“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)?
“The difference between the social and individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and individual experiencing – individual minds and selves – as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains their existence in terms of that social process. But the latter type of theory cannot explain that which is taken as logically prior at all, cannot explain the existence of minds and selves; whereas the former type of theory can explain that which it takes as logically prior, namely, the existence of the social process of behavior, in terms of such fundamental biological or physiological relations & interactions as reproduction, co-operation of individuals for mutual protection or for the securing of food.”
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 242.
I wanted to edit and shorten this but I didn’t. In fact, I needed to battle the urge to go on quoting the next page. It is what it needs to be: the sober discovery of an inescapable truth we could not but evolve to discover. Nevertheless, evolution works in mysterious ways; after half a century the fact is that the traditional (and false) position still prevails. Whatever. Continue reading