Posts tagged Immanuel Kant

Philosophical phree-phor-all on reason, morality and happiness

There have been a lot of long, interesting threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads ot make the conversation more easily followed.

Branching off of a conversation which began (several turns of the conversation before) with a discussion of the recent May Day immigration freedom March in Las Vegas, Aster raised some questions about the relationship between reason, morality and happiness:

I’m with the morally ambiguous side of the Force….

I think integrity and spiritual independence are neccesary to make life worth living. I think controlling people is a terrible way to live, and that friendship is one of life’s deepest pleasures. I think learning to give others a chance to show their best is essential in the eternal search for that most rare treasure of the intelligent mind. I think we need to carefully set up a society which lets people live according to what can most move them. I think we need social codes which set the rules slightly more sternly than the way we ourselves would find it worthwhile to act. and I think that living with passion and seriousness can add immense depth to existence.

But ultimately I do not believe in the respectable sort of morality. I see no evidence. Ayn Rand claimed that you can be be both passionately self-interested and classically moral, but I don’t believe she was that innocent, and all my evidence suggests that she was offering something a bit too neatly good to be true. Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness. I don’t see it, not in human society’s bloody world. I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality, Charles offers a pure model of perfect morality which tends to drive out his warmth of happiness. My experience tells me that we will find that love can make us selfishly selfless and that pain can make us degraded monsters at the whim of society and circumstance, and that one’s energy is better spent trying to be true to thine own self than in worrying about whether one is good. But I am curious: if morality and happiness really do perfectly correlate, I would really like to know, as it would make the math much easier.

— Aster, 6 May 2009 8:23pm

Roderick replied:

Aster,

Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness.

I think my own view would be best described as saying that reason and morality are necessary for happiness but not sufficient for it. Dammit, Jim, I’m an Aristotelean, not a Stoic!

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 9:26pm

Me:

Like Roderick, my view is that reason and morality are necessary but not sufficient for happiness. (Also, specifically, that they’re necessary conditions because they are constituent factors of happiness, not just because they are instrumental to attaining or sustaining it.)

I feel that Roderick’s strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality,

I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?

— Rad Geek, 6 May 2009 10:15pm

Roderick:

Ditto on constitutive as opposed to instrumental.

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 11:04pm

Clarissa the Vampire intervened:

Feasting on the soul of a truly happy person makes me happy. It is better than chocolate. Would I be happier without this?

— Clarissa the Vampire, 7 May 2009 7:55am

Me:

Well, depends on how you conceive of happiness, I suppose. If you think of happiness as being constituted by some sort of psychological state — momentary pleasure, or habitual pleasure, or some sort of overarching feeling of satisfaction or contentment, or… — then, who knows? Maybe vampires have happy lives. But I don’t think that happiness is constituted only by psychological states. At least, not in the sense of happiness that Roderick and I are using (which is, roughly, the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia, and which has to do with leading a happy life rather than just with feeling happy).

On my view, psychological states are part of happiness but not all of it, so that (among other things) the exercise of intelligence, ethical living, the extent to which one’s psychological states are based on truth, and the nature of the enjoyments that one takes pleasure in, are all relevant. So, for example, someone who is pleased or satisfied all the time, but based on a lie, is to that extent not living a happy life, even though she may feel like she is (suppose she believes she has a happy marriage, when in fact her wife is actually a duplicitous creep, who constantly lies to her, cheats on her, destroys little things just of hers just for the pleasure of it, and talks shit about her behind her back; suppose also that her wife is very good at deceiving, so she never finds out about any of this as long as she lives; I don’t think that qualifies as a happy life). Similarly, someone who gets their pleasures by hurting or disrespecting or degrading other people (say the wife we just discussed; or a man like Trujillo or Mobutu Sese-Seko or Beria; or your average garden-variety rapist) is thereby living a miserable life, even if, at the time, they do not realize that it is miserable; even if, at the time (as was the case for, say, Trujillo) they feel perfectly pleased with themselves and feel quite content with living that kind of life. The fact that they enjoy the kind of life that they lead, in fact, makes the whole thing more miserable, not less.

So, to answer the question, I do not think that enjoying the destruction or damnation of others makes a vampire happy, even though the vampire may believe that it does. It may please the vampire, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t know whether or not the life of the vampire would be happier without destroying or damning others (I’m sure it depends on the details; different vampires seem to have different relationships with their condition), but if it turns out that the vampire could not live a happy life without destroying or damning others, then I’d say that the vampire cannot live a happy life at all, and would be better off accepting death than continuing to live under such conditions.

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009, 8:24am

Or, in a related note:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

—James Baldwin

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009 8:41am

Roderick:

Here’s a piece I wrote that gives some background on the Aristotelean conception of happiness.

— Roderick T. Long, 7 May 2009, 8:40am

Nick Manley:

[quoting Rad Geek] “I’m not sure I understand the contrast. Isn’t kindness a moral virtue? Aren’t its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?”

Kindness is underrated by too many people. I admit I’ve been kind with people whose views totally repulse me. Anyone whose met me in person knows how soft/traditionally “femme” I am. Nonetheless, I don’t think we can posit kindness as an instrinic good. Like every other principle: it has to be applied contextually. Can a Jew be genuinely kind to an active Nazi stormtrooper? Imagine the emotional denial involved in that. Then again: Roderick may have the right answer here — being angry at someone without hating them. I’d be curious to hear him expound upon this further.

I guess I am personally closer to Aster in behavior…I am no saint in thought or deed — although; I don’t mind living my life according to the principle of non-aggression. I’ve found no conflict between this and my own happiness. There’s no necessity to work for the IRS or the DEA — thank goodness!!! I am not sure I could stomach it.

Nonetheless, I always loved how Rand forged a link between self-interest and “societal interest” — for lack of a better way of stating it. It really does inspire me! It speaks to the desire within me to remake the world — dwindling admist the realities of activistism. The idea that no one has to be sacrificed for the good to occur is revolutionary. Most people I encounter hold the opposite view. It’s at the root of a leveling sense of equality — the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth/value and one has to give up one’s share to allow others to flourish.

[quoting Aster] “and yes- one can find touching friendship with those who do evil and find the deepest kind of happiness.”

Do you mind elaborating on this?

— Nick Manley, 7 May 2009, 9:11am

Marja Erwin:

Roderick:

I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill - it an unnerving situation - or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

Aster has noted that kittens are never happier than when they (the kittens, not Aster) are torturing smaller animals. A rational cat’s sense of happiness might well offend our sense of the good life. A moral theory which ignores our nature as biological creatures, adapted to certain niches and behaviors, has little power to motivate us without alienating us from ourselves. A moral theory which ignores our nature as rational creatures has little power to correct our mistakes and prevent injustice. I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 2:05pm

Roderick:

Marja,

I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

How so? At what point(s) do I make this equivocation?

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill - it an unnerving situation - or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

OK, but that’s changing the hypothetical situation. What I’m claiming is that even in the case as I described it, when people do trust the pill etc., they still wouldn’t prefer it. And for this I simply appeal to the reader’s self-knowledge.

I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

Again, OK, but how and where, precisely, do you think mine equivocates between the two?

Marja:

Roderick:

We may be deluding ourselves about the pill. The idea that we would prefer the false memory to life insurance is justifiably disturbing. If the false memory is unreliable, then it is not worth the money. If the false memory is reliable, that implies exceeding vulnerability in other matters. Our fear and queeziness will bias our responses to the thought-experiment. I don’t think either of us knows how we would respond without that fear.

Furthermore, if the false memory is absolutely reliable, so that we might research some other topic, discover that our insurance account is missing, discover that our pill-taking appointment took place, etc. and still believe we bought the insurance, the example challenges our ability to know anything at all.

On the other issue, I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009 3:39pm

Roderick:

We may be deluding ourselves about the pill.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

So what do you think is wrong with the argument I gave?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 4:51pm

Marja:

Roderick:

[Quoting from Roderick’s paper, linked above. —R.G.]

The point is not that agent-neutral ethical norms can somehow be derived from agent-neutral linguistic norms; the point is rather that once such a thing as agent-neutral value is so much as recognised, it must forthwith be integrated into one’s MaxPref. Thus, although happiness is in some sense an agent-relative value, it turns out to include agent-neutral value as a necessary component.

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

I can’t imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I don’t believe in burden of proof. Anyway, although we come to the same decision in the thought experiment, I’m wondering if we come to the same decision for the reasons you describe, or others which do not support your argument. I would like to see a version which removes these issues, but I’m not sure there can be one.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 6:08pm

Roderick:

Marja,

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

No, they’re two different assertions. My claim was that these other arguments fail to derive agent-neutral from agent-relative value. In other words, there is (so far as I can tell) no argumentative path that starts from purely agent-relative value with no agent-neutral dimension and somehow gets from there to agent-neutral value. It’s the attempts to provide arguments like that that I’m rejecting. But what I was trying to show is that we “always already” start with agent-neutral value indispensably woven into our perspective.

By analogy: there’s no way to get from inside the event horizon of a black hole to the outside. (Aside: at least that’s the science I was taught as a young’un; I gather that theory is in flux now, but let’s assume it for the sake of the example.) But it doesn’t follow that there’s no way to be outside the event horizon; there is a way, but it involves already being outside to begin with. And if I claim that we’re already outside the event horizon, that doesn’t mean that I’m claiming to have found a new way to get out of the event horizon.

I don’t believe in burden of proof.

Can you explain what you mean?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 7:24pm

Marja:

In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

If there is a compelling argument, then there is no need to fall back on a burden of proof.

If there are multiple compelling arguments, then we may choose one working hypothesis, or multiple working hypotheses, on various grounds (elegance, explanatory completeness, etc.).

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 8:00 pm

Roderick:

In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

Oh, that’s not how I understand it. I think that if there’s strong evidence for p, that shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, but it doesn’t make the concept of “burden of proof” inapplicable.

I also think, though, that if it seems to be the case that p, that by itself shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, even if there’s no evidence for p beyond its seeming so. (In other words, seemings count as evidence — in the broad sense, not an inferential sense) So although we could conceivably be mistaken about our motivations in the life insurance case, if it seems to us that out motivation is such and such, we’re entitled to treat it as so until shown good reason otherwise. That’s what I meant in saying that the burden of proof lies with the denier. But I don’t take the life insurance case to be one in which the initial evidence is equally balanced.

Maybe I should make clear that I’m relying on a coherentist rather than a foundationalist (at least in the usual sense of “foundationalist”) approach to epistemic justification; see here.

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 8:35pm – 8:38pm.

Marja:

Mine has been shaped by an awareness of my own and other people’s bad reasoning habits. I used to be a system-builder; now I try to be a system-breaker. I probably ought to re-read Sextus Empiricus, I think I’d appreciate him more now than before,

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 9:32pm

Roderick:

Marja,

Problem is, if you start with the default assumption of your own and everyone else’s bad reasoning habits, you run the risk of undermining your very ability to identify bad reasoning — because how do you know that your argument for such-and-such’s being bad reasoning isn’t itself bad reasoning? Sextus thinks this will lead to a salutary suspension of judgment about everything, but it seems to me more likely to lead to people just picking whatever belief feels good to them, because hey, it’s no more problematic than everything else.

— Roderick T. Long, 9 May 2009, 9:42am

Aster:

[Replying to an anecdote from Roderick about college Randians and Kant.]

I think that Kant was intellectually dishonest in some aspects off his project- I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity. The postulates are embarassingly lame.

Then again, how can you read ‘What is Enlightenment’ or ‘Perpetual Peace’ and totally hate the guy? He may have kicked out some crucial philosophical precondition for the open society, but he was also the first to formulate certain absolutely priority one crucial planks of its program.

. . .

— Aster, 10 May 2009 1:23am

Roderick:

I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity.

I agree; and I think his argument for the necessity of religious belief is embarrassingly bad. But I don’t think his major moves were motivated primarily by that. What’s most important to me in Kant is his anti-psychologism; but I think in both his metaphysics and his ethics he tripped himself up.

In metaphysics he correctly (from my point of view) saw that there are conceptual constraints on what kind of world we can make sense of — but then he slid into thinking that these constraints were imposed on the world by the logical structure of our minds, and so got what Strawson calls the “austere” and “transcendental” sides of his thesis entangled.

In ethics he correctly (again from my point of view, of course) saw that ethics needed to be grounded in the conceptual structure of agency itself and not just in appetites and sentiments. But because he had a fairly crude conception of happiness and left it to the domain of appetites and sentiments, his rescue operation on morality resulted in widening rather than narrowing the gulf between morality and self-interest; whereas I’d have preferred him to follow the Greeks in grounding both in the structure of agency and so keeping them together.

— Roderick T. Long, 10 May 2009 7:49am

Setting aside my editor hat, and putting my contributor hat back on, here’s some remarks on the discussion so far.

First, I certainly agree with Marja that there is more than one sense of the word happiness out there; and it may well be that, in one sense of that word — the sense of the word in which happiness names some kind of psychological condition of sustained pleasure or satisfaction or contentment — it will be the case that a vampire can live a happy life by destroying or damning innocent victims, and that, in general, there’s no philosophical guarantee that human happiness requires, or is even promoted by, either reason or morality. But if happiness is being used in the sense of the condition that is the object of self-interest for intelligent beings, then things get much more complicated. It’s tempting to think that you already understand perfectly well what happiness is, just intuitively, pre-philosophically, without needing to refer to knowledge or reason or moral virtue; that it must be something simple and obvious from casual inspection, and that the thing to do is to grasp that understanding of happiness in hand and then see if it links up in any important ways with knowledge or reason or moral virtue. But I think that that is already to take a wrong step — that it involves a false confidence that cannot hold up under Socratic reflection. Because if happiness (as we’re using the term) is the object of self-interest, then to understand what happiness is, you have to understand what self-interest is, and, while many people very confidently believe that they have a simple account of that (that self-interest is felt pleasure, or the satisfaction of desires, or metabolic survival, or having beautiful things), any serious understanding of self-interest will be intimately connected with knowing something about the nature of the self that has the interest — understanding something about what sort of being you are, and also understanding something about the form of life that sort of being enjoys. In the case of the human being, that very quickly leads you into a discussion of reason, creativity, knowledge, and rational conduct — not just as tools that we wield to get some further good, but also as part and parcel of who and what we are, and as essential to understanding how we dwell on this earth. To get clear on what makes us happy we must slow down and think it through; to think it through well, we must also think through some things about ourselves, and I think that clarity on that necessarily complicates any conception of happiness away from simple psychologistic accounts, and towards accounts that treat knowledge of the truth, rationality, moral virtue, and so on as constituent aspects of a truly happy life.

In reply to Marja on kittens, I do not know whether or not kittens are never happier than when they’re torturing smaller creatures. But if it’s true, it’s precisely because kittens are not the sort of creature that participates in the sort of rationality that human beings do; it should be no surprise that what’s good for a kitten is not always the same as what’s good for a human being, and making a distinction on the basis of human beings’ natural capacities for rational deliberation, creativity, and sympathetic understanding hardly involves ignoring our nature as biological creatures! It’s precisely because of the special faculties we are born with that human creatures have a different standard to live up to.

In reply to Marja on life insurance and the Pill, I think that feeling queasiness about choosing the delusion-pill over real life insurance tends to support Roderick’s point, not to undermine it. If the prospect of choosing a delusion-pill (in order to save money) is, as Marja claims, justifiable, then it seems like the queasiness is an indication of the fact that there is something defective about taking the pill over the life-insurance. (If the pill really does serve my interests just as well or better than the life-insurance, then the queasiness would be irrational, not justifiable.) Or, to take things from the other end, think of what you would say about somebody acting without that fear, who felt no queasiness and so boldly chose the delusion-pill over the life-insurance — what you would say, specifically, about his attitudes towards his family. It seems like this would be a paradigm case of someone who has hardened himself against any kind of concern for other people, to the point of callousness or even cruelty. But I don’t see why, in this case, compassion is being counted as a bias in the thought-experimenter and callousness is not; I think that there’s a lot more merit in arguing that the compassion-motivated queasiness Marja describes is, just as such, more reasonable than callousness, and that the callous deliberator would be the one choosing under a bias against perceiving all the relevant factors in the thought-experiment. Emotional sensitivity does not always distort; emotions can and do reveal relevant aspects of reality, and it is often emotional deadness that would make for a bias in responding to a hypothetical moral dilemma. (For what it’s worth, I discuss the topic of bringing this sort of second-order reflection to bear on thought-experiments, or a topic that’s at least tangentially related to that, in Intuition-Pumping for Fun and Profit.)

In reply to Nick on kindness, I think that it has been underrated because most of the conversation about morality through most of recorded history has been dominated by men’s voices and men’s concerns, and there are specific reasons why patriarchal discussions of morality have centered on virtues like courage (especially martial courage) and justice (especially legalistic or retributive or revolutionary conceptions of justice), while shoving kindness and other forms of caring out to the margins of morality, or out of morality entirely into the realm of etiquette or niceness. I also agree with you that morality doesn’t demand that a Jew be kind to an SA stormtrooper; but there are lots of virtues we’re not always called on to exercise (e.g. gratitude is a virtue, but virtue doesn’t require that I be grateful to anyone and everyone). And I think it’s important to see the difference between saying that the virtue of kindness makes no demands on a Jew with regard to a stormtrooper, and the quite different claim that a Jew would be justified in exercising the opposite vice, by being cruel to a stormtrooper. My position is not that it would be immoral not to be kind in that context, but rather that it would be immoral to be actively cruel, which is something different from just not being kind. The difference is indeed closely related to the difference between anger and hatred.

What do y’all think? Fire when ready in the comments.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #3: Stanley Cavell, Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy, from Must we mean what we say? xxi-xlii

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in thinking about some ordinary language philosophy, and about some of the topics that Stanley Cavell raises in his masterful collection of essays, Must we mean what we say? The book is published by Cambridge University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as Cavell’s fascinating and puzzling forward, in which he addresses the question, What is the audience for philosophy? Is there one? To whom or to what do we address ourselves when we speak in a philosophic mode, and what can that tell us — about philosophy, and about us as would-be teachers or practitioners of it?

Foreword: An Audience for Philosophy

If the essays which follow do not compose a book, collecting resonance from one another, nothing I can say in introducing them will alter that fact. The relations among them are no less complex than the complexities I have sought to trace within the essays themselves; and any concept I would wish to use in characterizing their relations is either itself already at work within the essays, so far as I have been able to put it to work, or else it would require the working of another essay to do what I would want with it. The surface thematic overlappings among the essays are, I think, sometimes surprising, or surprisingly numerous. Because it would be tiresome to list them here, I have made an index of the themes I find, and found as I wrote, to be of guiding importance. Certainly I do not by this mean to suggest that I have fully treated any one of these themes; a number of them are just glanced at. But I have in each case wished that the place I have made for a theme’s appearance provides data for further investigation of it.

Although various portions or drafts of separate essays were being written during essentially the same period, I have as far as possible arranged them chronologically acording to their date of completion. It will be said that two of them—those on Endgame and on King Lear—are pieces of literary criticism, or at best applications of philosophy, while the remainder are (at least closer to being) straight philosophy. I wish to deny this, but to deny it I would have to use the notions of philosophy and of literature and of criticism, and the denial would be empty so far as those notions are themselves unexamined and so far as the impulse to assert such distinctions, which in certain moods I share, remains unaccounted for. Its account must include the obvious fact that these subjects, as I conceive of them, do resemble one another. One line of resemblance is marked where, in the essay on King Lear, I suggest a sense in which that play could be called philosophical drama and where I characterize a philosophical criticism; another line is projected at the points at which I note that each philosophy will produce terms of criticism directed against other philosophies, or against common sense, which are specific to that philosophy, and hence defining for it. In wishing to deny that some of these essays are philosophical and others not, I do not deny that there are differences among them, and differences between philosophy and literary criticism; I am suggesting that we do not understand these differences. At various moments I am led to emphasize distinctions between philosophy and various of its competitors, various interests and commitments and tastes with which, at various moments in history, philosophy was confusible—e.g., between philosophy and science, and art, and theology, and logic.

If I deny a distinction, it is the still fashionable distinction between philosohy and meta-philosophy, the philosophy of philosophy. The remarks I make about philosophy (for example, about certain of its differences from other subjects) are, where accurate and useful, nothing more or less than philosophical remarks, on a par with remarks I make about acknowledgment or about mistakes or about metaphor. I would regard this fact—that philosophy is one of its own normal topics—as in turn defining for the subject, for what I wish philosophy to do. But someone who thinks philosophy is a form of science may not accept that definitio, because his picture is of a difference between, say, speaking about physics and doing physics. And this may be not only a special view of philosophy, it may be a partial view of science; because certain ways in which certain persons talk about science are a part of the teaching of the science, and the ways in which the science is taught and learned may be taken as essential to an understanding of what that science is.

I do assert a distinction throughout these essays which, because it may seem either controversial or trivial, I want to call attention to from the beginning—a distinction between the modern and the traditional, in philosophy and out. My claim is not that all contemporary philosophy which is good is modern; but the various discussions about the modern I am led to in the course of these essays are the best I can offer in explanation of the way I have written, or the way I would wish to write. The essential fact of (what I refer to as) the modern lies in the relation between the present practice of an enterprise and the history of that enterprise, in the fact that this relation has become problematic. Innovation in philosophy has characteristically gone together with a repudiation—a specifically cast repudiation—of most of the history of the subject. But in the later Wittgenstein (and, I would now add, in Heidegger’s Being and Time) the repudiation of the past has a transformed significance, as though containing the consciousness that history will not go away, except through our perfect acknowledgment of it (in particular, our acknowledgment that it is not past), and that one’s own practice and ambition can be identified only against the continuous experience of the past. (This new significance in philosophical repudiation itself has a history. Its most obvious precursor is Hegel, but it begins, I believe, in Kant. For it is in Kant that one finds an explicit recognition that the terms in which the past is criticized are specific to one’s own position, and require justification from within that position. A clear instance of such a Kantian term of criticism is his characterization of an opposed Idealism as making the world empirically ideal and transcendentally real; another is his diagnosis of dialectical illusion.) But the past does not in this context refer simply to the historical past; it refers to one’s own past, to what is past, or what has passed, within oneself. One could say that in a modernist situation past loses its temporal accent and means anything not present. Meaning what one says becomes a matter of making one’s sense present to oneself. This is the way I understand Wittgenstein’s havingdescribed his later philosophy as an effort to bring words back to their everyday use (Philosophical Investigations, §116; my emphasis), as though the words we use in philosophy, in any reflection about our concerns, are away. This is why Wittgenstein’s interlocutors, when he writes well, when he is philosophically just, express thoughts which strike us as at once familiar and foreign, like temptations. (Heidegger’s consciousness that our deepest task, as philosophers and as men, is one of getting back to a sense of words and world from which we are now away, is an intimate point of similarity with Wittgenstein.)

These reflections will perhaps seem uncongenial to many of my professional colleagues, but they are meant to collect data which most of us, I believe, have noticed, but perhaps have not connected, or not taken to be potentially philosophical. Take, for example, the fact that the isolated analytical article is the common form of philosophical expression now, in the English speaking world of philosophy; something reflected in the fact that the common, and best, form of philosophy textbook is the assemblage of articles around individual topics. This is often interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s withdrawal from its cultural responibilities. The trouble with such an idea is that it occurs to a person who imagines himself certain of his culture’s needs, and certain of his capacity to supply them on demand, and ignorant of our cultural situation—in which each major form of expression (say painting and music and philosophy) has, where serious, taken upon itself the characteristic cultural responsibility of preserving itself against its culture, against its own past accomplishments, which have helped to inform, and to distort, present culture; past accomplishments which are used as names by those incapable of contributing to the present, against those who would take those accomplishments as setting the tasks of the present, or setting the terms in which present activity has its meaning and acquires its standards.

Analytical philosophy can, alternatively, be interpreted as symptomatic of philosophy’s finally coming of age, or accepting its age, assimilating itself to the form in which original scientific results are made known. The trouble with this idea is that these articles are not accepted the way scientific papers are; they are not felt to embody results which every member of the profession can then build from. On the contary, it seems to me commonly assumed among the serious philosophers I know that when they look into a new article they will find not merely a number of more or less annoying errors, but that they will find the whole effort fundamentally wrong, in sensibility or method or claim. Even when it is good—that is, when it contains one interesting or useful idea—the interest or usefulness cannot simply be taken over as it stands into one’s own thought, but will require independent development or justification from within one’s own procedures. It often happens that what makes an article or passage famous is its enunciation of a thesis which the profession is fully prepared to annihilate. The refuting of Mill on desirable, or Moore on indefinable, or Wittgenstein on private language, have become minor industries, established more than one living. These can be disheartening facts, especially among the young who are entering the profession and are still deciding whether it can support life—as though the profession as a whole has forgotten how to praise, or forgotten its value. (In emphasizing that criticism has been the life of philosophy from its beginning, I do not wish to camouflage what is genuinely disheartening about its present. I mean merely to remember that criticism need not be uncomprehending, nor always entered out of enmity.) It is hard to convey, to anyone who has not experienced it, how pervasive this malaise has become. For it controls one’s response to one’s own past work as well as to the work of others, and it applies not merely to chunky articles, but to each assertion one hears or makes.

The figure of Socrates now haunts contemporary philosophical practice and conscience more poignantly than ever—the pure figure motivated to philosophy only by the assertions of others, himself making none; the philosopher who did not need to write. I should think every philosopher now has at least one philosophical companion whose philosophical ability and accomplishment he has the highest regard for, who seems unable to write philosophy. Were such a person content with silence he would merely be the latest instance of a figure always possible in philosophy, possible indeed nowhere else. (It would make no sense to speak of someone as a gifted novelist who had never written a novel; nor of someone as a scientist who had made no contribution to science. In the case of the scientist, the contribution need not be his own writing; but one could say that he must affect what his field writes. His contribution, that is, may be oral, but it must affect a tradition which is essentially not oral; this suggests that such contributions must be exceptional. It indicates further that writing plays differing roles in different enterprises, even that writing means something different, or has a different inflection, in contexts like writing a novel, writing a fugue, writing a report, writing (up) an experiment, writing (down) a proof. If silence is always a threat in philosophy, it is also its highest promise.) But one finds instead various contraries of contentment, perhaps a tendency, more or less contained, to cynicism or to despair about the value of writing or of philosophy altogether—discontents often not sufficiently unambiguous, or not showing early enough, to force or to permit a break with the field. Philosophy inspires much unhappy love.

If these are facts of philosophical practice now, they must have a sociological-historical explanation; and what needs to be explained is what these facts point to, that the writing of philosophy is difficult in a new way. It is the difficulty modern philosophy shares with the modern arts (and, for that matter, with modern theology; and, for all I know, with modern physics), a difficulty broached, or reflected, in the nineteenth-century’s radical breaking of tradition within the several arts; a moment epitomized by Marx’s remark that … the criticism of religion is in the main complete … and that … the task of history, once the world beyond the truth has disappeared, is to establish the truth of this world … (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction). This is the beginning of what I have called the modern, characterizing it as a moment in which history and its conventions can no longer be taken for granted; the time in which music and painting and poetry (like nations) have to define themselves against their pasts; the beginning of the moment in which each of the arts becomes its own subject, as if its immediate artistic task is to establish its own existence. The new difficulty which comes to light in the modernist situation is that of maintaining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise, for the past and the present become problematic together. I believe that philosophy shares the modernist difficulty now everywhere evident in the major arts, the difficulty of making one’s present effort become a part of the present history of the enterprise to which one has committed one’s mind, such as it is. (Modernizers, bent merely on newness, do not have history as a problem, that is, as a commitment. The conflict between modernizers and modernists is the immediate topic of the two essays on music—numbers VII and VIII.) I might express my particular sense of indebtedness to the teaching of Austin and to the practice of Wittgenstein by saying that it is from them that I learned of the possibility of making my difficulties about philosophy into topics within philosophy itself—so that, for example, my doubts about the relevance of philosophy now, its apparent irrelevance to the motives which brought me to the subject in the first place, were no longer simply obstacles to the philosophical impulse which had to be removed before philosophy could begin, hence motives for withdrawing from the enterprise. It was now possible to investigate philosophically the very topic of irrelevance, and therewith the subject of philosophy itself; it is characteristic of philosophy that from time to time it appear—that from time to time it be—irrelevant to one’s concerns, or incredible in itself; just as it is characteristic that from time to time it be inescapable. No doubt there is a danger of evasion in this spiralling self-consciousness; perhaps one should indeed search for more congenial work. Just as there is the danger of excusing poor writing in insisting upon the complexities of consciousness one is at each moment attempting to record, or to acknowledge. —Am I talking only about a condition within America? If so, it is said in the spirit in which a certain kind of American has usually spoken of his country’s release rom the past: out of a sense of disappointment in struggle with vistas of peculiar promise. And as usual, it is the expression of shock in finding that one’s mind is not, and is, European; which in practice means (and in philosophical practice means emphatically) English or German. —If others do not share these doubts, or find these dangers, I certainly have no wish to implicate them.

* *

The topics of the modern, of the philosophy of philosophy, and of the form of philosophical writing, come together in the question: What is the audience of philosophy? For the answer to this question will contribute to the answer to the questions: What is philosophy? How is it to be written? In case a philosopher pretends indifference to this question, or not recognize that he has an answer to it, I should note that this question intersects the question: What is the teaching of philosophy? Not, of course, that this question is likely to seem more attractive to those responsible for teaching it. On the contrary, like their pressed colleagues in other fields, professors of philosophy are likely to regard their teaching obligations as burdens, certainly as distant seconds in importance to their own work. Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, it has a particular pertinence for the philosopher. A teacher of literature, is, say, a professor of English, and he can say so; a professor of anthropology is an anthropologist, and he can say so. But is a professor of philosophy a philosopher? And to whom can he say so? One often says instead, asked what it is one does, that one teaches philosophy. And that is the problem. Does one teach philosophy? And when one is gripped by that question, one is really asking: Can philosophy be taught? Who is in a position to speak for philosophy?Such questions express that difficulty I referred to a moment ago as one of maintainining one’s belief in one’s own enterprise. (Hegel, I am told, said that he was the last professor of philosophy. I think I know what he would have meant—that he was the last man to feel that he could speak evenly about every way in which the philosophical impulse has found epression, the last with the natural conviction that his own work was the living present of philosophy’s history, able to take that history for granted. And that would mean that philosophy, as it has been known, is past. The mention of Hegel here reminds me that the sorts of problems I have spoken of in connection with the teaching of philosophy more familiarly arise in thinking about the history of philosophy, about whether anyone but a philosopher can write or know its history, and about whether a philosopher could allow himself to do so.)

When, in Austin at Criticism (Essay IV), I complain that Austin never described his procedures accurately and circumstantially, I am in effect complaining simultaneously of a lack in his philosophizing and of a failure in his teaching. These complaints have their proper weight only against the recognition of how powerful a teacher he was; for it was in part because Austin was devoted to teaching, according to a particular picture ofwhat teaching can be, or should be, that he avoided certain ranges of what the teaching of philosophy perhaps must be—the personal assault upon intellectual complacency, the private evaluation of intellectual conscience. (This range of teaching is not confined to philosophy, though its proportions and placement will vary from subject to subject. This is what I am talking about in the opening of the essay on King Lear, in pointing to the New Critics’ concentration on the teachable aspects of the poetry.) A major motive for wishing to leave the field of philosophy, for wishing relief from it, from one’s periodic revulsions from it, would be to find something which could be taught more conveniently, a field in which it was not part of one’s task to vie with one’s students, nor to risk misleading them so profoundly. Wittgenstein, though he swiftly resigned his appointment as Professor, was, as I read him, unofficially readier for these requirements, and like every great teacher he would have distrusted his right, or the necessity, to impose them. (The great teacher invariably claims not to want followers, i.e., imitators. His problem is that he is never more seductive than at those moments of rejection.) I find that his Philosophical Investigations often fails to make clear the particular way in which his examples and precepts are to lead to particular, concrete exercises and answers, for all his emphasis upon this aspect of philosophy. At the same time, his book is one of the great works about instruction—the equal, in this regard, of Rousseau’s Émile and of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments.

Because such writing as Wittgenstein’s and such practice as Austin’s strike certain minds as conservative, and because such minds are apt to be over-confident in the faith that contrasts, like conservative vs. liberal, and liberal vs. radical, helpfully explain the behavior of the world and clear the mind for steady action, it is worth noting that these teachers thought of their work as revolutionary—not merely because what they did was new (something which can be overrated or overprized) but because they also thought it plain enough and immediately fruitful enough to establish a new common practice in thinking, and open to talent regardless of its standing within the old intellectual orders. This is another guise of the issue of the modern. I mention it again here because those of us who share, or credit, Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s sense of their revolutionary tasks are responding (as part of the experience of their work in making problematic the relation of philosophy to its tradition) to the concern and implication of their work for correct instruction. (There is no revolutionary social vision which does not include a new vision of education; and contrariwise.) This, together with the fact that their philosophical procedures are designed to bring us to a consciousness of the words we must have, and hence of the lives have, represents for me a recognizable version of the wish to establish the truth of this world. But then wherever there really is a love of wisdom—or call it the passion for truth—it is inherently, if usually ineffectively, revolutionary; because it is the same as a hatred of the falseness in one’s character and of the needless and unnatural compromises in one’s institutions.

When, in what follows, I feel pressed by the question of my right to speak for philosophy, I sometimes suggest that I am merely speaking for myself, and sometimes I suggest that philosophy is not mine at all—its results are true for every man or else they are worthless. Are these suggestions both right, or are they evasions? They express an ambivalence about the relevance or importance of philosophy—one might say, about its possession—which is also one of philosophy’s characteristic features. I have recently noticed a bit of philosophical literary practice which seems to betray this ambivalence. On half a dozen occasions over a period of a few months I found on philosopher or another referring to something called Horatio’s philosophy or Horatio’s view of philosophy, as though Hamlet’s strangely welcomed discovery that

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

constitutes a crack at Horatio rather than a manic release from philosophy (and from reasonableness) as a whole. (The generalizing non-possessive your is common enough in Hamlet’s way of speaking, and there is no evidence that Horatio’s view of the world is distinctive.) Perhaps the reason for this misreading is that philosophers have become threatened by an idea that philosophy has its limitations or impotencies. But I think it also expresses a legitimate confusion about the source or possession of philosophy altogether, as though half believing and half fearing that its natural state is one of private persuasion. I call this confusion legitimate because it isn’t as though the philosopher had some automatic or special assurance that his words are those of and for other men, nor even that any particular arrival of his words ought to be accepted by others. His examples and interpretations have, and are meant to have, the weight an ordinary man will give them; and he is himself speaking as an ordinary man, so that if he is wrong in his claims he must allow himself to be convinced in the ways any man thinking will be, or will not be. —Who is to say whether a man speaks for all men?

Why are we so bullied by such a question? Do we imagine that if it has a sound answer the answer must be obvious or immediate? But it is no easier to say who speaks for all men than it is to speak for all men. And why should that be easier than knowing whether a man speaks for me? It is no easier than knowing oneself, nad no less subject to distortion and spiritlessness. If philophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledg, but because most men guard themselves against it.

It is tautological that art has, is made to have, an audience, however small or special. The ways in which it sometimes hides from its audience, or baffles it, only confirms this. It could be said of science, on the other hand, that it has no audience at all. No one can share its significance who does not produce work of the same kind. The standards of performance are institutionalized; it is not up to the individual listener to decide whether, when the work meets the canons of the institution, he will accept it—unless he undertakes to alter those canons themselves. This suggests why science can be popularized and art not (or not in that way), and why there can be people called critics of art but none called critics of science. I might summarize this by saying that academic art is (with notable exceptions) bad art, whereas academic science is—just science. (It is hardly an accident that creative scientists are on the whole at home in a university and that creative artists on the whole are not.) Now, what is academic philosophy? It seems significant that the questions, What is the audience of philosophy? Must it have one? If so, what is it to gain from it?, have no obvious answers.

When you wish to make serious art popular what you are wishing is to widen the audience for the genuine article. Is this what someone wants who wants to widen the audience for philosophy by writing summaries or descriptions of philosophical works? Or is he, as in the case of popular science, providing simplifications which are more or less useful and faithful substitutes for the original work? Neither of these ideas makes good sense of philosophy. I think someone who believes in popular, or in popularizing, philosophy (as differentiated from someone in an open business venture who finds profit in excerpting and outlining anything in demand) believes that the ordinary man stands in relation to serious philosophy as, say, the ordinary believer stands in relation to serious theology—that he cannot understand it in its own terms but that it is nevertheless good for him to know its results, in some form or other. What reason is there to believe this? There is every reason to believe, on the contrary, that this is the late version of one of philosophy’s most ancient betrayals—the effort to use philosophy’s name to put a front on beliefs rather than to face the source of the assumption, or of emptiness, which actually maintains them. Those who guard themselves from philosophy show a healthier respect for it than those who are certain they know its results and know to whom they apply. For when philosophy is called for one cannot know beforehand where it will end. That is why Plato, as is familiar, at the beginning of the Republic allows the good old man to leave (to see to the sacrifice) before Socrates releases his doubts; and why, recalling that moment, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra leaves the old man (the old saint) he first encounters on his descent back to man, without relating his sickening tidings. Philosophy must be useful or it is harmful. These old men have no need of it, not necessarily because they are old, but because their passion for their lives is at one with their lives; either, as in the case of Cephalus, because his private passion is well spent and he is without rancor; or because, as in the case of the old forest creature, his passion remains in control of his old God, who was worthy of it. The advantage of their age is that their sincerity is backed by the faithfulness of a long life. Otherwise, where sincerity asserts itself, it calls for testing. I do not say that everyone has the passion or the knack or the agility to subject himself to philosophical test; I say merely that someone can call himself a philosopher, and his book philosophical, who has not subjected himself to it.

My purpose is to make such facts into opportunities for investigation rather than causes for despair. The question of philosophy’s audience is born with philosophy itself. When Socrates learned that the Oracle had said no man is wiser than Socrates, he interpreted this to mean, we are told, that he knew that he did not know. And we are likely to take this as a bit of faded irony or as a stuffy humility. What I take Socrates to have seen is that, about the questions which were causing him wonder and hope and confusion and pain, he knew that he did not know what no man can know, and that any man could learn what he wanted to learn. No man is in any better position for knowing it than any other man—unless wanting to know is a special position. And this discovery about himself is the same as the discovery of philosophy, when it is the effort to find answers, and permit questions, which nobody knows the way to nor the answer to any better than you yourself. Then what makes it relevant to know, worth knowing? But relevance and worth may not be the point. The effort is irrelevant and worthless until it becomes necessary to you to know such things. There is the audience of philosophy; but there also, while it lasts, is its performance.

— Stanley Cavell, Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1969/2002), xxi–xlii.

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distibuted Book Club #2: Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato’s Ethics, vii-x

As I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Terence Irwin raises in his book, Plato’s Ethics. The book is published by Oxford University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use, such as the material in the Preface, where he sets out his plans for the book and its relation to other work on Plato’s ethical theory. Thus:

Preface

Anyone who is interested in the contribution of Aristotle, Hume, or Kant to moral philosophy can turn to at least one book in English that tries to give a fairly full and detailed account of the philosopher’s main ethical views. The same cannot be said about Plato’s ethics. Admittedly, the questions that face the interpreter of Plato are different from those that face us in interpreting these other philosophers; still, I believe that what has been done for their ethical views can be done for Plato’s ethical views. That is what I have tried to do in this book. It is not comprehensive, since it leaves out several important aspects of Plato’s ethics, but it focusses on what I take to be central questions.

I have tried to present Plato’s reasons for holding his ethical views, his reasons for changing his mind about some of them, the content and implications of his views, and some reasons that might incline us towards accepting or rejecting them. With these aims in mind, I hav traced the development of Plato’s views in the earlier dialogues, laying special emphasis on the defence and (as I claim) re-statement of Socratic ethics in the Gorgias. I have devoted a large part of the book to the examination of Plato’s most important contribution to moral theory, in the main argument of the Republic. I have added a very brief discussion of some aspects of the later dialogues, to show how they throw further light on questions raised in the Republic.

A proper understanding of Plato’s moral philosophy requires some understanding of his views in moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics (the same is true, of course, of the other philosophers I mentioned), and so I have discussed these areas of his philosophy as well. Socratic method and Socratic ethics help to explain each other, and we can see the same sort of mutually explanatory connexions between Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology (growing out of his reflexions on Socratic method) and his ethical theory. My discussion of some features of Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology is evidently not a full treatment, but I hope it describes an aspect of the Theory of Recollection and the Theory of Forms that we may not appreciate sufficiently if we study these doctrines without reference to Plato’s ethics. The different threads in my argument combine in the discussion of the Sun, Line, and Cave in the Republic.

These claims about Plato’s development require a decision about the nature of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and, more generally, about Plato’s relation to the historical Socrates. I have presented the early dialogues as embodying both the views of the historical Socrates and the views Plato held when he wrote these dialogues. This view of the early dialogues is defended briefly in Chapter 1.

My attempt to attribute an ethical theory to Plato may suggest to some readers that I have misconceived the character of the dialogues altogether. I have ascribed a relatively systematic body of doctrines to Plato on the strength of the dialogues; but some readers strongly reject this doctrinal view of the dialogues. I acknowledge an element of truth in those approaches that emphasize Plato’s distance from the characters in his dialogues; still, I believe doctrinal view is broadly correct, and that it finds strong support both in Aristotle’s comments on Plato and in a fair and scrupulous examination of the dialogues. It seems to me that a doctrinal approach will be most convincing if it allows us to attribute a significant philosophical position to Plato; and so my main aim is to describe the position that he holds.

I began this book intending it to be a second edition of Plato’s Moral Theory. The Press agreed to a moderate increase in the length of the earlier book, in the hope that a new edition would (1) offer a less one-sided presentation of some controversial issues than I gave in the earlier book; (2) expound the main issues less cryptically, with the hope of making the book more accessible to readers who are not specialized students of Plato; (3) include some discussion of the later dialogues; and (4) take account of what has been written on this topic since the publication of the earlier book. The constraints of lengt have meant that the first two aims have taken priority over the last two.

Recent discussion has influenced my decisions about the relative length of different parts of the book. Many critics of the earlierbook focussed on the chapters that dealt with the Socratic dialogues. Moreover, these dialogues have been intensively studied in recent years (largely through the influence of Gregory Vlastos); indeed, they seem to have been discussed more intensively than the Republic has been. This trend has been salutary in many ways, but I have not followed it. Much of the increase in length of this book over PMT results from a fuller discussion of the Republic. It seems to me that the changes Plato introduces in the Republic are—as far as concerns the topics of this book—changes for the better. If PMT made it difficult to see my comparative evaluation of the Socratic dialogues and the Republic, I hope this book will make my view clearer.

In this book I have added two short chapters on the Philebus, Statesman, and Laws. They are by no means a full treatment of the ethical argument of these complex and rewarding dialogues. I confine myself to some suggestions about what the late dialogues add to Plato’s views on some of the questions that I have explored in the early and middle dialogues.

To make room for the main text, I have (with some regret) deleted or curtailed most of the more discursive and argumentative footnotes I had written for this book. Many of the notes give bare references or the briefest indication of my reasons for taking a particular view; they do not attempt either a full report or a full discussion of the different views expressed in the secondary literature. On some points, then, the notes and bibliography are less full than those in PMT. In a few cases I have simply referred to one of the longer notes in PMT. The length of the notes has been determined, not by the importance of different issues for the understanding of Plato, but by their importance for the argument of this book.

Since the book is meant to be accessible to people who are beginning to thnk seriously about Plato’s ethics, I have not emphasized the differences between it and PMT. After writing an appendix describing the main objections raised against PMT, and the ways I now want to accept or answer these objections, I decided not to include the appendix in this book, since it would probably be more interesting to me than to most of my readers. I do not mean, however, to seem unappreciative of the helpful suggestions and objections of the many critics—friendly, hostile, or neutal—who have taken the trouble to explain what they thought was wrong with PMT. I am grateful for the stimulus that these criticisms have given me to think again about Plato’s ethics; even though I have probably learnt less han I ought to. I am sure that the present book has been improved by the criticisms of PMT, whether or not I have accepted them.

Though I began with the idea of a second edition of PMT, it has turned out a bit differently. None of hte text of the earlier book reappears in this book, and so it seemed reasonable to present this as a new book rather than as a second edition of an old book. In one important way, however, it is more like a second edition. I have not tried to achieve the degree of distance from PMT that would be necessary for a fresh examination of the primary texts and the secondary literature; instead, I have re-read the primary texts, and surveyed the secondary literature, in light of the earlier book.

In the notes I have tried to give some idea of the main contributions to discussion that have appeared since the earlier book was published. I have learnt a great deal from recent work, especially from the books of Julia Annas, Richard Kraut, and Gregory Vlastos, and from papers by Terry Penner, John Cooper, and Nicholas White. I have also indicated some new debts to older works that I have read or re-read in the course of writing this book. I had already used (for instance) Grote, Moreau, Joseph, and Murphy for the earlier book, but in re-reading them I found many suggestive remarks that had not made the proper impact on me before.

The task of working out some second thoughts on Plato’s ethics has been both more complicated and more interesting than I had expected it to be, and I am very pleased to be able to thank those who have helped me in it. The Delegates and staff of Oxford University Press have always been helpful and encouraging, by publishing the earlier book, by keeping itin print,and by agreeing to an extensive revision; I have especially benefited from Angela Blackburn’s advice and support at different stages. In 1990–91 I was fortunate enough to have a sabbatical leave from Cornell University and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. My views have developed in response to questions by undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell over several years, most recently in a seminar in the autumn of 1991. I have learnt so much from collegues in the Sage School of Philosophy that it is difficult to keep track of specific debts, but inthis case I am especially conscious of having learnt from Sydney Shoemaker, David Lyons, Harold Hodes, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Allen Wood. Jennifer Whiting and Susan Sauvé Meyer made useful comments and suggestions on particular points. Daniel Devereux and David Brink gave me detailed and searching criticisms of a draft of the whole book, and I have often benefited from their suggestions. My ideas on Plato have developed on many points as a result of Gail Fine’s work. She is responsible for so many changes that I cannot exclude the possibility that she has led me into new errors, but I am fairly confident that almost all the changes are improvements. Several drafts of this book have been benefited, in large and small ways, from her vigorous castigation and continual encouragement.

Finally, I must express my gratitude for the help of two colleagues and friends who have recently died. Michael Woods encouraged me in my work on Plato ever since 1974 when he read a draft of Plato’s Moral Theory and invited me to contribute a volume on the Gorgias to the Clarendon Plato Series, which he edited until his death in 1993. I benefited from his perceptive advice and comments on my efforts on the Gorgias, and on many other topics in Greek philosophy. In 1971–72 Gregory Vlastos supervised my dissertation on Plato’s ethics. Shortly before his death in 1991 he began to write a reply to my review of his book on Socrates. In the intervening years he was a constant, severe, sympathetic, and constructive critic of my views on Socrates and Plato. By precept and example, he, more than any other single person, has made the study of Socratic and Platonic ethics the flourishing activity that it is today. I would especially like to have known what he thought about my latest effort, in this book, to carry on a discussion with him that has been an important part of my intellectual life for over twenty years. I know I wouldn’t have convinced him, and I know his criticisms wouldhave thrown still further light on the questions.

T.H.I.
Ithaca, New York
September 1994

— Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1995), vii–x

The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distributed Book Club #1: bringing women from the margins to the center in political theory. From Susan Moller Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought (1979, Princeton University Press). pp. 3-12.

As I was just saying earlier today, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Susan Moller Okin touches on in her masterpiece, Women in Western Political Thought. The book is published by Princeton University Press. I thought you might enjoy thinking about some material which I’ve quoted here for educational purposes under principles of fair use. Especially stuff like the programmatic material on pages 3-12, where Okin explains how Western political thought has so far been shaped, in part, by the fact that women’s status and women’s concerns have been confined to the margins of political thought. Thus, she writes:

Introduction

The current feminist movement has inspired a considerable amount of scholarship in areas previously unexplored. The recent focus on women in the fields of history, legal studies, anthropology, sociology, and literary criticism has resulted in a number of innovative and important works, such that it is no exaggeration to say that these fields will never look the same again. No one, however, has yet examined systematically the treatment of women in the classic works of political philosophy—those works in which great thinkers throughout history have revealed to us their thoughts about the political and social life of the human race. This book is an attempt to reduce the consequent gap in our knowledge.

It is important to realize from the outset that the analysis and criticism of the thoughts of political theorists of the past is not an arcane academic pursuit, but an important means of comprehending and laying bare the assumptions behind deeply rooted modes of thought that continue to affect people’s lives in major ways. Women, in the course of the present century, have officially become citizens in virtually every country of the Western world and in much of the rest of the world as well. From being totally relegated to th private sphere of the household, they have become enfranchised members of the political realm. However, women are increasingly recognizing that the limited, formal, political gains of the earlier feminist movement have in no way ensured the attainment of real equalities in the economic and social aspects of their lives. Though women are now citizens, it is undeniable that they have remained second-class citizens. Measured in terms of characteristics traditionally valued in citizens, such as education, economic independence, or occupational status, they are still far behind men. Likewise, measured in terms of political participation—especially at higher levels—and political power, they are nowhere near the equals of men. In the past decade, moreover, women have been demanding these more substantial equalities, and an end to their relegation to second-class citizenship. They have been claiming the right to be members of society and citizens of the state on an equal level with men, and, in principle at least, their claims have been getting recognition.

The fact that women have gained formal citizenship, but have in no other respect achieved equality with men, has impelled me to turn to the great works of political philosophy, with two major questions in mind. I have asked, first, whether the existing tradition of political philosophy can sustain the inclusion of women in its subject matter, and if not, why not? For if the works which form the basis of our political and philosophical heritage are to continue to be relevant in a world in which the unequal position of women is being radically challenged, we must be able to recognize which of their assumptions and conclusions are inherently connected with the idea that the sexes are, and should be, fundamentally unequal.

Second, and clearly related to the first inquiry, I have aimed to discover whether the philosophers’ arguments about the nature of women and their proper place in the social and political order, viewed in the context of the complete political theories of the philosophers, will help us to understand why the formal, political enfranchisement of women has not led to substantial equality between the sexes. It is not my purpose to argue any causal connection between the arguments and ideas of the great philosophers, on the one hand, and modern ideas or practices, on the other. However, I do argue that modes of thought about women that closely parallel those of some of the philosophers discussed here are still prevalent, in the writings of modern thinkers, and in the ideologies of modern political actors and institutions. This claim is substantiated in Part V, where we turn to analysis of some crucial contemporary views on women—those of influential social scientists and of the highest courts in the U.S.—and discover striking similarities between them and the ideas of the political theorists analyzed in the preceding chapters. By critical study of the arguments about women conceived by some of the finest minds in the history of Western thought, I hope to add to our comprehension of modern arguments which parallel them in important ways, and which constitute a continuing attempt to justify the unequal treatment of women.

It must be recognized at once that the great tradition of political philosophy consists, generally speaking, of writings by men, for men, and about men. While the use of supposedly generic terms like man and mankind, and of the allegedly inclusive pronoun he, might lead one to think that philosophers have intended to refer to the human race as a whole, we do not need to look far into their writings to realize that such an assumption is unfounded. Rousseau, for example, tells his reader at the beginning of the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men that It is of man that I am to speak. It subsequently becomes very clear that it is only the inequality between males that is the subject of his investigation, and the inequality between the sexes is assumed in passing.1 Past and present feminists, only too aware of such practices, have pointed out the dangerous ambiguity of such linguistic usage in a patriarchal culture.2 For it enables philosophers to enunciate principles as if they were universally applicable, and then to proceed to exclude all women from their scope.

Even when philosophers have used words which in their respective languages refer unambiguously to any human being, they have felt in no way deterred from excluding women from the conclusions reached. Aristotle, for example, discusses at length what is the highest good for a human being (anthropos). He then proceeds to characterize all women as not only conventionally deprived of, but constitutionally unfitted for, this highest good. Again, Kant uses the most inclusive terms of all for the subjects of his ethical and political theory; he even says that he is not confining his discussion to humans, but that it is applicable to all rational beings. Subsequently, however, he proceeds to justify a double standard of sexual morality, to the extent that a woman is to be condoned for killing her illegitimate child because of her duty to uphold, at all costs, her sexual honor. He also reaches the conclusion that the only characteristic that permanently disqualifies any person from citizenship in the state, and therefore from the obligation to obey only those laws to which consent has been given, is that of being born female.3 Thus, even words such as person, human, and rational being, apparently, do not necessarily include women.

This phenomenon, made possible by the ambiguity of our language, is not confined to political philosophy. The grand statements of our political culture, too, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are phrased in universal terms, but, as the chapter on women and the law will make clear, they have frequently been interpreted in such a way as to exclude women. Thus when the Founding Fathers declared it to be a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, not only did they intend the substantial slave population to be excluded from the scope of their statement, but they would have been amused and skeptical (as indeed John Adams was to his wife’s appeal that they not forget the ladies) at the suggestion that women were, and should be considered, equal too.4 Similarly, though the Constitution is phrased in terms of persons, there was clearly no idea in its framers’ minds that this word might be interpreted so as to include women on the same terms as men.5

Human nature, we realize, as described and discovered by philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and many others, is intended to refer only to male human nature. Consequently all the rights and needs that they have considered humanness to entail have not been perceived as applicable to the female half of the human race. Thus there has been, and continues to be, within the traditions of political philosophy and political culture, a pervasive tendency to make allegedly general statements as if the human race were not divided into two sexes, and then either to ignore the female sex altogether, or to proceed to discuss it in terms not at all consistent with the assertions that have been made about man and humanity.

In spite of this general neglect of women, however, several of the most important and most interesting of political philosophers have had a considerable amount to say about them. The first four parts of this book comprise an analysis of the arguments of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Mill, on the subject of women, their nature, their socialization and education, and their proper role and station in society. It would be fruitless, if not impossible, to treat such a subject in a vacuum. What I have done, therefore, is to analyze these philosophers’ ideas about women in the context of their entire theories of politics and society, and with particular reference to each philosopher’s conception of the role of the family. Throughout the study, I have examined the various ideas about women and the arguments which sustain them, with a concern both for their internal logic and for their consistency with each philosopher’s argument and conclusions about men, and about politics and society as a whole.

Clearly, in choosing four philosophers I do not pretend to have covered the treatment of women within the entire tradition of political philosophy. Apart from the omission of the socialists, which requires explanation, however, I have chosen those four who of all political theorists have made the most substantial, most interesting, and most thought-provoking contributions on the subject.

The problem regarding Marx, the Marxists, and other socialists, is that, taken together, they had so much to say, and such insight to offer, on the subject of women in society, that their ideas warrant a separate study. It was the utopian, Charles Fourier, who first both used the status of women in a society as the fundamental measuring stick of its advancement, and considered the progress of women toward liberty to be a fundamental cause of general social progress. Other events influence these political changes; he asserts, but there is no cause which produces social progress or decline as rapidly as a change in the condition of women…. The extension of the privileges of women is the fundamental cause of all social progress.6 Fourier’s initiatives were not ignored by subsequent feminists and/or socialists, including Flora Tristan, Marx and John Stuart Mill. Marx developed the idea of the relationship between the equality of women and general social progress, in the 1844 Manuscripts:

The relation of man to woman is the most natural relation of human being to human being. It indicates, therefore, how far man’s natural behavior has become human, and how far his human essence has become a natural essence for him, how far his human nature has become nature for him…. From this relationship man’s whole level of development can be assessed.7

Though Marx himself did not develop this as a major theme in his works, Engels, Bebel, and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School have developed further the socialist criticism of woman’s position in society, and of the traditional family.

Socialist writings on women require separate study because of two features which are characteristic of, though not unique to, socialist modes of thought. First, socialist theorists have been far less inclined than most other political theorists to regard the family as a necessary and fixed human institution, and have been very much aware of the relationship between various forms of family organization and different forms of economic structure, particularly property relations. This has meant that most, though not all, socialists who have written about women have taken a critical and questioning view of woman’s role within the family, rather than accepting it as a given. Second, socialist thought is noticeably lacking in the tendency to idealize nature and the natural, and is inclined to replace these criteria for social excellence by the specifically human and cultural. It is largely because of the importance of both these modes of thought for the subject of women, that the contribution of the socialists to the subject is so considerable. The study of that contribution is a task I hope to undertake, and for which the present work constitutes an essential foundation.

From my analysis of the arguments and conclusions of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and Mill, concerning women and their proper social and political role, two interconnected themes emerge. First, the most important factor influencing the philosophers’ conceptions of, and arguments about, women has been the view that each of them held concerning the family. Those who have regarded the family as a natural and necessary institution have defined women by their sexual, procreative, and child-rearing functions within it. This has lead to the prescription of a code of morality and conception of rights for women distinctly different from those that have been prescribed for men. The assumption of the necessity of the family leads the theorists to then regard the biological differences between the sexes as entailing all the other, conventional and institutional differences in sex role which the family, especially in its most patriarchal forms, has required.

Second, as a consequence of the above, the constricted role in which woman has been placed has been regarded as dictated by her very nature. Thus, where philosophers have explicitly discussed women, they have frequently not extended to them their various conceptions of human nature. They have not only assigned women a distinct role, but have defined them separately, and often contrastingly, to men. They have sought for the nature of women not, as for the nature of men, by attempting to separate out nature from the effects of nurture, and to discover what innate potential exists beneath the overlay which results from socialization and other environmental factors. The nature of women, instead, has been seen to be dictated by whatever social and economic structure the philosophers favor and to be defined as whatever best suits their prescribed functions in that society. Philosophers who, in laying the foundation for their political theories, have asked What are men like? What is man’s potential? have frequently, in turning to the female sex, asked What are women for? There is, then, an undeniable connection between assigned female nature and social structure, and a functionalist attitude to women pervades the history of political thought.

The conclusions drawn here are, first, that women cannot simply be added to the subject matter of existing political theory, for the works of our philosophical heritage are to a very great extent built on the assumption of the inequality of the sexes. In the case of theorists for whom equality, in some form or other, is an important value, the unequal treatment of women tends to be concealed by the adoption of the male-headed family, rather than the individual adult, as the primary unit of political analysis. Indeed, the thoroughly equal treatment of women, involving far more than the right to vote, requires the rethinking of some of the most basic assumptions of political philosophy—having to do with the family and woman’s traditionally dependent and subordinate role within it.

Second, as we examine some twentieth-century perceptions of women and analyze legal discrimination against women, it becomes clear that these findings should be of interest not only to historians or students of political theory. The functionalist treatment of women—the prescriptive view of woman’s nature and proper mode of life based on her role and functions in a patriarchal family structure—is still alive and influential today. Giant figures in modern sociology and psychology present arguments about women that parallel those of Aristotle and Rousseau. Moreover, when we examine the opinions handed down by the highest courts of the land in cases involving sex discrimination, we find, here too, that judges have used functionalist reasoning of a strikingly Aristotelian character in order to justify their treatment of women as a class apart. Thus, there is no doubt that a thorough understanding of this mode of argument can help us to see why women, in spite of their political enfranchisement, are still second-class citizens.

The chapters that follow require one more word of explanation. Obviously, there are many types of inequality both in the real world and in political theory. Only one type of inequality is dealt with here—the unequal treatment of women. As will become evident, the positions taken by political theorists about other types of equality and inequality are by no means necessarily parallel to, or even consistent with, their views about the equal or unequal treatment of the sexes. Those who have argued that there should be complete or virtual equality between the sexes have sometimes been distinctly inegalitarian in other respects; on the other hand, some philosophers who have made strong arguments for equality amongst women have been just as strongly opposed to equality for women. I have not undertaken to discuss this except insofar as a philosopher’s more general egalitarianism or inegalitarianism affects his arguments about distinctions betwen the sexes, or clarifies the presentation of these arguments. This is not because I consider other types of inequality unimportant. It is, rather, because the unequal treatment of women has remained for too long shamefully neglected by students of political thought. Other types of inequality—class inequality in particular, but also inequalities based on race, religion, caste, or ethnicity, have not been so consistently ignored.

In one sense, this book might be compared with the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In that play, building on the foundation of Hamlet, Tom Stoppard emphasizes this originally elusive pair, and makes them, instead of the traditional hero, into the principal focus of the drama. As a result, the play, all its characters, and their relations to each other take on an entirely new perspective. Similarly, when women, who have always been minor characters in the social and political theory of a patriarchal world, are transformed into major ones, the entire cast and the play in which it is acting look very different.

1 The First and Second Discourses, p. 101.

2 One of the earliest feminsits to point out this anomaly was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a pioneer work in the correction of the language and orientation of liberalism, exemplified in her time by Thomas Paine and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. For two recent discussions of the sexism inherent in our language, see Elizabeth Lane Beardsley, Referential Genderization, and Sheila Rowbotham, Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, pp. 34–38.

3 Kant’s Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, ed. Hans Reiss. Cambridge, 1970, pp. 43–47, 78, 158–159.

4 Excerpts from the Adams Family Correspondence, in Alice Rossi, The Feminist Papers, New York, 1973, pp. 9–11.

5 See for example the beginning of Chapter 11 below, for Jefferson’s views on this issue.

6 The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, pp. 195–196.

7 Karl Marx, Early Writings, p. 154.

— Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1979). 3–12.

Update 2008-12-04: If you were interested by the topics raised in Okin’s programmatic introduction, you may be interested to know that text from the first chapter of her book, Plato and the Greek Tradition of Misogyny, has been posted over at the Fair Use Blog ….

Have women been shoved to the margins of political philosophy? Have male political philosophers reduced women’s nature and status to their perceived functions within the family? Are political philosophers stances on social equality between men and women so often inconsistent with, or simply determined independently of, their express views on egalitarianism as a general principle? What else from Okin’s work might help illuminate the points she touches on here? Discuss.

Silly season

This ad is nothing more than a series of strawmen. Still, it may be the most exciting race to watch in this campaign season. In any case a lot more turns on it than whether or not I personally choose to vote for Ron Paul.

(Via Majikthise 2007-12-10.)