Kenan Malik – The Dream of Reason Part II

Somewhat begrudgingly I noted that the Kenan Malik I was reading was very good. In fact having now finished it, I can say it is truly excellent, probably the only disappointment is that his conclusion primes us for an exhilarating ride, without risking giving any advice on the best strategy. I was sceptical at the cover blurb:

An absolute tour de force. I can imagine it replacing Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy on many a bookshelf – certainly mine. Tom Holland.

Of course its scope is far more than Western  philosophy, and for me Gottlieb’s Dream of Reason had already done that (replaced Russell that is). So much so that I had been eagerly awaiting Gottlieb’s promised sequel to bring that history right up to the present. Gottlieb is in fact one of Malik’s many sources I’ve already absorbed, an important source for the earlier sections, and if anything Malik’s book is the culmination of that dream of reason. Comprehensive and some compelling readings of those philosophers I’d not so far understood as well as many I already valued.

The importance of Aquinas and Spinoza, the hollowness of Sartre, the significance of C S Lewis and Al MacIntyre and ultimately to recognise the ubiquitous East vs West theme in both West vs Islamism and West vs Confucianism without commiting the error of objectifying these as monolithic we vs monolithic other.

In the current climate of scientistic new-atheist secularism vs non-secular religions this is a telling passage:

Science cannot determine values because one cannot scientifically assess what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the empirical data. Or, as [Thomas] Huxley put it, science “may teach us how the good and evil tendencies have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before”.

For [Sam] Harris, as for many of the New Atheists, the desire to root morality in science derives from an aspiration to demonstrate the redundancy of religion to ethical thinking. The irony is that the classic argument against looking to God as the source of moral values – the Euthyphro dilemma – [….] – can no more be evaded by scientists claiming to have objective answers to questions of right and wrong than it can by theologists.

Also interesting area is issues of the individual vs society really being ones of context, the individual situated in society including their histories, leading to (necessary) restraints on purely popular democracy. The Chinese “tri-cameral” idea where the lords spiritual have a house distinct from the lords temporal and the other place populated by the popular – contravenes basic secularism, but reinforces the idea that the “popular” cannot be the whole story when it comes to morality and governance.

Interesting also to note as well as MacIntyre and Lewis, and Man’s Search for Meaning, by Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankle, are “profoundly religious books” that comprise main sources of Malik’s closing chapter.

We shall not cease from exploration
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T S Eliot

An excellent educational and thought provoking read.

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