The day that lived in infamy

Seventy years ago today, U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor were bombed by Japanese military forces. President Franklin Roosevelt said it was a day that would live in infamy. Yet Pearl Harbor Day feels increasingly distant in time, and decreasingly important to most U.S. citizens. There are fewer people alive who remember December 11, 1941; for example, this will be the last year that Pearl Harbor survivors gather, since there are no longer enough of them left to keep on organizing the annual gatherings. That attack on Pearl Harbor almost seems to have happened to a different country: Pearl Harbor was followed by a military draft, rationing, tax rates of 94% by 1944 — all of which were politically inconceivable following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack of September 11 now looms far larger in our collective memory than Pearl Harbor Day: I’m willing to bet that the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations won’t bother to recognize Pearl Harbor Day this coming Sunday, yet probably most Unitarian Universalist congregations recognized the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attack.

Thinking about this has put me in an Ecclesiastes mood: “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” And then I think about all the ancient battles that were fought by cultures around the world, and those who survived those battles said that their memory should live forever, and now those memories are gone. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.