“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):
It’s odd to talk about progress these days when everything seems backwards. We are given every reason to become pessimists and end up like Stefan Zweig. That these reasons are given by cultural pessimists might push us to withstand only because we want to deny them that victory too. Revenge, however, is their way so whatever victory that kind of resistance would lead to would not be really ours.
There is, then, no other option then to find a basis for our optimism in reason.
“(..) the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts.” G.H. Mead, “Mind, Self & Society”, 1934, The University of Chicago Press, p. 7.
Society is the soil and the individuals are the flowers. The flowers are not there just to fertilize the soil but the soil isn’t something we can leave unfertilized either. Staying on-metaphor: language is the fertilizer. It’s allowing the soil to bring forth better flowers but takes, without coercion, from those flowers to make for an even better soil.
Nothing can be further removed from current opinion. If only because it is dynamic – and this world of now hates anything that is elusive; anything that can’t be decomposed in parts and reassembled in the whole we (think we) need. We live in anti-Darwinian times where we think we can make leaps without evolving.
But aren’t our cultural pessimists the ‘owners’ of the primacy of the whole (society)?
“We have found, indeed, that although we had contemplated building a tower which should reach to the heavens, the supply of materials suffices only for a dwelling-house, just sufficiently commodious for our business on the level of experience, and just sufficiently high to allow our overlooking it. The bold undertaking that we had designed is thus bound to fail through lack of material – not to mention the babel of tongues, which inevitably gives rise to disputes among the workers in regard to the plan to be followed, and which must end by scattering them all over the world, leaving each to erect a separate building for himself, according to his own design. At present, however, we are concerned not so much with the materials as with the plan; and inasmuch as we have been warned not to venture at random upon a blind project which may alltogether beyond our capacities, and yet cannot well abstain from building a secure home for ourselves, we must plan our building in conformity with the material which is given to us, and which is also at the same time appropriate to our needs.”, Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft, Reclam, 1966, p. 726 – this is the semi-official English internet translation of the original passage.
[I am re-posting this from another blog of mine out of nostalgia. This is a favorite quote of mine and my quought of 2008 actually is, in an endearing kind of way, something that has stayed constant in my head over the past 30 odd years.]
I know: a poet he was not. Nevertheless, this is a sublime poetic truth. It is much like my history teacher (the forever unknown Jef Arras) told me twenty years before I mustered the courage to read, happily unguided as ever, this rather annoying but great book: there was philosophy before and after Kant, and only the latter is of real significance. Continue reading
“Meaningful criteria are not simply those posited by society – or those of our ancestors – applied as law to a given case. Rather, every concrete determination by the individual contributes to socially meaningful norms. The problem is similar to that of correct speech. There too we find undisputed agreement on what is admissible, and we subject it to codification. The teaching of language in schools, for example, make it necessary that the schoolmaster apply these rules. But language continues to live, and it thrives not according to a strict adherence to rules, but by general innovations in spoken usage, and in the last instance from the contributions of every individual.” Hans-Georg Gadamer, in “On Education, Poetry, and History. Applied Hermeneutics, SUNY, 1992, p. 173.
It’s hard writing this and at the same time listening to a live report in Spanish of a Real Madrid game. All indications are I’d do better doing neither. But here I am, thinking about whether things that – like my life, this place – ultimately come to an end still come to an end. They do. Although not in the way most people like their ends – final, clean and clear cut -, they do. Every contribution contributes. To what? How? No clue. A certain amount of voluntarism is indispensable. Not a question of laissez faire the big things but one of laissez aller the small ones.
I started here with an overview of the objectives. I continued here with the second one dedicated to our prior art. It is now time to finish this with the third and final objective which, when reached, will ensure a common context (foundation) for the real work we’d like to do later on.
This is what we said before about this objective:
3. Acquire the ability to integrate the prior art with the goals
Now this was probably not the most fortunate way of putting it. Acquiring an ability is an activity. Unless we believe all of the nonsense of brain scientists, there is no way of monitoring whether such a process takes place let alone whether it takes place successfully. To put it more directly: we can all think we are acquiring all kinds of abilities whilst we are just acquiring the ability of procrastination combined with that of complacency. The flip side of this is that anybody can attest to anybody else of us ‘doing our best’ or ‘putting in a lot of work’ but whilst all of that may have ‘merit’, neither has a direct link with that ability we want acquired.
So the better formulation would have been ‘to demonstrate the acquisition of the ability to integrate the prior art with the goals’ (even if it sounds horrible, as a sentence). How to demonstrate this? Via language of course. In our case specifically by using language to demonstrate we can create original links between the 8 philosophers reviewed and the conjecture of progress being the nature of language.
Below the fold you will find the concrete steps to do this in this community. Your contribution could well demonstrate in concrete fact an example of progress by language. In fact, that is the third objective.
I left it here at stating the first two objectives with the second one being:
‘Understand the basic prior art i.e. relevant philosophy’ means that
- you are able to pinpoint the basic claim to fame of following thinkers:
- I. Kant, H-G. Gadamer
- J. Habermas, J. Rawls
- D. Davidson, P. Grice
- H. Kyburg Jr., G. Gigerenzer
- you can understand why they are in four categories, and,
- you can inter-relate the main themes of their respective works.
Assuming you have completed the first bullet, I owe you some explanation on the last two bullets. Here goes: Continue reading
This is an experiment in which I claim no expertise. The previous sentence will be my only disclaimer.
The goal is to join together people to examine the justifications for a belief I have: progress is the nature of language. I hope this is not an original thought because if it would be its examination would have to rely on the unlikely coincidence that the right people would find me and join me in a sustained way despite my strenuous use of language. I further hope that people do join and, if so, that they join in the spirit of amateurism. Why the latter? Because my belief entails – or so I believe – that any true communication presupposes that amateurs, if sufficiently motivated, can contribute to it (call that “the grounding principle“).
Let me not get ahead of ourselves though: before we can get to the goal we have to cover our preliminaries. In this case, we have to establish a common context (a mental meeting place if you will) where we of course may see things differently but not because we see different things. This is the starting point as individuals can only come together after having established a common context i.e. after having formed a community. I know all this begs the initial question. That shouldn’t be an issue, I spoke of my belief as a belief and we have time to come back to whether it is justified or not (so I ask you to apply another corollary of my belief – one coined by Grice – “the principle of co-operation“).
The following three objectives are set for individuals aspiring to be part of this community:
We (all chances are this will turn out to be a most appropriate royal ‘we’) will start digging my tunnel, chipping it away quote by quote from The Tunnel by William H. Gass (page numbers referring to the Dalkey Archive Press edition of 1999 reprinted 2007). The post will look a lot like this or like that (I have been exercising).
The Tunnel is a beast of a book. If it were a Miss Universe contestant it would have to hope inner beauty was key to winning the contest. This is an awkward metaphor since The Tunnel is about everything but winning a contest, and: every sentence in it is a thing of beauty. The thing is that it is one of those books that appear not to want to have readers. What better tribute then to write an interminable succession of idiosyncratic posts mirroring (in a muddy puddle type of way) this beast of a book (sawing a sequoia solo with a hand saw).
What is certain though is that whereas my posts may better be characterized as idiotic, this book is the book of how human stupidity binds with stupid inhumanity to create a destructive force way beyond that of the Death Star.
Yes, it is also about fascism.
Below the fold are the policies and procedures applying to this exercise (on the off chance of there being interest to make contributions).
“The best the logician can do is to recommend gathering more data.”
Henry E. Kyburg Jr. & Choh Man Teng, p. 200, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
A small piece on a forgotten (or, let’s be optimistic: not yet discovered) pearl of this human endeavor called ‘thinking’. I learned Mr. Kyburg died a couple of years ago. Given that is a fact, one can only hope that he turns out to be an instance of the reference class of great thinkers that have ideas requiring the environment of thought of a generation coming well after their own generation. Kyburg is one of three B-list philosophers on which I based my Cognitive Science dissertation: “Do Humans Think?’.
But let’s cut to the chase: Continue reading
“(..) insight can come from outside the mind.”
G. Gigerenzer, Adaptive Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. vii (a.o.).
There’s something deeply unnerving about scientists, especially neuroscientists: it is the idea that whatever there is can be located somewhere. Localized so as to make it a candidate for treatment of some sort. In this sense, neuroscience took over the world because the world is filled with people who believe things can be pinpointed and then addressed. Forget about the butterfly effect, the butterfly is in our current world view pinned down where it can be examined.
Nothing can be farther removed from the ecological point of view (this includes most people who see themselves as the ‘advocates of ecological preservation’). It may well be that this world view of pinning down, setting apart and solving is the root cause of us not applying evident solutions to the issues we have, in a broad sense, with our environment. Continue reading