Philosophical Therapy & Humanism

At a workshop on Wittgenstein’s methodology which I was at recently, Marie McGinn made a point of underlining the ethical stakes of much philosophical work undertaken in a Wittgensteinian spirit. I won’t try and rehearse exactly what she said here, and will instead examine the topic of naturalism which she raised in this context, but some of what I will say, ultimately, I take to be deeply sympathetic to her view (but be that upon my own head and not hers).

The question of ethics came up here in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks about philosophical problems arising when ‘language goes on holiday’ or is like ‘an engine idling’ rather than doing real work. For if we take philosophical problems to share this form — however diffuse their manifestation and origins — then it seems we are led to a conception of philosophy as a therapeutic set of practices which simply “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

This makes philosophy look like a purely negative activity, and there are certainly places where Wittgenstein appears to embrace this idea. Take PI 118-9, for example:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or other piece of plain nonsense and of other bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of inquiry.

So conceived, philosophy returns us to the everyday. We get back to baseline. This is not something just to be sniffed at since the temptations to fall into philosophical error are deep (and such inclinations are not products of stupidity), and the baseline we get back to is not forever fixed but shifts as our linguistic usage does, requiring some acuity in grammatical investigations to recognise. Nevertheless, something important can seem to go missing here.

Such a philosophy can appear very conservative, lacking the sort of critical function which has animated much of the best philosophical work. For those of us with an affinity to Wittgenstein as well as the post-Kantian tradition, through Hegel and Marx to the Frankfurt school, this presents something of a problem. How do we ensure that our philosophising respects the insights of a therapeutic approach and yet remains able to interrogate our everyday assumptions?

One attractive answer to that question would be to deepen our understanding of the sources of philosophical problems, not resting content with a linguistic turn alone. For language is, of course, a practice — one that takes place in a wider social world. Following this line, there may be room for a marriage of critical theory and therapeutic philosophy. For example, such an approach might try and trace a connection between the perennial temptation to forms of Cartesianism and the alienation engendered by the conditions of life in modernity. The upshot of such an approach would likely not be a philosophical therapy that tried to return the wayward philosopher to ordinary linguistic usage, but rather identified what social conditions would need to be changed in order to stem intuitive but misleading forms of thought. I don’t know much Adorno, but my suggestion here I think might end up sharing some aspects of his approach.

Without going this far though, there are still important tasks that Wittgensteinian methodology can be put too. Here, perhaps the most important is holding the line against virulent forms of reductive naturalism. Recourse to grammatical investigation can be a tool in defending a kind of philosophical humanism: a position which takes human life to be just as substantial and respectable as the domain studied by the natural sciences. Our ordinary activities are shot through with appeals to values, to our dispositions, to the contingencies of our history (a history which no less unfolds in nature than that of supernovae or trilobites). Anatomising these sort of appeals in the manner of a grammatical investigator can help us understand the place of humanity in a natural world, and can be drawn on in resisting the rabid reductive naturalist who wants to evacuate meaning in favour of mechanism. Bare appeals to the phenomenology of human experience are cheap, but grammatical investigation in a Wittgensteinian vein can help draw out the underlying patterns of human activity in a more substantial way. This sort of rich understanding of the role of our human qualities as something which are (and should continue to be) drawn upon without embarrassment in our explanatory endeavours can be employed to stave off the sort of naturalist for whom all this is merely folk psychological self-delusion. It is, of course, not enough to say that ‘this is just what we do’ and expect the reductive naturalist to be satisfied, but this can be an important first step in resisting the breezy dismissal of human attitudes as no more than mere projections onto an indifferent world which a properly scientific cast of mind can see through.

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Kantian Gloom-Watch: Approaching Melancholy Edition

This is from one of Kant’s pre-Critical works, published in 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime:

A profound feeling for the beauty and dignity of human nature and a firmness and determination of the mind to refer all one’s actions to this as to a universal ground is earnest, and does not at all join with a changeable gaiety nor with the inconstancy of a frivolous person. It even approaches melancholy, a gentle and noble feeling so far as it is grounded upon the awe that a hard-pressed soul feels when, full of some great purpose, he sees the danger he will have to overcome, and has before his eyes the difficult but great victory of self-conquest. Thus genuine virtue based upon principles has something about it which seems to harmonize most with the melancholy frame of mind in the moderated understanding.

Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (trans. Goldthwait) p. 62-3.

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.

Hegel and the Form of Law

I love Hegel’s prefaces. In many ways, this makes me a bad Hegelian since Hegel is always complaining about prefaces, at least in philosophical books. He thinks that they can be nothing but “external and subjective remarks” by the author, never getting to the heart of the matter, which for him is the actual development of the concepts and principles that the work concerns. So too, in the Phenomenology (para. 70) he wryly observes that sticking to prefaces and book reviews is a “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown” and which shirks the “labour of the concept [Begriff]”. Nevertheless, I think that Hegel himself writes particularly good, engaging prefaces, which are often less stiff in tone than much of the books they introduce.

When re-reading the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, I came across the following interesting passage:

The particular form of guilty conscience revealed by the type of eloquence in which such superficiality flaunts itself may be brought to your attention here and above all if you notice that when it is furthest from mind [Geist], superficiality speaks most of mind, when its talk is the most tedious dead-and-alive stuff, its favourite words are ‘life’ and ‘vitalize,’ and when it gives evidence of the pure selfishness of baseless pride, the word most on its lips is ‘people’. But the special mark which it carries on its brow is the hatred of law. Right and ethics, and the actual world of justice and ethical life, are understood through thoughts; through thoughts they are invested with a rational form, i.e. with universality and determinacy. This form is law; and this it is which the feeling that stipulates for its own whim, the conscience that places right in subjective conviction, has reason to regard as its chief foe. The formal character of the right as a duty and a law it feels as the letter, cold and dead, as a shackle; for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there, because law is the reason of the thing, and reason refuses to allow feeling to warm itself at its own private hearth.

p.7, Knox translation, bold mine

In this passage, Hegel rails against those who would reject the notion of law and its philosophical analysis in ethical and political matters. In the previous paragraph, he singles out Fries for criticism, who he reports as saying “[i]n the people ruled by a genuine communal spirit, life for the discharge of all public business would come from below, from the people itself; living associations, indissolubly united by the holy chain of friendship, would be dedicated to every single project of popular education and popular service”. (Fries was a contemporary post-Kantian, whose theoretical philosophy includes what is—perhaps unfairly—often thought of as a psychologistic reworking of the transcendental deduction. Politically, he was a nationalist liberal not a million miles away from Hegel, although they disliked each other personally (see Pinkard’s biography of Hegel).)

The first thing that I wondered after reading the original passage was whether this was not just a rebuke to Fries and his ilk but also an implicit criticism of Hegel’s early position, set out in his unpublished Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. In that work, Hegel tries to cast Christianity as a radically anti-legalistic religion, as against the supposed Judaic obsession with a rigid divine code delineating what is permissible and what forbidden. So too, the central categories that he employs in his analysis include ‘life’ and ‘love’. As such, we might think that his insistence on law in the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, and his scornful attitude towards bonds of mere feeling—what we might gloss as appeals to life and love as ethico-political concepts—represents a rebuke of his earlier self.

On closer inspection though, I think that Hegel’s position is remarkably consistent, especially considering that the Philosophy of Right (1821) is the last of Hegel’s books whilst the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate (1799) comes a good seven years or so before Hegel even completes the Phenomenology. To see this, we need to have a clearer understanding of both what the critique of law comes to in the early book and what Hegel finds problematic in the position of those who would reject law in the later book.

Hegel’s early opposition to law is expressed in this passage:

This 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 the laws of legality, of their legal form. The Sermon does not teach reverence for the laws; on the contrary, it exhibits that which fulfils the law but annuls it as law and so is something higher than obedience to law and makes law superfluous.

p.212 Early Theological Writings trans. Knox

What is going on here? To begin, we can examine Hegel’s claim to strip laws of their legal form. This might mean a number of things, which we can bring out by contrasting law with other normative vehicles. We might distinguish laws qua universal, applying impartially to all, from commands qua singular, directed towards an individual (e.g. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ versus ‘Lieutenant, report to base!’). Stripping laws of their legal form might be thought of as a move from a conception of ethics as a neutral set of injunctions that have equal force for all and to a more context-bound conception of the force of ethical demands; perhaps that would be one in which the intelligibility or traction of ethical responsibilities would be dependent upon a ‘thick’ background of conditions that relate those responsibilities to the particular engaged perspective of the agent.

Another option arises if we contrast law with desire. Whilst the validity of a law is categorical, the reason-giving properties of a desire are hypothetical. In other words, if a law has a legitimate authority, it is not for us to decide whether we ought to follow it; whereas if we have a genuine desire, it only provides us with a reason if we decide to endorse it. In this way, we might read Hegel as rejecting the idea that ethics is intelligible or valid independently of the attitude that we take towards ethical responsibilities.

There are four possible claims here then generated by two readings of two contrasts with laws. The two readings are semantic and normative ones: that the intelligibility (semantic) or bindingness (normativity) of ethics is dependent upon some further thing. The two suggestions for this further thing were brought out by contrast to commands and desires. The first contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the particular ‘rich’ context of the agent (e.g. social role or identity, place within an institutional structure or practice, etc.). The second contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the attitude of the ethical agent towards the responsibility in question. As such, the four positions are semantic contextualism, normative contextualism, semantic attitude-dependence and normative attitude-dependence.

Having set out these options, I want to set them aside. Although each of them arguably has a Hegelian ring (although I would be wary of attributing them all to Hegel), I do not think that any of them is what Hegel is driving at here. Rather, I think that, in talking of “stripping laws of legality, of their legal form”, Hegel has their imperative form in mind. This is neither their universality (as denied by contextualism) nor their attitude-independent validity (as denied by normative attitude-dependence). So, the idea is that what the law mandates (its content) still has a claim upon everyone regardless of the situation they find themselves in, and too regardless of what they think or feel about it. But while Hegel’s Jesus’ Sermon still “exhibits that which fulfils the law”, it “annuls it as law“.

What does this mean though? Bob Stern helpfully draws a comparison with Kant’s notion of the ‘holy will’ on this point. For Kant, a holy will is one that does not feel a tension between morality and sensibility (perhaps through having no sensibility, as with God), and so one which acts perfectly rationally. Such a will would be under no strict obligations—would not feel the force of compulsion to do its duty—because the countervailing pressures of pathological desire would be absent from it. Whilst this is not a perfect analogy to what Hegel is after, I think that something like it comes into play. The idea seems to be that when we approach responsibility in the right way we can transfigure it from a law which governs us into an non-coercive act of love. As Hegel puts it:

To complete subjection under the law of an alien Lord, Jesus opposed not a particular subjection under a law of one’s own, the self-coercion of Kantian virtue, but virtues without lordship and without submission, i.e. virtues as modifications of love.

p.244

But does Hegel retain such a conception of the perils of law in the Philosophy of Right? Can’t we see in his early work a “special mark which it carries on its brow”, namely, “the hatred of law”? It might seem as if Hegel’s talk of love is saccharine romanticism, no better than the “immediate sense-perception” and “caprice” that he later finds in Fries. I do not want to suggest that there are no discontinuities between Hegel’s two positions, but I think they are very much more minimal than this characterisation suggests.

Firstly, Hegel’s discussion of love is in reference to a theoretical concept that he develops throughout the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate rather than gesturing towards some sort of emotional state. The role that love plays in Hegel acts as a forerunner to his concept of Spirit, although undergoing some important revisions before emerging as that latter idea. Even so, in its original use it does not merely pick out a feeling (in the crude sense of a ‘mental state’) but a complex interpersonal relationship that binds people together.

Secondly, I think it is important to recall Hegel’s insistence that the content of law still be ‘exhibited’. That is, the law still specifies what we ought to do; the question is how we are to relate to that responsibility, not whether or not it is actually reason-giving for us. That is why I did not want to assimilate Hegel’s point to what I’ve called normative attitude-dependence: the idea that we have to first endorse something for us to have a reason to pursue it. By acting in a certain way, the law-form becomes superfluous for us, but that is not what Hegel will later paint Fries’ position as leading to. He seems to suggest that Fries is negatively determined by his rejection of law, such that he must reject law and turn to bonds of brotherhood and friendship as a separate normative or political standard.

Finally, I think the crucial part of the long passage quoted from the Philosophy of Right is this: “for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there”. Here, Hegel makes it clear that he is not recommending law just for its own sake, or for its practical efficacy, but as something in which an agent can recognise themselves as free. An appeal to what Hegel calls “the broth of ‘heart, friendship, and inspiration'” fails to secure the right subject-relation in which people can be free. Indeed, excessive focus upon spontaneous upwellings of emotion and creativity can make law seem fusty, alien and oppressive, rather than being the true foundation of freedom.

I take it to be a key feature of Hegel’s mature views that freedom (secured by a relation to law) requires two central components: that certain objective conditions obtain and that certain subjective conditions obtain. It is in light of this two-fold approach that I suggest that we can find a perspective from which the apparent tension between Hegel’s early and late conceptions of lawfulness can be resolved. In the early Hegel, the pressures shaping his reaction to Kantianism mean that the emphasis is laid upon these subjective conditions—namely, our orientation towards our responsibilities, how we think, feel and enact them. In the later Hegel, his more conservative tone (whether genuine or feigned to avoid the real threat of censure) leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of our duties as citizens and ethical beings, as well as the broad shape of the objective social structures needed to realise our freedom, and which Hegel thought that progressive modern states were approaching.

Nevertheless, I think we can see both early and late Hegel as bringing together substantially similar subjective and objective conditions, taken as encompassing our own comportments and wider societal structures understood via an analysis of the concepts of right, in his diagnoses of modern life. Both share the idea that the form of law, of universal principles, can present a threat to liberty. This is so whether the danger is agents becoming self-alienated through enslavement to laws they legislate to themselves, or through the all-too-familiar alienation engendered by the impersonal legal-bureaucratic sphere that underlies the institutions of modern public life. But it seems to me that neither of Hegel’s positions represents a rejection of law which would seek to replace the law with something else (e.g. desire, well-being or community).

For the early Hegel, the solution is an ethics that attempts to ameliorate the imperative form of law which brought an oppressive element with it. As for St. Paul though, whose influence I see throughout that book, ‘love fulfils the law’, rather than replaces it. (I am not sure how well this fits with the picture of Paul and the law presented by Adam here.) I have taken up the suggestion that such an ethics is partially illuminated by reference to the ‘holy will’; and if it is right to say that God is love, then a will infused by love may merit description as such a holy will. But again, there is an important sense in which law remains in place regardless; the universal demands of politics and ethics have normative force whether or not we can escape the alienating effects of the law-form.

In the mature Hegel, the insistence on the absolute injunctions of the law are easier to see. But this remains coupled with an analysis of the necessary response to laws if they are to set us free rather than dominate us. We find Hegel saying of laws, “they are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, the subject bears spiritual witness to them as to its own essence.” Here, I suggest both subjective and objective aspects are in play. To overcome alienation from laws will require us to understand them in a way that shows their inner rationality, so that we can come into a ‘homely’ affective and cognitive relation to them. The flip-side of that is ensuring that they, and the institutions and practices that give body to them, actually be rational such that we can express our freedom through them.

Kantian Gloom-Watch: Kant Strikes Back Edition

Not content to be caricatured by the likes of me (and it is a caricature, which I think we take too seriously at our philosophical peril), Kant responds:

As for those [e.g. Kant himself] who play down or outright deny the boasting eulogies that are given of the happiness and contentment that reason can supposedly bring us: the judgment they are making doesn’t involve gloom, or ingratitude for how well the world is governed. Rather, it is based on the idea of another and far nobler purpose for their existence. It is for achieving this purpose, not happiness, that reason is properly intended; and this purpose is the supreme condition, so that the private purposes of men must for the most part take second place to it. Its being the supreme or highest condition means that it isn’t itself conditional on anything else; it is to be aimed at no matter what else is the case; which is why our private plans must stand out of its way.

Kant, Grundlegung, Ak. 4:396

Swings and Roundabouts

I am reading J.M. Bernstein’s Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics with a curious mix of delight and horror. Delight, because he outlines a tremendously exciting argument that reconstructs an Adornian story about disenchantment, conceptuality and the role of rationality in connection with normativity, all under the auspices of a particularistic realism. Horror, for the same reason: this is because in large part it is almost exactly the same story that I had hoped to tell about normativity, here told simply at the level of ethics. So, while on the one hand, it’s fantastic to see this story developed in such detail, I keep having lots of mercenary disappointment that someone has ‘got there first’. In terms of my thesis, my strategic aim was to counterpose McDowell and Brandom’s positions, side with McDowell in the broad outlines but to insist on a number of necessary inflections or modifications to his position. It now looks like Adorno (or at least Bernstein) has already broken much of the ground in this respect. In a way, of course, this is great, because it saves me a lot of difficulty bumbling about in the semi-darkness, allowing me more time to rigorously establish and finesse the position I want to develop. But, on the other hand, to a large extent it robs it of what little originality (I thought) my project had. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’ll be plenty in Adorno’s story as Bernstein reconstructs it that I will want to challenge or improve upon.

Either way, it’s a very good read (and I highly recommend Bernstein’s audio lectures on Kant and Hegel too). Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction:

[I]n his account of the disenchanting of the world, Adorno contends that not only does it eliminate previous objects of ethical esteem, but more emphatically and importantly it eliminates what I want to call the forms of object relation that previously had been manifest in ethical reasoning: experience, knowledge, and authority. Disenchantment thus effects not only beliefs (trading in bad ones for good ones), and a transformation of the objects of knowledge (eliminating certain certain items — starting with the gods and coming to an extinguishing of values as belonging to the furniture of the universe) but even more significantly our modes of cognitive interaction with objects. It is in virtue of the enlightenmnet critique of reliance on experience and authority that that ethical cognition too disappears (into sentiment, emotivism, will etc.); and with the disappearance of ethical cognition the entire structure of moral insight collapses.

J.M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics, p.32