29 September 2012

Two Bits on Hating People

And so it came to a break, whatever the occasion might have been--one broke the relationship.  It was terrible; in all probability hate, eternal and irreconcilable hate will fill his soul in the future.  "I will never see that person any more; our paths are forever separated; the abysmal depth of hate lies between us."  He indeed concedes that insofar as life is still a path, they are on the path together, but not in any other sense; he goes about very circumspectly so that his path does not cross that of the hated one; to him the world is almost too small to house them both; to him it is agony to breathe in the same world where the hated one breathes; he shudders at the thought that eternity will house them both.  But the one who loves abides.  "I abide," he says: "therefore we are still on the path together."   -- S.K.

"To hell with him." If only it were so easy to cast off the undesirables of life, to simply delete them and say, finally, once and for all, “I am finished with you. Henceforth you are no more to me.” But even in the cases when we are able henceforth to cast off the despised troublemaker, the past remains. The annihilation of another would, ideally, enable us to move freely about in the spaces he might have occupied, creating a history in which he never was, who is not and never again will be. But we lack such power. The theologians tell us that even the omnipotent cannot make the past not to have been. Instead, in order to cast away another, we must pull in the bounds of the world, treading carefully along narrower passageways, meticulously avoiding memories and attachments, connections and concepts that would bring us face to face with the forgotten other. To hell with him, we say, but really we have divided the world between us two, and introduced in the process a host of anxieties about the placement and maintenance of invisible and illogical boundaries. Claustrophobia begins to take hold of us, complemented by an inescapable sadness at the vistas of thought and possibility which have been sacrificed in this mutual damnation of the two foes.

25 September 2012

Patching up a bad argument for natural law

One popular argument for natural law (esp. with reference to sexual ethics) involves a non sequitur from an intuited natural function in some organ or activity to a judgment that excludes everything other than the "natural function". Saliva has a natural digestive function.  Therefore spitting is a sinful waste of digestive potential! Women have hips, therefore it is immoral for a man to carry babies! And so on.  This deduction from inscribed functions in things is both unhelpful (because it's obviously invalid) and damaging (because it's similar to a valid line of reasoning).  Opponents see this sort of reasoning as the essence of natural law theory and reject the whole notion of natural law with the particular argument which seems to represent it.  So let's fix this problem.  How do we make a good argument?  We don't want to say that, for example, there's a "right" use for a hammer, or that the use of a mouth for something other than eating and speaking is immoral, because this way of thinking is about as easy to topple as a tower of cards.

Instead, we should think about what's expedient for accomplishing what one wants, and make it our goal to find a way of dealing with the universal fact of embodied human nature and our consequent appetites. Notice that, though teleology is important and natural teleology is a real thing, we don't need to argue from (or immediately for) the natural teleologies of organs or behaviors.  Instead of starting with an organ or a behavior or talk about natural ends, we should start by talking about what makes a person good.

In order to say that some person is genuinely better off than another, we need a common measure, and the existence of a common measure implies a common extreme: some (at least theoretically possible) state of humanity which is best. So admitting that some people are really better off than others commits us to some universal idea of human perfection to which, although it might be realized differently in different people according to dispositions and individual characteristics, everyone can be compared. Now, we can start out slow and say we don't know exactly what that universal idea consists of, (e.g. is it perfect self-determination? consistency between thought and action? self-sacrifice? subjective satisfaction? something else? maybe the direct apprehension of the divine essence?) but even without a definitive knowledge of the norm, we can describe it reasonably by excluding certain negative possibilities. For example, being a crack addict is not a desirable outcome, and it's undesirable for definite reasons which we can enumerate. Likewise injustice is undesirable (or can compellingly be argued to be so), as are cowardice and excessive self-absorption. We can go through and list a bunch of these and then start to think: What sort of common features do these things have that make them bad? What's missing in the activity of a crack addict or a coward or a money-obsessed capitalist? How does someone make sure *not* to end up like that?

So, by exclusion, we can begin to build a picture of a better kind of person, a person who does more freely, more readily, and more happily whatever they choose to do, and because of that they do it better and without the taint of vice. And, working out from this we can realize that one core attribute of anyone who stays free from addiction, compulsion, etc., is that they are free to determine their actions in accord with thought and intellectual desire. So we ask, "how does a person manage to keep their physical appetites under control, so they can sacrifice what they physically crave in order to get what they really want?" In other words, how can reason govern the appetites? Well, reasonable government governs in accord with the nature of the governed. I.e., we want to do justice to our physical desires while making sure that they don't end up dominating us.

So what I would like to emphasize, again, is that the argument here shouldn't really be about the "telos" of an organ or an activity. It's not really about the "telos of sex". Though I do believe that the governing mean for the sexual appetite we could find by pursuing this line of thought to its end is in fact the telos of sex, I don't think that it's necessary to show that that mean actually is the point of sex. Why? There are a couple of reasons.  First of all, there's little natural certainty in judgments about natural ends of things.  Your certainty that the purpose of sex is procreation is probably grounded mainly in the teachings of the catholic and apostolic church.  This means that they're not likely to be easily conveyed to someone who doesn't share your trust in the magisterium.  It's much easier to argue to the rational mean of sex (or many other behaviors) than to the natural end of it.  There's another reason as well.  And this is that any activity can serve a multiplicity of different legitimate ends. We do things for friendship or health or pleasure or profit, etc. and for other reasons as well. So instead of focusing on some normative natural end which must be pursued, it's better to ask how the use of different faculties or the exercise of different abilities is conducive to virtue.  Namely, how you must act and think and will in order to keep your appetites within the governance of reason.   Not primarily because violating that mean is doing an injustice to (for example) the reproductive possibilites of your organs (is spitting immoral because it wastes digestive fluid? Of course not.) but because a life without that rational mean will not tend toward the universal possibility for human perfection: i.e., happiness.

11 September 2012

Imaginary Dialogue with Michel Foucault

Does the Foucauldian theory of discourse presuppose something substantial?  Something essential?  What are possible candidates for this unacknowledged substrate?

  • the speaking subject
  • the word
  • the concept
  • the field
  • the discourse
  • difference
  • power
  • [others?]
Supposing we were to locate in any of these concepts some basis for "calling metaphysics" on Foucault, does his system have any built-in defenses?  It does.  The Foucauldian can easily respond that we, in reducing his discourse to a species of metaphysics, are merely effecting a strategic transformation, and that the metaphysical tendencies we discover in this discourse are in fact our own.

How do we respond to this gesture?  Dear Foucault, the reduction of metaphysics to a reifying tendency that obscures the underlying power strategies in language is itself a revelation. . .

Foucault: But no, the distillation of strategies within discourse, the death of the author, the primacy of discursive structures and "texts" is itself simply a function of this particular discourse.  My mode of speaking has the advantage that only a transparent sheet separates it from madness, the absence of language, the silence which terminates all discourse.  Probably there are other such discourses, certainly there might be more than mine, but mine is intelligible in our time, to our thought; mine reveals in the game of western philosophy and rationalizing discourse the nearness of that difference against which everything is defined.  My discourse of fracture and fraying shows how hopeless the quest to purge the irrational from our discourse really is.  Yes, you can continue with those discourses, but you may find it increasingly difficult: the injection of the perverse concepts knit together in my books will ultimately unravel your way of speaking, your way of thinking.  It will undo the being of things, until they are reconstituted under different forms.

Me: What, then, is one to do?  Life according to the capitalism of the day is base and slavish.  Life according to these common (sexual, violent, identity-oriented) strategies for subversion is likewise base and slavish.  Subversion through "limit experiences" is merely a rising norm.  In other words, it is yet another metaphysical self-deception, already on the verge of commodification, and long ago transformed into a settled discourse.  . . . The advantage, contra Levinas, of ontology is its ability to search for the transcendent in the intelligible. . . . We try again.  Pose to Foucault the question of desire.  What do you want?

Foucault:  We want what we can think of, what we can speak of.  Nothing else.

Me: This explains the set of desired objects, of desireable objects more precisely, but not why these objects among many are actually desired.

Foucault:  We desire them because of the way they are imagined, understood, because of the way they are spoken of, because of their function within the discursive fields in which I participate.  The working classes desire hygiene and "culture" because within that thought-world bourgeois lifestyle is the thing to be desired.  But the bourgeois want these things for totally different reasons.  The athlete desires health and strength within the context of his sport.  The member of a fitness club desires these things for different reasons.  Within different spheres of interest, objects of interest like cleanliness, manners, culture, health, etc., function altogether differently.

Me:  But I agree with you.  Instrumental goods can be desired for any number of reasons, can be seen as means to a variety of ends, etc.  But to me this seems to pose two problems for your system: first, must we not assume that there is some actual underlying nature which allows for a particular object like health or hygiene to come into being, to be an object of interest?  And secondly, transcendental ends often hover behind instrumental ends -- is there not some immobility  to these transcendentals?  It seems to me that they must always be reducible to one, or end up being a mere delusion.

Foucault:  Concerning transcendentals, it is remarkably easy to answer your question.  You suggest first of all the immobility of transcendental values, on the basis of their invisibility or unattainability.  What is never known or encountered cannot be transformed by use, but defines the use of others, and thus cannot change. But in fact the transcendental is quite mobile -- it moves with the structure of discourse as a whole.  Note for example the diversity of religions and the characters they attribute to the deity.  Was this not a consistent point of assualt among early pagan critics of Christianity -- namely, that the character of the deity had changed between Judaism and Christendom?  As for the first question, the proliferation of concepts is always taking place, and happens through the fraying of words, their free play with each other.  The problem you pose would only be a problem if I were a prescriptivist.  But obviously I am not.  Language has no essence.  Nor do words, concepts, acts of speaking, speaking agents, etc.  And note that what constitutes these things in their ephemerality is a difference which only exists on the basis of their interaction.  Note too that power is an epiphenomenon of discourse.

Me:  You have undone my list of substrates.  But I would like to question you further about the nature of the "field" in which discourse unfolds.  Is it also merely an epiphenomenon?  So you would seem to have to claim.  But once you say it, we are left wondering at the apparent impossibility, according to your way of speaking, of speech itself.  How could these performances arise in the first place?  How can we speak?  How can words be uttered together in difference or sameness, with all their fraying and ephemerality?  It seems to me that you have made it possible to deny the substantial unity of your object of study, merely by transferring that unity to the context or receptacle in which that object is found.  The receptacle is one, so that a new kind of unity -- namely, an accidental unity -- can replace that earlier substantial unity.  But here is the main problem: no accidental unity is sufficient to sustain an object.  This means that without some substance: whether we recognize it in the speaking subject, the continuity of time and space, the field of discourse, the act of speaking, the concept, or the word, must ground this play of language and make possible the conjunction of different performances.  If this too is denied, then we must recognize that discourse becomes an impossibility or an illusion.  Without some underlying unity, there can be no distinction among things, nor any sameness, since there could be no ground for their interaction or comparison.  But in a system based primarily on the shifting distinctions of things,  in a system according to which intelligible discourse constitutes reality, this is a fatal problem.  When discourse ceases to be possible, beings become unthinkable, and your discourse is revealed at bottom to be merely a series of (frequently brilliant) socio-historical deconstructions vainly masquerading as philosophy.