Belief versus faith

The ideas we profess are our beliefs. The ideas we use to produce our thoughts and to guide our actions — these are faith.

The two rarely coincide.


The better a thing is suited to its purpose, and the more skillful we become using it,  the less we notice that thing while we are using it.

For instance, when we write, we are are absorbed in the words we are saying more than we are thinking about grammar, or the letters that make up the words, or the shapes of the letters, or the movement of our hands, or how we are manipulating the pen. Only when we hit a difficulty using one of these layers of tools do we stop and notice and think about what we are doing.

The concepts we use are the same way. They are extensions of our mind to the point where they seem to be mind itself, and we notice only the ideas we make with them. Because of this, we can forget that we can acquire or retire concepts if the thoughts we are making with them, or the actions we perform using them are faulty and lead us into mistakes or confusions.


To philosophize is to intentionally design the conceptual interface between one’s mind and the realities one experiences.


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Principled hypocrisy

One of the most distinctive virtues of Generation X developed out of what was initially identified as its distinctive vice: apathy.

It is a virtuous cynicism, a principled hypocrisy, a refusal to allow social norms to dictate individual sense of value.

To what was (at that time) the most narcissistically sanctimonious generation ever known, the Boomers, Gen Xers seemed to care about nothing at all. This, of course, was an artifact of Gen Xers caring nothing for those specific things that Boomers considered important and worthy of passionate unanimous commitment. Gen Xers actually did care about other things, namely exercising the freedom to care about what one actually feels to be valuable.

When Gen Xers found themselves in milieus that imposed values and beliefs that did not connect with their own values, their strategy was to protect their true inward experience by treating the performative requirements as an external game. As kids, there was more outward expression of cynicism, more eye-rolling and resistance. The game was moronic, and the contempt was allowed to show through. As adults, personal responsibilities increased and became bound up with the welfare of loved ones, public personas became more opaque, and the inner life was confined to and concealed within the private sphere. Gen X is the geode generation.

Of course, to the Boomers and their somehow even more sanctimonious, narcissistic and aggressive offspring, this privacy might seem cowardly, selfish — or, worst of all, inauthentic — but a glance at census data should show the prudence of this strategy. Gen X is a tiny generation, composed of genuine individuals. If Gen X wishes to preserve individuality against two massive ideologically aggressive and cohesive generations profoundly offended by dissent, flight might make more sense than fight. In conditions like these, where people are socially sanctioned for ideological nonconformity attempts at authenticity will come at the expense of one’s own inward sense of truth. In times like ours, individuality goes underground or ceases to exist. If, as a friend of mine has suggested, that disagreement is a form of respect, it follows that agreement can be a form of contempt, and I would argue it might be time to once again allow the contempt shine through. If there was one characteristic of Generation X that could rival apathy, it was irony.


Note from Feb. 15: Of course, it is unprincipled hypocrisy for a professed liberal to praise or condemn entire generations as a group. It is true that individuals coalesce around shared worldviews and function from them as collectivities, and that generational worldviews tend to shape the character of individuals — but it is easy to move from that position to seeing individuals as mere products of their generation and then further into the illiberal habit of seeing people primarily as examples or even agents of some collective “spiritual” being, as mere types.

I am leaving this post up as an example of what I look like when I have an illiberal relapse.

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Theological geometry

My native language is geometry. Until I see the shape of a thought, I don’t truly know it.

This morning, reading Inventing the Individual, I realized Borges might have given me the shape of my theology 25 years ago. When I went back to the source, “Pascal’s Sphere” it was even better than I recalled.

In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The miracle of humanity is that each of us is one unique center of God’s intelligible sphere, one instance of everything, which overlaps all others, sometimes harmoniously, sometime jarringly.

The recollection happened as Seidentop described the 14th Century debate between William of Ockham and the allegedly essentialist followers of Thomas Aquinas as “[turning] on the question of God’s rationality versus God’s freedom.” I realized that I side against Ockham’s opponents, but that I would prefer debate the question in terms of God’s  total monistic rationality versus God’s distributed pluralistic reason. Whatever of God we can understand objectively or subjectively participate in, it is at best from one center in relation to other centers. The circumscribing totality is not for us, and is not only none of our business, it forbidden.

I’m pretty sure I’m just restating Process Theology.

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Liberal symbol

I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.

But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.

In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.

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When there is no light and we see only blackness, we think we see nothing.

We look out into the emptiness of space and we see blackness, we think we see nothing.

We see nothing when we look out at the world and cannot see what is outside the periphery of our vision. We see nothing when the scotoma in each of our eyes fills in the hole in our seeing with nothing-missing. That is what nothing looks like, and it resembles blackness only in that it deprives the eye of objects.

I think this is why I have gradually rejected the phenomenological metaphor of horizon. Nothingness is not distant. No vantage point, however high, can reveal it. Only movement, memory and thought makes nothingness known.

Peripatetic philosophy is a redundant phrase.

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Isolation and delusion

Isolation makes existent things seem nonexistent.

Mass delusions make nonexistent things seem to exist.

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Demographelia is the preference for thinking in terms of social categories over encountering the uniqueness of individuals. And of course, since categories are features of our own minds, this signifies an impulse to reduce individuals to oneself — a solipsism strategy.

The world seems to be losing its taste for individuality. If you believe, as I do, that encountering personal individuality penetrating the screen of our own ideas is our most reliable transcendence, this is an alarming development.

I will say it again. The proper terms of transcendence are not a mundane world below and a spirit world beyond. That is how a mind trying to resist the reality of God sees it. No, the true terms are the world as I know it below and the world as I can come to know it beyond. And beyond that is the world as it is which we can never know and which is the source of being and knowing. Our challenge is to be a unique I toward infinite Thou (known to us as “everything”) composed in part of beings who are each themselves a unique I, each of which inhabits another unique everything.

Magical thinking, abuse and exploitation, intuition worship, illiberalism, preference for viewing people as instances of demographic categories (culminating in demographic essentialism) — it all goes together.

There is good reason the Enlightenment was both social and scientific: these are indivisible components of individuality, the two highest commandments which are one. They are complements of the same discipline of knowing-toward. They are antidotes to the containing comprehensions of solipsism.

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