Question on James Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’

A big point in James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ was the active role that the perceiving agent played in the constitution of the world – in Smith’s thought, man is far from being a mere ‘thinking substance’ or ‘rational animal’ at the mercy of sensory impressions and characterized primarily by ‘knowing’. Smith, however, later goes on to expound the nature and formative powers of social media in a way that really seems to undo the work he did by presenting man as an active animal. We seem to be entirely at the mercy of the formative powers of social media (Facebook, etc).

Smith argues for this by basically saying that products of human culture like Facebook encourage a certain way of acting by virtue of its built-in purpose (Smith doesn’t see things as merely neutral tools like many people would argue). There is a kind of narrative to Facebook, and to continually use Facebook (or any social media) is to be slowly shaped by that narrative. But I guess my question why are we completely passive in this process, when in every other aspect, we aren’t? Smith argues against conceptions of humanity that have us as passive receivers of sensory data – why have us as purely passive recipients of the formative powers of social media?

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Reading Notes 5/31/14

I’m two-thirds of the way done with ‘Second Foundation’, and it just keeps getting better. I don’t remember the last book I read that I thoroughly enjoyed so much – during a long day at work, I read about seventy pages without a break and didn’t even notice it until it was time to go home. I’m not looking forwar to finishing the series – but thankfully I bought ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and borrowed ‘The Gods Themselves’, from the library. Crisis averted.

Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ has proven to be a fairly challenging book. Aspects of it are brilliant – for example, his analysis and critique of the formative powers of social media. I’m a bit less impressed by one of his major themes, which is a critique of ‘intellectualism’, or the idea that we as humans are primarily knowing agents, or rational agents. I understand that it’s not a scholarly monograph and that it’s more geared towards the on-the-ground beliefs of people, but at the same time, who really thinks that we are purely and only passive receivers of (say) sensory data, academic or otherwise? Smith lays a lot of blame at Descartes feet – all fine and good, but there isn’t any quotation of Descartes, no real argument – just a kind of critique of some kind of Cartesian-ism. He doesn’t offer much by way of argument, which is fine by itself – not everything has to be supported by deductive arguments – but at some point, it’s be nice to see something more substantive than ‘We’re not primarily intellectual creatures’, supported by a Merleau-Ponty quote and an anecdote from a movie.

His overall point, however, runs something like this (this is a necessarily rough breakdown): We need to move past ‘worldview-ism’, past cultivating a way of merely looking at the world. Imagination is a kind of perception of the world and a means by which we constitute the world – therefore, we need to sanctify our imagination (imagination for Smith, ‘…that preconscious, emotional register on which we percieve the world and that, in turn, drives or “pulls” our action.’ p. 158). We do this by immersion in the Story in the liturgy, by which our imagination is sanctified, realigned, rightly ordered, etc. Nothing to really argue with here – though I’ve been struck by the similarity between Smith’s project and Aristotelean ethical thought. It would have been interesting to see him engage a bit with that side of the ethical tradition, because there’s really a lot to draw on there. 

Overall, the book is solid – some of the existentialist language I don’t buy into fully (lots of ‘being-in-the-world’) and it feels like at points he really should have just said ‘Go read Merleau-Ponty and you’ll get what I’m saying’, (lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from Merleau-Ponty) but it’s a solid piece of philosophy/theology.

I found Nussbaum’s discussion of emotions in Aristotle quite interesting – Aristotle argued that emotions require certain beliefs and to that extent can be rational or irrational, true or false (Smith would disagree with this, as a side note). The centrally important thing, however, is the belief(s) that the emotions are based on. A correct view of the good life is essential to Aristotle’s ethical project:

‘Emotions, in Aristotle’s view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated, and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life. But, so educated, they are not just essential as forces motivating to virtuous action, they are also, I have suggested, recognitions of truth and value. And as such they are not just instruments of virtue, they are constituent parts of virtuous agency: virtue, as Aristotle says again and again, is a “mean disposition” (disposition to pursue the appropriate) with “with regard to both passions and actions”. What this means is that even were the apparently correct action to be chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions, it would not count for Aristotle as a virtuous action: and action is virtuous only if it is done in the way that a virtuous person would do it. All of this is a part of the equipment of the rational person of practical wisdom, part of what practical rationality is. Rationality recognizes truth; the recognition of some ethical truths is impossible without emotion indeed, certain emotions are centrally involved in such recognitions.’ (‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 96)