from a conversation on Criminal Justice: tone, violence, hermeneutics

I recently picked up two books at a thriftshop for fifty cents each. Both books are from the nineties, so probably not really up-to-date.  However, they looked like good sourcebooks and good ways to help me think about the issues. One book was Biomedical Ethics: Opposing Viewpoints. The other was Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis.
      Here are some thoughts I had on the books, mostly Criminal Injustice, which I felt appropriate to share here.

(Presentation)

Well, the Biomedical Ethics: Opposing Views, is very promising. I think I will learn a lot. I already have. But the Criminal Injustice book is not very promising. Or not exactly. It is still a good source, but its purpose is not to be as convincing as the opposing viewpoints book (which offers each view on its best merits), nor is it to even have a simple “rational” layout as most academic anthologies typically gravitate towards. It is still useful as a sourcebook, and may prove very enlightening.

(Tone and Narrative)

Having a common perspective (not my own) does not throw into doubt everything that is in Criminal Justice – only certain conclusions and certain ways of reaching them. Or more than conclusions or even ways of reaching them, it throws the tone in doubt. And perhaps tone is most important because of how it reflects the narrative behind the argument.

(Revolution?)

To be more precise, while citing sources and making arguments, and having taught me some things already, Criminal Injustice has a distinctive revolutionary tone and a tone of inciting – inciting at least passion if not also violence. While I am very passionate in my own way, much about my personality, my personal development, and my views about things lead me away from this type of passion.

(Violence)

I also think that violence as a foundation of culture and society (related to anthropologist Rene Girard’s version of mimetic rivalry) is a deeper problem than capitalism, communism or even feudalism – so a revolutionary tone which is not tempered in passion and tone by reason and a caution against violence does little to convince me.

(Marxism?)

Indeed, Marx seems to be the main voice of revolution in modern times. And to me he seems to have inherited his ameliorism fron Hegel, and outside of Hegel`s metaphysical grounds for eternal improvement (if he even has them or claims to) I can`t see how Marx or post-Marxism could improve it; concretely, then it seems unfounded to think there is some better epoch coming naturally on the heels of capitalism`s violent overthrow.
     [To whom it may concern, literally, I also got a copy of the Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings for fifty cents, as yet uncracked; forgive me my ignorance.]

(Hermeneutics?)

This is disappointing. It does not boil down to waste (for me few books do – or few that I convince myself to buy, even for fifty cents). But it requires more filtering and interpretation; and of course partly I am simply reacting to Justice as it calls out to be pursued – it is natural in sin`s repression of goodness in humanity that we recoil from Justice and Wisdom when it calls to us. But a more tempered view could still have this call – and I picked up the book not thinking I would agree with the book but that it would be a source, that it would lead me to think more about issues of criminal injustice and make injustice harder to turn away from for me (even if I explicitly disagreed with much of the book). I think it can succeed in this.
     I guess I was just hoping that it would be easier to interpret and use and learn from; the revolutionary, inciting tone requires a more complex hermeneutic and framework of interpretation. (I do think that the biblical prophets sounded not unlike those crying out for justice like this; still, they did not sound revolutionary in the distinctively post-marxist way, implying violence and a soon-to-be secular utopia.)

     Hopefully you can see the tensions I am feeling in this.

     I got the book, Criminal Injustice, deliberately to face the tensions I knew would be there. A decade ago I would have been afraid to take a book like this seriously. Now I know that it must be taken seriously, but that taking it seriously is frankly more difficult than simply agreeing or disagreeing with it and, again, requires a more complex hermeneutic. Wisdom and justice must after all be trickier than being convinced or being dismissive. Now I must sift it – sift out violence and the sort of revolution which leads to more unjust violence, but keep the nuggets of true justice which threaten to tear down the worlds of injustice just by being shouted. As I used to say frequently, “everything that can be shaken will be shaken, until only what is unshakable remains.” As I like to say today, “it looks like the wheat and the weeds have grown up together in all of us.”
     Now how to get to sorting?
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Aphorisms; The Importance Of A Good Philosophy

Adapted from Private Conversation:

A good philosophy is like a well-built house. There are many different ways it can be built, but there are certain basic needs (or even very particular needs) which it needs to meet in order to be a good house. In the same way that a house needs to keep people warm, some philosophies can leave people out in the cold if they don’t answer certain questions well. Modern science is a primary example of this because it was developed in a specific way that it didn’t need to be and now it has a habitual way of seeing the world which subtracts meaning from it (see Lewis’ The Empty Universe, or Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning, or Charles Taylor on Buffered and Porous Selves). So, again, a world primarily informed by modern science is often lucky if it isn’t left significantly empty by that science. This is why Lewis wrote the essay called the Empty Universe. The way of seeing which science pushes is a big deal, and part of how it got there was often the result of certain decisions in philosophy or spirituality that have had a big impact along the way.

Then again a good philosophy is like a computer program – I learned this because around the time I was getting into Philosophy I also was taught some programming classes by my dad – these gave me much more knowledge of structural issues than of computer languages, which I hardly know now. But a computer program is made to call up certain code under certain conditions. If it goes to certain code and the code doesn’t actually remedy the situation satisfactorily, then the program defaults and an error occurs, sometimes crashing the system. The same thing happens in people’s lives. People run into real life issues when the (implicit or explicit) philosophy they have been taught requires certain “code” and calls it up and they discover that the code is lacking. This can create great despair and years of searching.

Now this doesn’t mean that philosophy is supposed to be taught completely authoritatively. In fact it only works by dialogue and dogma (in the traditional, European sense of doctrine and tradition), which is why it is so significant that Socrates and Jesus and the best Philosophers have written by showing little talks. If something is not convincing, we discuss why. If it is finally found lacking, it is acknowledged and that is that if nothing else is proposed. The history of philosophy is thus a long conversation. Someone who has studied it well can dwell in it like a house. Either it works or it does not. It works like a code in that it will run into errors sooner or later, bigger or smaller. The smaller they are, the more it will be like a dialogue. The bigger they are the more it will require both creativity and even revelation

I am saying all of this to illustrate how I believe philosophy has very real consequences and how it is important.

[It occurs to me that that some people will think this is meant to be exhaustive, or that this means I am purely constructivist about philosophy. I believe there is a “single truth” in life, but exactly how one gets there, or in what sense or degree anyone does get there, is a very complex matter. In short, Truth is not constructed; Philosophies are.]