philosophers taking Kuhn’s approach lived with a group of Scientists studying malaria, the data was so disappointing that the book published about the study did nothing to advance the ideas that Kevin Christensen now assumes above [6].

Even more damaging to Kevin Christensen’s enterprise is the fact Kuhn later modified these ideas. As Kuhn matured as a philosopher, he relied more heavily upon a Philosophy of Language concept known as incommensurability (explained below). It appears that Kevin Christensen is only familiar with the first edition of Kuhn’s book, because we see in the second edition a footnote from Kuhn that refers to a paper he published after the first edition that clearly shows his linguistic interests, and his eventual rejection of anti-realism and adoption of some Kantian views [7]. Kuhn even repudiated how sociologists of science were using his work [8].

Incommensurability is the enduring and key component to Kuhn’s ideas on paradigms, and the lack of any mention of it betrays a certain ignorance of Kuhn’s overall project. What incommensurability provides is the framework that Kuhn needs to show that different paradigms employ different “languages” [9] and that while it’s possible to translate from one paradigm to another paradigm, there will always be things lost in said translation. It is this linguistic turn that Kuhn develops and favors over his prior psychological evidence. When incommensurability becomes more developed, the pragmatic concerns for the paradigm fall to the wayside, since Kuhn’s anti-realism begins to fade.

As we see in Kevin Christensen, the Mopologists interest in Kuhn’s work and its implications (does a Mormon really want to be a skeptic about Truth?) are only important in that it enables them to perform TKS and draw attention away from disconfirming evidence. Philosophy of Language is “post-Kripke,” and Casual theories of Reference dominate the field, and a robust defense of Kuhn’s incommensurability would have to take a lot of material on, which would be beyond the capability of most Mopologists.

In closing, TKS is a red herring, deployed by the Mopologist as a smoke screen to get his audience to ignore disconfirming evidence. The employment of TKS never accurately represents Kuhn’s project, nor does the Mopologist care about the changing subtleties that always occur in a scholar’s thought, much less the implications of adopting Kuhn’s views, which appear, prima facie, to stand in stark contrast to LDS Theology.

[1] I’m in Dr. Shade’s debt for this helpful distinction

[2] See Runtu’s series

[3]See 1st footnote

[4] For those of you who follow my online shenanigans, this line of thought is often espoused by MD&D’s eminent Philosopher, M. Bukowski.

[5] See Bruner, J. and Postman, L., 1949, “On the Perception of incongruity: A paradigm”, Journal of Personality, 18: 206–23

[6] M. Charlesworth et al. Life Among the Scientists (Geelong 1989).

[7] T. S. Kuhn 1970, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (2nd edition), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, page 192, footnote 12.

[8] T. S. Kuhn 1974, “Second Thoughts on Paradigms” in F. Suppe 1974 “The Structure of Scientific Theories,” Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 459-482

[9] I put “languages” in scare quotes, because I decided not to get into a long digression about the Philosophy of Language, and the topic of Sense and Reference and it’s importance in Philosophy of Science.

Guest Post: On Patent Lawyers and Postmodernism

February 16, 2011

A friend of mine wrote this a while back and has graciously allowed me to reprint it, but I think it has some bearing on my postmodernism series:

I posted … yesterday about my morbid fascination with FAIR and the FAIR message boards. They’re like my personal nightmare—a bizarro world of “scholarship” particularly disturbing to an academic.

My area of scholarly expertise is cultural theory, so I’ve been half trying to rationalize my FAIR time-wastage as “research.” And actually the use of postmodern theories in mormon apologetics, albeit in confused and contradictory ways is kind of interesting. Trixie replied to my posts yesterday, and I spent last night following up on some of her suggestions.

I ended up reading an essay by Juliann Reynolds on the FAIR website that summarizes an argument I’d caught traces of the FAIR boards (an assertion that critics of mormonism are really backward, old-fashioned, conservatives with hopelessly dated paradigms, while mormon apologists comprise an exciting postmodern vanguard). It was a good example of the problematic way certain concepts were being used, and more importantly it led me to the source for this argument—an essay by sociologist Massimo Introvigne (also found on the FAIR site).

Massimo Introvigne turns out to be quite a guy.

FAIR has at least two of his essays on their website, and Signature books has published one of his many, many works. He’s affiliated with the Mormon Social Science Association and was also the organizer, under the auspices of his own Center for Study of New Religions, of a conference in 2002 at both BYU and the U of U on “New Religions.” He seems to be really thick with LDS scholars in general.

I did some quick Googling and turned up his neo-fascist politics. He’s one of the leaders of “Alleanza Cattolica,” the Italian branch of “Tradition, Family and Property” a really ugly right-wing Catholic organization that originated in Brazil. Besides the usual anti-gay polemics, anti-feminist rhetoric and theocratic agenda, “Alleanza Cattolica” has also supported General Pinochet in his attempts to dodge responsibility for mass murder. That should give you sort of an idea where they’re coming from.

There’s also some controversy concerning his credentials as a sociologist as well as the scholarly legitimacy of the Centre for Study of New Religions. CESNUR is supposedly an objective and independent academic organization, but since they’ve also acted on the behalf of Scientology and Reverend Moon, CESNUR is listed as cult apologists on the Apologetics Index and covered extensively on the Rick Ross website.

This is a description of Introvigne and CESNUR by Miguel Martinez, one of his critics:

“CESNUR is supposedly an objective resource on cults established by the sociologist Massimo Introvigne. Actually, Introvigne does not have a degree in sociology, but is a patent lawyer; nor is CESNUR an objective resource: the organization is intimately linked to another organisation called “Alleanza Cattolica”. The ideology of the latter is entirely based on the teachings of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a Brazilian extremist and self-styled “prophet”, founder of a “crusade” against agrarian reform and “Communism” which openly calls for the implementation of a world-wide “Christian” regime based on Medieval hierarchy and repression. This “crusade” is called Tradition, Family and Property (TFP). …while waiting for the Kingdom to come, this organization is happy to work together with the US “New Right.” … often accused of being a cult, T.F.P. in 1985 started promoting the notions that CESNUR currently promotes—that there is a worldwide “anti-cult conspiracy”, manipulated by “psychiatrists and Communists”.

This last business of an “anti-cult conspiracy” is really interesting too. Introvigne has written about what he terms “anti-cult cyberterrorists.” In his definition these terrorists are “apostates”—people who have left a religion which they now term “a cult”—-who publish criticisms of their former religion the internet.

Politically Introvigne comes off like a really scary right wing Opus Dei nut-job. And as an intellectual he seems like near charlatan: hundreds of “publications” and very little academic credibility. What I’ve read of his work so far is pretty thin: lots of “theory talk” and plenty of name-dropping—a kind of Nibley manque.

(I was quite amused to find that a person posting as “Gadianton” on a mormon philosophy blog concurs with my opinion: “Anyway, I think with her [Juliann Reynolds] commitment to Introvigne Massimo, her primary source, the biggest issue is identifying the so-called “mormon conservatives” like “David Bohn” who take a “postmodern” view on history. I emailed Massimo about this, and he really couldn’t answer my question. Further, his response suggested he hasn’t spent 5 minutes studying derrida or any of the others. I’m no expert, but i can tell when someone knows less about this than I do…”

So my question is how did Introvigne hook up with the Mormons? Even though his politics wouldn’t ultimately be a problem, and con-job “scholarship” is an honored tradition at FAIR, he still seems like far too shady a wack job for “lds endorsement.”

And how long before “anti-cult terrorist” becomes the new FAIR catchword for exmormons?

More on Mormonism and Postmodernism

December 29, 2010

A while back I wrote a six-part series on postmodernism and Mormonism:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

One of the few people to really engage me in discussion of this topic was Ben McGuire, whom I have known for several years. As I mentioned in my postmodernism series, most Mormons I know who adopt a postmodern stance do so based on a simplistic view of postmodernism because they believe it provides an unassailable defense of their faith; as I believe I have shown in my posts, this adoption of postmodernism is misguided and ultimately fruitless. Ben, however, understands postmodernism and has consistently given as reasonable and reasoned an argument for its compatibility with Mormonism as anyone I know. Plus, Ben is a genuinely nice guy, is extremely intelligent, and has demonstrated to me a great deal of integrity in his discussions of his beliefs.

So, I was pleased to see that he’s written a piece outlining where he finds Mormonism compatible with postmodernism. I should say that Ben’s post hasn’t met with universal approval, with one person linking to his article under the heading “Internet Mormon sneers at Chapel Mormons for not being able to invent their own flavors of Mormonism to suit their individual tastes (Patheos will apparently publish just about anything).” I’ve never known Ben to sneer at anyone, and I’d rather engage his arguments than slam him ahead of time. So, here goes.

Ben wisely sets aside a formal definition of postmodernism: “Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define. So, I am not going to try.” It took me six long posts to define postmodernism, and I’m not sure I succeeded. Instead, Ben describes three postmodern themes and “how they relate to Mormon theology. These postmodern themes often reveal a hidden tension within the Mormon faith, caused by seemingly paradoxical claims and suggestions. These themes are continuing revelation, the theological hierarchy of the church, and its approach to pluralism.”

The first, continuing revelation, Ben sees as a source of constant change: “Revelation can overturn that which we held sacred. It can reverse our views of past discourse from God. It can modify our interpretation of scripture. … With ongoing revelation, the only certainty is that change is inevitable, and that we never know quite as much as we think we do.” Here I agree with Ben. Mormonism views truth as a constant and evolving process, not necessarily a fixed set of doctrines. Christian fundamentalists would be aghast at the idea of modifying or updating “God-breathed” scripture, but Joseph Smith had no qualms about updating and rewriting revealed scripture. For example, he revised the Book of Mormon in 1837 and 1840, often clarifying doctrinal positions and emending scriptures with more information or exposition. Similarly, revelations included in the 1833 Book of Commandments were heavily revised and rewritten for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Clearly, the Mormon view of text is more fluid and open-ended than most religious traditions. I particularly liked this statement in Ben’s piece:

Joseph Natoli describes it: “In the life of a postmodernist, the problem is not that we might wander and that we therefore would be faced with contesting views none of which can validate itself as The Truth. The problem is that we might elevate some narrative to Truth status and stop wandering. We might invest some observation . . . with full determinate status.” Just as personal revelation can alter our individual perceptions of our faith and the world around us, so too revelation alters the perception of the LDS Church as a whole. The risk isn’t that the Church or its members continue searching and asking for more truth, it is that at some point the Church stops searching, believing that it has found all there is to find, and concludes that God has said all that He is going to say.

The notion that there is always more to learn is, in my view, one of the great strengths of Mormonism. In the last forty years, however, the push for Correlation and a fixed definition of orthodoxy has undermined this traditional strength. Thus, on a philosophical level, I agree with Ben, as I find LDS notions of truth to be uplifting and exhilarating; on a practical level, I’m not sure this approach holds. One might, for example, find new truths through personal revelation, but one would get in trouble for sharing such things publicly.

The second theme he discusses is that of authority in the church, which is directly manifested through the hierarchy of church leadership. He says:

The LDS faith has what has been called a “rigid hierarchy”—a top-down authoritative structure, and yet, paradoxically, from a theological perspective, the authority lies with its members at the bottom instead of with the leaders at the top. In 1884, James Barclay (the British member of Parliament) wrote: “At the same time, every individual has full freedom of action. There is no compulsion on any Mormon beyond the public opinion of his fellows, and none is possible. All are equal. There is no special or privileged class or caste. The people in the fullest sense govern themselves.”

Here I have to disagree with Ben. Authority most certainly does not lie with members “at the bottom.” I doubt very much that such was the case in 1884, but it definitely is not true today. He’s right that members are supposed to have their own persona revelation, and that is indeed the most important religious experience one is supposed to have, but always such notions run up against the reality of a rigid hierarchy and an ever-shrinking notion of orthodoxy. Here’s Ben again:

The corollary in postmodernism is the notion of removing privilege. What constitutes authority in postmodernism is always deconstructed. What makes Mormonism a strong movement is not its adherence to a fixed set of beliefs, to creeds and statements of faith, but to a vibrant diversity in perspectives, beliefs, and interpretation coming together in a common faith.

I just don’t see this diversity as much as I used to. Once upon a time, the church accommodated alternative voices among its members, and it was acceptable to participate in intellectual discussions of ideas. But since 1993, the church has made it clear that diversity of perspectives and beliefs is not welcome, and intellectuals are considered a danger to the church to be held up to ridicule. It is impossible to remove privilege when everyone is supposed to “face the right way”; the “channels of revelation” go in one direction in the LDS church, and it’s not from the bottom.

Ben’s third theme is this: “The third trait of Mormonism is that idea that there is no universal standard by which everyone is judged, nor is the LDS Church the only repository of truth.” He continues:

Mormon theology suggests that all are judged by their individual circumstances. There is no list of specific requirements for salvation that holds true in every case (or even in a majority of cases). Everyone is given an equal opportunity for salvation, even if we don’t always understand how that opportunity presents itself. This functions both within the faith, and external to it. Even within the membership of the church, uniformity of belief and understanding is not a requirement for salvation.

But Mormonism isn’t just about belief and understanding. It is about doing; more than any other religion I know, Mormonism puts specific requirements on its members for salvation, regardless of individual circumstances. Ben mentions baptism as a universal requirement for salvation, but it goes way beyond that. To be exalted in the LDS sense is to enter into temple covenants (and live up to them). You might believe (privately, of course) in unorthodox doctrines, but there is no getting around the covenants you must make to be exalted. Ben goes on:

The corollary in postmodernism is the rejection of a meta-narrative, and the introduction of pluralism. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t one of the privileged few who happen to born in the right place at the right time to be baptized into the Mormon church. There is no need to redefine history to conform to a specific understanding of Truth. Mormonism may promote its understanding as a better way, but without suggesting that it is the only way to salvation.

I guess I don’t see it. If anything, the advent of Correlation has led to less pluralism in the church and a greater emphasis on adhering to an orthodox meta-narrative. As I have shown previously, the church constantly redefines its history to conform to its understanding of Truth. And of course the ultimate irony is that to suggest that Mormonism does not present itself as “the only way to salvation” borders on heresy.

Ultimately, what I think Ben is doing is distinguishing between the “gospel” and the “church.” The gospel, meaning the accumulated teachings of the LDS church, does on some levels appear to support a diverse, postmodern approach to truth. The church, on the other hand, does not lean that way at all. Where the gospel demands that we develop a mature faith, the church demands conformity and obedience.

But the church and the gospel are one and the same, except on some purely private level. It is true that a church member can believe or think whatever he or she wishes, but the moment such beliefs become public, diversity of thought and opinion cannot be tolerated. The promise of a rather radical theology always butts up against the hard reality of the institution. And that institution is hardly postmodern.

Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 6

April 3, 2010

Thanks for your patience. I’ve been really busy and haven’t had time to finish this. Unfortunately, it’s about as slapdash as everything I’ve written previously, but I hope it makes sense.

Where were we?

Saussure describes language as a system of signs, and within that system are rules (grammar, syntax, etc.) that determine how the signs are used. The sign for Saussure consists of the signifier (the word “cat,” for example) and the signified (the concept of a four-legged, furry animal). It’s tempting to see this as just restating the “common sense” approach we discussed earlier in which humans assume that signs (words, symbols, pictures, etc.) represent something real in the world, but for Saussure, this isn’t the case. The signifier doesn’t represent anything real, so rather than seeing language as corresponding to objective reality, Saussure “brackets” off reality and focuses instead on the structure of the system of signs itself. It is the system of signs and its structure that create and organize reality.

This approach might lead us to believe that humans use the system of signs to create their own reality. The world, we might assume, is entirely a product of the individual human subject (the mind, the ego, or whatever you want to call it) and his or her language, but Saussure also brackets off the subjective. Humans don’t create meaning or reality; rather, the subject operates within a system of signs that already existed before we were born and will exist when we are dead and gone. For Saussure, the system of signs creates the individual, not the other way around. C.S. Peirce wrote, “Every mind which passes from doubt to belief must have ideas which follow after one another in time. Every mind which reasons must have ideas which not only follow after others but are caused by them. Every mind which is capable of logical criticism of its inferences, must be aware of this determination of its ideas by previous ideas” (Peirce, “On Time and Thought”, W 3:68–69); thus, what we think and how we think are predetermined by the system into which we are born. We become projections of the linguistic system instead of its creators. In short, semiotics has shifted the focus away from objective “reality” and also from subjective experience. The structure and rules of language are the focus, not how and by whom language is produced. With language firmly occupying the center of existence, everything else, the subjective and objective is “decentered.”

Thus divorced from a human component, language can be studied in isolation. The Russian Formalists and later the Prague School of literary theorists studied literature as deviation from “normal” language structures. The Russian theorist Roman Jakobson wrote of language “typology,” or classifying languages by the structures they share, not their common origins. Jakobson influenced and was influenced by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who saw culture, its mythology and practices, as also a set of structures. Whereas linguists describe “phonemes” as the basic unit of language, Levi-Strauss speaks of “mythemes” as being the basic elements by which myth and culture are structured. From Levi-Strauss emerges the structuralist movement. In 1962, Jakobson and Levi-Strauss wrote together, “In poetic works, the linguist discerns structures which are strikingly analogous to those which the analysis of myths reveals to the ethnologist. For his part, the latter must recognize that the myths do not consist in conceptual arrangements. They are also works of art.” What follows from that statement is a painstakingly detailed analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “Les Chats.” But rather than follow traditional criticism, which focused on the images, meter, and “beauty” of a poem, the structuralist looks at dichotomies, inversions, asymmetries, and other such relationships. To give you an idea of how this works, take this sentence from Jakobson and Levi-Strauss: “As we have seen, neither the dichotomous scission of the sonnet, nor the division into three stanzas, results in equilibrium of isometric constituents.” Deprived of human meaning and context, language boils down to simple choices among structures; aesthetic appreciation of poetry gives way to a clinical dissection of the basic structures of the poem. Language is what is; everything else, including people and things, is unimportant.

Inevitably, structuralism provoked a backlash in the form of post-structuralism. Post-structuralists reject the centrality of language, or “logocentrism.” This notion comes from the description of Christ as “the Word” (logos) in the first chapter of John; whereas religion posited God as the “transcendental signifier,” or the origin and center of meaning, structuralists had grounded meaning in language. For post-structuralists, this reliance on language as inherently meaningful was naive and mistaken.

Recall again Saussure’s idea of meaning as the intersection between the choice of signs and the combination of signs. But you choose among an infinite number of signs, and a sign is preceded and followed by an infinite number of signs. So, again, meaning derives from difference; a sign means something because it isn’t all the other signs it could have been. As Saussure put it, “In the linguistic system, there are only differences.” I know, that’s confusing, but I’ll try to explain it.

Let’s take Karl Pilkington’s sentence again for an example: “You never see an old man eating a Twix.” The word “man” has been chosen out of all the possible other words it could have been (mat, map, Chicago, cup, and so on), so it has meaning because it is not those other words. In the same way, the word “man” has been placed within the sentence, so it also has meaning because it isn’t the other words in the sentence: “You, never, see, an, old, eating, a Twix” (and potentially any words that could come before or after the sentence). In this sense, then, meaning is negative because signs or words mean something only by their relationship to what they are not.

Post-structuralists argued that because meaning derives from what a word or signifier is not, the word retains traces of all the other words in the language or system. So, meaning is diffused, suspended, or as Jacques Derrida put it, “deferred.” Rather than offering a fixed or certain meaning, the signifier is ultimately empty, a negative creation. Terry Eagleton sums up the post-structuralist approach to language: “Meaning, if you like, is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of signifiers; it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in any one sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence…. Each sign in the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all the others, to form a complex tissue which is never ‘pure’ or ‘fully meaningful.’ At the same time as this is happening, I can detect in each sign … traces of the other words it has excluded in order to be itself.”

Historian Michel Foucault applies this “deferred” or “negative” conception of meaning to the study of historical events. He says that we must reject the idea that “beyond any apparent beginning [of an event], there is always a secret origin – so secret and so fundamental that it can never be quite grasped in itself. Thus one is led inevitably, through the naïvety of chronologies, towards an ever-receding point that is never itself present in any history; this point is merely its own void; and from that point all beginnings can never be more than recommencements or occultation (in one and the same gesture, this and that). To this theme is connected another according to which all manifest discourse is secretly based on an ‘already-said’; and that this ‘already said’ is not merely a phrase that has already been spoken, or a text that has already been written, but a ‘never-said’, an incorporeal discourse, a voice as silent as a breath, a writing that is merely the hollow of its own mark. It is supposed therefore that everything that is formulated in discourse was already articulated in that semi-silence that precedes it, which continues to run obstinately beneath it, but which it covers and silences. The manifest discourse, therefore, is really no more than the repressive presence of what it does not say; and this ‘not-said’ is a hollow that undermines from within all that is said.”

Thus, to Foucault, you cannot point to a fundamental origin of meaning. Assigning meaning to a signifier or an event is merely the human attempt to fix a point in an infinitely wide web of signifiers that has no origin. And this point, he says, is “merely its own void,” and the signifier itself is nothing but “the hollow of its own mark.”

I’ve probably lost most of you by now, but the simple point is that post-structuralists believe that everything that is said is a choice to “repress” what is not said, but what is not said is still there and “undermines from within all that is said.” Thus, every statement undermines itself. Roland Barthes uses the example of a declaration of love to illustrate this point: to say “I love you” is to acknowledge one’s “extreme solitude.”

Meaning, then, isn’t something you can get a fix on. Like the treasures Joseph Smith used his seer stone to find, meaning is “slippery,” and every time you get close, it slips away from your grasp.

Even the notion that signifiers mean something in the context of their larger system is suspect to post-structuralists. Structuralists, as we have seen, looked at such structures as dichotomies and binary oppositions to explain how meaning is made, but post-structuralists saw these structures as undermining themselves. Deconstruction, as J. Hillis Miller states, is the attempt to find “the thread in the text in question which will unravel it all.” Some deconstructionists focus on how both halves of a dichotomy (dark/light, good/bad, etc.) undermine each other. Take a basic binary relationship such as gender. In patriarchal societies, man is defined as the opposite of woman. Man occupies his position above woman by defining woman as not-man with negative value. But at the same time, man needs woman because he defines himself against her; woman is part of man, and without woman, man cannot exist. So the dichotomy collapses on itself. Paul de Man takes deconstruction farther in demonstrating how every statement undermines itself, “as if the very possibility of assertion had been put into question.” The end of deconstruction, de Man argues, is to acknowledge “the nothingness of human matters.”

What structures there are in human life, whether myth or language, are all arbitrary and equally based in fiction. As we have seen, Michel Foucault applied this approach to history, as did Hayden White, who suggested that history itself takes on the forms of creative fiction: “Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it, he must first prefigure the field–that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind.”

Similarly, Thomas Kuhn argued that science is constrained by accepted paradigms that are nothing more than human applications of structure: rather than being an open-ended search for new discovery, science is “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” And as we have seen, these conceptual boxes are linguistic and creative in nature.

The field of psychology has also applied post-structuralist thought. Jacques Lacan sees the individual person as a signifier whose identity is established only because it is not everything else around it. A child learns its identity by becoming part of the symbolic order, by learning its relationship to language. As Terry Eagleton summarizes, “Language is ’empty’ because it is just an endless process of difference and absence: instead of being able to possess anything in its fullness, the child will now simply move from one signifier to another, along a linguistic chain which is potentially infinite…; but no object or person can ever be fully ‘present’ in this chain, because as we have seen with Derrida its effect is to divide and differentiate all identities.” So, even the “I,” the subject, is just a signifier that cannot express something “fully present.” Lacan turns Descartes’s famous statement on its head: “I am not where I think, and I think where I am not.” Even the unconscious, Lacan argues, is a projection of linguistic processes, not some primeval form of “me.”

For Louis Althusser, it is ideology that creates the individual subject. In fact, it is ideology that allows us to conceive of ourselves as individuals: “I shall therefore say that, where only a single subject (such and such individual) is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into his material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which we derive the ideas of that subject… It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.”

If you’re still reading at this point, I am grateful. What I hope has emerged is the idea that post-structuralism deeply distrusts notions of systems, structures, and truth itself. For the post-structuralists, every belief, every assertion, every action undermines itself because all are constrained by language, which, as we have seen, is elusive and self-defeating. What’s left, for many, is an arbitrary and meaningless universe in which nothing is present, nothing is real.

As Terry Eagleton puts it, “One advantage to the dogma that we are prisoners of our own discourse, unable to advance reasonably certain truth-claims because such claims are merely relative to our language, is that it allows you to drive a coach and carriage through everybody else’s beliefs while not saddling you with the inconvenience of having to adopt any yourself.” In light of this distrust of truth claims, it’s odd to hear someone suggesting that Mormonism is compatible with post-modernism. I think I’ll just close with some questions:

If all experience is constrained and undermined by language, how can we privilege any attempt to gain knowledge over any other? Why, for example, is a spiritual experience a “better” way to learn truth than a scientific experiment, or even using a divining rod?

If the subject is merely the product or projection of language and ideology, how can it know anything, much less believe itself capable of knowing anything?

If every assertion undermines and deconstructs itself, wouldn’t the statement “I know the church is true” be the ultimate acknowledgment that one knows nothing?

How do we reconcile the notion that the Spirit “speaketh things as they really are” with the idea that language is the only thing that really is?

Postmodernism and Mormonism: Part 5

February 26, 2010

In this part, I’m going to introduce some theories of language and epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and I’m going to try really hard not to be too pompous or obscure. Let me say at the outset that I am coming at this subject from a background in literary theory, not necessarily philosophy, but then I don’t see a clear line between the two.

It’s tempting to define postmodernism simply as a rejection of “truth.” Indeed, Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton defines postmodernism as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge.” As such, he continues, postmodernism “is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.“ This shorthand definition is more or less apt, but there are bigger issues afoot.

Let’s start with what most human beings would consider “common sense”: I exist as a person, and I perceive the world around me (obviously I’m skipping over a whole lot of philosophical thought, but this is an Internet post, after all). Fredric Jameson describes this as a “realistic epistemology, which conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies without it.” In other words, I am the subject, and what I perceive that isn’t “me” is objectively real. We assume, then, that we can know the truth about what we perceive.

An extension of this idea is that our perception of things can be communicated to others. Jameson explains that the “realistic” approach “projects a mirror theory of knowledge and art, whose fundamental evaluative categories are those of adequacy, accuracy, and Truth itself.” Thus, we judge language and art based on their ability to accurately or even adequately represent reality, or “Truth itself.” Scripture, for example, is language that is true in that, for believers, it represents the realities of the divine. For scriptural inerrantists, the language itself, being “God-breathed” (I love that term), is a perfect transmission of what God means to say.

In the same way, when humans communicate with each other, we think we can express objective reality (and even our subjective thoughts) adequately to each other. Thus, language is inextricably bound with how we perceive what is “real.” (I’ve just made a huge leap, but bear with me.) Very basically, we can consider language to be a system by which humans interpret what we perceive (that is, “things” only mean something when they are structured or transformed by language). For example, a dream is, properly speaking, a series of thoughts or images or feelings that we experience when we’re asleep. But dreams “mean” something only in context. For example, if I dream about a dog, it means something different than the same dream would mean to someone who was recently mauled by a pit bull.

In this same way, reality means something only in context, and that context is inescapably bound in with language and culture. As one scholar writes:

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature). [He defines the “umbworld,” or nature, as the “human environment,” which is not only physical, but social.]

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively act upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

Note that I’m not distinguishing culture from language, but instead I’m suggesting that, taking Todd’s definition, the contents of our mind (speaking collectively as well as individually) are bound up, structured, and constantly transformed by language. So, taking another huge leap (I can do that, because this is my essay), we can say that language, culture, and nature are all “the same thing.” As Todd put it, language and culture inform how we think and feel (how we experience nature), and nature (the physical and social construct) recursively transforms language and culture. There is no distinct line between nature and culture (the contents of the mind are not separate from what is “out there”).

In a sense, language is what is “real” (that was a massive leap) because that’s all we have. But how does language work? Here we turn to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who suggested the notion of the Sign as being “the basic unit of language.” This Sign is made up of two components: the signifier and the signified. I’m going to cheat a little and use dictionary definition (no, this isn’t a sacrament meeting talk), but I want to be as precise as possible. Merriam-Webster defines the signifier as “a symbol, sound, or image (as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning.” The signified, therefore, is “a concept or meaning as distinguished from the sign through which it is communicated.” Take, for example, the word “curelom.” The signifier could be either a written word, a spoken word, a picture, or a symbol representing the idea of a curelom. The signified is the concept or meaning of “curelom” (or any of the symbols or sounds meant to represent it). The signified is conceptual, not real (not that anyone thinks cureloms are real in any sense). As Saussure put it, “A sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern” (note that Saussure originally defined the Sign in terms of oral speech, though it has since come to mean language of any kind).

For Saussure, language consisted of the system by which Signs are used together to create meaning. He conceived of language as being the intersection of two axes: the axis of Selection (metaphor) and the axis of combination (metonymy); see this drawing for a visual representation of these two axes. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Simply put, a word or Sign means something because it has been chosen out of all the other possible words or Signs and it has been placed in a particular place between other words or Signs. For example, let’s use a sentence from Karl Pilkington: “You never see an old man eating a Twix.” We understand what the word “man” means because it has been chosen from the infinite number of other possible words it could have been (dog, stocking, Kazakhstan, and so on) and because it has been placed in a particular place in the sentence as opposed to all the other possible places it could have been (and indeed all the other sentences it could have been in). For Saussure, then, meaning resides where the abstract rules of language (langue) are applied to a specific choice (selection and combination) of speech (parole).

Although Saussure was a linguist concerned with how language works, his work did much to shift the study of language and culture away from the “common sense” notions I mentioned earlier of language and perception as representing something real. In a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology and literary theory, the focus turned to the systems of Signs that constituted the world. What is real became in some senses not something that you could know but rather that you made. As Hungarian literary theorist György Lukács put it, “Only when the core of existence stands revealed as a social process can existence be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity.”