Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The History of Philosophy

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Justin Smith writes on the history of philosophy:

"I’ve argued before that in their floundering around the question as to whether there is such a thing as non-Western philosophy, academic philosophers in the English-speaking world appear unable to decide whether their activity should be understood more on the model of a tradition of, say, dance (e.g., ballet) or, instead, on the model of a technology (e.g., the military use of gunpowder)…

If philosophy were like gunpowder, there would be no question as to its reach: everyone would share in it equally. If philosophy were like ballet, there would also be no question as to why everyone does not share in it equally. My own strong suspicion is that philosophy is rather more like ballet, but perhaps a better comparison, one that keeps the example of military technology in view, would be to say that philosophy is not like the technology itself of war, but more like a particular military tradition that grows up around the use of weapons and the preparation for war, and involves the pinning of medals, the reference to great battles and strategies of the past, and so on.

In the case of martial pageantry, it is clear what the more basic thing is around which the tradition springs up (in the case of ballet, there is also clearly a more basic thing, dance, which in turn appears to be something humans qua humans do, about which see Ezra Zubow and Elizabeth C. Blake, “The Origin of Music and Rhythm” in Archaeoacoustics, ed. Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, Cambridge, 2006, 117-126). But what would that more basic thing be, in the case of philosophy? I suspect it is what is often called bean-counting: the tallying of exchanges (of cattle, grain, etc.) by use of pebbles in bowls, of marks on clay tablets, and so on. Wherever we have traces of this sort of activity, we have concrete evidence of a sort of representational thinking (one pebble stands for one cow, etc.) that we can rightly suppose to be just the small report of a more elaborate system of classifications, of setting up correspondences, and of seeking adequate definitions.

Wherever you have people keeping track of things in this way, I mean, you probably have people trying to come to terms with the nature of the things they are keeping track of. A charitable assessment of what the ancients were up to would have us suppose that wherever there is a trace of a culture trying to keep track of the world for practical purposes (navigation, calendry, etc.), there is something like a ’science’, however different from our own: a theoretical elaboration of the grounds of the practice. And I really don’t know what philosophy could be other than the very most theoretical reach of this elaboration…

Recent work by Michael Friedman –who represents par excellence the sort of orientation with which I am sympathizing here– has made a convincing case, in more steps than I am able to mention, for tracing the Kantian theory of space and time as pure forms of intuition back to certain exigencies of medieval astronomy, which in the final analysis existed for the sake of calendry, which in turn had as its principal purpose the determination of the proper date of Easter and similar exigencies of culture."

I wonder if this doesn’t rather oversimplify matters. A lot of Greek philosophy could certainly be described as an attempt to analyse matters in terms that are quasi-scientific, with Aristotle as an obvious example. Equally, a lot of Greek philosophy (and certainly Indian and Chinese also) suggests an origin in theology and, as in the case of Plato, may very be hostile to empirical scientific investigation to some extent.

On Violence

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Rather unsurprisingly, I have to admit to being somewhat unimpressed by this defence of Slavoj Zizek:

"Philosopher Simon Critchley contends that Zizek is "whistling in the dark" and that his proposals for action amount to nothing more than "vague apocalyptic allusions to violence". Even more to the point is Oliver Marchart’s claim that Zizek advocates "a purely abyssal and decisional act" that Lenin (the very figure whom Zizek urges us to "repeat") would have dismissed as mere "adventurism". In other words, the charge is, once again, that Zizek’s Act is just an act. This brings us to our primary question. All games aside, what is, in fact, the nature of Zizek’s "Act"?

Zizek’s analysis might well give some careless readers the impression that it is groundless, purely spontaneous, and might lead nowhere in particular. For example, he says that the revolution he envisions "ne s’authorise que d’elle meme"" it is its own justification. He also explains that revolutionary action is "exactly like making a leap of faith". But if that’s what it is "exactly" like, perhaps one might reasonably conclude that it’s no more than a baseless, irrational exercise of will….

Zizek no doubt intends to shock the reader when he praises Robespierre’s defense of terror and calls for "repeating Lenin". However, that’s not the main point. It’s not just a pose; it’s a position. He explains that he wants to "repeat Lenin" in a Kierkegaardian sense: "to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation". This is the impulse to focus resolutely on the conditions that authorise the Act. Moreover, the legacy of Robespierre that he affirms is also quite specific: his commitment to the necessity of "large-scale collective decisions". So the Act isn’t about the guillotines or the Cheka, but about the ability to envision the possibility of qualitative changes in society and to act on this vision.

ZiZek holds that "there are no innocent bystanders in the crucial moments of revolutionary decision". By "crucial moments" he doesn’t mean only a 1789 or a 1917. There are no "innocent bystanders" now, as various genocides and ecocides are being carried out in our name, and the products of our labour are being used to destroy, exploit, oppress and murder. Despite being on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, Zizek has something here in common with a thinker like utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer. How, asks Singer, can I justify squandering wealth on luxuries while others are starving, and I could save many lives with at most a small sacrifice? He concludes that the reallocation of this wealth (and indeed much more) is not "charity" but rather strict justice. Zizek makes a similar point. I am not innocent when I allow preventable atrocities to go on and merely pretend that I’m incapable of acting. This is the ethical grounding of the Act.

Zizek discusses several possible paths for action. At times he stresses the course of indirect action rather heavily. He laments the fact that the options that now seem realistic are those that allow everything to remain fundamentally the same. This is exemplified by the obsession with recycling and Green consumerism, in which gestures that cannot possibly have a significant effect on the underlying problems (global climate change, mass extinction, ecocide) replace the will to act decisively. Other examples include the concern with politically correct language or endless apologies offered to victimised groups. These gestures act as substitutes for concerted action against structural racism or actual genocide. Zizek rejects such illusory forms of action in favour of opposition to global capital through challenging "the hegemonic ideological coordinates". Does this mean that Zizek is willing to settle for "the terrorism of pure theory"? Not at all.

Elsewhere, Zizek is quite specific about what the Act might mean in terms of large-scale political action. He cites what Badiou sees as the four moments of revolutionary justice: first, voluntarism, or the faith in one’s ability to act; second, willingness to use "terror" to "crush the enemy of the people"; third, the will to take "egalitarian justice" as far and as quickly as necessary; and, finally, trust in the people. He explains how a response to the ecological crisis might embody these elements. It would imply a willingness to impose uniform standards everywhere in order to solve the problem; a readiness to inflict "ruthless punishment" on those who resist; a commitment to immediate, large-scale, drastic changes; and faith that "the large majority" will ultimately endorse this course of action.

ZiZek doesn’t say what "ruthless punishment" might mean, but presumably it would include heavy fines and imprisonment. It might also require strong pressure or even coercive means against regimes that resist. Some might say this is harsh. ZiZek’s response is that we should consider the alternative to acting. Decades may pass while debate continues over reaching standards like those of the Kyoto Protocols, which are entirely inadequate to solve the problem. Rising sea levels may inundate lands where hundreds of millions of people now live, and unprecedented social chaos may result. Ruin of agricultural lands may inflict famine on hundreds of millions, if not billions. Which produces the greatest terror, action or inaction?..

Zizek looks to a future beyond the fantasy. He invokes the concept of the passage á l’acte, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis signifies an exit from the fantasy scene. It also means leaving the symbolic, the realm of the Big Other, the realm of domination. It means a confrontation with the real. This could be the real of our own lives or the real of our collective history. Critics who see mere adventurism in Zizek ignore this dimension " his call for the substitution of the "passion for the real" for the passion mobilised and channelled by fantasy and fetishism. The authentic Act cannot be for Zizek a mere revolutionary moment, a new fantasy scene. He endorses what Badiou calls "fidelity to the event", the resolution to create "a new lasting order". The ethical imperative embodied in ZiZek’s concept of the Act requires that that the subjective spirit of revolt find its fulfilment in an objective order of history."

I’m not really sure why the author of this piece wishes to presume that Zizek is simply trying to shock when citing Robespierre and Lenin, that Zizek simply means fines rather than gulags and guillotines when all the evidence seems to point to the contrary; on the whole Zizek has rather more in common with De Sade than with Marx. His Lacanianism demands a concentration on the act and the passion of the real, but the nature of the real seems essentially arbitrary. This shouldn’t be surprising; Lacan and Marx are hardly obvious bedfellows. This is why Zizek can write of having more in common with religious conservatives than with the conventional left, because the dimension of power is ultimately of as much importance for him as any programme of political action. It’s difficult to see why the sorts of Acts committed by Mussolini or Hitler in the name of an abstract concept of the people would not do as well as those committed by Lenin and Stalin in the name of equally nebulous abstractions. Even if one did conclude it to be a sound practice to dismiss individual rights in favour of collective coercion, and there are few precedents to suggest that it would be, the question of what that action would lead to is largely absent from Zizek. In short, he is effectively concerned with means and not ends. Whereas one knows what Singer’s recommendations for animal rights or social equality consist of, Zizek’s revolution is an end in its own right.

Philosophy and Literature

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

The eastern cemetery at Highgate is a comparatively obscure and undertstated affair when compared to its grandiose rival in the west. However, it does boast one monument that is rather more imposing, namely the grave of Karl Marx. Orginally, this was as understated as theose that surround it until the Soviet Union decided that the Holy Father could no more be allowed to languish in obscurity that could the worms be allowed to have their sport with Lenin’s flesh. Today, a ponderous bust of Marx looks out across the cemetery atop a plinth that bears the legend ‘the object of philosophy is not to understand the world but to change it.’ Recently, I’ve found myself wondering to what extent the act of depicting or interpreting the world is actually distinguishable from an attempt to sway it. I was particularly reminded of this by this article on Hans Christian Anderson and Kierkegaard;

“As far as Kierkegaard was concerned – and he argued the point at length in a remarkable dissertation for Copenhagen University, called “The Concept of Irony, with continual reference to Socrates” – the recourse to laughter went back to the very beginnings of philosophy, in ancient Greece.

Philosophers have always recognized Socrates as the founder of their tradition, but according to Kierkegaard they have had a blind spot when it comes to his peculiar sense of humour. Socrates was, as everyone knows, an ironist, and his teaching operated in the gap that irony opens up between inside and outside, or between real meanings and ostensible ones…. Socrates himself had never put his own opinions on display, preferring to offer himself to the citizens of Athens as a universal intellectual sparring partner and an all-round ironist. It was as if he had no particular point of view, and no personal convictions or beliefs, but only a repertory of dialectical dodges and feints with which he would lead his conceited challengers on till they ran out of words and had to confess that they had no idea what they were talking about. The Socratic ironist, Kierkegaard reminds us, denies his real self in order to “produce himself poetically” and keep the flame of doubt burning bright. The true philosophy of Socrates, like the true religion of Jesus, depended on losing the illusion of self-sufficiency; and “if we need to be wary of irony as a seducer, we must also praise it as a guide”.

The young Kierkegaard wanted to be an ambiguous teacher just like Socrates, except that he was going to work through literature rather than the spoken word. He would devise writerly techniques for upsetting people’s prejudices, leaving trapdoors through which he could make his escape and leave his readers baffled as to who he really was or what his own opinions might be. “Having an opinion is both too much and too little for me,” he wrote.”

The immediate argument at hand, that in certain respects Kierkegaard’s claim to be considered as an artist is as good as, or greater than, that of Anderson, is one I happen to agree with. Much of Kierkegaard’s work, Either/Or in particular has a Bakhtinian novelistic quality that seemed somewhat lacking when I read Anderson’s stories. However, there are a number of obvious difficulties with the interpretation being outlined above. Irony does not only open gaps between apparent and suggested meanings (thereby creating an ambiguity between the propositions being expressed), it can also be a means of reinforcing a single meaning. It’s this that leads to the further difficulty, whether Socrates is the disinterested ironist described above, or whether this simply serves as camouflage for a philosophy that is quite different to the one described above, disdaining empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes, disdaining the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Throughout Plato’s Dialogues, Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshall sophistical violence in his own arguments. The obvious place to turn for a countvailing argument is Richard Rorty:

“By “Platonism” I mean the idea that great works of literature all, in the end, say the same thing-and are great precisely because they do so. they inculcate the same eternal “humanistic” values. They remind us of the same immutable features of human experience. Platonism, in this sense, conflates inspiration and knowledge by saying that only the eternal inspires-that the source of greatness has always been out there, just behind the veil of appearances, and has been described many times before… For a functionalist, it is no surprise that some putatively great works leave some readers cold; functionalists do not expect the same key to open every heart. Whereas essentialists take canonical status as indicating the presence of a link to eternal truth, and lack of interest in a canonical work as a moral flaw, functionalists take canonical status to be as changeable as the historical and personal situations of readers.”

From a personal perspective, I find myself basically in accord with Rorty’s distrust of the metaphysical and preference for the existential and situational. As with my earlier post, on the difficulty I find with reading the religious aspects of medieval literature, Rorty holds that in a post-Nietzschean, post-philosophical culture, many of the older literary texts are simply obsolete (Plato’s dialogues and scripture amongst them) because they no longer serve to transform us; we are a different sort of people than the ones those texts appealed to (in much the same way that Scott meant a great deal to the Victorian but little to most readers now). To Rorty, literature serves a greater value than philosophy since it simply inspires private projects of self-creation, with novels serving to teach us to appreciate social solidarity and “the other,” as with the role of empathy in the novels of writers like Dickens and Eliot, or indeed the extension of sympathy that can easily be found in Anderson’s stories but is repulsively absent from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Foucault the Neohumanist?

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

There’s been much discussion of late about this piece, arguing the case for regarding Foucault as a humanist:

“Foucault abandoned the methodological tack he had outlined in The History of Sexuality, which focused on sexuality as a means for “power/knowledge” to extend its sinister hegemony. Instead, during his later years, he turned to a more positive concept of subjectivity, centered on the “art of living” in ancient Greece and Rome. Foucault had come to believe that such pre-Christian, pagan approaches to the idea of self-cultivation represented a valuable heuristic — a means to overcome the deficiencies of modern conceptions of the self. Second, the term “power/knowledge” itself is entirely absent from his later lectures and texts — a telling indication of how radically dissatisfied Foucault had become with the limitations of his earlier approach… Foucault’s work seems to have come full circle. Under the sign of aesthetic self-realization, Foucault rehabilitates and vindicates the rights of subjectivity. As Foucault avows, his new normative ideal is “the formation and development of a practice of Self, the objective of which is the constitution of oneself as the laborer of the beauty of one’s own life.”

French critics have long pointed to the central paradox of the North American Foucault reception: that a thinker who was so fastidious about hazarding positive political prescriptions, and who viewed affirmations of identity as a trap or as a form of normalization, could be lionized as the progenitor of the “identity politics” movement of the 1980s and 1990sa movement that, as Christopher Lasch demonstrated, had abandoned the ends of public commitment in favor of a “culture of narcissism.”"

I’m not sure this is quite the great revision that it is being claimed to be; certainly, Foucault’s later work on the cares of the self does represent an overturning of his earlier wish to see the idea of the self washed away like a footprint in the sand and is perhaps accordingly the most ‘engaged’ period of his work (as evidenced for instance, in Halperin’s Saint Foucault). Instead, of his customary work on the development of biology and psychology as controlling discourses on such areas as hysteria, his later work is something altogether more unexpected. In this sense, he certainly predates Zizek’s idea that the subject, rather than being something constructed by controlling discourses, denotes a piece of freedom and a site of resistance to such discourses; as the article puts it, in that totalitarianism wishes to quash or eliminate certain conceptions of ‘man’ then it is evident that the concept is a useful one. Equally, it is true to say that Foucault was unusual in seeing how this could apply to Soviet totalitarianism, though the article does avoid mentioning his endorsement of the Iranian revolution.

Nonetheless, the difficulty I see with this is Foucault’s earlier work had deprived him of any mechanism by which his rediscovered interest in subjectivity could find any accommodation with the mechanisms of a collective society (this being precisely what Chomsky found so disturbing about Foucault in their famous debate). The examples cited in the article of Foucault’s activism are laudable but are essentially offered in lieu of any detailed account of how this realigned position could have manifested itself in his work. Questions of how the individual and society should interact are largely elided in the work of this particular Foucault, particularly since his history of sexuality is emphatically individualist. Ultimately, Foucault’s work, regardless of its precise stance, is one that is of value for its critque of society and its institutions and not for its engagement with most social or political concerns. In this sense, his work is well described by Frederic Jameson’s description of Zizek:

“Philosophy is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This dream is of course the after-image of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of ‘what is’. Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its ‘truths’; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unravelling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds.”

Cynical Reason

Saturday, July 16th, 2005

Via imomus, I recently came across Peter Sloterdijk, and his Critique of Cynical Reason:

Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain… The phrase “enlightened false consciousness” goes to the heart of the matter: by a process of education–an education in disillusionment—consciousness attains a higher order of falsity, where insight into the cynical workings of the world is gained, but the means to resist it are not. Instead, “the compulsion to survive and desire to assert itself have demoralized enlightened consciousness. It is afflicted with the compulsion to put up with preestablished relations that it finds dubious, to accommodate itself to them, and finally even to carry out their business.

It’s an interesting concept though, as is usually the case with such theories, it is considerably better at dissecting social ills than at proposing remedies. Sloterdijk’s remedy is based to a large extent is Heidegger’s idea of the authentic self, applied in this case to the proletariat, while the bourgeoisie are subject to contradictions and struggles between self conception and the ruling ideology of capitalist society are unavoidable. Thi strikes me as the converse of Anthony Giddens’s ideas of post-traditional identity, which has to be negotiated and chosen rather than being imposed in the way traditions, authentic or otherwise, dictated. Equally, as with the original idea of false consciousness, it’s doubtful that much of the proletariat would turn down the opportunity to experience those contradictions.


Friday, June 17th, 2005

For reasons that largely escape me, there has been a sudden surge of commentary on Michel Foucault’s essays on the Iranian revolution;

One thing must be clear. By “Islamic government,” nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase “Islamic government” seemed to point to two orders of things… It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime.

Needless to add, Foucault’s latching onto Islam as a putative alternative to the extremes of bourgeois and revolutionary democracy was horrifically misplaced. However, this should not be regarded as being especially surprising; it was probably inevitable that he would interpret the Iranian revolution in terms of resistance to power given what escaped him throughout his work. What is elided in Foucault and what is elided is any proper means of stepping outside the discourse of power in his work, since to seek to resist power is a act of power in itself. The result of this was the disagreement with Chomsky who described Foucault as the most amoral man he had met. Since Foucault saw the construction of the self as a function of power the only solution is the unfeasible one of the disappearance of the self, of oblivion. Needless to add, this is a rather dubious solution, as Zizek pointed out:

The starting point of my book on the subject is that almost all philosophical orientations today, even if they strongly oppose each other, agree on some kind of basic anti-subjectivist stance. For example, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida would both agree that the Cartesian subject had to be deconstructed, or, in the case of Habermas, embedded in a larger inter-subjective dialectics. Cognitivists, Hegelians – everybody is in agreement here.

I am tempted to say that we must return to the subject – though not a purely rational Cartesian one. My idea is that the subject is inherently political, in the sense that ’subject’, to me, denotes a piece of freedom – where you are no longer rooted in some firm substance, you are in an open situation.

I think this points a clear path; beyond the notion that ’subject’ and ’subjection’ are contingent. Without the individual self as a point of resistance totalitarianism is inveitable; since the self is constituted only through discourse, which only serves as an instrument of power Foucault permits no such point (Koestler’s Darkness at Noon provides a powerful counter argument on this score). To a large extent, the quasi-fascistic view of power permeating all social relations renders Foucault as difficult to rehabilitate as Heidegger but perhaps also as unsettling and challenging to enlightenment assumptions as Nietzsche.

Derrida in Retrospect

Tuesday, October 12th, 2004

Of all the comments made about Jacques Derrida of late, the most apposite was made by AS Byatt; “He wrote with immense ad hoc wit and had no interest in creating a system, but his followers did create a system and sought to deconstruct everything.” Like Nietzsche, Derrida was more than capable of containing multitudes, something evidenced by his refusal to define deconstruction. His writing tended to suggest that the meaning of language could only be understood in relation to language itself, to an endless play of differance, either obfuscating the notion of a referent beyond language or making the idea of an other beyond language ever more important (making it clear to understand why Habermas called Derrida a Jewish mystic). This was not so much a matter of inconsistency (though I doubt that Derrida was ever especially concerned about criticisms of that ilk), but as a matter of refusing to deny the plurality of meanings. This also applied to his political and ethical observations, where he stressed the need for pluralism, thereby enabling him to support Habermas’ declaration of European values (presumably for reasons not dissimilar to Popper’s advocacy of the open society).

However, it should be recalled that Derrida wrote at a time when literature had lost its place at the apex of French culture, displaced to a large extent by the writing of figures like Derrida. Like Hietszche or Kierkegaard he was as much a writer as a philosopher. As this recent London Review of Books article put it:

“Viewed comparatively, the striking feature of the human sciences and philosophy that counted in this period was the extent to which they came to be written increasingly as virtuoso exercises of style, drawing on the resources and licences of artistic rather than academic forms. Lacan’s Ecrits, closer to Mallarmé than Freud in their syntax, or Derrida’s Glas, with its double-columned interlacing of Genet and Hegel, represent extreme forms of this strategy. But Foucault’s oracular gestures, mingling echoes of Artaud and Bossuet, Lévi-Strauss’s Wagnerian constructions, Barthes’s eclectic coquetries, belong to the same register.”

Update: Needless to add, many of the comments on Derrida have been hostile. More often that not they tend to deal with postmodernist concepts of meta-narratives in relation to politics and ethics rather than deconstruction. As an example, Johann Hari wrote:

“There are, he said, no universal truths, no progress and ultimately no sense, only “decentred”, small stories that are often silenced by a search for rationality and consistency. The Enlightenment – the 18th century tradition that gave us our notions of rationality and progress – is just another empty narrative. “

As I’ve written before, such arguments concerning the universality of ethical and political concepts (typically highly culturally specific ones) tend to put the cart before the philosophical horse; assuming that since such concepts are deemed necessary it follows that a philosophical justification is also necessary. Moreover, the argument concerning the Enlightenment also greatly interests me; surely one of the central characteristics of the Enlightenment is the way in which it produced and assimilated its opposites; Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault and indeed Derrida. The implication persistently seems to be that Enlightenment concepts are unable to withstand the plurality that supposedly underpins them. The idea of an Enlightenment heritage is always assumed to be considerably more fragile than actually appears to be the case. Beyond that, there is the further question of what we actually mean by terms like ‘the Englightenment;’ such things can hardly be seen as homogenous concepts and much of Enlightenment thought was deconstructive; consider Hume’s views on reason, for example. Finally, there is the question of whether the Enlightenment was quite the unalloyed good Hari takes it to be; there is an argument to be had that Enlightenment concepts formed the backbones of some of the worst totalitarian disasters of the twentieth century.

Undermining Free Will

Saturday, September 25th, 2004

Recently eight leading thinkers were asked to identify the world’s most dangerous idea. Somewhat predictably, the majority of responses were political; Nussbaum suggested religious intolerance, Francis Fukuyama suggested transhumanism and Eric Hobshawm suggested spreading democracy. However, the one that most struck me was the suggestion of Paul Davies: Undermining Free Will.

Davies observes that free will has been an uncertain concept since Newton when the universe was reconceived as a form of mechanism, with quantum uncertainty failing to address the matter since it leaves unable to determine our own actions. However, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are the particular problems at present. In this case, the traditional notion of a self founding ideas of agency and responsibility (i.e. the legal distinction between a crime carried out by someone under hypnosis or sleepwalking and other conditions), is viewed as incompatible with evolutionary explanations for behaviour and the genetic encoding of those evolutionary processes. Naturalistic explanations displace metaphysical ones. To some extent this critique is not especially novel either, going back to Ryle’s critique of the idea of the Ghost in the Machine through to the localisation of conscious activity through PET scans. As Daniel Dennett put it in his critique of the Cartesian theatre where we are conscious of whatever it is we’re conscious of quot;if there is a theatre in the mind, there has to be someone in the theatre, watching it all; and if there is someone watching it, they must in turn have a little theatre inside them where the watching goes on, and that must have another watcher, and so on, smaller and smaller, in an infinite regress towards absurdity.

The more recent development is the replacement of those figures on stage with a set of evolutionary processes. I’ve written before that such explanations tend to be rather suspect (if nothing else because they are no more subject to conscious investigation than Freudian notions of the unconscious), on the grounds that they require a rather awkward apparatus to explain behaviour. On the whole though, the erosion of free will as a concept is largely to compatibilist accounts such as that offered by Dennett. As Jerry Fodor suggests:

Dennett’s particular contribution to this line of thought – is that if, by instrumentalist assumption, the evolution of agency is just the evolution of sufficiently agent-like behaviour, then whether or not you are an agent is independent of how your behaviour is caused… Because creatures that appear to be agents (actors, perceivers, thinkers) are such good ’solutions’ to her ‘problems’, Mother Nature increases their relative frequency in their breeding group. So here we are… (One wonders, in passing, why Mother Nature bothers with this elaborate charade. Wouldn’t the best way for her to make a creature that acts just like an agent be for her to make a creature that is an agent? Such are the puzzles instrumentalists are prone to.)

The figure on the stage is replaced instead with a puppetmaster bent on having his creations behave as if the strings were not present. At this point attempts to produce a compatibilist explanation of free will begin to seem little more coherent than the notion of a self independent from material factors. Much the same can be said for pragmatic accounts of free will where the superstructure of existing cultural assumptions is allowed to remain largely intact embodied in laws and ethical codes in the absence of the religious and philosophical ideas (based on notions of free will) that originally defined those legal and ethical codes. A naturalistic account of these matters could certainly permit much of them to remain, but it seems difficult to conclude that this would be a seamless process. This was something I had written about elsewhere, comparing the philosophical basis of Locke’s liberalism with Hobbesian conservatism:

Hobbes viewed mankind as being naturally governed by his passions and incapable of forming a social bond without some element of coercion to ward off universal war… John Locke, by contrast, dismissed notions of passions governing mankind, with the notion of the tabula rasa, or blank slate.

One of the grounds for citing these two conceptions, lies with the degree to which modern conceptions of rationality are increasingly spurning the idea of the blank slate and moving towards a conception that bears a marked resemblance to that of Hobbes, if we substitute the term ‘genes’ for ‘passions.’ As Edward O Wilson observed, every human brain is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as ‘an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid.

Metaphysics and Politics

Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

An interesting piece by Richard Rorty on the relation between metaphysics and politics. The debate concerns the Platonic correspondence of moral and political propositions to reality and whether these can be dectermined as clearly as more empirical matters; and if not, then how can a rational choice between a liberal Athens and a fascist Sparta be made?

“To agree with Protagoras and Nietzsche that “man is the measure of all things” is, Wolin thinks, to reduce the choice of democracy over fascism to a matter of taste… Nietzsche and Heidegger thought that once one rejected the Platonic claim to provide rational foundations for moral truth, all things would need to be made new. Culture would have to be reshaped. James and Dewey, by contrast, did not think that giving up the correspondence theory of truth was all that big a deal. They wanted to debunk it, and so help get rid of Platonist rationalism, but they did not think that doing so would make that much difference to our self image or to our social practices. The superstructure, they thought, would still be in good shape even after we stopped worrying about the state of the foundations. Democracy could be adequately defended by empirical, nonmetaphysical arguments of the sort Churchill offered when he said that it was “the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”It did not need “normative resources.”

As a defence, there is much to be said for this, but it seems a rather weak defence. As a concept, democracy requires a notion of pluralism that hardly seems compatible with attempts to establish any moral or political concept as definitive. The results of such attempts (The Inquisition in Catholic Spain, theocracy in Calvin’s Geneva, Lenin, Stalin and the “ein reich, ein volk, ein fuhrer” approach of Hitler’s Germany to take a few rather obvious examples) were no more democratic than Plato’s ideas; in each case since each set of propositions was assumed to be beyond question they invariably led to a choice of Sparta rather than Athens.

This debate reminds me of Karl Popper’s distinction between open and closed societies; since events could not be predicted the only sensible approach is to proceed through continual open scrutiny; to Popper the notions of democracy and rights can almost be considered as being analagous to peer review. For example, communism had always described itself as being scientific, but was criticised by Popper for failing to pay heed to instances where its tenets had been falsified. Since communism failed to fulfill its predictions it has since fallen into the realm of belief. Another example is Stuart Hampshire’s view that the political aim of building consensus is fatally flawed since conflict presumes the right to question authority and safeguards against tyranny; a free society should instead attempt to develop institutions to fairly arbitrate in such cases. Rorty himself has elsewhere argued that since no interpretation of phenomena can lay claim to certain universality, a democracy accompanied by freedoms of speech is the most sensible approach.

The most obvious reply to such defences is that if one has a society of people who take an entirely pluralistic approach to morals and politics then they are unable to respond appropriately to threats to that pluralism from more monologic philosophies. On the whole, while this claim has a superficial value I’m more and more convinced that it is nonsense. To take one illustration, Soviet intelligence proved extremely effective in inflitrating open Western societies but proved extremely ineffective at utilising that intelligence; cases where the intelligence conflicted with official ideology were simply dismissed. The weakness of monologic philosophies is that they have no means of compensating for their own errors. As Hannah Arendt put it:

“Lessing rejoiced in the very thing that has ever, or at least since Parmenides and Plato, distressed philosophers: that the truth, as soon as it is uttered, is immediately transformed into one opinion among many, is contested, reformulated, reduced to one subject of discourse among others. Lessing’s greatness does not merely consist in a theoretical insight that there cannot be one single truth within the human world but in his gladness that it does not exist and that, therefore, the unending discourse among men will never cease as long as there are men at all.”

Update: Another interesting riposte:

Imagine a companion volume to Wolin’s, titled The Seduction of Reason, which would trace Karl Marx’s political economy and philosophy of history to their Enlightenment and rationalist foundations, along with various other utopian schemes. Such a book might offer, in opposition to Wolin’s bitter attack on Jung, a chapter on the thoroughly rationalist and scientific B. F. Skinner,
proponent of the soulless utopia Walden Two and the Skinner box… Or it might include, as a counter to Wolin’s discussion of “America” in the imaginations of Heidegger and other European thinkers, a chapter on Frederick Taylor’s influential The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), with its chilling pronouncement “In the past, the man has been first; in the future the system must be first,” which helps us to understand the dark image that “America” evoked for Heidegger and others.

Of course, such a history exists, as with Zygmunt Bauman’s observation that most of the terrors of the twentieth century had a rationalist foundation, being primarily concerned with abandoning liberal freedoms for the totalitarian enforcement of rational schemes, most obviously with communism.

Ethical Philosophy Tests

Wednesday, July 10th, 2002

Recently came across a moderately interesting online test. Like most online tests I’ve taken I disagreed with a great many of the results (I regard comparison to either Rand or Bentham as little more than a personal affront), but I was particularly surprised that Mill did not come higher up on my first attempt; Sartre (100%), Hume (85%), Nietzsche (83%), Hobbes (69%). However, given that Mill and Nietzche have always resembled two rather uncomfortable polarities in my thought, the differing set of results on my second attempt were less surprising; Sartre (100%), ill (93%), Bentham (84%), Kant (82%). It would have been nice to be able to take Schopenhauer, Locke and Kierkegaard into account too.