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

Nature and Normativity

Here are two excellent essays, each taking opposing stances on how to answer questions centring on nature and normativity, alongside the roles of sciences and humanities in understanding reality. Both are admirably lucid and make a good case for their competing methodologies: firstly, an unashamed defence of ‘scientism'; secondly, the demand to take the standpoint of practical reasoning seriously.

An excerpt from each, beginning with Alex Rosenberg’s ‘The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide To Reality’:

What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.” Scientism helps us see how mistaken the demand for stories instead of theories really is.

From Robert Pippin’s ‘Normative and Natural’:

Normative questions, I mean, are irreducibly “first-personal” questions, and these questions are practically unavoidable and necessarily linked to the social practice of giving and demanding reasons for what we do, especially when something someone does affects, changes or limits what another would otherwise have been able to do. By irreducibly first-personal, I mean that whenever anyone faces a normative question (which is the stance from which normative issues are issues)  – what ought to be believed or what ought to be done – no third-personal fact about “why one as a matter of fact has come to prefer this or that” can be relevant to what I must decide, unless (for good practical reasons) I count it as a relevant practical reason in the justification of what I decide. Knowing something about evolutionary psychology might contribute something to understanding the revenge culture in which Orestes finds himself in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and so why he feels pulled both to avenge his father’s murder by his mother Clytemnestra, and also feels horrified at the prospect of killing his mother in cold blood. But none of that can be, would be, at all helpful to Orestes or anyone in his position.  Knowing something about the evolutionary benefits of altruistic behavior might give us an interesting perspective on some particular altruistic act, but for the agent, first-personally, the question I must decide is whether I ought to act altruistically and if so why. I cannot simply stand by, as it were, and “wait” to see what my highly and complexly evolved neuro-biological system will do. “It” doesn’t decide anything; I do, and this for reasons I must find compelling, or at least ones that outweigh countervailing considerations. It is in this sense that the first-personal perspective is strictly unavoidable. I am not a passenger on a vessel pulled hither and yon by impulses and desires; I have to steer.

Grundlegung in print

When a man asks for a royal road to science, no more convenient and comfortable way can be mentioned to him than to put his trust in “healthy common sense”. And for the rest, to keep abreast of the times and advance with philosophy, let him read reviews of philosophical works, and even go the length of reading the prefaces and first paragraphs of the works themselves; for the latter give the general principles on which everything turns, while the reviews along with the historical notice provide over and above the critical judgment and appreciation, which, being a judgment passed on the work, goes farther than the work that is judged. This common way a man can take in his dressing-gown.

Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface

Hegel and his sarcasm can stick it because I’ve got two book reviews out at the moment. The first is on an excellent collection called German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives edited by Espen Hammer. It appears in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, and subscribers can access it here. The second is a review of Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy and which is in the latest issue (n.45) of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’m not sure what the copyright situation is, but I will post them here if I find out that I can.

Update: You can read my review of the Pippin book on The Philosophers’ Magazine website here.

The Year in Books

Academic presses are still creaking under the weight of books published, so you would be forgiven if the occasional gem passed you by. It being the end of the year as well, I thought I would flag some notable philosophy books published this year, as well as point to some to look out for in the coming year. I’d be happy to hear of any of your own picks for this year’s best too.

My favourite book to appear this year is one I’m still reading — Robert Pippin’s masterful Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. As ever, Pippin manages to combine a wonderful lucidity of thought with a rich and suggestive prose style, which makes all his work a pleasure to read. This book develops the reading of Hegel which he shares with Terry Pinkard, which sees Hegel as engaged in the project of constructing a theory of normativity which would build upon, whilst radically revising, Kant’s talk of self-legislation. As long-time readers will be aware, I think this project is flawed both historically and philosophically. Nonetheless, Pippin has brilliantly buttressed his case here; and even where I think he goes astray, he is always insightful, especially when engaging with contemporary philosophical developments. If you have any interest in Hegel, metaethics or normativity, this comes highly recommended!

Another book in a similar vein, though this time arguing against a central role for autonomous agency, was Charles Larmore’s The Autonomy of Morality. Like Larmore’s other books, its mainstay is a collection of revised articles, loosly connected to the central theme. These are tied together by a central essay, arguing against Kantian constructivism as a metanormative theory. Larmore thinks that in place of a morality of autonomy we need to reclaim an autonomous morality. To unpack that slogan a little, he thinks that treating autonomy as a foundation for normativity is incoherent: any norms based upon autonomous endorsement alone will be little more than products of what Donald Regan calls ‘arbitrary self-launching’. Any putative norms arising from a process of self-legislation, so understood, cannot have a rational claim upon us. Instead, he thinks we must suppose that morality itself (and presumably other normative domains) is autonomous — independent of our practices, insofar as its ultimate authority is concerned.

My main reservations about his position arise with his conception of this independent normative realm — something he takes to be a robust metaphyiscal space, akin to the space of physical or psycholgical inquiries. In one essay, ‘Attending to Reasons’, he argues against the more Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical inquiry which animates McDowell’s work on just this sort of issue. It seems to me that Larmore lacks any good argument against such a position though; he simply restates the demand for philosophical explanation — e.g. surely we need to know what reasons are — which is the very thing that the Wittgensteinian tries to get us to loosen our grip upon by directing us to more modest questions about what we do and what we treat as a reason. This is a debate which needs reformulating if either side is to find traction with the other — something I am finding myself tasked with doing at the moment.

Talking of Wittgenstein, Oskari Kuusela’s The Struggle against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy came out in April. This is another which I have not got all the way through yet, but the parts I have read are promising. The book is an attempt to describe Wittgenstein’s methodology, especially as it blossoms in the later philosophy. I had occasion this year to speak to Oskari whilst attending an event we were at, and I was struck by the intensity of his commitment to reading Wittgenstein with an anti-dogmatic tenor — one in which we have to radically rethink philosophy’s approach, as opposed to sliding into an equally formulaic characterisation of philosophy (e.g. the first thesis of Philosophy Club is that there are no theses in Philosophy Club…). What is particularly striking about Oskari’s approach is that it takes the question of methodology to be the beating heart of Wittgenstein’s work, whilst nevertheless letting us see how genuinely productive, progressive and insightful philosophy can still be done under its auspices.

I was rather less enamoured with Brandom’s Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, in which he attempts to reconcile pragmatism and more mainstream analytic philosophy. He claims that it is pragmatism in both the classical and Wittgensteinian senses which are to be one side of this reconcilliation. However, Brandom’s Wittgenstein is the worst of caricatures — a sloganeer, reduced to spitting ‘meaning is use’ and other proto-systematic dictums. His is a decidely non-Kuuselic reading. This bears upon his recent book insofar as it is animated with the worst of Brandom’s habits, and indeed the red thread which will unravel most of his work: reductionism. Brandom seeks to describe a set of reductive relations between different sets of vocabulary (logical, modal, normative, intentional, etc.). My thoughts here are that Brandom is doing little more than repeat the mistakes of traditional metaphysical inquiry in a semantic key. The lure of reductive accounts is great, and they are quite rightly indispensable in the natural-scientific enterprise. But philosophy is neither natural science nor composed of formal systems like logic, and the understanding which a massive program of theoretical interdefinability promises is little more than a mirage. It is Wittgenstein himself who provides the greatest lesson about this in the development of his early work away from the false clarity of the thoroughgoing analysis of the logical structure of natural language. This is yet another reason why Brandom counting Wittgenstein as an ally, albeit a misguided one, is perverse.

On a happier note, the blogosphere’s very own Sinthome, of Larval Subjects, published Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence. The project is an exciting one: a rehabilitation of a Deleuzian metaphysics as the ground of rethinking the perennial philosophical questions surrounding the particular-universal, existence-essence and sensible-conceptual relationships. It is the last of these which takes centre-stage, with the guiding question being how we are to understand Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’, which seeks to unfold the productive conditions for experience. It is in virtue of this topic that those of you with a ‘post-Sellarsian’ temperament may find it particularly interesting, since it tackles questions surrounding the intelligible structure of experience, familiar in the neo-pragmatist literature, from an interesting angle. Unfortunately, it has proved a little too hard-going for a casual reader like myself with little exposure to Deleuze. I hope to have the stamina for another go in the future though.

McDowell-watchers will have noted John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature, edited by Jakob Lindgaard, which collects many of the recent essays on his work from the European Journal of Philosophy, including new replies by McDowell. The most notable addition is a new essay by McDowell in which he revised his long-held and controversial position on the propositional structure of experience, replacing it with a claim that experience is conceptual simply in virtue of its ability to be discursively articulated. This claim is ostensibly made in response to Charles Travis’ arguments about conceptual content, though I think it may come to be seen as being heavily influenced by the next book I’ll mention.

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of pages of it, but Micheal Thompson’s book Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought looks fascinating. In it, he undertakes an Aristotelian analysis of the concepts of life, action and practice, as the basis for a clear view of practical philosophy. As I say, I suspect that it is Thompson’s influence on McDowell which can account for some of the impetus for his revised position, as reflected in McDowell’s eagerness to make room for a distinct mode for the representation of life within experience. I am reliably informed that Thompson’s work is attracting a lot of attention amongst the Chicago-Pittsburgh circuit, and I would expect to see his work discussed widely in the future. Were I to hazard a guess for which philosophy book this year in the broadly conceived post-Kantian tradition will end up being most influential, it would be this one.

Next year will see another promising book on metaphysics, namely, Robert Stern’s Hegelian Metaphysics. It’s going to be a collection of some of his essays, both new and old, on Hegel and metaphysical themes. In particular, there’ll be essays on themes from Hegelian metaphysics, like concrete universality and the Hegelian conception of truth, alongside critical and comparitive essays on historical movements influenced by Hegel, like the classical pragmatists (especially Peirce) and the British idealists. Again, Deleuzian metaphysics comes up, with a defence of Hegel’s position against Deleuzian criticism.

Also next year, two McDowell collections appear, The Engaged Intellect: Philosophical Essays and Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel, and Sellars. The contents should be familiar to those already keeping up with McDowell’s recent work, though there is what appears to be a new essay on Hegel which I am keen to see. Korsgaard’s Locke Lectures, Self-constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity, also come out. From the lecture texts already online, this looks like it will be a good read, and will no doubt draw a lot of attention! (She also had a collection of essays out this year on similar themes, called The Constitution of Agency: Essays on Practical Reason and Moral Psychology.) A volume of essays on Making It Explicit is also due out, called Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit. The contributors are not quite as illustrious as those for the McDowell volume in the same series, but it looks interesting nonetheless.

As I say, I am happy to hear your own notable philosophy books of the year!

Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’

Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!

Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

Update: I’ve taken down this post as the review is now forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy in early 2009. Look out for it there…

Update II: The review is available online to subscribers here.

Pippin on conceptions of freedom

Pippin gives a nice pithy survey of nineteenth century conceptions of freedom in the ‘author meets critics’ session on his Henry James and Modern Moral Life (video here) which I thought I’d note down here (because I am procrastinating…):

In the nineteenth century alone, at various times, it looked like I could be said to be free if I had set a goal myself on the basis of reasons (freedom as autonomy of a sort); if I had psychologically identified wholeheartedly with the end (freedom as authenticity or non-alienation); if I precisely had not identified with any role, and could take on and discard roles the way an actor takes on and discards roles (freedom as irony, as in Rameau’s Nephew or Schlegel); if I had the means to achieve some end (freedom as power); if I had experienced no human impediments to my pursuits (freedom as negative liberty); or if I had experienced in my striving a development and growth (dynamic self-realization).