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.

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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!