I’ve started using my Twitter account and will be posting regular philosophy links, as well as the occasional tidbit on music and literature. If you’re a regular reader here, I’d reckon there’s a fair chance you’ll stumble over something interesting there now and then. Either way, I’ll try to keep the noise-to-signal ratio as healthy as possible. My user name is bombthepast — alternatively, just follow this link.
Author Archives: Tom
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.
Class as ethnicity
At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Gordon Brown delivered a particularly resonant line, claiming that Tory inheritance tax policy had been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.” This has produced a howl of disgust from sections of the commentariat — tellingly, the Grauniad and the BBC at the forefront. We’re told that this is some palaeolithic regression to ‘class war’ and the ‘politics of envy’. And besides, voters don’t like it, so why dredge it up, since “it makes us almost as uncomfortable as the secrets of our sex lives.” (Henry Porter in today’s Guardian) We wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, would we?
Obviously, there is something hypocritical about the rallying to these class-laden terms. For example, Blair went to Fettes, the ‘Eton of the North’, and Harriet Harman was a pupil at the exclusive St. Paul’s Girl’s (not to mention her being the niece of the Earl of Longford). In other words, Labour MPs are hardly all organic representatives of council estates and back-to-backs across the land. So, even if the composition of the shadow cabinet takes things to an extreme, you might think the backgrounds of many in the Labour party makes any masses-against-the-classes rhetoric look somewhat awkward. True as this might be, this response alone fails to engage with any of the most important dimensions of discussions of class.
The most powerful and all-too-common temptation today is to think of class as a quasi-ethnic category, inherited from one’s relatives and indelibly imprinted by the circumstances of one’s childhood. Absurd as ideas like good ‘breeding’ sound — which revealingly distill the notions of biological and social formation — these categories persist in different forms at both ends of the social strata. I think John Prescott’s conception of class presents a version of this. For him, the experience of being a cruise-ship waiter confronted him with the sneering, unthinking arrogance of an aristocracy with an epic sense of entitlement. This was a glimpse of another world, where economic injustice was gilded with a particular aesthetic — accented and dressed, with time only for their own Oxbridge or titled elite. This, rightly, sparked resentment in him. But for a nominal socialist this seems curiously depoliticised, despite his calls for educational reform. Undoubtedly, education still matters in the reproduction of class distinctions, from the persistence of the old-boys-style networks of contacts and connections, to the creation of that distinctive public school confidence (on this see the discussions sparked off by Nina at Infinite Thought). But for Prescott, it feels like the passions fuelling his political invocation of class are the feelings of inadequacy which his failing the 11-plus brought on, alongside his disgust at the attitudes and sensibility of the upper-classes. These ought not to be brushed aside, but nor do they have seemed to have brought the structural analysis of class into constant focus. That is, his dysphoria was not properly put to work. Rather, class remained a matter of ‘roots’, and fundamentally a fidelity to the manners and milieu you found yourself growing up around. Economics seems only a peripheral aspect of all this — one more factor in making up your social life-world.
When class is discussed at all today, this kind of ethnological understanding is never far from the surface. Most people identify with the class they take their parents to have been, regardless of their current circumstances (something borne out by social attitudes studies, if I recall correctly). Here, we have seemed to have regressed beyond even the crude distinctions between the working class as manual or menial labourers and the middle classes as merchant, manager or professional. Instead, it’s your ‘breeding’ that counts: whether you grew up in a detached house, whether your parents went to the theatre or the dogs, how ‘regional’ your pronunciation. If class is this sort of inherited aesthetic-cultural mélange, hardened by a schooling to match, it is not necessarily an entirely worthless category. The issues around confidence and connections remain, for instance. However, something much more important is occluded, as can be seen when we adopt other class-based categories.
The classical Marxist understanding of class is not primarily cultural but economic. The proletariat are those who must sell their labour power, in virtue of lacking ownership of means of production. Conversely, the bourgeoisie own the means of production, and are able to hire workers, purchasing their labour-power, and appropriating the surplus value produced. These categories allow a structural analysis of society, whereby it becomes apparent that class struggle is a motor force of historical change.
This sense of class is obviously not orthogonal to the quasi-ethnic one to which most people seem to cling. Toffs tend to be stinking rich; and those filthy oiks tend to be poor. But what is harder to discern is the nature of the relationship between those facts. Conservatives often think that the cream has risen, that the industrious and thereby deserving can and do make it to the top. But the relationship between social structure and the abilities and character of individuals is far more complex than this, since it has a dialectical nature, insofar as people are not ready-formed but partly produced by the very social structures that they then find themselves confronted with. Insisting on the politico-economic conception of class, instead of the pseudo-ethnicised one, provides the analytic basis for opening up these questions. In doing so, it makes sense of an inherently political dimension to class, as part of its demonstrating that economics must always give way to political economy.
This classical Marxist approach to class is important, but it can be enriched by introducing further categories. Michael Albert makes a distinction between workers and the ‘co-ordinator class.’ Both are subordinate to capital, but members of the co-ordinator class, such as lawyers, doctors, academics and managers, have a significantly larger degree of control over their labour in the workplace than other workers. Albert claims those in this class “accrue information, skills, confidence, energy and influence on daily outcomes sufficient to largely control their own tasks and those of workers below.”
This is a significant addition to the distinction between proletarian and bourgeoisie, and allows us to articulate further class issues. Within the co-ordinator class, stratification is taking place: professional judgement is being replaced by an increasing managerialism, pursued through a subjection to endless assessment criteria — an idiotic culture of distorting targets and self-justification. But just as unionised French workers cannot simply cling to Fordism, the co-ordinator class cannot simply repel attacks on their status. Again, Albert puts this well in his attempts to rearticulate socialism:
“Out with the old boss, in with the new boss” is not a strategy that ends bosses. To retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure coordinator class rule. Our movements and projects must eliminate the monopoly of capitalists on productive property but also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work. Indeed, this is what reimagining socialism is primarily about.
Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — has recently underlined this need for an anti-managerialist front in his Capitalist Realism as part of a project of ensuring worker autonomy (see also his blog posts about class). So, again, we should not shy away from a class-based politics, so long as we’re employing the right sorts of class categories.
Update: Guardian Daily episode: The return of class war — including some level-headed analysis by Madeline Bunting, insisting on the continued relevance of class in politics.
Autonomy, Normativity and Dependence
Autonomy is a kind of independence through self-governance. Kant was the most famous advocate of autonomy, thinking that it held the key to morality, though scores of other philosophers have thought it to be vitally important. It's one of those essentially contested concepts, though. People mean many different things by it — and this diversity seems not merely to be a product of linguistic dispute, but arguments over what sort of life is most worth living.
My conception of autonomy takes it to consist in being responsive to rationally authoritative norms. In short, we exercise an important sort of independence insofar as we manage to act upon reasons rather than any other contingent motivations we happen to be struck by. Here, what reasons we have are understood widely, and are not limited to the results of reflective inquiry: any rational actions could count, insofar as we've grasped what, if anything, we ought to do.
Constructivism about norms thinks that normative authority comes from correctly following procedures of practical reason. What we should do, ultimately, results from the structure of reason itself. Constructivists, taking their cue from a reading of Kant, also think that autonomy is important. Indeed, they think that autonomy somehow grounds normativity, providing internal criteria which broadly determine what we ought to do. This too involves the claim that freedom involves a kind of responsiveness to norms — those prescribed by the very structure of agents' practical reasoning and thus ones which are not externally imposed on the agent, and thus fit for expressing the agent's own autonomy. This is a sophisticated and ambitious kind of 'bootstrapping' strategy, as it is often called.
On the surface, it can seem that the shared commitment of myself and various constructivists to the idea that freedom is a form of normative responsiveness means that our views are substantively similar. However, my position with respect to normativity is a modest form of realism, whereby there is a kind of irreducibly normative authority of which people can become aware. In contrast, constructivism is a proceduralism which models normativity on the structures of a conception of democratic public reason. This is not what I want.
Instead, my variety of freedom as a kind of normative responsiveness is not one wherein we follow structural rules in order to achieve a legitimate outcome, but rather one in which we have a normative vision. (Ocular imagery is now deeply unfashionable in philosophy, but I think it ought to be reclaimed.) The point of the visual metaphor here is to emphasise that there is something there to be discovered, and its revelation to ourselves provides the backdrop against which we can act freely. So understood, being free requires us to see the world aright — understanding the significance of some situation which we are in, the requirements which it imposes upon us, whether or not we recognise them as ours. Acting upon this basis and within these bounds, with our eyes open and the particulars of the situation clear, including the nature of currents of motivation and the virtue and vices of different responses, provides us with a kind of autonomy. This is an ability to avoid being pushed around by brute forces and act with some purchase over ourselves. We thereby avoid being merely determined — the alternative is being influenced by factors whose significance is unclear, such that we have little basis for orienting ourselves and knowing what to pursue.
We may be unable, or just plainly fail, to resist unfavourable motivations or influences upon us. Even when fully aware of them and their true significance, this may still be so — the lure of the seedy desire, the satisfactions of high-handed moralism, may be too great — but this points to another sort of freedom: autocracy. This is the strength, favourable make-up, acuity or psychological agility to manage one’s psychology so as to execute a sense of what ought to be done. Autonomy and autocracy form a distinction but not a dualism: often knowing what to do is best conceived as a hands-on practical activity, where we are not guided by a clear intention nor criteria reflectively arrived at.
Autonomous agency, especially when put forward as an ideal, has often seemed retrograde though. It seems to hark back to the patriarchal ideals of the eighteenth century bourgeois: the rugged individual, independent and beholden to no-one who he does not choose to contract with in his own self-interest. Obviously, this is an ideological fiction: as a description of the conditions of any recognisably human life, which are ineliminably social, and always contain some moments of radical dependence, such as in childhood, sickness and infirmity; and as an ideal, with its autistic disregard for genuine communication, non-self-interested openness to the needs of others, and so on.
In implicitly endorsing autonomy then, it must be recalled that this is balanced through its entwinement with a conception of normative vision. So, we are not faced with egoism, and certainly not as an ideal. All sorts of things, people and situations make demands upon us and otherwise bend normative space in ways that we ought to respond to beyond our self-interest. On my conception of autonomy, failure to see this is a paradigmatic abrogation of freedom: fully free acts are those taken in as much awareness of their significance as possible.
Still, isn’t autonomy taken as an ideal in a problematic way? Egoism may fall by the wayside, but don’t other types of independence enter here as putatively valuable without justification? For example, it can seem that the influence of institutions, traditions and our peers are hastily too disdained, whereby it is ourselves who must pronounce upon right and wrong, whereby they are treated as mere interference. However, this charge would neglect two further features of my view.
Firstly, there is a role for second nature, as the training and conditioning which we all acquire in our development. In other words, we need to understand normativity in the context of the educative formation of people. This will involve acquiring and then being able to refine the skills of language use, empirical perception, coalescing of an emotional character and cognitive inquiry which are vital to being able to make the kinds of discriminations necessary to see the world in its full normative significance. Fully formed human agents are not possible without the nurtured and guided development which social forms such as institutions and traditions enable.
Secondly, often it will be difficult or impossible to exercise such skills without the concrete help or input of others. There may be more or less empirical cases of this. For example, there are inquiries so big as to be impractical if undertaken alone, as with many scientific projects. Or else, loneliness may retard our emotional health, leaving us unable to calibrate and hone our reactions. There are also cases where dialogical interaction seems integral. For example: intervening in an academic debate, in the humanities, say, where it is important that you are responding to ways of looking at the world which conflict with your own conception, going beyond your own horizons and ‘prejudices’. So, there may be various kinds of prompting from others which the social world affords us, and which enable us to get a better grip on the world, including its normative significance. This helps realise and sustain the skills which socially-mediated Bildung endows.
So, I think it is possible to advocate autonomy without falling into the ideological traps which have doubtless motivated many of its champions. We can accomodate varieties of dependence within the normative landscape which autonomy, as I conceive it, must be parasitic on. In this way, dependence becomes a condition of independence. The lesson here is that any attempt to think of autonomy as an ‘inner citadel’, an existentialist leap of willing, or an egoistic rugged individualism, ought to be challenged by the advocate of autonomy themselves.
Bad Habits: The Philosopher as Concept-Monger
In the analytic tradition, one popular characterisation of philosophy has been that it is conceptual analysis. After the Quinean attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction, this view has become less popular, but it still has its adherents. The idea is that philosophers take a problem (e.g. free will) and then decompose it into a set of pertinent concepts (e.g. responsibility, determinism, freedom, agency), clarify what these concepts might mean and how they relate to each other, and thereby hope to remove the air of mystery which hangs over the unanalysed problem. Ordinarily, at most, such a philosopher might recommend we use a word in a different way (e.g. talking of ‘free agents’ but not ‘free actions’ or vice versa), or stop invoking certain concepts at all (e.g. final causes). But there is another less conservative model of philosophy which also takes its object to be concepts, most often associated with recent continental thought.
Deleuze thinks philosophy is the “continuous creation of concepts.” (WIP: 8.) In part, this is meant to align philosophy more with productive activities, which make and create, than those that test and observe — philosophy is to be more poesis than theoria. Deleuze brings his own inflections to the notion of the concept, and thereby philosophy as concept creation too. But the details of Deleuze are not my concern here. Instead of criticism of Deleuze, my focus here is the kind of uses (or misuses) to which this idea of philosophy as concept-creation has been put.
The main ill-effect of the idea of philosophy as concept-creation which I want to point to here has been its reinforcement of one way of approaching philosophers. So, we get the philosopher-as-conceptual-toolsmith model. At its worst, we end up with synecdoche run amok, where one prominent idea comes to dominate everything else about a philosopher’s work — Wittgenstein = language games, Foucault = power-knowledge, Levinas = the Other, Badiou = the Event, etc. For example, Simon Critchley describes the post-Kantian landscape thus:
you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. (New British philosophy: 187)
Similarly, Graham Harman claims that Heidegger only really had one idea which he endlessly repeats, namely the tool-analysis. But even without this extreme hermeneutic reductionism, there is a real coarsening which can go on when we chisel down a philosopher to a handful of headline concepts.
All of this is not to say that philosophers do not produce new concepts. Nor is a plea for endless textual analysis and scholarly ensconcement such that we never put a philosopher’s ideas to work in a new context. And neither does it display a blindness to the realities of communicating philosophical ideas in circumstances where people do not have the time or inclination to master more than the headline ideas of many thinkers. Instead, all I want to do is make the observation that emphasising the concept-creation model of philosophy too much can promote some dubious tendencies in both historiography and contemporary critical debate.
Firstly, unsurprisingly, it often leads to trading in caricatures and straw men. Second, it tends to drive a mechanical style of philosophy, whereby the aim is to ‘apply’ the concepts of the master-philosopher to a given material rather than approach it afresh — ‘I will now give a Foucauldian/Wittgensteinian/SR analysis of x’. Third, it tends to occlude the historical dimension of much philosophy (responding to a certain set of material circumstances; intervening in a historically evolving tradition). Fourth, it can also shroud what is valuable in philosophical work, which sometimes is the purchase which a new concept provides, but is often dissolving a bogus problem, reframing a question to allow it to be answered, effecting a more diffuse change of perspective on an issue, instilling a sense of Entfremdung with respect to something we’ve taken for granted, and so on. All these dangers make me wary of overplaying the image of the philosopher as a forge for concepts.
The New World
At the end of the month, I will be travelling to New York and New England for a few weeks. Whilst there, I would like to fit in at least some philosophy — not least because the hard-boiled temperaments of American grad students have made me curious about the intellectual climate there. I’ll be travelling with my housemate (a non-philosopher), and our rough schedule is as follows: NYC 26-28th Oct; The Adirondacks 29th Oct-3rd Nov; Boston 4th-7th Nov; NYC 8th-13th Nov. I know there’s various things happening in the area around then (only some of it I can catch):
Charles Larmore seminar, NYC, 5th Nov
Jonathan Lear, Tanner Lectures, Cambridge, MA, 4th-6th Nov
The Foundations of Morality Conference, NYC, 6-7th Nov
If there’s any other philosophy events which you think I might be interested in, then it would be great if you could let me know. And anything else besides too (post-punk gigs, riot grrrl nights, modernist art exhibitions…) would be helpful, though I don’t imagine being at a loss for things to do.
Three Minute Philosophy: Locke
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.
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.
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.
The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.43
My copy of Dominic Fox’s Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria arrived on Wednesday, unexpectedly early. It’s brief but potent, much like its recent and upcoming fellows in the Zero Books series, such as Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism. The theme is artistic and political forms of deep sadness. It ranges from music (Codeine, Xasthur) to poetry (Hopkins, Coleridge, Larkin) to politics (Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF). This week Dominic has been posting excerpts on his blog, which give a good feel of the book as a whole. For what it’s worth, it comes highly recommended by me.
3 Quarks Daily Final
My post on Philosophy as Bildung has somehow made it through to the final of the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize. The judge is the esteemed analytic philosopher of mind Daniel C. Dennett. Some of the other finalists have expressed excitement at Dennett reading and possibly commenting upon their post, though I must admit that the prospect of coming to the attention of regular 3QD reader David Byrne (of Talking Heads) is the more exciting one for me as a New Wave and post-punk fan. The nine finalists are as follows:
- 3 Quarks Daily: Penne For Your Thought
- Der Wille Zur Macht und Sprachspiele: Nietzsche’s Causal Essentialism
- Grundlegung: Philosophy as Bildung
- Justin Erik Halldór Smith: The Fundamentals of Gelastics
- PEA Soup: Scanlon on Moral Responsibility and Blame
- The Immanent Frame: Immanent Spirituality
- Tomkow: Blackburn, Truth and other Hot Topics
- Underverse: Refuting “It,” Thus
- Wide Scope: Emotions and Moral Skepticism
Update: Winners announced here alongside some grumbling by Dennett.