Posts Tagged ‘Nietzsche’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x1h7ku/weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/ last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/video-playlists/cuwvn6/daily-show-10035/zz9jnz (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Plato on Music Education: How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. v)

September 12, 2013

What is Plato’s remedy?  The ultimate cure is to take God, rather than man, as the measure of all things.[1]  Saying that does not help us very much today, however, because there is so little knowledge of God and maybe less shared opinion; anyone who claims to be following God can safely be assumed to be following his or her own fancy.  Plato’s God was a god who was rationally known and philosophically approached, not one who could be created out of literal readings of myths mixed copiously with political slogans and party loyalties.  Before God can be the measure of all things, we need to be the sort of people who can have a possibility of genuinely seeking God or recognizing God once we bump into him/her/it.

Suppose we take Plato’s prescription to heart.  In recent years I have noticed two trends in K-12 education:  an increased interest in “character education,” and a slashing of education in the arts.  But what would good, quality education in the arts, particularly music, give to our children?  They would learn that sometimes it takes time to achieve something.  It takes practice.  And it often takes cooperation with others; the first violinist or first trumpet or first soprano still needs the rest of us if the music is to be as full as possible.  They would learn to admire skill and talent more than auto-tune and YouTube fame, as their own efforts at making music revealed to them just how difficult good music is (and how easy and unimpressive the other sort is).  They would learn to accept the judgment of those who know.  They would be exposed to good music, the music of the ages.  By this I don’t only mean classical music, although this is often part of learning music for the simple reason that it is public domain.  When I was a child in public school, we learned folk songs.  These are simple tunes, easy for a child to understand; they are also part of our cultural heritage, the melodic thread connecting generations.  Now, children don’t know the songs children knew for years or centuries; their parents can instead buy “Kidz Bop” and teach their children to love the musical ephemera of the Top Forty list.[2]

Many children, of course, will not be able to fully participate in music of any sort.  Some are deaf, as I am becoming; some may just be tone-deaf.  Plato didn’t value the representational arts much, but perhaps we should.  Why is drawing in school only sanctioned for kindergarten?  What is gained by subjecting oneself to the discipline of working with hand and eye, learning in the process what is truly beautiful and truly difficult and impressive?  What Plato did value was dance.  Why is our physical education aimed at winnowing out the klutzes through the years, to produce a few star athletes for the high-school teams, instead of making all fit “to dance with head and limb”?[3]

Shows like American Idol are the esthetic versions of “Wikiality.”[4]  “Wikiality” is the idea that reality is whatever the rest of us agree is true.  If we all agree that Africa has more elephants than it did ten years ago, then it is true.  Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington owned slaves?  I have a right to say and believe whatever I want.    The problem is, however, that sometimes people die because of this attitude.  The whole “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is based largely on a factual falsehood; it was intended to correct an injustice of a man arrested for killing a looter, except (1) the “looter” seems to have just been a random, lost, drunk construction worker, and (2) the man who killed him was never arrested; traditional “self-defense” law was all that was ever needed to resolve the case.[5]  As a result of this legislative exercise in Wikiality, Florida now has a law that is routinely used by violent criminals to avoid arrest.[6]  I will leave it to the reader to come up with more examples of laws passed and justified by factual untruths; whether you and I agree as to what are convenient lies and what are disputed truths, I don’t doubt that everyone agrees that politicians routinely reject reality and insert their own delusions.  And from the “Stand Your Ground” laws to the county commissioners who eliminated fluoride from the drinking water (apparently believing Dr. Strangelove was a documentary) to dozens of other cases, this sort of epistemological nihilism is not just an individual saying “I have a right to believe what I want;” repeatedly, people who believe what they want to believe rather than what can be shown to be true cause real harm to others, and impose their fantasies on the rest of us.[7] Think of it as the legislative equivalent of the Sanjaya Effect; instead of bad music being forced on viewers of American Idol while good singers are shunted off to obscurity, bad laws are forced on all of us while good policies are buried in partisanship and ideologically-driven relativism.

Did American Idol kill Trayvon Martin?  No, not really.  Did the disregard for any standards or truth beyond one’s own personal preferences, a disregard fostered by the social media/mass media melding of which American Idol is a prime example, lead to the creation of a bad law that ultimately contributed both to his death and to the circus that whirled around it?  Yes.


[1] Laws, book IV, 716 c-d

[2] “Toxic”?  Really?  That’s what you want on a kid’s album?  “Kidz Bop 6”

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 3, “On Old and New Tablets.”

[5] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but Story Has Been Distorted;”  Tampa Bay Times April 14, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/floridas-stand-your-ground-law-was-born-of-2004-case-but-story-has-been/1225164)

[6] Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free with Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence;” Tampa Bay Times July 21, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/many-killers-who-go-free-with-florida-stand-your-ground-law-have-history/1241378)

[7] Anna M. Phillips, “Pinellas County Commission Votes 6-1 to Return Fluoride to Drinking Water;” Tampa Bay Times November 27, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-county-commission-votes-6-1-to-return-fluoride-to-drinking-water/1263426).

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

November 5, 2012

 Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

           Not surprisingly, James’ pragmatism bears some resemblance to Nietzsche’s; after all, they were near contemporaries in time.  Both are interested in how the individual constructs his (or her) world, based at least in part on psychological needs and one’s personal agenda.  James does appear to put more emphasis on the empirical roots of pragmatic truth than does Nietzsche, whose emphasis on the will-to-power overshadows all other concerns.

In some ways, though, James seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein.  First, James roots his pragmatism not only in the individual’s experience, but also in the history of the race.  Today’s common sense is yesterday’s discovery, passed on through the culture and the conversation of the ages.  My new truths may be those I discover or invent to meet my own needs, but James says the new truths have to learn to live with the old ones, which are often community property.  This isn’t exactly a Wittgensteinian language-game, but it certainly is more communal than Nietzsche’s brand of pragmatism, which lauds the Superman who creates his own values by his own will alone.  Second, like Wittgenstein and unlike Nietzsche, James is tolerant and even supportive of religious belief for those who find it meaningful.  In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes of religion as a somewhat regretful outsider.   Religion is the live fire of passion; philosophy only poking around in the ashes to see what can be learned after the fire has burned out.  While he himself did not understand the religious language-game as an insider would, he accepted that it had meaning for believers.  Likewise, James accepted that some “tough-minded” sorts would never get the meaning of religion and never see any point in it, while some “tender-minded” would need it above all else, and many would seek a faith that had a foot on both sides of that stream.  Nietzsche, by contrast, rails against those who would embrace an other-worldly faith, urging us to “be true to the earth” and accept only material values and realities.

This may be more interesting and helpful to me as I sort through James than it is to you; but I enjoyed the exercise and I hope you gained something too.  It seems to me, then, that even such anti-Kantian thinkers as Nietzsche develop a pragmatism that owes more to transcendental idealism than to empiricism.  In Nietzsche’s case, this means his pragmatism is rooted in ontological theories about the will as both a psychological and cosmic force, theories that themselves are not really pragmatically founded.  For Wittgenstein, no such ontological assumption is necessary or even really conceivable; the structures of the mind are rooted only in human behavior, which is the real primordial reality, creator and justifier of the concepts of any particular language-game.  James dedicates his lectures on pragmatism to J.S. Mill, and his allegiance to empiricism is obvious in his philosophy.

One final observation:  as I pointed out, James relies on a form of the coherence theory of truth to rein in the wild flights of fancy that might otherwise propose any sort of “useful” fiction.  By contrast, Wittgenstein is only interested in showing how the concepts of a particular language-game follow their own grammar, their own rules, and are consistent within that language-game.  It is a subject of dispute among students of Wittgenstein just how permeable the boundaries are between language-games.  That is, some claim may make sense in the religious language-game that is simply nonsense in the science language-game.  Some would argue that there must be some overall language-game of my life that contains the others; but others would say that the language-games can be mutually independent, and a person may engage in multiple language-games that are irreconcilable.  In that sort of Wittgensteinian perspectivism, a claim could be both truth and false, depending on the context in which it was used; so long as the concept is used correctly in the particular context of the associated human activity, and everyone understands it well enough to act together according to the rules of the language-game, the concept is “true.”  Likewise, Nietzsche holds to a form of perspectivism, based even more fundamentally on a form of nihilism.  Nothing is true except the will to power, and the fact that the individual wants to live and thrive; so concepts are “true” if they are true for me and help me live a healthier, more creative and vigorous life.  My truths may not be your truths, and there is no way to reconcile them.  To James, the truth claims of another are at least a challenge to my own, and if there is a reason for me to do so I will try to reconcile them with my other beliefs; and always, I must reconcile my truths with one another.  Nietzsche would see the truth claims of another as a struggle of wills, and I should feel free to simply ignore them.  I don’t even have to try to reconcile them with each other, so long as they all help me to live:  as he writes, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity.”  If my life is integrated, I don’t have to concern myself with whether my ideas are logically consistent.  And for Wittgenstein, the idea that I should reconcile my ideas with one another is false; it is simply the decision to set one language-game over as judge of another.  If both language-games reflect human behaviors that serve a purpose for those who engage in them, there is no further reason to try to explain one in terms of another.  So both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein favor complete perspectivism and multiple, incompatible “truths.”  James holds out the possibility of one truth to which we could all agree, albeit a rather broad and vague pragmatic truth; and this final unity is more of an ultimate goal or ultimate hope rather than a present reality.  Still, even the possibility of finding a shared framework for the search for truth is more than Nietzsche or Wittgenstein think possible.

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4)

October 29, 2012

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4) 

 

Although “coherence theory” of truth is more commonly associated with rationalism than with empiricism, James’ rejection of the “correspondence theory” is not enough to justify his claim that pragmatism can be a mediating position between “tough-minded” empiricism and “tender-minded” rationalism.  Instead, it is in his last two lectures that he most thoroughly breaks with empiricism, and with the idea that all our knowledge ultimately rests on empirical pillars.  In Lecture VII, James argues in support of what fellow pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller calls “humanism:”

 

Mr. Schiller… proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially …what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.”[1]

Clearly, this is not what we normally call “humanism.”  It almost seems like Nietzsche’s claim in “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” where he argues that the individual’s psychological needs and personal projects shape that individual’s world.  Instead of basing our categories on our encounter with the world, Schiller seems to base our encounter with the world on our categories, which are themselves based on our own natures.  James defends this position, while also qualifying what he means by it.  True, he does admit that we shape our experience of the physical world; we attend to this fact rather than that, we value this more than that, we interpret.  The word “Waterloo” means something different to a Frenchman than it does to an Englishman.  But James is not particularly interested in this, and admits that our “truths” are beliefs about reality, and our first and primary source for these are sensations.  We cannot prevent or control the flux of our sensations.  Nor can we willy-nilly shape the relations between our ideas concerning these sensations.  I experience the light to come on after I feel the switch click, not before.  However, even though the fact that some aspects of our truths are simply given, and even though our later truths must usually find some accommodation with our previous truths, there is still a lot each one of us does to shape his or her world.  We never encounter the world as it is in itself, but only as shaped by our minds.  James even admits this has a certain resemblance to Kant’s view, though he points out that Kant saw these categories as inborn while pragmatism takes them to be based on experience; as he writes, “Superficially this sounds like Kant’s view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature’s presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns.”

So even to this point, James cannot claim to really mediate between empiricism and rationalism.  Even in his most Kantian moments, he is still conceding that experience shapes our categories at least as much as our categories shape our experience.  It is in his motivation for raising this whole “humanist” argument that James really takes on his appointed task as mediator.  James describes the empiricist position as “tough-minded,” and the rationalist as “tender-minded.”[2]  The rationalist, he says, is motivated by principles, by an optimistic belief that the universe is ultimately united and meaningful, and ultimately by a religious or spiritual faith.  The empiricist inclines towards facts, observations, and materialism.  As an archetype of this and an example of where it leads, consider David Hume’s theory of language.  For Hume, all meaning is based on sensation.  Any word that cannot be traced to a sensation is meaningless.[3]  Hence the “tough-minded” verdict he offers:

 

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]

 

It is not surprising then that James takes empiricism as essentially atheistic, while equating both rationalism and religion as “tender-minded.”  And while much of his epistemology is founded on empirical principles, he has a good deal of sympathy for the religious impulse.  For William James, pragmatism is not only a theory of meaning; it is also a philosophy of life.  A person should believe what allows him or her to function well; and that means that one has every right to religious faith, where this can be sufficiently integrated with one’s other beliefs.  As he writes:

 

At the close of the last lecture I reminded you of the first one, in which I had opposed tough-mindedness to tender-mindedness and recommended pragmatism as their mediator. Tough-mindedness positively rejects tender-mindedness’s hypothesis of an eternal perfect edition of the universe coexisting with our finite experience.

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

Well, the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history. The eternal arms are then beneath. Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.[5]

 

If I try to use my religious belief to draw scientific claims, then my beliefs will inevitably collide and I will end up with a schizophrenia of the intellect:  following cause and effect and scientific reasoning almost all the time and particularly when I rely on any aspect of technology, medicine, or scholarship of any sort, but willfully ignoring reason when it conflicts with some pseudoscientific claim based on my perception of my faith.  But if I use it to give me a reason to keep living, as an organizing or justifying principle for my experiences, or as an ideal to strive towards, etc. then it need not conflict with any useful empirical claim.  Thus James recommends pragmatism as a middle ground between the fatalistic, materialist and pessimistic elements of the “tough-minded” and the free-willst, optimistic, and idealistic aspects of the “tender-minded.”  Because he believes that we create our reality, he can say that we do in fact have a right to hold beliefs that have a pragmatic use contributing to one’s psychological and spiritual health; and because he believes that ultimately our minds and our categories are rooted in our experiences of reality, he says we should not simply embrace the “tender-minded” rationalism wholeheartedly, but consider how these two sides can be reconciled.

To be continued…..


[1] Pragmatism, lecture VII, “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[2] Pragmatism, lecture I

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter II, “Of the Origin of Ideas.”

[4] Enquiry, chapter XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy,” part III

[5] Pragmatism, lecture VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion.”

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 1)

October 8, 2012

I’ve been reading William James’ Pragmatism:  a new name for some old ways of thinking, and a few points struck me.  The first was that, even though I’ve done little reading in American pragmatism, much of what James says seems rather familiar.  I can see two reasons why this should be so.  First, pragmatism has had an enormous impact on U.S. culture.  It has influenced the American school system more than any other philosophical approach, and thus it has impacted most Americans far more than they realize.  Second, I realize that I have been exposed to some European models of pragmatism, and have read those authors extensively.  In some important ways, European and American pragmatism are similar.

The second thing that struck me was that, in other ways, the European and American pragmatic philosophies are very different.  I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting, but I want to try to work through some of these differences for my own benefit, and I hope someone else’s.

European pragmatists are interested in how pragmatically derived categories are used to construct the world; American pragmatism, not so much.  At least, the pragmatists with whom I am familiar make this seem true.  I would start with Nietzsche, but to make what I will say clear I first have to delve a little into Kant.  Kant’s epistemology, of course, is “transcendental idealism.”  In Kant’s theory, the individual is constantly bombarded with sense data, or “intuitions.”  In themselves, these do not have a particular structure; they could be perceived in different ways by different perceivers.  A fly, a human and God might all experience the same world very differently.  The human must first organize these intuitions in terms of linear time and Euclidean three-dimensional space.  Everything I can perceive will be organized as above or below me, nearer or farther, and so on, and I perceive events as happening sequentially.  This Kant refers to as the “transcendental aesthetic.”  Here, “transcendental” refers to the rules that must a priori hold true of every experience I could have; “aesthetic” refers generally to my experience of sensation.  But humans are rational beings, so I further process my intuitions according to logical categories:  thus, the “transcendental analytic.”  For example, I not only perceive events as following one another; I perceive them in terms of causes and effects.  Again, these principles are rules I impose on my experience.  I cannot have an experience that is not structured by the limitations and the functions of my human mind.

Nietzsche, building upon Schopenhauer, starts with the notion of pure, chaotic experience as the starting point, which is then structured by the human mind.  He writes:

What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing![1]

The initial intuition, in Nietzsche’s language, is the nerve stimulus.  In and of itself, it has no mandatory structure; my human mind imposes a structure by creating categories.  Why is a whale a mammal and not a fish?  It all depends on one’s priorities.  Once, whales were seen as fish, since they swam in the ocean; thus Jonah was swallowed by “a great fish,” when the only possible candidate would be a whale.  Later, we began grouping all sorts of creatures in greater categories, and the ability to produce milk became the defining quality.  The categories we choose are those that are subjectively useful.  Since most of us desire to be part of the herd, we learn and adopt the language of society, and use the categories and the values of those around us.  The “rational” person is the one who excels in cataloging and organizing the sense stimuli according to the categories created by language—that is, by the society.  The intuitive, artistic, “free intellect,” by contrast, rejects the conventional ways of structuring reality, and substitutes its own.  “The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by meeting his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an ‘overjoyed hero,’ counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty. “  That is, both the rationalist and the artistic temperament seek to structure and control a reality that suits that one’s particular needs and goals.

The difference between the Kantian and the Nietzschean understanding of the construction of the world is that Kant believes the categories by which humans structure their experiences is inborn and universal to all human beings, while Nietzsche believes they are essentially irrational and individual.  The fundamental driving force, he says, is not rationality but will, the will to power, expressed as power to control and power to create, and most importantly as power to assert one’s continued existence.  How one structures one’s world will depend on one’s particular will to power.  The strong, healthy will to power desires to live according to personal needs and for personal projects, and to be “true to the earth;” so that sort of person will structure experience by categories that are based on personal needs and on the needs of life and of self-expression.  The weak, “underman” will develop categories that are hostile to life and the earth (for example, Platonic idealism), and above all, categories that are shared by others and give the comfort of helping one live as part of a group.  But in either case, the categories are pragmatic; they are tools to achieve goals, whatever those goals might be.  The person who wants to feel at home on the earth will develop categories that help him or her live as an individual working projects in this life; the person who wants to feel as if he or she is escaping from this life will have categories that are otherworldly, and also those which are socially validated; this allows one to construct a world where one is sheltered in the herd in this life and expects to be freed from the pains and struggles in the future.

To be continued….


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873, (http://faculty.uml.edu/enelson/truth&lies.htm) accessed 8/27/2012

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
Agent Phil Coulson: You’re gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It’s in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky. Where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.