Age of Philosophical Vertigo

Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:

In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate  where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.

Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:

[I]n the past few years, Templeton has been stepping up the number of its six- and seven-figure awards for people in the discipline to study what the foundation calls the “Big Questions.” These “Big Questions” are the kinds of out-there topics that make philosophy seem bold and exciting to a college freshman but can feel thoroughly desiccated after a few years in graduate school: free will, the universe, evil, hope, consciousness. Controversy, though, always follows money, especially when it’s Templeton money. Partisans of Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists have long despised the foundation, interpreting its interest in dialogue between science and religion as an attempt to buy undeserved credibility for the latter at the cost of the former.

… [I]n the modern research university, where money rules and money tends to go straight to hard science and lucrative business, what Templeton calls the “Big Questions” of meaning, judgment, and value are usually relegated to a quaint afterthought. A few million dollars carefully placed here and there might at least — to try on another metaphor — level the playing field, offering philosophers a chance to hold their own.

— Nathan Schneider, “The Templeton Effect,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012

In a separate but, as it would appear, related vein, Stephen T. Asma, philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, writes in the Chronicle about the rise of a new subculture — one now showing hints of converging on the mainstream — that is clustered around an artistic fascination with the morbid and macabre, and that may bear the seeds of a possible philosophical  and religious revival of its own:

Morbid curiosity has always been with us, of course, from Neanderthal funerary rites to medieval memento mori, but a recent spate of high-profile collections has made death particularly trendy of late … Artists and literati have taken notice of the growing cultures of the macabre, raising them from the underground, so to speak, with recent conferences, courses, and books … Maven of the beautiful grotesque, [Joanna] Ebenstein runs the highly influential blog Morbid Anatomy, and curates the Observatory Room lecture series in Brooklyn … Her Brooklyn Observatory Room has become ground zero for hipster artist fascination with 18th-century wax medical models, teratology jars, rogue taxidermy, and weekly lectures about the nature of curiosity, the history of anatomy, Freud’s theory of the uncanny, and practical mummification techniques

… In lieu of high-culture engagement with death — like rituals, museums, fine arts, and humanities — we have what Ebenstein calls a “trash-heap of youth subcultures and bad television.” The most important human mystery — our finitude — is often relegated to adolescent heavy-metal and goth cultures, or lowbrow torture-porn horror movies. The new morbid curiosity, however, may be a pendulum swing back toward the sublime and the philosophical — a new secular foray into the morbid territory that religion previously charted. One way to avoid deeper engagement with death is to paint it entirely from the crude palette of emotions like disgust and fear. We’ve already got plenty of that kind of “morbid” in popular culture. But awe and wonder need to be restored to our experience of death, and we’re not sure how to do it in a post-religious culture.

— Stephen T. Asma, “A Healthy Mania for the Macabre,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2012


In addition to both the rising philosophical engagement with death thanks to the new “morbid curiosity” and the bankrolling of the academic study of the “Big Questions” by the Templeton Foundation, we also have the international advent of “philosophical counseling,” a movement that appears to have become established enough at this point that it may not need the scare quotes anymore:

Patricia Anne Murphy is a philosopher with a real-world mission. Murphy may have a PhD and an intimate knowledge of Aristotle and Descartes, but in her snug Takoma Park bungalow, she’s helping a broken-hearted patient struggle through a divorce. Instead of offering the wounded wife a prescription for Effexor — which she’s not licensed to do anyway — she instructs her to read Epictetus, the original cognitive therapist, who argued that humans often mistake their feelings for facts and suffer as a result. Murphy is one of an increasing number of philosophical counselors, practitioners who are putting their esoteric learning to practical use helping people with some of life’s persistent afflictions. Though they help clients cope with many of the same issues that conventional therapists do — divorce, job stress, the economic downturn, parenting woes, chronic illness and matters of the heart — their methods are very different. They’re like intellectual life coaches. Very intellectual. They have in-depth knowledge of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theories on the nature of life and can recite passages from Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological explorations of the question of being. And they use them to help clients overcome their mother issues. Philosophical counselors are becoming increasingly popular at a time when Americans are taking more antidepressants than ever before.

— Emily Wax, “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers,” The Washington Post, August 22, 2011

[T]he public appears ready and eager for at least some form of philosophy in the daily diet. Witness Tom Morris, a former Notre Dame professor, charging the likes of I.B.M. and General Electric up to $30,000 an hour for his lecture on the ”7 C’s of Success,” distilled from Cicero and Spinoza, Montaigne and Aeschylus. Christopher Phillips, author of ”Six Questions of Socrates” (just out from W. W. Norton), has been traveling the country engaging spontaneous crowds in Socratic dialogue about the nature of justice and the meaning of courage. And ”Philosophy Talk,” a new San Francisco-based radio show modeled on NPR’s ”Car Talk,” offers two wisecracking Stanford professors — and their many call-in guests — tackling thorny matters like ”Is Lying Always Bad?” and ”Would You Want to Live Forever?” As for philosophical counseling, in which the philosopher serves as a kind of life coach/bodhisattva, the practice does have a toehold in Europe, Israel, South Africa, India and especially the U.K., where Alain de Botton’s 2000 best seller, ”The Consolations of Philosophy,” became a six-part television series.

— Daniel Duane, “The Socratic Shrink,” The New York Times, March 21, 2004

Furthermore, questions about the nature of reality as related to the issues of consciousness, spirituality, and the paranormal are getting strong mainstream traction in the work of serious scholars such as Jeffrey Kripal, chair of the religious studies department at Rice University and author of Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superheroes, and the Paranormal and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. The latter book in particular underscores aspects of the same cultural sea change indicated by the foregoing items, because in addition to tracing the way in which the study of parapsychology and the paranormal started out as a mainstream endeavor headed by some of the most respected names in science, psychology, and religion in the late 19th century, only to experience a complete reversal and dismissal into realms of utter disrespectability in later decades, the book stands in its own right as one of many contemporary documents and developments that are effectively reversing this trend. Suddenly, the supernatural and paranormal are once again respectable to talk about again in post-industrial corporate-consumer societies — not universally, not without controversy, but as a definite matter of multiple cultural inroads being blazed into territory formerly occupied and controlled by a triumphalist secular skepticism.

Says Kripal:

I definitely think we need a bigger, broader, bolder, and, above all, more positive worldview. Otherwise, we will just keep damning the paranormal, and it will keep appearing, like the return of the repressed that it is. The simple truth is that our reigning metaphysics — materialism, constructivism, contextualism — are grossly inadequate to the data of the history of religions, which is just full of this stuff. Until we shift our metaphysical commitments, we are doomed to just keep repeating the usual solipsisms and relativisms … I think any future way of knowing that might “vindicate” anything paranormal will have to combine and move beyond what we now call the sciences and the humanities. It will have to be more than “science” and more than the “humanities.” It will have to be, in effect, a new epistemology and ontology, a new way of knowing and being.

— Nathan Schneider, “Reading the paranormal writing us: An interview with Jeffrey Kripal,” The Immanent Frame, April 26, 2011

“Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread discussion?”

To repeat and sum up: that Kripal is saying such things, and that he is not alone, and that the people who are saying such things are increasingly getting a mainstream hearing, and that the philosophical bracingness of the artistic confrontation with morbidity is rising in prominence and popularity even as the use of philosophy for personal life counseling is similarly spreading and academic philosophers are being awarded formerly unheard of sums of money to conduct research into the Big Questions of consciousness, free will, life, death, and more — that all of this is going on at once seems to indicate the arrival of a cultural convergence point. It’s not just relatively exotic cultural phenomena like the Burning Man festival and the Evolver movement that are reviving the real world of open-minded religious and philosophical passion and inquiry. These things are cropping up at multiple points within twenty-first century global culture, and in many cases from right inside the very circles and institutions that help to define the mainstream itself.

In other words, the bed of cultural assumptions from which we necessarily start to think and talk about such matters is shifting beneath our feet. The game is changing. Unquestioned rules and axioms are being exposed as highly questionable indeed, and philosophical vertigo may well become the psychic disease du jour. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Western philosophers and cultural commentators complained of the cosmic disorientation that was afflicting entire nations and cultures. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God and warned feverishly of its awesome consequences, and offered his parable of the madman who exposed us all as the perpetrators of the deicide. The great 20th-century journalist Rebecca West, in her last interview, identified the dominant mood of the age as “A desperate search for a pattern” (an insight later quoted multiple times by Huston Smith, and then quoted from him by Ted Klein as an epigraph to his sublime horror story “The Children of the Kingdom”). But in fact a pattern did eventually emerge, and it was the pattern of no-pattern, the metanarrative of secularism and scientific materialism with its flattening of all being to physicality and all purpose to animality.

And now this trend may be reversing. In his 1922 fragment “Azathoth,” Lovecraft wrote of a spiritually deadened time “When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men…when learning stripped the Earth of her mantle of beauty and poets sang no more of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward looking eyes.” We’re presently living through a time when wonder is coming back into the minds of men (and women), and when the culturally traumatic and spiritually exhilarating advent of Kripal’s “new epistemology and ontology, a new way of knowing and being” is rocking our collective foundation.

Image: “Mementomori1,” American at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (), CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 4, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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