The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy

Here is the announcement for our first big EAP conference in September. I am hugely excited about it given the topic and the awesome list of speakers.

The Essex Autonomy Project is pleased to announce its first major international conference, ‘The (Vexed & Contentious) History of Autonomy,’ taking place at The Institute of Philosophy, London, 4-5th September 2010. This event is part of a series interrogating the ideal of self-determination in human affairs. The conference will investigate the turbulent history of the notion of autonomy, from the Greeks to modernity.

The line-up of speakers is as follows:

Katerina Deligiorgi (University of Sussex)

Axel Honneth (University of Frankfurt)

Terence Irwin (University of Oxford)

David McNeill (University of Essex)

Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia University)

Thomas Pink (King’s College London)

Robert Pippin (University of Chicago)

John Skorupski (University of St Andrews)

Further information and a full programme will be available shortly at http://www.essex.ac.uk/autonomy/events.htm

Attendance is free but places are strictly limited and advanced registration is required. To register, please send an e-mail to Helen Cook at autonomy@essex.ac.uk

The Essex Autonomy Project is based in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Essex. For more information on its work and for announcements of future events, see its webpages at http://www.essex.ac.uk/autonomy

Disenchantment

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Modernity is often associated with disenchantment. But what does this mean? Ancient thinkers had tended to ascribe teleological principles to the natural world: the stone strives for its home at the centre of the earth; the eclipse communicates divine displeasure. The monotheistic traditions which then gained ascendancy in Europe and the Near East retained something of this, finding God’s plan suffusing nature: God creates walnuts to resemble brains, signing to human reason that the former is good for the latter; gold and silver lie beneath the ground and the sun and stars shine in the heavens above, displaying a divinely ordained symmetry (both these latter examples are taken from Foucault’s The Order of Things). But with the rise of the mathematical sciences, natural teleology and divine order came to be treated with increasing derision. Aristotle was to be banished to the libraries of the Schoolmen, and if God was to have daubed nature with language, he would speak to us in mathematics and not dainty allegories. For philosophers such as Descartes, matter was extension, and must yield its secrets to a physics taking mathematisable form. This approach to the natural world was further buttressed in the minds of natural philosophers by the successes of the Newtonian revolution. In biology, by 1828 even the demand for a vital force — said to divide the organic from inorganic — proved empty, Wöhler having proved that the organic could be synthesised from inorganic components.

Everywhere, meaning fell under the sword of mechanism, and myth and mysticism with it. But suspicion hung over this evacuated nature, for was it not also our home — perhaps even the very substance of our being? If so, what remained of freedom, providence, value, beauty or morality in all this? The very meaning of life appeared to be under threat, since there seemed to be no room for God, rational harmony or true righteousness amongst the icy torrents of indifferent particles. The height of the Enlightenment saw the most avid articulation of these worries, with Jacobi coining the term ‘nihilism’ to describe what he saw as Godless and fatalistic Critical philosophies, which in his eyes provided little more than a fig-leaf covering their destruction of a transcendent source of value.

In all this, there are both progressive and regressive currents. The rise of modern science has been a near-unparalleled breakthrough, on a par with the development of agriculture, city dwelling or the institution of constitutional legal codes. In so doing, it has rightly banished God-talk from natural philosophy and much else besides. So too, it has helped deaden the appeal of any view of freedom wherein it consists in some contra-casual power to intervene in the world (quantum mechanical gymnastics aside). But there is a risk of the burning light of science blinding us to the proper significance (or even existence) of certain equally natural phenomena. My own interests here settle on normativity — what we are committed, entitled or prohibited from thinking and doing; how we are subject to the ‘force of the better reason'; why we not merely do but should follow certain rules and conventions — ethical, theoretical, aesthetic, affective — whilst rightly rejecting others. Often, attempts to understand normativity suffer from a scientism which extends far beyond a healthy respect for the natural sciences, and which commonly has its roots in a problematic conception of disenchanted nature.

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In the face of the disenchantment of nature, we can easily succumb to that curious form of philosophical vertigo that Wittgenstein diagnoses so well. We then grasp about for a solid handhold. Confronting frigid nature, operating with lawful or law-like regularity, one response has been to cast aside concepts like freedom, obligation and representation as folk-psychological detritus which we can do without. For example, Stephen Stich has claimed:

intentional states and processes that are alluded to in our everyday descriptions and explanations of people’s mental lives and their actions are myths. Like the gods that Homer invoked to explain the outcome of battles, or the witches that inquisitors invoked to explain local catastrophes, they do not exist. [quoted in a recent article by Dwyer]

This is the eliminativist approach: the world is nothing like the fantasies of religion and art had led us to believe — it is the indurate ground of animal life but not our ‘home’. For the eliminativist, there is no need to sweeten the pill of the disenchantment brought on by the scientific mind-set. As Ray Brassier has recently written, “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

Drawing back from eliminativism, another response has been to reconstruct those concepts suspected of anthropocentrism in a more respectable vocabulary for the naturalist. So, there is no need to ditch freedom, say, but let us just be clear what we mean by it, where this might legitimately be causation along certain biochemical pathways and not others, or action in light of knowledge of the conditions under which it was caused, or whatever natural-scientific form of description best approximates actual or ideal folk-psychological usage. The manifest image of humanity is not entirely wrongheaded, just naïve. Properly regimented, it captures something important about human patterns of understanding, behaviour and our place in the world. Let us call this view naturalistic revisionism.

Different again from eliminativism and revisionism is expressivism. The expressivist agrees that the world is a cold, dead place when contrasted with the animisms, platonisms and providentialisms of old. However, the human animal ‘stains’ and ‘gilds’ reality with its sentiments (to borrow Hume’s terms). For the expressivist, it is we who project value on the world, and this can give us the resources to explain ethics, freedom and aesthetics outside of the tight net of the scientific naturalist’s privileged nomenclature. There is nothing unnatural about our caring about (or disdaining) each other, our projects and our environments; but that need not force us to redescribe ourselves in natural-scientific terms alone — our passions have their own logic and significance that subsists upon but grows out of its natural base.

Yet another response to disenchantment has been to foreground not human emotion but reason and autonomy. For constructivists, the legacy of disenchantment has been to show us that we are alone in the world, with no divine firmament above or promontory below that would help us surveil a normative order. But unlike expressivists, we should look to our activity of trafficking with reasons stretching beyond our structures of passions. We forge obligations for ourselves through the exercise of autonomous legislative capacities, claiming ownership of our actions through drawing them into an unfolding plan which we grant authority over our desires, projects and identities as a whole. In doing so, we act with the dignity proper to creatures capable of self-determination, who are not merely buffeted around by events, beliefs or desires, but who manage to establish some sort of purchase and sovereignty over themselves and thereby lead their lives.

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Now, you need not be a platonic boogeyman to be uneasy about this collection of options. My own thinking about these issues is heavily indebted to John McDowell. His suggestion that we need “a partial re-enchantment of nature,” as with many of McDowell’s trademark phrases, is a little unfortunate though. He stridently rejects the idea that ‘re-enchantmant’ has a “crazily nostalgic” character which gives any ground towards a “regress into a pre-scientific superstition” which would encourage us to interpret the fall of a sparrow like we would a text. But nevertheless the associations surrounding ‘enchantment’ remain — something spooky gets evoked. Talk of ‘re-enchantment’ is misleading, and a better McDowellian phrase would be resistance to the “interiorization of the space of reasons.”

Disenchantment makes it seem like reasons are illusory or are at best absorbed into the activity of subjects. What we get is meaning, and the rational relations it makes intelligible, restricted to meaning-conferring subjects. At most, so understood, we project reasons into a world of rationally inert objects. The car-crash is then only a reason to phone an ambulance in light of human ethical practices; the ionized radiation in the cloud chamber only justifies belief in the presence of an alpha particle in light of the construction and testing of electromagnetic and particle theories. Now, there is something right and something wrong about all this. We cannot intelligibly think from a perspective of cosmic exile and must accept the finitude of our cognitive capacities (contra SR and OOO). All of our truck with value, reasons, justification must proceed from local and situated circumstances and continue to lean upon human forms of knowing and valuing. But that does not mean we should rest content with the idea that these are ‘merely human’ standards whose shadows fall upon an apathetic world. Our finitude, properly understood, ought not impugn normative realism, and we should not be carried away by the characterless world presented by natural science.

Nature is not exhausted by natural scientific description, and so it is misguided to require human interests for any more juice to be squeezed out of it. The predominantly nomothetic explanations offered by natural science are pearls without price, but they have no claim to speak for the totality of nature. Human life is obviously in some sense ontologically decomposable into organic compounds, atoms, quarks and electrons, and so on. But the explanatory matrix which most often befits it is normative and not immediately natural scientific (whatever the prospects of reductionsism about normativity). Again, there is nothing unnatural about humans as they fall under normative descriptions, appraised in terms of their intentions, virtue, beauty or freedom. We come to employ these concepts in the course of our biological maturation, supplemented by a process of socialisation which is no less a part of the natural history of humanity.

The temptation towards the modernist division between meaning-conferring subjectivity and intrinsically meaningless nature arises when we think that we can only have meaning on human terms — the human forge of meaning being the correlate to the frozen world of mechanism. If the logical space of nature and the logical space of reasons are irreconcilable, then this would seem to follow (assuming naturalistic revisionisms are moribund, which I think is very plausible). But this is only so if nature is also exhausted by natural scientific description. And it is not: natural events can be legitimately characterised in normative terms without a regression to pre-scientific rationalism. This is the sort of re-enchantment McDowell seeks, and rightly too. The claim to be defended is thus: “the natural world is in the space of logos.” My optimism on this count is rarely shared though.

Brandom on Enlightenment and disenchantment

Nature, in ceasing to be divine, ceases to be human. Here, indeed, is just our problem.

—John Dewey

In the previous post, I made an attempt to clarify the foundations of Brandom’s project by investigating his explanatory strategy and the substantive commitments he adopts. In the light of this, Brandom’s account of normativity was also re-examined with the suggestion that it might be bolstered by a more robust account of autonomy that placed stronger conditions upon the attribution of normative commitments to agents. In this final post on Brandom, I will inspect the historical underpinnings to many of these earlier positions. More specifically, Brandom’s approach to the Enlightenment tradition and its denaturalising of values will be scrutinised.

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