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Discussing that reading May 21, 2020

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I’ve decided to revive this blog because I’m getting old and I worry that my reading disappears into the quicksand of memories never to return. So I’ll put the reading list in the corner and attempt to scribble down some reflections on whatever I read. I miss conversation, but the main reason to do this is to record and reflect on the voices with which my internal monologue is briefly incarnated.

It’s going to be extremely eclectic though: I teach religious studies, worldview and ethics to teachers, but I dabble in the pedagogy, epistemology and history of it all too so pretty much everything is relevant.

So let the games begin!


Tove Nicolaisen’s Hindus May 26, 2020

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Tove Nicolaisen’s collaboration with Halldis Breidlid, In the beginning was the Story, has given me useful Tupperware for my academic kitchen since I met it as a teacher for hire about ten years ago. So when I learned that I was to teach Hinduism next semester, the first thing I did was order her new book Hindus.

This is what tupperware looks like these days. Also, sourdough.

It is a marvellous dive into the world of Hinduism, touching all the aspects of lived religion you could ask for: art, ritual, history, text, music, as well as of course the compulsory stories. I now feel well prepared to sit down and plan Autumn’s lessons.

Most people writing on Hinduism are actually experts in a tiny corner of that particular cosmos. It would be churlish to claim you could summarise millenia in a four-afternoon book. At some point we all have to throw up our hands and admit that if the religious and literary genius that wrote the Mahabarata couldn’t get it down to less that ten thousand pages, we are unlikely to catch the essence of that epic in a short chapter without seriously compromising its message. All introductory books are more thorough in some regions and less so than others.

The unique character of this book is that Nicolaisen’s specialism is in Hindu children (which is the title of her 2013 doctorate) so although she may not know the ins and outs of the Upanishad textual makeup, she knows a great deal about how Norwegian Hindu children see their religion, and the quotations she includes give the prose valuable colour.

The second context to my reading of this book is Simone Weil. I decided to read as much of her work before summer as I could, and am currently on her notebooks. I will be telling more about this experience later, but for now suffice to say that her regular references to the Upanishads (long quotations and sanscrit terms) made me hungry to know more about Hindu philosophy.

That was the only disappointment I had reading this book. The philosophical and theological statements were often delivered by children, which was sweet but hardly representative of the best of the tradition. There was almost no sign of the profound and lifechanging thoughts found by giants of philosophy such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and of course Simone Weil.

This disappointment was both theoretical and editorial. The choice not to go too deeply into Hindu thought was obviously editorial, and we can respect these choices. The world would be a boring place if all the books we read were shaped by the choices we would have made. But the theoretical problem was more difficult to swallow: Nicolaisen thinks we can deal with postcolonialism with more knowledge.

She devotes a wonderful chapter at the end to school and orientalism, and whilst it contains a pointed and nuanced discussion of the way Hinduism has been negatively identified in religious studies, in terms of what it lacks rather than what it is (in a way that echoes Audun Toft’s discussion of Islam), but doesn’t identify science itself as the problem. It is the positive knowledge og oriental religions that was the problem. These thinkers really did know their stuff, but they used that knowledge to serve colonial government, in much the same way as knowledge about religious organisations was crucial for the administration of state lockdown during our current crisis.

As I say, all introductory books have to make some sacrifices, but I suspect the contrast in this case was particularly clear because the philosophy behind the book was itself so nuanced concerning issues such as constructing reality, identity and discourse. For example on page 285, she writes

It is far to assume that the summarised thinking – or discourse – is to be understood as a reflection of religious reality. At the same time, it contributes to defining pupils’ understanding of religious reality because that is how it is often spoken of in school. (my translation)

For me, Postcolonialism is at its strongest when a particular European set of philosophical terms and techniques (such as discourse analysis and the social construction of reality) are used to understand a thought system that itself contains similar approaches to the data in hand. If nothing else, ancient Hindu texts at the very least discussed issues of hermeneutics and the philosophy of language, and their modern counterparts do the same (I started to re-listen to the History of Philosophy in India podcast just to check this, and recommend the book/podcast combo). The postcolonial approach does not lack knowledge, it distributes the perfectly accurate knowledge so that the reader learns to think with the European approaches, but about the exotic Hindu objects of thought.

And that is why I continue to be fascinated by the distribution of method in Religious Studies.

Tove Nicolaisen (2018) Hinduer, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget (in Norwegian)

Metacognition in RE May 22, 2020

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I’ve been reading a lot of books about teaching religion the past six years or so. This one actually comes from my home county of Devon so it immediately peaked my curiosity, and I was able to imagine vividly the empirical cases it described, even though I haven’t lived there since 1996.

The reason I love this one is that it takes both its subjects very seriously. So much work on teaching religion and ethics (mine included) is largely about religion and ethics with a pedagogical tail. This book engages with education as a field of study, specifically the central and important field of metacognition. I don’t want to go too deeply into it (the authors draw on the work of Flavell) but the basic idea is that pupils learn better when they are experts in learning. So they have to learn their subject alongside practising and reflecting on learning skills and themselves as learners.

While applauding the book’s approach, I was also struck by an important insight they bring to the table: Studying religion both benefits from pupils’ metacognition and feeds into it. So just as we all know children need to know about learning in order to get better at a subject, much of their deepseated convictions are philosophical material and may well be

religiously coloured. Religion is a global phenomenon, and may influence any area of human life. Schools are special cases of this because (1) religions are also knowledge-producing phenomena; and (2) European schools are all riffing on ecclesiastic and monastic culture.

This was particularly welcome to me because the Norwegian government recently decided that in the MA in education that is now the requirement for all starting teachers, the education element has include about 25% religious studies and ethics. This is a lot, and some might say too much. My immediate assumption was that there were two motivations for this based on religion in Norway – a Christian heritage and multireligious present – and two based on educational thought – ethics and thought (theory, logic, clarity). Happily the heritage argument was forgotten, but the thought argument was too. This struck me as a shame because if students are to understand some of the central thinkers in education, such as Dewey, Bakhtin, Foucault and Wittgenstein, then they would do well to have a grounding in philosophy and religious studies.

High Bickington school in Devon, only just not connected to the church

I think this book is getting at something along these lines. Naturally, it’ll be important for any teaching interested in metacognitive reflection to engage with the religious and philosophical traditions encouched in the syllabus and incarnated in religious groups present in school. The book describes different ways to do that, and they are often psychagogical techniques: mapping one’s own worldview, placing oneself on metacognitive scales, and discussing one’s own standpoint in sensitive groups.

All this is as I say to be applauded, but the use of psychagogical technology for cognitive benefit does give me pause. How deep should a teacher’s incursions into a pupil’s psychological makeup go and to what end? In a knowledge society, when does our legitimate and noble search for truth dissolve into the practice of carving out a new information proletariate? To what extent are pupils being asked to change who they are because of parameters set by political decisions and teacher caprice? None of this is especially black and white territory.

And although I was certainly enthused by the book’s academic advances, I remain wary that this is one further way of teaching children to seek the truth as a controlled and goal-driven exercise. Even the joy of discovery and the ecstasy of enlightenment have to be planned, logical, cool, and measured. I wonder whether there is a place in our schools for uncurbed, passionate and bacchanalian learning that delights in instruction wherever it can be found, splashing in wisdom and dancing in its light.

Shirley Larkin, Rob Freathy, Jonathan Doney, Giles Freathy (2019) Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education: A Practical Guide for Teachers, London: Routledge.

Eco on how to write a thesis May 21, 2020

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Because everyone who writes a thesis should get an office

The original is actually from the year of my birth, and it’s interesting to note which elements have aged. The chapter on how to treat final formatting and your typist obviously has only antiquary value, but I find myself still arguing with our Italian academic after I’ve put the book down. We have very different attitudes to footnotes, even though I am still embarrassed by the choices I made in my own thesis (to which Eco would perhaps have been kinder). He considers the Author-date system a largely good innovation, although doesn’t see how it can work if you are treating prerevolutionary materials. It was of course this that stranded my bibliographical inner discussion. I still don’t really know how I was to deal with a text that brings theorists and narratives, ancient and modern, into discussion with each other.

I can do no better, however, than the editors of the English translation (by Farina and Farina) who dispensed with recommendations for their back cover and merely delivered a series of quotations. I have always admired Eco more for his ambition and style than for his philosophical insight (although I am now tempted to revisit his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (which made it into the bibliography of my MA thesis of 2003)) and there are some jewels in here with which I may decorate my office if I can only find a calligrapher.

“But I learned from that episode that if I wanted to do research, as a matter of principle I should not exclude any source. This is what I call academic humility. Maybe this is hypocritical because it actually requires pride rather than humility, but do not linger on moral questions: whether pride or humility, practice it.” (page 144)

“But usually works that do not affably explains the terms they use (and that rely instead on winks and nods) reveal authors who are more insecure than those who make every reference and every step explicit. If you read the great scientists or the great critics you will see that, with a few exceptions, they are quite clear and are not ashamed of explaining things well.” (page 145)

“…approach two or three of the most general critical texts immediately, just to get an idea of the background against which your author moves. Then approach the original author directly, and always try to understand exactly what he [sic] says. Afterward, explore the rest of the critical literature. Finally, return to examine the author in the light of the newly acquired ideas.” (page 104)

You are not Proust” (page 147)

Write everything that comes into your head, but only in the first draft. You may notice that you get carried away with your inspiration, and you lose track of the center of your topic. In this case, you can remove the parenthetical sentences and the digressions, or you can put each in a note or an appendix … . Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.” (page 151, emphasis original).

Thank you Mr. Eco. God rest your soul.

Eco, Umberto (2015) [original 1977] How to Write a Thesis. Translated by CM Farina and G Farina, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

New Foucault Publications January 8, 2011

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The usual suspects have not posted it yet, so I’d best let everyone know that the next set of Foucault’s lectures is imminent, and it’ll look something like this:

It’ll be about the will to knowledge, which is obviously the title to the first volume of his History of Sexuality. But it was delivered in the first couple months of 1971, so you’d expect more Archeology of Knowledge  type insights. The course summary (which has been available for some time) does appear fairly theoretical, albeit with a concrete focus on Nietzsche and Aristotle. At the same time, the title is not so misleading: Foucault’s thought was focused on penal forms of knowledge from at least this period. As it is, if the course anything like the lectures he delivered in 1973 (and rumour has it they do resemble each other at important points), it’ll be some of the most insightful work on law we have yet seen.

In other news, Amazon is recommending I buy a book called Madness: the Invention of an Idea. However, this is just a re-issue of Mental Illness and Psychology, the revised version of his earliest work, Mental Illness and Personality, which has still never been translated. Foucault all but disowned it. The translated work, though, acts as a good run up to his great work (still to my mind one of the best three) Madness and Unreason, just as Portrait of an Artist is a good run up to Ulysses.

The Critique of Institutions September 18, 2010

Posted by Andy in Foucault, pedagogics, philosophy.
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The popular, textbook version of Kant’s ethical thought often goes as follows: morality is doing one’s duty, and doing one’s duty amounts to following good rules of behaviour. Good moral rules are not the same as good prudent rules in that they are not slave to some other function, they are good in themselves. Good rules are also good for everyone. So to solve a moral problem, you have to make up a good rule, see if it can be universalised and retain its logic, and then follow it. (more…)

Listening to the past December 6, 2009

Posted by Andy in Idea History, philosophy, theology.
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I feel duty bound to share the information that some wonderful people have seen fit to record complete readings of two of the most elegantly written books in Western philosophy, namely Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Augustine’s Confessions.

These two books are examples of how well humans can think. I have at times attempted to emulate their style, and failed drastically. It takes more than a mere decision. They are also models that demonstrate the principle that style and content can not be separated.

Cheers Librivox!

Forget Andy December 1, 2009

Posted by Andy in philosophy, theology.
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Basically, forget ad absurdum. Hard-hitting blog An und für sich have a great book event going on about Philip Goodchild’s striking Theology of Money. Get over there are read. Read the book. Then sit down and have a think.

Goodchild’s work is probably the only set of writings that has persuaded me to signficantly change direction in my thinking. Apart from being my supervisor, he is also the one that makes it most clear to me that doing modern philosophical theology is worthwhile.

And Anthony knows his work better than most, so if you’ve never read Goodchild, this is a good way in.

Teaching teenagers: a learning experience November 26, 2009

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I’ve been spending a large part of the time since completing my PhD teaching teenagers about English and Religion. It’s been a learning experience.

In many ways, preparing to complete a PhD has been a lesson in concentration. I spent one entire year studying someone (Berkeley) who barely got a mention in the final thing. You have to focus in on topics and shut out other concerns.

So going from that to teaching eighteen and nineteen year olds about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Philosophy and Religious Studies per se in the course of one year, with three lessons per week is something of an experience. Instead of going narrow and deep, you have to go shallow and broad. A couple weeks back, for example, I ran through, in the course of about 50 minutes, the tensions between Mediterranean power blocs and Iranian steppe-based power blocs from 500 BCE to around 700 BCE as a way to go from Buddhism to Islam. I used google map and my time line.

Now I’m teaching Islam, and ploughing my way through the Qu’ran (which is also available for free as a spoken word book), which is frankly exhilerating. Also, given that I am somewhat bearded and foreign, it gets me loads of street cred. Some strangers enthusiastically engage me in conversation, others take steps to avoid me.

My point is, all of us have a series of books that are really basic, but way outside their central field of interest that they’ve never gotten around to reading. Not having read the Qu’ran is a particularly heinous academic sin, but surely most people have similar academic skeletons in the closet. So I would wish every PhD graduate a chance to teach in school for a year or two before they continue their trek towards tenure. I’ve been forced to it (although I do not know if I will even rejoin the trek…) and have already seen how wonderful it is.

Not least because you’ll have an excuse to read Critchley’s hilarious Book of Dead Philosophers.

My Thesis online November 10, 2009

Posted by Andy in Foucault, theology.

I’ve recently discovered that the University of Nottingham have finally uploaded my PhD thesis “The Holy Fools: A Theological Enquiry” so that everyone can take a look. In the final phases of writing, I was tempted into discerning the various reasons I had for writing this stuff.

The boring biographical reason is that immediately before finishing my MA thesis on Augustine and Signs, I had ruled out the idea of taking a PhD because I didn’t have any big idea. The morning after making this decision, I woke up with an idea.

It turned out, however, that the idea was pretty crap. I had read Dostoevksy’s novels and Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, and wondered how the Christian holy fool tradition would face up to the Foucauldian critique, which I still saw epistemologically, as basically interpreting nonsense (itself conceived in a Wittgensteinian framework).

It is probably impossible to deny, however, that I was attracted to all this because of my charismatic background (to which I said farewell theologically in a contribution to this book), and this was brought home to me when I heard someone play the DC talk song “Jesus Freaks”.

So if anyone is going to be bothered to read my thesis, I would suggest the following soundtrack:

  • DC Talk, Jesus Freak
  • REM, Saturn Rising
  • Joan Osbourne, Crazy Baby
  • U2, Staring at the sun
  • Tom McCrae, Human Remains
  • The Divine Comedy, Your Daddy’s Car
  • The Blue Nile, Family Life
  • Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (among others), God is in the House
  • Mew, Comforting Sounds
  • Joni Mitchell, Blue
  • Bonnie Prince Billy, I see a darkness
  • Jeff Buckley, Lilac Wine

I’d like to point out that I’m not saying any of these are good songs – the first should convince us of that – but they may have guided my thought for good or ill in the course of writing.

We could go on and mention films (Fight Club, Wedding Crashers, etc.), but that could go on for ever. I think the novels that could accompany the thesis are more enlightening, and they would perhaps include:

  • Dostoevsky, Demons, Brothers Karamazov, the Idiot (obviously)
  • Flaubert, The Temptations of Saint Anthony
  • Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
  • Kafka, The Trial.

But I would be much more willing to stand by the quality of these! Curiously, I barely referred to them in the thesis, for which I was bizarrely criticised in my defence. Milbank wanted more Dostoevsky. But then, I think that’s because he was reading Rowan at the time…