Vonnegutian philosophy

For whatever reason, over the last few weeks I’ve read some Vonnegut novels, including Breakfast of Champions, Timequake, and Hocus Pocus. When I read him years ago, I found him entertaining but somewhat shallow. Now I think he’s hilarious and profound. Moreover, reading him and some econversations with Mike have helped me get a bit clearer about my problem with religion.

I can’t honestly say that the fictitious (and impossible) impartial, objective, blank-slate observer can cook up some sort of argument showing that religion must be false. This is because “religion” is so slippery. If it means or entails young-earth creationism and contemporary faith-healing, well then, okay, maybe we can gather together something close to a knock-down argument. At least we can show that believing in this sort of “religion” requires either inconsistency or dubious intellectual gymnastics. But if “religion” is less specific in its falsifiable claims and keeps the miracles out of carefully documented historical times, then who’s to say?

But novelists like Vonnegut, it seems to me, paint a very compelling portrait of human psychology. According to this portrait, humans generally are (a) capable of caring for each other, (b) capable of smoking each other, and (c) inclined toward seeing monumental or divine significance in their actualizing either (a) or (b). Now it could be that there’s a divine being behind it all, or it could be that (a)-(c) are merely natural facts of human psychology, and “God” grows out of (c). As I say, I find this portrait compelling, and it seems to me that the human art of self-deception is stronger than the human arts of metaphysics and theology. I do not have an argument for this. It’s a mere “seeming.” All I can do is stare in a kind of wonder at those who know everything I know and yet aren’t pulled by the same “seeming.” This is why I enjoy Harrison’s company so much!

A quick dart into the political. In Timequake, St. Kurt recommends two further amendments to the U.S. Constitution:

28. Every newborn shall be sincerely welcomed and cared for until maturity.

29. Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.

Wouldn’t be a wonderful world if these amendments were even possible candidates for debate?

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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10 Responses to Vonnegutian philosophy

  1. Kleiner says:

    It has been years since I read Vonnegut, thanks for the insightful reminder of his work.

    On the self-deception point: We probably have some common ground here, we both think human are inclined toward self-deception. I guess the issue is this – one man’s deception is another man’s truth. Wouldn’t we just sit and point the finger at each other (‘You are deceiving yourself’, ‘No, you are deceiving yourself’ …)?

    Here is a different spin: the role of the imagination. Tolkien and Lewis speak of a “baptism of the imagination”. They think of the imagination as a power of the intellect in its project of grasping reality. “Good imagining is as vital as good thinking, and each is impoverished without the other.”

    Do you think that? Do you think fiction (even fantasy, like the Lord of the Rings) is a flight from reality or a flight into reality (a “heightening of reality” to use Tolkien’s words). Tolkien, Lewis, and I would say the latter.

    If you’ll forgive the arm-chair psychology here, I think you are torn on this. The naturalistic materialist in you want to say that fiction is a flight from reality, and wants to skeptically stomp it out (the immaterial, the supernatural, the fantastic, the wonder-ful). But I think a part of you is tempted by Tolkien’s view here. This is why you want to save part of religion, because you sense that it speaks to something in the human condition in a deep and profound way.


  2. Kleiner says:

    By the way, wouldn’t Vonnegut’s 29th suggestion (above, the right to a livable wage) prevent you from hiring adjuncts? 🙂


  3. Kleiner says:

    Here is another way of putting this. Do you have a modern or medieval (see Tolkien and Lewis remarks above) understanding of the “imagination”?
    Kant is the best example of the modern understanding. In German, imagination is literally the-power-to-build (Einbildungskraft). It is the ability for an in-here consciousness to “view” the world made possible through a form of production. But it is production (this is what Levinas means by the “egology”). The other (the real) is not actually encountered (un-covered).


  4. Mike says:

    Reading a bit about Aristotelian friendship in Durant’s “Story of Philosophy” got me thinking Lewis is heavily dependent upon Aristotle in “The Four Loves”. That’s my favorite of Lewis’ works though I wish I had read something of his academic work.

    This article about dreams lends some credibility to the usefulness of imagination for ordinary life.

    Tolkien is one of my favorite authors, I visited his grave and stopped by the Eagle and Child (Bird and the Baby) when we were in Oxford this summer.

    I think I owe more to Vonnegut than anyone else now though because I think he engaged the world in the right way (for the artist/philosopher).


  5. Huenemann says:

    Interesting article on dreams. I don’t know what to say about imagination, beyond the fact that life with it is better than life without it. I’m not comfortable making a sharp distinction between imagining and thinking/intellect/reason, as I suspect that any of them without the others may be impossible. Harrison, are you thinking of imagination as something along the lines of what might otherwise be called wishful thinking, or exploring ideas without subjecting them to questions like “What makes you think that’s true?” In short, playful thinking? I’m all for that.


  6. Kleiner says:

    I don’t think we need have a particularly robust notion of “imagination” at work here. I have the same thing in mind as Hamlet when he tells Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    I guess here is my question. Despite our tendency to fall into self-deception, I am with Hamlet in saying there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. If I am not mistaking you, wouldn’t you say there are less?

    I can tell you what I don’t mean by imagination. I don’t mean mere “make pretend”. I don’t mean mere escapism (wishful thinking). Both of those meanings imply a “productionistic” (technological, in Heidegger’s lingo) sense, as if we are building something up that bears no relation to the real. (That is already wrong-headed, I think. We need to move away from a correspondence theory of truth toward an alethia-ology).

    I’ll lean on Tolkien, who shares with Heidegger an almost sacramental view of language. (Tolkien wrote a lot on the role of myth, and you can also find some of this in his literary analysis of great books like Beowulf).
    For Tolkien and Heidegger, there is a profound power in words that gives man an ability to see underlying reality. This can be expressed in various modes of language, but poetry and literature have particular power (other modes of discourse can tend to cover over as much as they disclose because they are too technical). We might call this imaginative use of language “myth-making”. (Again, by myth I do not mean a story that does not correspond with reality, I mean something closer to narrative). This myth-making is one of our most basic and powerful vehicles for disclosing truths. The imagination does not run upstream of reason, instead it completes reason and elevates it. Catholics sometimes call this a “sacramental imagination” – a mode of thought about the world that allows us to “see” more than our eyes can see.

    In short, do you trust your imagination (become like a child)? Do you think of your imagination as a “hobby” that is totally separate from real hard thinking about real things? In a way I don’t. I would submit that the Lord of the Rings says more about reality than much of the philosophy I read!


  7. Mike says:

    I think I fall on the imagination side and I have a strong view of language’s connection with knowledge which is why I worry so much about the loss of languages and cultures through globalization.

    I’m interested in what you mean by “We need to move away from a correspondence theory of truth toward an alethia-ology”.


  8. Kleiner says:

    Read Heidegger. He refigures the Greek aletheia (usually translated as ‘truth’) as disclosure or unveiling. Lethe is a mythological river of oblivion. Aletheia is, then a kind of waking from forgetfullness, an uncovering of that which has been covered over or receded.
    Truth as aletheia tries to replace correspondence or representationalist conceptions of truth. Truth as aletheia is something like an “event” (ereignis). It happens, beings show up as they are (rather than as objects of representation). Heidegger calls this the “revealing of Being”, which occurs in “clearings” made possible by language (the “house of being”).

    Cryptic enough for you?


  9. Mike says:

    Sounds like a good explanation I could see how that would tie with enlightenment in the buddhist sense. I’ll certainly let you know when I pick up Heidegger, where’s the best place to start?


  10. Kleiner says:

    Pick up Krell’s edition called “Basic Writings”. It is the best single collection of Heidegger’s writings.


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