Thursday, May 7, 2009

Biographical Comment

Part of a working piece, a draft:

Tony Nemetz acted as a major teacher and tutor for me. He was not quite a guru. I had other mentors by the time that I encountered Nemetz. One of these was Dean Barton Dowdy of Christian College and Robert Ayers was another, though I was not one of his favorite students. That was my friend Roy Bonnell, to whom I was a kind of sidekick. My mentor from high school has been Adeline Cunningham, who was about fifty years my senior and almost the love of my life when I was a teenager. Actually, at least three of my female high school teachers were mentors. My maternal grandfather was another mentor. Two retired military chaplains who served my home church were mentors.

Dr. Dowdy used to look right at me when he referred in lectures to a work he admired. He knew that I would find a copy and eventually read it.

However, having a dominating father who could not distinguish proper boundaries between himself and me, I did not want, by the time Nemetz came to Georgia, another person in my life telling me what to think, how to feel, or what to do. Nemetz always made me feel wary but he never did that.

Milner Ball was later a more important counselor and guide. He was more mentor than Nemetz was. I don’t know exactly why Milner influenced me the way he has. In spite of his ambition and his critical view of me, he strikes me as man of great integrity and someone to take seriously. I still admire him.

Phil and you, though much younger than I, have been mentors as was Mery Lynn McCorkle, who is very much younger than I am.

Nemetz was a boon because he talked to students, even modestly blessed ones like me. He was a high contrast to people like William T. Blackstone.

William T. Blackstone was a careful thinker and an accomplished writer. He employed a well-structured style, careful documentation, and the tools of positivist scholarship. Disagreeing with him was easy but making an argument to support disagreement was hard. His book on religious language and philosophical analysis came out the year I entered Georgia. It was always the backdrop for my time at university.

Blackstone clearly had read Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. I now think that he might have misread Wittgenstein. If he read him correctly, he misused his work. He rejected Kierkegaard almost out of hand.

I think that Blackstone assumed positivism without debating it. Blackstone divorced fact and value (whatever value is). He divorced emotion and rationality. From his use of sources such as Braithwaite’s book on the nature of religious belief, I got the idea that he mistrusted emotional considerations in religious discourse. At least, he denied emotional considerations cognitive intention. I think that Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and others such as Paul Tillich explored the place of foundational emotions in religious experience and expression.

Further, I think that Blackstone’s critique of religious language suffers from his acceptance of the famous fact/value dichotomy. I had some sense of these complaints but a lack of background and reading to voice them.

Blackstone used Wittgenstein’s Tractatus but he used selections from it out of context. At least, that is what I thought. However, I also thought that I much have misread the Tractatus. Wittgenstein used nuance in his work that positivists seemed to miss. Blackstone probably did not know that Wittgenstein admired Kierkegaard. Some works in philosophy that had intrigued me at Georgia Tech about philosophy were the Tractatus and certain books by Kierkegaard, including The Sickness Unto Death. I expected help with reading Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard when I went to Georgia.

Of course at Georgia, one rarely heard any mention of the Tractatus (thought I read and heard a lot about the Philosophical Investigations), while reading Kierkegaard exemplified seemingly either an outlaw practice, a fool’s devotion, bad manners, or religious stupidity.

Blackstone had read Kierkegaard, but he rejected him or did not grasp him. I think that he simply did not reach far enough into what Kierkegaard intended. Kierkegaard dealt with subjectivity, not as the only truth but as something more profound—something having to do with the limits that define our existence and our knowledge I think that Blackstone did not quite get that or rejected it for whatever reasons he might have had. Blackstone, I think, saw philosophy as one of the social sciences, even a kind of social science of social science. He got on well with the behaviorists running the department of psychology and those ready to take over the department of political science.

Blackstone missed something, but he did make an effort to study the history of theology but from the outside, which was his privilege. Blackstone wrote his book on religious language about the time that positivism was collapsing. I think that he accepted without much criticism linguistic analysis—a movement about which Russell warned. He endorsed a book by Ernest Gellner, an anthropologist well read in philosophy. The book was Words and Things, a devastating critique of linguistic analysis written several year before Blackstone wrote his book. When Gellner wrote his first book, he was only 34-years-old, about as young as Blackstone was when he wrote his book. I doubt that anyone knew much about Geller at the time. Word and Things was one of the few contemporary works on philosophy I had read besides The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle (another story altogether).

I suspected flaws in Blackstone’s book, but I lacked a background to voice it objections. Sometimes, I sensed a weakness—for example, his take on the ontological argument was not detailed and did not explore the major contemporary literature on the matter—but not well enough to engage him.

I suppose that graduate students like Clyde Anglin, Jim Harris, and Woody Williams engaged Blackstone even though they were all student ministers. They were uniformly intelligent men and good students to boot. Blackstone never engaged me once in any conversation. I was not up to stuff.

I did not like philosophy courses I took at Georgia before Nemetz arrived. I did read philosophy during my first two years at Georgia but I seldom found anything that intrigued me in my course work. Anyone who has read the standard textbook that John Hospers wrote (but taught by a good friend who was a graduate assistant), endured the pomposities of a young teacher like David Broiles and his bleak introductory course on ethics, or attended almost any of “The Great Thinkers Lectures” would have, I hope, had reservations about the value of such studies. (However, Bowman Clarke’s course on symbolic logic was entirely different, but one course among many was not enough. I wish I had worked a bit harder in Bowman’s course.)

Nemetz was something else. He did not seem to care whom he impressed on the faculty. However, he got on well with many members of the faculty. He was a friend of the head of the department of psychology who committed suicide (I think he was the head of the department. He took cyanide, an awful way to die).

For Nemetz, learning was about approaching and maybe even achieving goals, not about earning degrees. At someone despondent about the entire rat race of university life, I appreciated his point-of-view. My problem was that I encountered Nemetz late. He arrived in 1965-66. By winter 1966, I was suicidal. I did not recover until 26 years later. In a sense, I felt a form of immunity from Nemetz’s charming influence.

Nemetz was a performer. I think that, at first, I just enjoyed the show. As I came to know him, I began to see something deeper. You know why and how he impressed me, but he also seemed fragile and deeply hurt.

Nemetz took writers I read seriously. He might not have read them himself. I don’t know what he read and did not read.

He did not seem to like Wittgenstein, but I think that he saw him through the Philosophical Investigations, not the Tractatus. He rejected Kierkegaard but not those who read Kierkegaard. He was bemused by the appeal that Unamuno held for some of us Southerners.

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In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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