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Tuesday Quought: Heteronomy

“One doesn’t always have to formalize: Nietzsche thought that if God existed, the I is impossible. That may be very convincing, if A commands B, B no longer is autonomous, doesn’t have subjectivity anymore, but when in the course of thinking, you don’t stay in the formal, when you think from the contents, a situation called heteronomy has a totally different meaning.” (own translation), E. Levinas, Entre Nous, Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1991, p.121.

I’ve been blogging on and off on this site called heteronomy. Truth be told I have never in that long time really though about the meaning of that word. Until recently that is, when I read Kant’s “Foundations of metaphysics of morals” and discovered the passage about autonomy and heteronomy. It made me think. There’s something appealing to autonomy; one would not want to do the good thing because there’s an external motivation to do it. Still, something is missing there. The misery of our own period of history has a lot do to with autonomy gone wild. It literally takes the Enlightenment to anti-humanist extremes. As a once avid reader of Kierkegaard I can but wonder whether the either/or isn’t in fact inescapable and whether I don’t have to switch over to the religious side after all. I seem to share all of the values although I’m fundamentally abhorred by the heteronomous part; obedience is not my thing, let alone the blind variant.

I am, like many, looking for a long time to avoid being caught on the horns of the either and the or. There has to be a way to derive a positive morality without relying on anything properly religious. It was no coincidence that I decided to read some more Levinas. It was a surprise though to find the above quote. It sums up the promise of another kind of heteronomy, one not based on higher powers but one based on everyday interaction with others. That surprise triggered this post.

I think Levinas has it more or less right. The problem is that I’m looking for something that is exactly right. I’m after all an analytical person close to analytic philosophy. Now – like in this excellent piece (by Martin Shuster) – there is a lot of activity trying to bridge the gaps between the two philosophical traditions, that’s still not exact enough for me. What I want is to derive Levinas’ anomalous heteronomy from the basic facts of language and – more specifically – from Davidson’s principle of charity.

This is what I have (and, pretty please, do help me along):

There is no alpha.

We always try to start at the beginning. The pre-occupation of religion and philosophy to start at the beginning is what Levinas, I think, criticizes when he is critical of ontology. In his view, there’s nothing outside history that drives history. And with history isn’t meant the big history of humanity but the personal history of everyday life. I can dig that among other things because it establishes autonomy as responsibility.  Still, it leaves us in a very continental way with the mystery of the Other. I dislike mysteries: whether you like it or not, mystery establishes some kind of external authority (heteronomy) in explanation and interpretation. Somehow Levinas’ mystery is still an alpha of sorts. This path may lead to a more sophisticated and cerebral religion but it still is religion where somebody can seize some specific claim to spiritual guidance.

The only way then is to break this down; to be a little bit more analytical in approaching it (without fixing any specific historical or a-historical starting point). On the continent, in my humble opinion, philosophers like Gadamer and Habermas go a long way to doing that by (in reverse order) positing the concept of discourse as central and by describing results of such discourse as a fusing of horizons. Both notions inherently fix no historical starting point but at the same time introduce heteronomy, any truth (or approximation thereof) is the result of co-operation. Here is where the trouble is again: we get to some free floating heteronomy which is a very difficult and somewhat murky notion. Religions make things simpler: they can talk about your neighbor but hang the whole story on some Externality who or which so ordains.

Whatever the difficulties of these approaches, the central theme emerging is language (as is also a central theme in Levinas). It’s not too difficult then to connect at this point to the analytic tradition which after all makes the analysis of language as a social phenomenon (ordinary language) its prime concern. It’s Davidson who – see Shuster paper linked to above – can be connected most straightforwardly at this stage. His notion of triangulation is an empirical necessity (synthetic a priori) for any language to be at all. Humanity is linguistic and to develop language one needs to be with at least two, in fact one needs to be humanistic.  It’s not knowledge that is central to humanity. It’s the coming together of points of view (fusing horizons through discourse) that is central. Knowledge then is just the most important by-product of language. It locks in progress by peeling back the onion of our misconceptions, the last one of which being that of modernity (of the perfectibility of knowledge, of the matter of fact and of the truth).

The final fact of this analysis bearing on anomalous heteronomy then is that of charity. In order for language to develop, people not just have to talk but they first of all have to try to understand each other. It’s perfectly possible to develop a language and then just use it for the heteronomy that is tyranny, as in Star Wars: “Your wish is my Command” because language at any given stage will express knowledge that can be used. What is not possible though is to further develop that language’s expressiveness without charitable attempts at understanding the others. As for instance Mead has shown there is a perfectly possible scientific treatment of this fact of language that leads to viewing an intelligent individual as a social phenomenon. That is just about enough heteronomy to me: I exist by virtue of engaging (talking to) others and my value in existing lies in being an other to others.

There is no omega.

The consequence of that is that also in culture there’s evolution, evolution by individual creativity and a social fusing of horizons.  Through the expressive power of language we all contribute, democratically, to language as progress. The evolutionary theme here is not a coincidence because both from a scientific point of view language can be seen as one of the things that happened in evolution (monism) but also as the thing that allows its own kind of cultural evolution (anomalous). An evolution that combines the strength of autonomy (there is no such thing as external control of language) and heteronomy (I don’t have my private language and depend on others for it). Unfortunately, and probably for the same reasons as with biological evolution, this is hard to swallow for many people. Just like some are still trying to find an alpha in evolution (call it big bang or creation), most of us think they need an omega of progress (in the form of the utopian societies so characteristic of modernity). There is no such omega which ultimately means that nobody is right (and consequently that the vast majority of people are mostly wrong).

Somehow then the fact of language is like the big bang of morality and humanity and we are in the middle of it. This big bang is not some split second moment but it’s our history of humanity and it will never have an ending. This is neither a simple nor a comforting thought. It clearly at this stage of world affairs also isn’t the winning thought. Language at every stage creates a level of knowledge within which to postulate alpha’s as well as omega’s. We see a struggle between religious alpha’s and scientific omega’s. There is little appetite for standing still to contemplate the final mystery of language – certainly not if it implies thinking about the mystery of mathematics. The results are too uncertain to fix anything in our own lifetime. The animal in us needs to choose. The human in us wants to choose the best option. Settling for just choosing the better option – as in Rawls’ thought experiment of the Original Position, not knowing in advance if you have the luck of being a billionaire or the bad fortune of being a refugee – is just not what we were brought up to do in modern states where, as modern citizens, we try to find the best mutually beneficial contract.

Still, the mystery of language is one that allows real demystification, call them the laws of linguistic dynamics. We can and will make progress but not progress to a specific omega. We did make progress but not from a specific alpha. Scientists should understand this. Or: let it go.


February 2, 2016 - Posted by | boredom, Tuesday Quought | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. For whatever reason, after reading the above, the image of a Rubik’s cube was floating in my mind’s eye. Is the solution to the cube analogous to a specific omega? Or may it be the case that that omega is simply a return to the initial Apha ? Would you agree that the solution to the cube would be recognised and have significance for us whether we were informed it was there or not?

    Comment by Jim Buck | February 8, 2016

  2. Hey Jim, I can see that. The cube was pristine then somebody bit the apple and it got scrambled. Now we have to unscramble it again (a good version: love your neighbor: the bad version: kill all heretics). I would agree that a lot of times we get a sense that there is a next move in the direction of unscrambling. I do think we make progress. It is just that the ‘logical’ conclusion of a beginning and an end point is faulty. Attractive, but faulty. Significant as well because it often suggest the right direction (cfr. the good version), but still faulty (as can be seen from the fact that always degenerates into the bad version)

    Comment by JoB | February 8, 2016

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