"If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false."

The recent flurry of conversation on this blog about 'Garden Academies' has reminded me of how much importance I place on both the development of a certain kind of naturalised secular religion which maintains a real loyalty to the teachings of the human Jesus and also of the desperate need for our culture to reinstitute a secular system of philosophical education which is capable of introducing people to ways by which they might lead rational, compassionate, happy and good lives - i.e. education for the complete human-being rather than an education designed merely for potential consumers of mostly pointless and ultimately destructive stuff.

But, before I return directly to these two themes, I want to round off for the moment my recent notes on Wittgenstein whose thinking seems to me to say many useful things to liberals who have recognised that there are real limits to human language and that, therefore, one must be very wary about giving undue status to any expression of religion or faith, including one's own. At its best this can lead to a certain positive kind of humility but, at its worst, it can lead to a moral and spiritual paralysis. Liberalism, at least in the circles I move, seems utterly paralysed. The danger I am then concerned about (mentioned in an earlier blog) is that any attempt to redress the balance and to present a confident and effective liberalism once more we could all too easily slip into a "liberal" dogmatism that is not too different from the illiberal forces we seek to challenge.

I've been looking at Wittgenstein to see if his thinking can offer any help to us in this dilemma and, in particular, I have been flagging up the idea that, although every language (whether religious or scientific) may not be able to SAY anything true about the world (as it is in itself) various human practices can contribute to SHOWING us something true or false about the world (as it is in itself). It all hinges on a realisation put well by Kai Nielsen that:

"There is no perspective outside of or beyond our practices as a whole. That is, that is, no leaping out of our skins. But for any one or several or particular cluster of practices, where for specific reasons we come to have trouble with some specific practice or specific cluster of practices, it or they can either be reformed (sometimes deeply reformed) or sometimes even set aside. There is, to repeat, no practice which is immune from criticism. And the same is true, at least in principle, of clusters of particular practices. So we can repeatedly, relevantly and intelligently criticize our very practices and the beliefs and attitudes that are a part of them. This includes our faiths - that is, our trustings. It is just that (1) we cannot criticize them all at once or stand free of all our practices, and (2) that in criticising a practice or a cluster of practices we must also be using practices" (in "Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion" edited by Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis, Routledge, London 2004, p. 164).

It might be an utterly prosaic and uninteresting point to make but, after reading Wittgenstein and a lot of commentary about his work, I am left with the simple fact that as liberals we simply have to acknowledge once more the vital importance of our practices even though, as Nielsen observes, there is no "Archimeadean point independent of all practices from which to criticize any of them" (p. 164).

It reminds me of a point made by Epicurus in both his "Letter to Herodotus" (10:37-38) and in number 23 of his "Principal Doctrines" (trans. Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson): "If you quarrel with all your sense-perceptions you will have nothing to refer to in judging even those sense-perceptions which you claim are false." Change "sense-perceptions" to "practices" and you'll see my point - though of course a sense-perception is a practice itself and not a saying about the world.

Anyway again and again I am left with realisation that after much thought and reflection, the best practical guides who SHOW me how to live remain the wholly human Jesus, Spinoza, Lao Tse, Epicurus and Epictetus. It is a Way (a practice) not immune to criticism - as I have just pointed out - but at least it has the benefit of being a Way to which I am actually committed to and which helps me do what I can to criticize and challenge some of the completely mad and destructive practices I see developing in the world whether perpetrated by religions, political parties, countries, bankers, manufacturers, multi-nationals and . . . and . . .

So, to conclude, below is my rather Spinozistic re-casting of Jesus' summation of the Jewish law and the well known passage from Micah 6 (you can find them here in a short pattern of daily meditation I recently prepared for use in the church of which I am minister) and then Epicurus' basic counsels:

Understand that nothing can be, nor be conceived without God and that whatever is, is in God. Therefore, we must love God with everything we have - our feelings, our intelligence and with all our physical and mental strength. The next most important rule is to love Nature as we love ourselves. These are the most important rules by which to live a life. Everything else said on this matter is simply a commentary upon them.

With what attitude must we live in the presence of God and how do we acknowledge that we are not independent and apart from this Divine Unity? Our reason and experience tells us that we should simply try to do what is good, that is to say, to live and act justly, to love kindness and compassion, and to walk humbly through Nature.


1) Don't fear God.

2) Don't worry about death.

3) Don't fear pain.
4) Live simply.

5) Pursue pleasure wisely.
6) Make friends and be a good friend.
7) Be honest in your business and private life.

8) Avoid fame and political ambition.


(The picture shows a view of the river Ouvèze by which I have spent a lot of time reading since being here.)
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