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

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

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

The Unconsoled Pursuit of Goodness

Iris Murdoch claims that pursuing goodness is “pointless.” She means that the attempt to act rightly, in accordance with virtue, say, cannot be given any external justification. In other words, such actions have no goal beyond themselves, however helpful they may happen to be. This echoes the Aristotelian dictum that virtuous action is undertaken for its own sake. In this case, an internal justification, which appeals to other ethical notions, would be available. So, we might recommend acting courageously because that would be the wise thing to do. But both courage and wisdom are already normative concepts: they are already replete with ethical normative authority. In this way, no attempt is made to justify specific ethical claims through appeal to non-ethical foundations. Ethical justification is presented as a closed circle.

One response to this kind of circularity would be to charge the Murdochian agent with dogmatism. This naturally leads to another suspicion, namely the sceptical doubt that if the only justifications for acting ethically are themselves already ethicised, then perhaps no genuine ethical justification is to be had. But such responses would be misguided; they reflect an unwarranted demand for foundations, for an Archimedean point outside of the activities of justifying, reasoning and communicating with one another, from where we can issue guarantees for them. Whether we are realists or not (and both myself and Murdoch are), demanding such guarantees is not cautious but pathological; in some lights, it verges on the autistic.

One of the problems met in attempting to give an external justification for genuinely following norms (rather than merely helpful conventions) is that it invites us to answer ill-formed questions. There is something incoherent about questions like ‘what reason do I have to be rational?’ or ‘should I do what I ought to do?’ when they are directed at normativity in general rather than the justification of specific norms. For any answer to these questions to move us, we must already be trading in reasons, which threatens to make any answer seem either hopelessly circular or entirely redundant.

We find a deep affinity here between these awkward questions, asking about a norm for following norms, or a reason to be rational, and the so-called problem of the ‘Kantian paradox’. If we create or legislate normative standards for our actions, there is a difficulty in finding norms for this legislation itself which would prevent this legislation from being enirely sporadic and arbitrary. In other words, we would already need norms to guide the institution of norms. Similar problems loom here to those above, since if there were already authoritative norms to appeal to then self-legislation will be redundant, but if there are not then no non-arbitrary legislation can be undertaken. The upshot, I think, is that self-legislation is an incoherent way to think about the ultimate source of normativity.

The Kantian paradox is significant, but unlike Kantian constructivisits, I think that the attempt to provide a straight solution to it is misguided. Instead, it provides us with an important clue to a structural feature of normativity, best accounted for by Murdoch’s considerations about the pointlessness of pursuing goodness. The lesson it teaches us is that there cannot be any justificatory grounding to normative authority which is not itself equally normative and equally groundless: it is normativity ‘all the way down.’ The lack of non-holistic support for normativity does not undermine the importance of normativity; in fact, it is quite the contrary. Pihlström makes this point well in relation to morality:

Morality does not have any external goal or legitimation. Yet, this, instead of sacrificing the moral seriousness emphasized by the moral realist, is an affirmation of such seriousness. Morality is something serious—indeed, the most serious and most important thing in our life, ‘overriding,’ as one often says—precisely because it does not have any external, non-ethical goal or point.

Bearing this claim in mind, one pertinent criticism of constructivism is that it offers the wrong kinds of reason to be moral (to re-purpose Bernard Williams’ expression). For example, when Korsgaard tells us that we should be moral because otherwise we will lose something more valuable than our lives, namely our identities as agents, morality is being anchored to some external goal. But this is to instrumentalise morality, to make it into a hypothetical imperative: if you want to protect an identity precious to you, then follow these instructions. In so doing, we lose our appreciation of the inherent worth of moral action, which sits alongside its subsidiary benefits to our lives, but is not entirely parasicitic upon them. One need not have as rigoristic a conception of ethical life as Kant to think that right action can be inherently worthy. Indeed, this style of criticism has been echoed by Bradley and Prichard (neither of whom were Kantians), who also think there is something wrongheaded about giving reasons to be moral in general.

Moral or ethical normativity is a distinctive variety, insofar as it often connected to the notions of the categorical and the obligatory. However, I think we can extend the same points about there being no external goal or point to being responsive to the force of the better reason, generalising them to normativity as a whole. Naturally, there can be many subsidiary benefits for agents who follow norms, whether this be the fruits of theoretical or practical reason, such as working out what to what will satisfy us and how to get it, for example. But Murdoch is right to emphasise that the true pursuit of the good is “austere and unconsoled.” What distinguishes responsiveness to normativity proper, rather than following useful conventions, is this discerning disregard for any immediate further goal. Normativity does not, in Murdoch’s vocabulary, come with the consolations of purposiveness beyond itself.

Norms, Rationality and Communication


Over at his new blog Deontologistics, Pete has an interesting post called ‘Normativity and Ontology’ which (amongst other things) picks up some of the issues concerning normativity arising from recent discussions of speculative realism. He addresses these ideas from a distinctive position which combines metaphysical themes from Deleuze and Heidegger alongside contemporary pragmatist approaches to language in the vein of Brandom and Habermas. I’ll be interested to see how this project pans out.

Since my reply is a little long for a blog comment, I am going to respond to some of Pete’s claims here. On the whole, I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach, though occupying some shared ground also helps to emphasise our points of contrast more sharply too. In what follows, I’ll take each point — whether critical or appreciative — as they appear. Finally, I have avoided discussing some of the more metaphysical issues raised here, since these will, I hope, feature in an upcoming post on Latour.

(i) Firstly, one relatively minor misgiving concerns the terminology of ‘deontology.’ Pete talks about “the philosophy of normativity (or deontology),” and this suggests that they amount to the same thing. But I think we have good reason for keping these terms distinct. Deontology is often understood to address duties, which its etymology suggests, with ‘deont’ being the Greek for that which binds. Some approaches to normativity, such as the one underlying the Brandomian incompatibility semantics, take obligation and permission as its key normative concepts. (In fact, these concepts appear to be interdefinable: what is permitted is what is not obligated not to do, and what is obligated is what is not permitted not to do.) These are manifestly deontological notions: they concern what one rationally must do. But normativity is a richer vista than deontology alone, even for Kant, whose moral philosophy provides the classic analysis of deontological concepts. Normativity can extend to notions like recommendation, beauty, guidance, virtue and value, none of which are most fruitfully thought in terms of a sphere of rightful action understood in a distinctly deontological way. In other words, the vocabulary of obligation and permission is too restrictive to capture many features of the normative domain. So, I am wary of talking of normativity and deontology as if they amounted to the same thing, especially as people like Brandom tend to elide the distinction.


(ii) I think there is something right about Pete’s idea that we cannot escape “fundamental norms of rationality” and that — in a great phrase — we must accept this as a “primary bind.” But there is scope for disagreement between us here, though I am not sure how deep it goes. I agree that there is something self-defeating about explicitly rejecting norms constitutive of discourse and argumentation whilst one is engaged in that very practice. The thought is that we meet a kind of self-contradiction here: I implicitly endorse these norms (by entering into discursive practice), but then I explicitly deny them (once engaged in discursive activity). If you have to accept the authority of rational and discursive norms to qualify as denying their authority, there is a problem. We hit a kind of transcendental wall: it is a necessary condition of the possibility of explicitly rejecting the authority of these norms that we first accept or presuppose that self-same authority. Someone who tries to do so — who says, “Rationality has no claim on me!” — would best be described as confused, and not really understanding the concepts they are using, rather than making a substantive mistake.

This all assumes that we must at least implicitly presuppose some norms in order to qualify as sapient communicators (which I agree is a plasuible claim). In other words, my communicative activity must be guided by assumptions about what counts as a legitimate speech act. It will also be a further matter describing what such norms are — whether the principle of non-contradiction, modus ponens, substantive decision procedures, and so on.


(iii) I think these issues go somewhat deeper though. So, whilst I am partial to some versions of the kind of linguistified transcendental argument outlined above, my more fundamental commitments differ from many of its advocates. One way to frame this difference is in a question: Does our inability to coherently reject fundamental norms of rationality, insofar as we engage in discursive activity, suffice to secure their authority for us? In other words, is assessment of rational competence dependent on the idea that we do (or cannot but) acknowledge rational norms insofar as we are discursive beings?

Pete gestures in an anti-realist direction on these matters, but then says something a little more ambiguous, which could be read in two ways. So, he begins with a rather Davidsonian claim:

One could potentially abandon such norms [of rationality], but one could only do it by becoming entirely irrational, by becoming such that we could not legitimately ascribe contentful beliefs to you.

Here, I agree. Our actual behaviour can come loose from fundamental norms of rationality, and when it does so substantially or consistently it becomes more and more difficult to frame it as the actions of an agent with a view upon the world. He continues:

The crucial idea that follows from this is a Brandomian/Kantian one: that what it is to be a subject is to be rational, i.e., to be bound by the fundamental norms of rationality. The subject is (just as the Kantian transcendental subject) just the unity of its responsibility in relation to such norms (which are analogous to Kant’s categories, as the fundamental rules governing cognition).

I find this a little more problematic — there is more to subjectivity than processing incompatible normative commitments, at least I hope so, for all our sakes! But this is a minor point insofar as I agree that this is an integral part of the picture. Next comes the more contentious idea:

The additional Kantian point is that the subject is only insofar as it binds itself to these norms, insofar as it makes itself responsible for its actions in accordance with them.

This, with its language of ‘binding oneself’ to norms, has an anti-realist tenor to it. In the background appears to be a nominally Kantian conception of the self-legislative activity of the subject, who institutes norms through its use of concepts in forming judgements and practical maxims. Normative authority, so understood, becomes attitude-dependent: we become responsible because (and only because) we make ourselves responsible. This is an approach to normativity which I think veers into incoherence.


Problems with the self-legislative conception of normativity, where agents bind themselves to norms, arise when we ask whether the legislative process is itself subject to the authority of norms. It seems that there both must be and cannot be such norms. If there were no such norms, then the legislative process will be arbitrary: legislating in one way rather than another will be no more than caprice (and this would not seem to be enough to really put ourselves under obligations). But if there are norms for legislating one way rather than another, we will want to know their status. If they are self-legislated, we simply push the problem back because the question then becomes, on what basis were they legislated? If they are not self-legislated then we do not have self-legislation ‘all the way down.’ But in this case, if we end up embracing some form of realism about these norms, then it is natural to ask, why not be realists about other sorts of reasons? The advocate of self-legislation is not without reply here (indeed, they might appeal to something like the linguistified transcendental argument above to set basic criteria for legislation) but I think this dialectic ultimately forces them down the path to ruin.

Is this Pete’s approach though? Perhaps not, since he goes on to say:

However, one can only be responsible, i.e., one can only bind oneself to other norms, insofar as one is bound to the fundamental norms of rationality. This is to say that the structure of normativity in general is grounded in the norms of rationality.

If these fundamental norms of rationality are vindicated, then some sort of self-binding model might be rescued. But this, I think, would only at the price of redundancy, since it would not be us but the fundamental norms which determined how we ought to legislate which would be doing all the heavy-lifting. I think it is better to drop talk of self-binding or self-legislation and zero in on whatever underlies it. Obviously, there is more that can be said about this, but I’ll stop here for now.

Ethics and the Moral Law, Part I: Anscombe

Larval Subjects has a good post up on deontological ethics. I am sympathetic to some of his antinomian sentiments, though I often find myself drifting back and forth between Aristotle and Kant in ethics (being the good Hegelian that I am). I’ve written a little bit about law-conceptions of ethics and their critics, and thought this would be a timely opportunity to post some of the results. This first post will deal with Elizabeth Anscombe and the second will move onto Saint Paul. Readers interested in this topic might also want to have a look at this previous post on Hegel and laws or this one on Anscombe and MacIntyre.

Modern Moral Philosophy

At the centre of Anscombe’s attack on modern moral philosophy, set out in her classic paper of the same name, is the concept of moral obligation. Part of the reason that her treatment of this concept is of interest is that she is sensitive to the historical grounds of its employment, noting the context in which it arose and became a fundamental notion for modern moral thought in an attempt to show that only under certain conditions–ones that are no longer widely believed to hold–is it coherent to speak of an emphatically moral obligatoriness.

Here I want to question the historical narrative that Anscombe presents us with, arguing that it may be problematic on two counts. These potential difficulties will be explored with reference to the religious elements of her account, where the divine law is invoked as the only viable way of construing moral obligation. The second of the worries I shall highlight is that she overlooks the diversity of thought within what she calls the “Hebraic-Christian ethic.” For Anscombe is too hasty insofar as she tacitly ascribes a relative unity to Christian thought in supposing that such thought should be seen as going hand in hand with the view that morality is seen as originating in divine law. But before addressing this point, another objection to her historical narrative will be considered-one that promises to be more threatening to her positive project-which claims that, even within the tradition of those who have believed morality to stem from divine law, Anscombe mischaracterises the way this has been conceived. Firstly though, some of the relevant main features of Anscombe’s strategy will be outlined briefly.

Anscombe’s strategy

Anscombe’s paper opens with a statement of three theses, the second of which will concern us here:

the concepts of obligation, and duty-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of ‘ought’, ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives of survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

Here we see the historical dimension to Anscombe’s thought: emphatic moral concepts once made sense given the context of an earlier ethics, but without such a context they no longer do, becoming confused and out of joint to the extent that our use of them is actually harmful. The context that the emphatically moral sense of ‘ought’ arose from, and in which it is thought to have its natural home, is that of a law conception of ethics. Thus, ‘ought’ gained a moral sense in certain circumstances that was synonymous with the sort of requirement or obligation that one could be said to be subject to through coming under the authority of a law. Anscombe claims that it acquired such a special sense (that is, one in addition to the sense of ‘ought’ in which to say that a machine ought to be oiled means that it is liable to break otherwise) through the enormous influence of Christianity. For it had a law conception of ethics that understood what it is to be ‘bad qua human’ to be a failure connected with falling short of a divine law.

Given this diagnosis, it is not immediate apparent what Anscombe’s strategy is. As is suggested by the quote above and by other sections of her paper, it might simply be to drop talk of the moral ‘ought’ altogether, reverting to what Williams calls ‘thick’ moral concepts, such as justice or honesty. This rejection of the moral ‘ought’ would be premised upon the unsustainability of the law conceptions of ethics without which it loses its meaning. Anscombe certainly is disparaging of modern attempts to rehabilitate the notion of an ethics of law, like certain understandings of Kantian self-legislation. Yet Anscombe was herself a Christian who held to the divine law, so where does that leave her position? It seems that it should be read as an attack on the incoherence of those who employ emphatic moral concepts yet themselves lack an adequate law conception of ethics that would make these concepts intelligible. For her then, a law conception of ethics is not untenable in itself, but only insofar as it is divorced from the support of a religious framework. The crucial phrase in her second thesis comes when she says that emphatic moral concepts ought to be jettisoned because they are derived from “an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives.” Recognising the de facto decline of a religious moral culture in favour of a secular one, Anscombe would be warning against importing concepts that only make sense in the first tradition into the latter climate where, without the necessary framework guiding their use, then they are bound to become mangled and perverted, as she thinks happened in the post-Sedgwick English tradition. So, whilst herself holding onto a Catholicised Thomism that combines law and virtue, she would be recommending a non-divinised virtue ethics for those unwilling to embrace a religious ethics.

Obligation and law

Having now outlined some aspects of Anscombe’s argumentative strategy, the first potentially problematic feature of Anscombe’s position that I want to consider stems from her treatment of the concept of law. In doing so, I want to pick up on the unease that has been expressed to a greater or lesser extent in different places with respect to the details of how she seems to understand this concept, its relations to those such as commandment and its place in the Christian tradition. One way to begin to articulate concern with Anscombe’s position in this respect would be to focus on her idea that emphatic moral concepts have lost their roots: their connection to a tradition that both illuminates them and endows the moral ‘ought’ with a meaning over and above what she calls that of “a word of mere mesmeric force.” For Anscombe’s suggestion as to how they lost their grounding, through the loss of their connection to the religious framework of divine legislation, highlights a potentially problematic understanding of what moral obligatoriness amounts to. This is one that both can appear independently unattractive and also at best marginal within the very Christian tradition that it is meant to be representative of.

Thomas Pink claims: “For a virtuous action not only to be virtuous, but actually to be morally obligatory, in Anscombe’s view, just is for that action to be commanded of us by a moral law-giver.” If this is what it means to be morally obligatory, then continuing to talk in terms of this emphatic moral obligation in the absence of the inferentially constitutive concepts of God, divine authority, commands that are promulgated to us, and so on, is liable to lead to some confusion. It is certainly something along these lines that Anscombe is getting at when she says, “It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten.” Yet, is this what moral obligation means, either now or even at the height of theories of divine law in the late Middle Ages? Here we might question two aspects of the definition of moral obligation. Firstly, we can ask a question implicit in Pink’s work, is moral obligation reducible to the dictates of the divine law? Secondly, as Onora O’Neill hesitantly wonders in connection to Anscombe, is divine law here actually understood as divine command?

There clearly is a Christian tradition that locates the source of moral obligation in God and whose proponents are often referred to as ‘divine command theorists.’ Yet, this does not mean that for them moral obligation simply is divine command or legislation–that the former is semantically or explanatorily inexplicable without reference to the second. We can quite consistently suppose that all moral obligation has its source in God’s dictates while explaining what moral obligation is, or taking it as primitive, in a way that makes it independent of the divine. This is to say that the concept of moral obligation can be distinct from the concept of what is divinely dictated, even if moral obligation happens to arise through divine command or legislation. For it may be that coming to be morally obligated to do something requires certain conditions to be fulfilled–whether that is being commanded to do so by God, being the action that maximises utility, etc.–yet the moral obligatoriness does not have to be identified with its cause; the moral obligation is the normative claim upon us, and this we do not have to identify with the authoritative structures that generate this claim on us. This line of thought cautions against the potential category error of simply equating an object or event (e.g. God commanding you to do x) with the normative power it gives rise to (e.g. the moral obligation to x), for even if it is the former that give rise to the latter this does not mean that the latter are no more than the former. Thus, it may seem that Anscombe would have to do more to bridge the gap between moral obligation and divine dictates if she is to show that moral obligation becomes incoherent when removed from a religious framework, with it lacking some sort of independent basis.

The second question raised asks about Anscombe’s understanding of law. She often uses ‘law’ and ‘command’ in a seemingly interchangeable way, but does this accompany a deeper conflation of the concepts of law and command? O’Neill expresses the suspicion that Anscombe actually thought in terms of divine command when claiming to be discussing divine legislation, ignoring the crucial formal differences between laws and commands, instead treating divine law as fiat. But what is characteristic of laws is their universality, something O’Neill expresses by saying that they “prescribe for all cases within their scope.” We might think of this in Kantian terms, as no doubt O’Neill is predisposed to, whereby this universality characteristic of law is important insofar as its moral function is to confront the temptation to make an exception in one’s own case. Transfigured into a religious dimension this might become an insistence on law so as to oppose something like the following thought, ‘Ordinarily doing this would be wrong, but God has special plans for me that require me to do it.’

Evidence that O’Neill points to so as to demonstrate this lack of awareness of the distinct formal structure of laws is Anscombe’s focus upon the source of law, this being her only objection to those who advance law conceptions of ethics without a divine element. To expand upon O’Neill’s hints, perhaps a good example of this is Anscombe’s brutally swift dismal of Kantian self-legislation:

Kant introduces the idea of ‘legislating for oneself’, which is as absurd as if in these days, when majority votes command great respect, one were to call each reflective decision a man made a vote resulting in a majority, which as a matter of proportion is overwhelming, for it is always 1-0. The concept of legislation requires superior power in the legislator.

Yet this rather misses the point, for with respect to the notion of self-legislation the emphasis is very much on the legislation rather than the role of the self (O’Neill may demur at this point). What is important here is not the misleading picture of the agent that somehow binds or outvotes itself, but rather the fact that the agent is following maxims with the formal structure of laws, stripped of all partiality. In following these rationalised maxims, ones where no unjustifiable exceptions are made simply because it is I who is acting, we act in a way proper to being whose nature is itself infused with rationality, with the laws thus no longer being alien impositions: this is the self-legislative component.

Anscombe shows little sensitivity to the formal universality of laws, here or elsewhere. Her focus is upon the source of law, which she thinks must be divine if it is to be sufficiently authoritative, appears indifferent to the fact it is law under discussion at all. This seems to prevent her from appreciating some of attractions of the key alternative law conceptions of ethics that are relatively independent of a divine legalism. So, given that Anscombe thinks that emphatic moral concepts only make sense when allied to a law conception of ethics, of a legalistic sense of right and wrong, then it may seem little wonder that she is eager to recommend rejecting talk of the emphatic moral ‘ought’ for those who wish to adhere to a secular ethics. Yet, as we have seen, even the divine command tradition itself, not to mention other strains of Christian thought, does not seem to provide her with unambiguous support. This is because the implications of Anscombe’s second thesis may seem to require that the emphatic moral concepts are prone to be deployed incoherently outside of a divine command conception of ethics because all there is to moral obligation is to be divinely commanded, whereas it seems we could employ an independent notion of moral obligation, as someone like Suarez purportedly does. Arguably, this is not a decisive objection though insofar as we may think that even with some understanding of what moral obligation would amount to outside of the explanatory framework of a divine law conception of ethics, there would be still be systematic pressures disposing us to incoherent moral judgements insofar as we would still be unable to make sense of the source of moral obligation since secular ethics will not appeal to God as legislator and will require some as yet unproven stand-in. In this situation, we may be best advised to explore the aretaic alternatives like Anscombe suggest.

St. Paul and Hegel

Here, in this section I want to pick up on what it is a surprising omission from Anscombe’s account given her Christian convictions, even given the polemical style of her paper. This is that there is next to no consideration of anti-legalistic conceptions of ethics from those within the Christian tradition. Her references to ‘Hebraic-Christian’ thought occlude not just minor cosmetic differences amongst religious thinkers about the relation between law, morality and the divine but also radical disagreements over the relation of these three notions. Here, I shall briefly point to two such thinkers, Saint Paul and Hegel–hardly insignificant figures.

Paul had good reason to confront a law conception of ethics inasmuch as it was a pressing political issue within the early Church. The evangelising that Paul dedicated his attention to was faced with a pressing practical problem, one that required Paul to devise a theoretical, but no less concrete, solution. (Here we can see why Paul’s reputation amongst Marxists as the Lenin of Christianity is well deserved!) The problem concerned the issue of whether new initiates into the Church should be required to hold to the Abrahamic law; a matter that crystallised over whether they ought to be circumcised or not. Paul was torn between placating Jewish Christians who were predominantly in favour of a hardline adherence to the Jewish law and the Gentile Christians who were not eager to adopt a strange new set of legalistic injunctions.

It can be tempting to read this debate as one with a narrow relevance, of a dispute over the merely particularised traditional law of the Jews and so of little relevance to our concerns, those of the moral law in general. However, this would be a mistake. This is because Paul stresses throughout his letters that what is at stake in this conflict is Christian identity as such, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Condensed in this opposition is not the particular ethnicised law of the Jews against its rejection; rather, it is the opposition between particular law and the universal ‘cosmic’ law. In rejecting the disjunction of Jew or Gentile, in saying neither/nor, Paul thus rejects law in general. Or rather, he asserts the priority of love over law, which it is tempting to read as akin to an assertion of the priority of the good over the right. Paralleling this subsumption of law under love is one that similarly subsumes duty under grace (kharis): one is not redeemed by works, one cannot ‘earn one’s due’ that way. So, rather than the divine acting as a source of legislation as in Anscombe, Paul thus marginalises any legalistic obligatoriness more forcefully than she does. Although all this is articulated in a religious mode, Paul is rather paradoxically in many ways a stridently secular thinker; at least, he has been easily appropriated by some materialists in this spirit. For obvious reasons though, he is not a central figure in moral philosophy, despite his relevance to issues such as the law conception of ethics and although much of his thought is deep and tacitly argumentative enough to merit it.

Finally then, we can go on to consider Hegel as another anti-legalistic thinker who remains in the Christian tradition, but again whose opposition to a law conception of ethics is somewhat different than Anscombe’s critique. The Philosophy of Right does have a place for moral laws within the structures of Sittlichkeit, though arguably in a muted and secondary role. Here though, I shall maintain the religious theme by considering Hegel’s early theological writings, which attack law conceptions of ethics in an even more polemical fashion than Anscombe.

Of particular relevance here is the extended, unpublished essay, ‘The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate.’ This represents Hegel’s first extended reckoning with Kant and in which the latter’s legalism along with his formalism is indicted. The hero of the tale, who Hegel often opposes to Kant, is Jesus. This is a Jesus who is a radically anti-legalistic figure, as can be seen from a representative passage:

The spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.

The morality that Jesus is said to be above here is, of course, Kantian Moralität; and the problem with this morality is ineluctably entwined with its articulation in laws to which we are obligated. More fully, this problem is the split that Hegel sees it as nurturing within the subject between reason and inclination, divisively setting two aspects of the subject into conflict.

Hegel’s solution is, unsurprisingly, a complex one but as with Paul there is no straightforward rejection of law. Rather, in a deeply Pauline fashion, Hegel appeals to the fulfilment (πλήρωμα) of law through love: one that, so to speak, suspends its letter in the name of its spirit. The full details would take us too far afield, so all I wish to note are the deep affinities between these two Christian-centric critiques of law conceptions of the ethical. This makes it all the more strange that Hegel never explicitly mentions Paul. Nevertheless, my closing suggestion is that they might be profitably read together against Anscombe as anti-legalistic thinkers who take this opposition to law to be at the very essence of the Christian tradition and not a melancholy necessity imposed by its decline.

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.

Brandom as a reader of Kant: A revised account of key Brandomian themes

If anyone can stomach yet another tract on Brandom, I’ve been trying to come at the themes of autonomy and objectivity from a different angle. The results are somewhat lengthy, again, so I’ve put them below the fold.

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