Thursday, March 26, 2009

Network, Form and Personal Relations

TLS February 20 2009

from Jon Garvie's review of David Singh Grewal's Network Power: The social dynamic of globalization:

He offers detailed accounts of how the English language, the gold standard and neo-liberal economics all, at various times, rose to international dominance. In each instance, he finds that power grows because of the increasing size of a network, rather than because of any intrinsic value. 

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Oliver Reynold's review of art exhibition "The Roundhouse of International Spirits: Arp, Benazzi, Bissier, Nicholson, Richter, Tobey, Valenti in the Ticino":

His [Bissier's] philosophy is clear from a remark he made to Benazzi, the sculptor forty years his junior: "Sculpture is born within the self, and it is not a mere formal problem."

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Henry de Montherlant famously claimed that happiness always writes white. Here, in the contentment of Bissier's final years, his brush seems unable to help itself: happiness paints what it sees.

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TLS March 20 2009

from Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel's "Faith in the community: A forgotten 'senior thesis' that signals John Rawls's future spiritual force":

Taking up the historical framework of Anders Nygren, the thesis criticizes the infection of Christianity, through Augustine and Aquinas, by the ethical concepts of Plato and Aristotle, according to which ethics is concerned not with interpersonal relations but with the pursuit of the good by each individual separately. In its hellenized form, Christianity treats God as the supreme object of desire. Rawls objects that this misses "the spiritual and personal element which forms the deep inner core of the universe".

The idea that ethics is fundamentally a matter of ensuring appropriate interpersonal relations, rather than pursuing ultimately desirable ends, has close affinities with Rawls's later view that principles of justice are not founded on any account of the good to be pursued but specify fair terms of cooperation among free and equal persons. His early opposition to a goal-directed ethical framework foreshadows his later opposition to teleological conceptions of morality, whether utilitarian or perfectionist. 

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The moral importance of the separateness of persons, a fundamental theme of Rawls's work, is strikingly anticipated in the moral and religious conception of community that lies at the heart of the thesis. . . . Although the term "community" may suggest otherwise, the human fellowship in which we realize our nature does not destroy the separateness of individual persons, but is founded on an affirmation of their distinctness. Here is a revealing passage:

We reject mysticism because it seeks a union which excludes all particularity, and wants to overcome all distinctions.

Since the universe is in its essence communal and personal mysticism cannot be accepted. The Christian dogma of the resurrection of the body shows considerable profundity on this point. The doctrine means that we shall be resurrected in our full personality and particularity, and that salvation is the full restoration of the whole person, not the wiping away of particularity. Salvation integrates personality into community, it does not destroy personality to dissolve it into some mysterious and meaningless "One".

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To be sure, essential elements of Rawls's account of individuals in liberal political morality are nowhere suggested in the thesis: for example, the idea that persons are self-authenticating sources of valid claims, with a capacity to form and to revise a conception of the good, and the capacity to take responsibility for their ends. Still, Rawls's later insistence on the importance of the distinction between persons generalizes his claim in the thesis that personal relations are "I-thou" relations, and that the "thou" is not interchangeable.

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The later Rawls was also concerned about egotism--more generally with the social damage wrought by a preoccupation with relative position. But he thought that a just society could forestall the damage by establishing "equality in the social bases of respect"--specifically, by ensuring equal basic liberties, establishing fair equality of opportunity, and allowing only those socio-economic inequalities that provided the greatest benefit to the least advantaged. . . . Moreover, in the social union of justice as fairness, citizens accept that conflicts of ultimate value are inevitable and that the most intractable conflicts are not egoistic or egotistic but are due to conflicting ideals. In Rawls's mature theory the conflicting interests and ideals that create the need for a specifically political conception of justice are not an expression of sin, but the consequence of human reason and judgement working under favourable conditions.

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This brings us to a particularly striking continuity between the thesis and Rawls's later views: the rejection of merit. One of the most famous and controversial claims of A Theory of Justice is that a just social order should not aim to distribute benefits according to desert. Rawls does not reject the idea of moral worth or merit entirely, but denies its suitability as a basis for determining distributive shares, or any of the other entitlements of persons in a well-ordered society. 

[from the thesis] The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit. . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: "So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education, so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness--must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting".
 

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