Sunday, 11 February 2018

MeToo and Method

A couple weeks ago political scandal rocked my home province, Ontario. The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party (the name isn't as oxymoronic as it sounds, if one understands the history of Canadian conservatism) resigned in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct, which of course he vehemently denies. As inevitably happens in such cases, everyone has an opinion, but most people I note do not know how to think systematically about forming their opinion. Since the question in these cases is fundamentally historically--what happened??--I rather suspect that historical method might aid us here.

Now, history as I conceive it proceeds by way of inference to the best explanation. What we seek to explain is human conduct: what scenario gives us an account in which all respective actors act in a maximally intelligible (which is not the same as rational or even intelligent; something can be intelligibly irrational) fashion. Towards this end, we first query the data. The data for us is not what happened; that is what we seek to know. Rather, the primary data is what is said about the case. The first significant set of data are the reports that two women have alleged that when they were eighteen Brown plied them with alcohol and they ended up alone with him in his bedroom. The first incident (involving whom we will call "Woman A") is alleged to have happened when Brown was in his late twenties and already working as a lawyer, the other (involving whom we will call "Woman B") when he was in his mid-thirties and a member of the Canadian federal parliament. The other significant set of data is what Brown himself says about the case. He acknowledges that he knew both women at the times of the alleged incidents. In response to the first allegation, Brown acknowledges that he was acquainted with Woman A at the time of the alleged event, but argues that her account is demonstrably false because she says that they ended up in his second-floor bedroom when he did not move into a residence with a second floor until shortly after the incident allegedly occurred. In response to the second, Brown acknowledges that he and Woman B kissed in his bedroom, but argues that not only was it consensual but she initiated it.

In thinking about the best explanation, I play with possibilities. I ask how I can account for this data if the women are telling the truth, and how I can account for it if Brown is. I will begin with Brown, as I think this will best elucidate the procedure. If Brown is telling the truth then on his own account we must believe that Woman B followed him into his bedroom, initiated intimate contact, and then years later decided to accuse him of assault. Moreover, we have to assume that Woman A wholly fabricated an account about Brown engaging in misconduct in order to support Woman B's allegation. We would have no evidence regarding their individual or collective motivations. At best, we'd have inchoate suspicious that they are part of some political conspiracy to bring down the leader of the official opposition. The women's actions are unintelligible. So too is Brown's, really, as one wonders how a thirty-something member of parliament who is wholly circumspect in his conduct with women ended up alone in his bedroom with an eighteen-year-old woman.

What happens if I flip the scenario around and ask how I can account for the data if the women are telling the truth? First, I can readily account for why they have brought forth the allegations: having been violated by a man who according to the polls was poised to become the next premiere of Canada's largest province in this spring's election, and at a time at which women are experiencing greater freedom in reporting sexual misconduct, they decided that they had to come forward and tell the world what happened to them. Their conduct now makes eminent sense. It also makes greater sense of Brown's: he would hardly be the first man guilty of sexual misconduct to accuse his victims of lying.  His admitted intimate contact with an eighteen-year-old woman alone in his bedroom now makes much better sense: he is simply a sexual predator who uses his power as a lawyer or member of parliament to take advantage of younger women. Again, there's sadly nothing too exceptional about that. Indeed, his overall conduct fits well with another set of data, namely the known tendency of abusers to deny, minimize, and blame; the denial is not itself particularly probative, as it could in principle speak equally to an innocent man defending himself against false accusations, and minimization ("it was consensual") and blame ("she initiated it") on their own might not be enough to conclude that he is lying, but it would tend to reinforce a judgment of guilt made on other grounds. Everyone's actions are now fully intelligible.

What about Brown's argument that Woman A's account must be false because he did not move into a residence with a second-floor bedroom until shortly after it is alleged to have happened? This too is readily intelligible. The report is that the incident happened when she was a high school student. His argument, as best I can tell, is that he did not have a second-floor bedroom until the summer of the year she graduated high school. An intelligible explanation is readily available: the report that she was a "high school student" at the time of the incident should be taken loosely to include the summer after she graduated. It doesn't strike me as a particularly significant imprecision in language to refer to someone as a "high school student" in the weeks immediately following the end of her grade twelve year. Alternatively, she herself might be remembering the exact timing of the event a bit inaccurately: perhaps she thought it was in, say, June of that year, when it was really in July. Combined with the other data, the timing of the alleged event and of his move into a residence that conforms to Woman A's description is sufficiently close that slight imprecision in language seems a better explanation than the idea that Woman A has fabricated her account, as is his attempt to use such slight imprecision to obviate the allegation.

My decision to believe the women here is not political. It's not ideological. It's rational, grounded in an attentive and intelligent working through of the relevant details of the case. Yes, of course, new data could alter my judgment. For instance, if evidence was found that both women received large and inexplicable payments from the Liberal Party just hours before the story was reported, then that could change things. But given the data currently available, there is no reason to anticipate such new data, and in the absence of such reason it would be unreasonable to substitute yarns about possible payments to interfere with good judgment on the basis of the extant data. Patrick Brown remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of any careful historian things look different.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Voegelin and the Late Bronze Age

I haven't posted for awhile, in part because I've been working on a particularly challenging paper to be presented at a conference next month. It will be my first formal unveiling of the project I've tentatively titled Israel and the Dialectics of History, which aims to work out the theory of history developed by Lonergan and those who have built upon his work, especially but not exclusively Robert Doran. In a certain sense, this project entails that I return to much the beginning of such work, as Doran was deeply influenced by Eric Voegelin's Order and History, especially the first volume, Israel and Revelation. In particular, Doran drew upon Order and History to develop the notion that the dialectic of culture entails a dynamic relationship between what Voegelin called cosmology and anthropology, each of which has to do with where we locate the source of social order: cosmology locates it in the cosmos, anthropology in a world-transcendent source such as God or reason. One of Voegelin's arguments is that cosmologically-oriented cultures often transition to anthropologically-oriented cultures when social breakdown is so extreme that the cosmos can no longer function as a coherent model for social order. Voegelin (pp. 44-45 of Israel and Revelation) suggests that Israel appears to be historically unique in that it made the shift from a cosmological to an anthropological orientation without such a breakdown.

Part of what I am arguing in the paper mentioned above is that Voegelin is empirically mistaken. That he is should occasion little surprise. He was not a biblical scholar, and Israel and History is now more than sixty years old and thus not informed by more recent advances in our knowledge. But we now know that the earliest Israelite settlements in the Land were probably those that appear in the hill country towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1200 B.C.E. This period is a period of collapse throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This Late Bronze Age Collapse triggers the Greek Dark Age, and occasions a sharp decline in Egyptian control over Canaan. By c. 1150 Egyptian suzerainty over the region comes to a terminus, and the New Kingdom itself doesn't survive the next century. The Canaanite city-states largely disappear, and the Philistines (likely an Aegean people displaced by the fall of the Greek palatial system) appear on the Levantine coast. Such systems-wide collapse (for that is what we're dealing with here) does not occur overnight, and indeed there are signs throughout the 13th century of political disintegration and breakdown in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ramesside kings regularly campaign in Canaan, a fact typically taken as an indication of Egyptian strength but perhaps should be better seen as an empire that is having ever-greater difficulty to maintain control over its holdings. Likewise, the great Egyptian building projects of this century should perhaps be seen not as indications of a civilization at its zenith but rather of a faltering state increasingly dependent upon monumental works to give the symbolic illusion of continued greatness. It is precisely in this period that the majority of scholars who still believe in some sort of exodus would locate the event, and also at this time that Israel first emerges in the historical record.

Our knowledge of Israelite religion at this time is limited by the nature of the data. That's life when one does history. But the biblical conviction that Israel's foundation as a people in the Land correlates closely with a shift towards a more world-transcendent understanding of society makes very good sense within Voegelin's theory of history as developed in Order and History. In fact, I would argue that when we recognize that Israel seems to have emerged during a time of significant political breakdown, it perhaps makes even better sense than he himself realized.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Why I am not a Marxist

I love Marxist thought. Always have, at least as long as I've known what Marxist thought is. Perhaps it is because of a grandfather who deeply respected the "Reds," as he called them (he fought in the Second World War, and I don't think that he ever got his head around the idea that Soviet Russia stopped being our allies afterwards), and in fact traveled to the USSR in the early 70s, at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps it is because I could recognize that at their best Marxists are deeply concerned with matters of justice that also deeply concern me. For a number of reasons I would not identify as Marxist, but I nonetheless recognize that as a result of that genuine concern with justice, Marxist thought has generated a host of genuine insights that enrich our understanding of our shared reality.

So, that all said, why wouldn't I identify as a Marxist?

In order to answer that question, I need to take a bird's eye view of the last two centuries or so. Starting around 1800 or so, western knowledge of the ancient past and also of the non-western world exploded. During the course of the 19th century we learned how to read Sanskrit (this actually began a bit earlier), ancient Egyptian, ancient Sumerian, etc. For the first time we really came to seriously study the religions of India. The foundations of scientific anthropology took hold. During that century our understanding of the many different ways of being human--past and present--increased exponentially, up to and including our awareness that humanity isn't even necessarily self-identical with the species that we call Homo sapiens sapiens (were Homo habilis or Homo erectus or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis any less human species than ourselves?). Marx's achievements--spanning much of that period--represent the fruit of those discoveries. But the discoveries were not finished when Marx passed away in 1883 (and being only 64 when he passed, neither was his planned work. In particular, one can only wish that he had managed to write somewhat more about the connections that he saw between his own work and that of Darwin. Such deeper reflections of one of the modern world's most influential thinkers upon the thought of another such thinker would be invaluable). As is inevitably the case with any thinker of Marx's calibre, his thought requires correction by subsequent developments. I have become persuaded that such correction alters Marx's thought on foundational levels, such that what remains can no longer be properly described as Marxist but rather as something informed significantly by Marx.

In particular, I continue to come back to a problem flagged by Lonergan: in Marx, the cause of and remedy for inequity are virtually identical. The cause of inequity is class struggle. The remedy is class struggle. The problem is bourgeois rule. The remedy is to replace this with proletarian rule. The difficulty, as Lonergan noted, is that the remedy simply reproduces the problem. This isn't a new insight: the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin recognized this during Marx's own lifetime, and predicted (correctly, as the twentieth-century proves) that the vaunted communist revolution would simply lead to new forms of oppression. (The split between anarchists--not this Orwellian appropriation of the name by modern Randians but rather the actual anarchist tradition that emerged following the work of Godwin and Proudhon--in fact was over precisely this matter). I would argue that to build upon Marx in the wake of twentieth-century totalitarianism is to recognize that in fact something more radical than Marx's own remedy is needed. Class itself must be opposed as a concrete aspect of what Lonergan describes as group bias. In fairness to Marx, he grasped that class itself is the problem, but I don't know if he fully apprehended the consequences of that insight. I would argue that he erred in thinking that the ascendance of one class over the currently ruling class could bring us closer to a post-class society. In effect, instead of enabling those who built upon him to better combat group bias he enabled them to better promote their own group at the expense of others. (Again, in fairness to contemporary Marxist thought, reflection upon the twentieth-century has led to an increased awareness of this problem. I would simply argue that any genuine correction would so radically change the bases of Marxist praxis as to functionally create something other than Marxism).

Incidentally, my interest here has to do with how to understand the "revolutionary" dimensions of the biblical tradition. Marxist and Marxist-informed scholarship has correctly noted that the biblical tradition is often quite critical of the ruling classes in ancient Israel and Judea, as well as in the broader Near East and (later) the Greek and Roman worlds. The question for me is whether they the people who produced these texts were simply critical of the ruling classes or more basically of class itself. My sense is the latter, which of course remains an instance of the "preferential option for the poor," as opposition to class itself entails necessarily the conviction that there ought to be a more equitable distribution of resources. Perhaps the greatest contribution by liberation theology, with its interest in rehabilitating Marx for theological discourse, has been to recognize that in all-too-often opting preferentially for the rich the church has debased itself by a failure to apprehend that class division impoverishes the ruled materially but the rulers spiritually.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Did King Josiah Exist?

According to 2 Kings 22-23, during the reign of King Josiah (c. 640-610 BCE) the "book of the law" was rediscovered in Jerusalem. This led the king to implement a wide-ranging program of reform, aimed at bringing Judahite religious life into conformation with the strictures of the book. For over two centuries, beginning with de Wette, biblicists have typically supposed that in fact what happened was that this was the time at which at least the core of the Deuteronomistic legislation was written, and the king either duped into thinking it was ancient material or went along with the fiction. Increasingly, the Torah and what came to be known as the "Deuteronomistic History" (i.e. Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1/2 Samuel, and 1/2 Kings) came to be seen as products of the 7th through 5th or even 4th centuries BCE, and their stories projections of contemporaneous concerns on to the ancient past.

I am struck by a remarkable hermeneutical inconsistency in the treatment of the biblical material. There is no direct extra-biblical evidence for the exodus. Therefore, it is often said, we cannot affirm that there was an exodus, and in fact we might have to affirm that there wasn't. Well, there is no extra-biblical evidence for Josiah's existence. In fact, there is more extra-biblical evidence for the existence of King David than for the existence of King Josiah, yet while there remain scholars who doubt David's existence few doubt Josiah's. One could argue that the fact that much of the Deuteronomistic History originates in Josiah's time is sufficient reason to conclude that he existed, but of course that is simply to beg the question of when this material originated. One might argue that the relative temporal proximity between the texts and Josiah versus David and certainly Moses makes the account of Josiah's reign intrinsically more compelling, but that really doesn't hold. Given the text-critical data, these texts could in principle date at least a couple centuries later than Josiah's reign, and any reasonable mechanism that could be considered to have transmitted material reliably over two centuries can almost certainly be considered to have done so reliably over five (we're not dealing with a game of Chinese Whispers here)--and that assumes that the texts should be thought to date so close to their earliest extant copies in the first place (it's hardly unknown for texts to predate their earliest extant copies by several centuries). And even if we grant Josiah's existence, why should we think that the events described in the text have any bearing upon reality? Why should we affirm that with a slight alteration (the text was written rather than "found") this is basically what happened? There is perhaps some shift towards a stronger aniconism in the late pre-exilic era which could be thought to reflect the Josianic reforms, but that convergence between the biblical and the archaeological data is no greater than those between, for instance, the Judges and the settlement patterns of the Iron Age I central hill country. If the Josianic convergence is granted, so too should the Judges convergence be granted.

The above is not to argue that the earlier material reflects the general course of Israelite history. Rather, it is to say that any hermeneutic that allows one to affirm a historical Josiah who was involved in widespread religious reform cannot be abandoned when one turns to other material, and that this hermeneutic will tend to generate a history of ancient Israel that looks much more like traditional narratives than is often granted among contemporary biblicists. One can be methodologically skeptical and one can be methodologically credulous. What one cannot be is methodologically skeptical in the treatment of some biblical data and methodologically credulous in the treatment of other, at least not if one hopes to produce an empirically sound historiography.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Aniconism and Atheism

Among very standard rhetoric employed by very ill-informed persons is that the difference between polytheists and monotheists and atheists is a matter of degree: a monotheist simply believes in fewer gods than a polytheist, and an atheist one fewer still. Just a few minutes in the Tanakh/Old Testament reveals that this is simply not the case, or a few minutes looking at monotheism in the Greek philosophical tradition. The difference was qualitative, not quantitative. The Israelite and later Jewish tradition symbolized this through the rejection of images. One could not represent YHWH because YHWH's nature was such that it could not be represented. In the Greek philosophical tradition, Aristotle's "Uncaused Cause" and Plotinus' "The One" are not giant bearded guys in the sky but rather metaphysical accounts for the origin and nature of reality. It is a foundational category error to suppose that in any of these cases the "God" concept was commensurable with "the gods."

Of course, it goes without saying that things were always messy. There were Israelites who urged a strict rejection of all gods in favour of YHWH. This was, I would argue, the fruit of what Lonergan calls "intellectual conversion," i.e. the foundational apprehension that knowing is not like looking, that reality is not what is out there to be perceived but rather what is to be inferred from what can be perceived. Thus the rejection of images flowed from and indeed aimed to concretely communicate an epistemic insight into the very nature of insight. Of course, this apprehension took place at the level of the time, and the level of the time was the Iron Age Levant. This apprehension could only proceed as far as that level permitted, but it advanced that level. Lonergan defines genius as the intellect operating fully at the level of its time, thus advancing the level for future generations to build upon. In that sense, the Israelite prophets perhaps are best conceptualized as geniuses who apprehended the nature of human knowing as clearly as their time permitted. They transcended the common sense of the time--what was affirmed spontaneously and without reflection--to produce insights into the nature of reality so profound that we still read their words three thousand years later. (Note that this does not obviate divine activity, for there is plenty of room for a doctrine of grace as that which gifts the intellect with the capacity to undertake this work, nor does it obviate a doctrine of revelation but rather specifies more precisely the concrete human side thereof. But such concerns are those of the systematic theologian, something I am not). But precisely insofar as such rejection of the gods in favour of YHWH demands that one was operating fully at the level of one's time the vast majority of Israelites found that difficult to achieve. It is not surprising but rather quite predictable that they would continue to function at the common sense level of the time, bowing before that which could be seen as they could not conceive of reality as something apprehended not by the senses but rather by the intellect. Similarly, there continue to be followers of Abrahamic religions who remain unable to distinguish between perception and reality.

Perhaps the reason that this qualitative difference between "God" and "the gods" eludes many today is because they have not themselves apprehended that knowing is not like looking. Supposing that only that which can be perceived can be affirmed, their inner life has more in common with ancient paganism than the level of our own time. Indeed, those who state that they differ from polytheists only quantitatively explicitly affirm that the pattern of their thought is essentially that of the Iron Age. Put otherwise, there can be a reasonable argument for atheism, but one that is unable or unwilling to engage with what other persons actually believe to be the case hardly qualifies as reasonable. If one has rejected only quantitative distinctions between "the gods" and not attended to the qualitative distinction between "the gods" and "God," then one's atheism is inchoate at best.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Why the Monarchy?

On the basis of Judges, it's often been argued that during Iron Age I Israel was organized into some sort of tribal confederacy. When I read Judges, I am struck by how little this is borne out by the text. The text seems to assume that there was some sort of shared identity, but that tells us little about their social organization. We find for instance in Judges 4-5 some expectation that the tribes should act in each other's mutual defense, but a significant theme in these chapters is that this expectation was not borne out in actual practice. Indeed, in Samuel, the lack of such higher-level organization is presented explicitly as a barrier to what we might call "national security," and this is presented as a crucial argument for the introduction of a central authority in the form of the Saulide monarchy (my own tendency is to think of Saul more than anything as a powerful Benjamite warlord than as the leader of a Judahite state, but that still can be thought to represent some degree of growing central authority). This is all quite congruent with the archaeological material, which gives us the sense of a generally decentralized society in the central hill country during the 12th and 11th centuries, followed by evidence of state formation in the 10th (state formation perhaps begins in the south towards the end of the 11th century, and by the 10th century it is quite clearly underway). Evidence of external threat is harder to detect archaeologically, but it is not unreasonable to think that at least some persons in the central hill country considered the Philistine city-states to constitute an existential threat.

My interest is in thinking about this dialectically, specifically as Lonergan and those who have followed him have worked out the functional specialization of dialectic (a specialization that is necessarily informed by feminist, Marxist, critical-race, queer, etc., thought). The lack of security can be seen as a failure to meet the vital needs of the community, for whatever else security might be it is certainly a vital need (i.e. those things necessary in the first instance to survive and more fully to thrive). For Lonergan and those who follow him, this provides evidence of a breakdown in social values. Social values guide our relationships with each other, and thus our organization, and insofar as the ends of organization is to secure the vital needs of the community the failure to meet those needs indicates that something social has gone awry. Whether the establishment of the monarchy was the best way to address this social breakdown is a different question. One could argue that with the attendant monarchy's ills--such as an increase in hierarchy and social inequity--made the cure worse than the disease. Nonetheless, it does seem reasonable to think that at least in part there was an effort to correct a deficiency in social values that was at least felt to undermine the security of the community.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Contrast and Contradiction

Bill Heroman has recently written a post that draws attention to the heuristic distinction between contrast and contradiction (my language, not his. I'm incidentally following Robert Doran in this verbiage). A contrast is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and can both be true, whereas a contradiction is an instance in which A and B are irreducibly different and cannot both be true. Bill's discussion focuses upon the differences between the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives, and (to use the language employed here) he notes that while they contrast significantly the only contradiction is where the holy family travels after Jesus is born. I think that he is probably correct on this.

Let's approach this a bit more schematically. Take the example of who visits the family after Jesus is born. Matthew reports that magi come from the east, following a star in the sky. Luke reports that shepherds come, following the instructions of angels. It is an irreducible difference: magi cannot be made into shepherds or vice versa, nor angels into a star. But it is a difference that is not mutually exclusive. Both could be true. Magi could have visited, and also shepherds. Of course, one or both could be false, but that's not the point. The point is that it is a logical possibility that both are true. As such, this is a contrast.

But with the matter of the holy family's travel itinerary, Matthew has them leaving Bethlehem in the middle of the night to flee to Egypt, only to return to Nazareth years later. Luke has them travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem at a leisurely pace, then settle back in Nazareth. These are not only irreducibly different but also cannot both be true. Affirmation of one excludes affirmation of the other. Again, it could be the case that both are false, but the possibility of both being true is foreclosed. As such, this is a contradiction.

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is something that tends to bedevil biblical scholars. Precisely because contradictions close off the possibility that one can affirm both at the same time, biblical scholars who misidentify contrasts as contradictions have excluded a logically possible hypothesis from the off. In some cases, this will make no difference whatsoever, not least of all because ultimately historians are not in the business of affirming statements ready-made in our primary sources, but in some cases it will. Those will be the cases in which both texts provide generally accurate accounts of what transpired. We cannot know before getting into the weeds whether these cases are the exception or the rule. Programmatic decisions to treat all contrasts as contradictions (the skeptic's erroneous tendency) or all contradictions as contrasts (the credulist's equally erroneous tendency) will tend to obviate genuine historical knowing.