Monday, April 28, 2008

Response to Casey Interview

When someone asks whether or not there is a meaning to life, this is a misspoken way of asking whether or not there is an overall teleological aim to the universe, usually seen as grounded in a divine design of the universe. While such grandiose claims are suspect in philosophy, these questions always come back again and again to non-philosophical audience since much of our common assumptions about meanings of life are derived from religious sources. In this post, I address not these concerns so much, but rather what distortion such criticism fosters about morality.

Michael Casey is a sociologist, and Catholic who inaugurates a return to transcendent values, truth and objectivity in the classical theist spirit offered by Aquinas. His particular criticism is not so much original as devastatingly wrong in seeing that skepticism or rejection of theist-based systems of meaning collapse immediately into relativism. As such, like so many, Casey sees objectivity in morality as either absolutist, or relativistic. This is his first mistake, and as a consequence another important feature of morality in such theist-based ethics falls out. What Casey and so many others distort is the actual capability of the content of morality. The content of morality isn't as specific in terms of its action-guidance it offers as people regard it. There is a generality to morality that requires actual interpretation as to the extent such action-guidance offers to normative understanding, and it isn't so simple as God on high ordering positive and negative duties.

First, I am in agreement with classical accounts that moral judgments can be true in the moral realist sense. This is the force of moral truth. Moral truth provides a reason for thinking that morality is overriding in the way we experience being “in the grip of a norm.” Our practical reasoning and cognitive capacities through reflection have access to a set of values that are tentatively and universally relevant to our experience, but it is not through intuition that we see values as applied to concrete situations, but through interpretation. We may know moral principles through intuition, but their applicability originates in reflection and interpretation. In this way, I introduce an interpretive type of moral hermeneutics that explains why there is disagreement about morality. Just because we access to relevant intuitions doesn't mean we understand morality as specific in its content. We might encounter life situations that are so different from how our intuitions can make sense of them that a much needed moral hermeneutics is needed to make sense of those new moral situations. Moreover, it is possible through self-reflection that our moral intuitions may be false, and that through self-reflection and interpretation we could show why it is that some moral intuitions need rejected while others don't.

Secondly, our intuitions give us limited understanding, even after interpretations of those values to concrete situations. They are preliminary justifiable given no other weighty considerations come our way. In this way, our moral judgments are defeasible a priori prima facie duties. If I promise another graduate to take their tutorials because they're going to a wedding, and my wife falls ill requiring immediate medical attention, I have all the reason to see my prima facie promise made to the graduate student as less weighty than my obligations I have to my wife. This suggests a way of seeing moral demands as a comparable set of intuitions that gives us several things. First, it gets us out of the oppressive claim that befall Kantian and utilitarian accounts. Secondly, it paints a more realistic picture of how general moral knowledge is, and thirdly, this type of Rossian-based account explains why moral claims are true, as the theist wants (but is certainly unneeded for us here), without distorting the generality of moral knowledge previously mentioned, and can explain why some moral opinions are false.

Now, let's tie this up with Casey's comments. For Casey, meaninglessness amounts to a denial of a transcendent reality, and he feels that our Western culture is symptomatic of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty's purporting of meaninglessness. Casey regards culture as a reference point to provide a common way to reflect on meaning for people at large. Further, he suggests that these thinkers see liberation in the meaninglessness in which Casey feels such optimism is unwarranted. Specifically, their denial of meaninglessness shares an insular effort to shield us from the why be moral question. We won't have any reason to be moral, or responsible for our own actions if we are not “anchored” in a transcendent reality of moral truth and purpose. On this, he says:

“It is true that when the moment for action comes, and we are immediately confronted with someone who needs our help or something which needs to be stopped, we don’t spend a lot of time philosophising. We just do it. But getting to this point doesn’t happen automatically. If we are socialised to think only of ourselves or what solves a problem in the short-term or delivers a pragmatic cheap fix, we are much less likely to help others or to stand against evil. And when helping others or opposing evil is not the one dramatic moment of heroism that we have in our imagination, but the long, slow, difficult and even dangerous work that both are most of the time in reality, you need something more than the knowledge that this is just your own personal perspective on things to keep you at it.” (italics mine)

I'm unsure of the absence of a common cultural framework gets us complete skepticism about how less likely we are to help others or oppose to stand against evil. Holding culture suspect is a Socratic virtue. More than that, cultural socialization is not the exhaustive determination about how future humans will behave. Its unclear if lacking objective moral grounds contributes to undermining our moral deliberations in such a slippery slope fashion. Is our moral agency truly undermined? I can engage in agential deliberation on my own about MY intuitions about what ought to be the case, interpret and apply them. What results is the tooth-and-nail deliberations we make, not because of culturally determined social forces, but because human beings occupy a normatively-ladened existence. In other words, culture is not the source of critical reflection. The Socratic impetus which truly gives us meaning doesn't arise from an independent metaphysics posited by reason, but a life actively questioned, even to the point that orthodoxy of culture is undermined; this is the immortal tension between faith and reason, between Socrates and his accusers for “impiety towards the gods.”

Finally, I should say that the reason for rejecting Judeo-Christian teleology of the universe amounts to a lack of success in explanatory power. The empirical sciences consistently rise to the occasion, and provide verifiable evidence in suggesting X is caused by Y much more plausibly than those points in literal exegesis on the bible where religion contradicts science. If we see this success coextensive with issues of reliability, then it is reasonable to extend our want for scientific credence to our beliefs at large. Historically, the reason why science pushes over religion is that much of what religion thought it capable of explaining no longer holds sway. Religion suggests too much. It makes the content of morality into specific rules or instances grounded in the illusion of transcendence. In here, I have tried to suggest that construing values in ways of teleology are unneeded. We can have reasonable moral epistemological descriptions of value-experience and a minimal a priori that gets us moral general truth and overridingness without the violation of Ockham's razor that always accompanies religious reasoning on moral matters.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Religion, Transcendence and Meaninglessness

 Here is an interview given by Michael Casey, a sociologist and Christian who despises Rorty, Freud and Nietzsche. In the interview, he chides modern secular notions of reason, arguing that only transcendent values can safeguard what is truly best in democracy and human rights. Here's the link: 

I am going to blog about this more, but I'll mention my intuitions. Yes, there is a limited aprioricity to moral values, but in a very minimal prima facie pro tanto like way. One doesn't need robust commitments of Christianity to secure a working and malleable ground for morality. I'll address the comments that piss me off in a later blog entry. This should be enough for now. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How far does interpretation go?

So, I have just finished up one seminar paper on Gadamer, and an entire semester doing Truth and Method. In philosophical hermeneutics, one phenomenologically describes the conditions of our historically finite understanding. All understanding is interpretation. In Gadamer, there is no outside independent conditions under which rules for understanding are extra-linguistic, or transcendentally a priori. Interpretation cuts through us through and through. My question I put out to the void is simply is this accurate? Should we phenomenologically take our finite seriously and move away from transcendental standpoints or analytically move away from doing versions of epistemology that try to find out the necessary and sufficient conditions for human understanding?

Part of me is compelled, if only a product of a recent fascination with Gadamer, to take on board the fact that everything is interpretation. How far does this cut into human knowing all over the board? What motivates Gadamer is a level of phenomenological description of truth in the human sciences differs from the natural sciences. Here, you can read human sciences as we conceive of the humanities. In German, wissenshaft is simply a rationally constructed system of knowledge, and this word for science doesn't evoke simply the natural sciences. However, I do not know if this is any longer the case, at least it used to be at the time in which Gadamer published TM in 1960.

For Gadamer, the natural sciences doesn't explain everything worth knowing. There is a type of self-knowledge produced by one's engagement with a tradition that is actively and alive in one's experience of the world. For the root of tradition in Latin is to hand down that which must be understood. Literature, art, history and philosophy are disciplines that engage us actively in how we understand the world. In this way, Gadamer is very antithetical to those who practice philosophy as co-extensive with the natural sciences.

I find this view compelling since not all my fields of inquiry operate in straightforward naturalistic assumptions. In ethics, I invoke concepts I employ for normative understanding on a daily basis, especially since I TA Intro to Ethics. When I teach Kant's Formula of Humanity, I don't refer to it in non-moral terms. I partake in a tradition that I inherit. Kant's concepts, and many concepts in philosophy operate outside of naturalism--this is the impetus that pushes people to insist on an irreducible status for their field of philosophy usually.

I haven't really gone anywhere in this post. I've just circled back to why my intuitions are pointing towards accepting in whole or in part Gadamer's insistence that the humanities operate differently than the natural sciences, and to insist otherwise is to misconstrue the humanities, including philosophy. Gadamer thinks that the humanities are directed towards a type of self-knowledge that is productive and brings to light how one can be transformed by engaging with tradition (vice versa as well). Gadamer's insistence that the hermeneutical project is a universal one threatens/challenges the idea that philosophy has access to original grounds outside of our historicity. I wonder if this is even true? Should I remain committed to a transcendental viewpoint in which the world is given, and all phenomena once traced through a genetic phenomenology in Husserl deliver over to me an original and primordial understanding of the world in a way that transcends history? For Husserl, even the lifeworld is filled with invariant structures!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Post-Continental and Post-Analytic Philosophy

I thought I would supply the more accurate picture of the Divide's collapse as many people have commented on Alexander Pruss's blog. I've found that many people are listing my blog either in their blog rolls or providing a link to my entry entitled Continental Ignorance. In addition, google analytics reveals that I have had 30+ visitors in one day, and I am taking time to show two instances of scholarship that are not moving to become analytic philosophy simpliciter, however much Pruss would want such a thing to be true. On the contrary, philosophy is perhaps just becoming philosophy, and many people are realizing just exactly how much work and arguments are contained in the Continentals, especially those phenomenologists that I love seen as relevant to philosophy of mind. I am listing a few sources that might be of intellectual interest to people.

The first is a book review for Post-Analytic Philosophy edited by John Rajchman and Cornell West written by H. Veatch. I enjoyed this review and read a series of these essays long ago since this is a 1985 book. This is a PDF from

Richard Rorty's comments in A House Divided are particularly salient to this discussion. The link here is only to

Lastly, this is a link to the NDPR. Continental Philosophy (however, perjorative a term this might be) has been rather stagnant, and a new direction in CP is seen as a form of immanentism given in John Mullarkey's Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Continental Ignorance

Alexander Pruss recently commented rather ignorantly on the merits of what constitutes philosophy proper. Too much work at the Ends of Thought blogspot has shown the erroneous nature on this already, and rehashing

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Current Research

Here is the summary of a current research project:

An unattractive feature of post-Habermasian influence on Gadamer scholarship is to view Gadamer's thought as reactionary to Heidegger. Commonly, this view is one of discipleship in Habermas famously put Gadamer's contribution to philosophy as the“urbanization of the Heideggerian province.”1 While it is important to keep in view Gadamer's connection to Heidegger, I find Gadamer more active and productive than this discipleship view might suggest, even in his appropriation of certain Heideggerian concepts. As such, I argue Gadamer's understanding of truth is an appropriation of Heidegger's conception of truth, and his use of the concept of truth accurately describes how the subject matter (Sache) is understood in hermeneutic experience. In reversing the primacy for interpreting the central notion of truth, one can find Gadamer’s appropriation as an original contribution to phenomenological understanding of truth. The contribution lies in seeing truth in our lived hermeneutic experience.

The move on my part at looking what truth is in both Heidegger and Gadamer has several functions. First, Heidegger's concept of truth as used by Gadamer makes possible seeing the difference between the human sciences and the natural sciences. Secondly, the mediation spoken of between past and present, that is, the fusion of horizons, I argue, is connected to the notion of Heidegger's truth. In section I, I explicate Heidegger's notion of truth. It is my contention that Heidegger only sets the stage, but that Gadamer gives it content.2 Next, I develop the connection of truth between the fusion of horizons and Heidegger's concept of truth in section II.

1 Jiirgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, tr. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, 1983), 190.

2The fact that Gadamer doesn't fully develop a theory of truth in Truth and Method has been seen as a shortcoming. This criticism is developed y Robert Bernasconi in “Bridging the Abyss: Heidegger and Gadamer,” Research in Phenomenology, 16 (1986), 4. I don't claim content-bestowing conditions at the level of phenomenological analysis in Gadamer and Heidegger. Instead, my use of “content” designates a well-developed conception of phenomenological truth that isn't given much treatment by Heidegger in either Being and Time or in Heidegger's dealing with the issue of truth indirectly in his 1931 lectures On the Essence of Truth wherein Heidegger develops his concept of truth indirectly through an analysis of Plato's Allegory of the Cave and the Theaetetus.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Vita Activa and the Vita Contemplativa

Today, I was told I have excellent leadership experience, and the attitudinal commitments necessary to professionally work canvassing for the Demorats this Summer. The offer to do such work comes at a point in my life where offers are shy. Working and paying off my indentured servitude to attend grad school thus far is another reason for taking the job. I am defintely going to take the job; I can only say that philosophy has been fun, and that to have a job reflective of one's values is another reward not common amongst many that have to transition from the contemplative life, the vita contemplativa, to the practical life, vita activa. In this post, I reflect on my experiences of living abroad the the immortal tension between a life of action, that is the philosophical life, and life yet to be lived by my recent hiring, the active political life.

First, a rehashing of Hannah Arendt is in order. The distinction really is explained in her Human Condition. For her and the tradition of political thought, there has always been a tension between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa since the active life requires a constant immersion into practical affairs whereas the contemplative life is one best characterized by Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In the story, the philosopher is pulled from the shackles of opinion, those that dwell within doxa are the mass of individual incapable of retreating inward into the mind for contemplation. The unshackled philosopher is brought out of the cave pulled upward to see the world for what it truly is, its pure essence or eidos. From then on, the philosopher knows that the common ordinary understanding of the appearing world where politics occurs is not how the world truly is. The joy that comes along with retreating inward and contemplating the universe far outweighs the burdensome life of action necessary for the human world. I am leaving that joy behind. Eventually, I will come back. For now, though, I have to "make this happen."

Part of me is deeply saddened. I cannot believe I must leave Canada. Living abroad (as far as any American wants to admit "living abroad" is 20 minutes north of Blaine, Washington.) has shaped me. The weather is not that different from other Pacific Northwesterners in WA and OR, and the land to my North is filled with rigid mountains crowned in a coniferous treeline. The sky is gloomy often, but when the sun peaks through densely dire clouds of grey, the land illuminates, manifesting the sublime in everyone's appreciation for everything green. The tolerance and multiculturalism of Vancouver is unrivaled, although the lacking of good Tex-Mex restaurants makes me water for more familar American dining options. Vancouver is a beautiful city, a city of glass and tears from the sky. Its beauty has fostered in me an appreciation for the literary and analytic tradition of philosophy I once mocked for its singular obsession with the natural sciences. Still, I mock it, but less so. The people I have met have moved me, molded me, and now I must depart for the United States in less than two months time.

Living in Canada has always taught me that no matter what it is imperative that the United States get back on track. The United States is the most targeted country for abhorrence and satire in the Canadian experience. They view us as a hungry desperate people, lacking a government that funds wars but not health care. They mock us at every turn, and make it clear how Canadian they truly are, even in situations where they clearly are "like us." It is a deeply ingrained pathology to deny one's close relationship with anything remotely American. Of course, this paragraph may be guilty of slight hyperbole. However, one must recognize the source of the Canadian disagreement. The disagreement lies that at the heart of the Canadian mentality--there is a sense of collective responsibility for the welfare of one's countrymen, an attitude uncommon in the United States.

Our obsessant individualism makes it hard to convince others of the morally and politically necessary intuitions of collective welfare. As a people, the United States is fragmented, divided into clear oppositions that blind us to these intuitions. These divisions are between have and have-nots, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Collective welfare is the talk of pinko-commies, socialists and the way left that are skeptical of private enterprise and capitalism. Yet, private businesses and capitalism still occur in Canada. The fact that they know they either sink or swim as a people together might be a result of having the population of 33 million people (approximately, the population of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania), and a greater social anxiety comes when one realizes that 300 million people can rarely assent to anything in common. The point is to do just that. By going from door to door, we must make the change, and I'll be damned if I am going to sit by watching America descend into another unstoppable quagmire with Iraq, or conservative (of any stripe moderate or Neo-con) raise the instrumental concerns of profit before collective welfare.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New York Times Philosophy Article

Here's a New York Times article explaining the success and increase in philosophy as a major for undergraduates. I especially like the fact that an uncertain economy creates mindful students looking to study philosophy for the skills it fosters: argumentation, critical reasoning and an increased ability to write logically. I wonder what my newly acquired friends in the English Department would say to that one! Hopefully, this translates into a direct need for university administrators supporting philosophy faculties everywhere.

Here's a link to the article:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bernard Williams and Moral Phenomenology

“Ethical experience” can cover many things. There could be a way of doing moral philosophy that started from the ways we experience our ethical life. Such a philosophy would reflect on what we believe, feel, take for granted; the ways in which we confront obligations and recognize responsibility; the sentiments guilt and shame. It would involve a phenomenology of the ethical life. This could be good philosophy, but it would be unlikely to to yield an ethical theory. Ethical theories, with their concerns for tests, tend to start from just one aspect of ethical experience, beliefs. The natural understanding of an ethical theory theory takes it as a structure of propositions, which, like a scientific theory, in part provides a groundwork for our beliefs, in part criticizes or revises them. So it stars from our beliefs, though it may replace them (Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1985, p. 93, italics mine)

This quote has been on my mind for a few days now. Williams agrees that my proposal for a moral phenomenology, as far as I made PhD applications this year, "would be good philosophy." However, I am finding central disagreement with his very point of a moral phenomenology not delivering on the merits of ethical theory. Let me explain.

It is common in moral philosophy generally to proceed on two strategies of disagreement. Let there be two ethical theories X and Y with corresponding adherents. As the opponent of ethical theory Y, X can claim:

(1) Y is counter-intuitive leading to an absurd moral intuition as exemplified in a thought experiment of X.


(2) Y is incongruent with our ethical life; X matches up more with our ethical life.

Depending on how 1 and 2 are carved up, these can look like two separate claims whereas I just think that 1 is a general instance of the claim 2. Some moral theorists might try to keep 2 separate due to the feature of Y's incongruent nature. However, for my purposes, it doesn't matter how 1 and/or 2 are divided. There is a disingenuous and irresponsible move in our theorizing to make these types of criticisms without first looking to the phenomenology of our moral life. It is precisely on these grounds that ethical theories always fall short in some other capacity in relation to each other because various ethical theories, as Williams said, focus on different aspects of our moral life. For Williams this is the realm of moral beliefs, and those beliefs can be about many different things in our ethical life. This amounts to Williams acknowledging that a phenomenology couldn't deliver a normative ethical theory, though it would be beneficial for understanding how these elements of our moral life fit together. Why the tension?

The reason why a moral phenomenology is seen as falling short of ethical theory is that theorizing here still means delivering principles and clear cut rules for action-guidance. It is still largely just about answering the question of our obligations, and nothing more. A fuller and richer experience with the philosophy of morality would exemplify how it is that various elements of our moral life fit together: guilt, our care for intimates, the split between motives and reasons and so on. These elements, as I call them, constitute the possibility of being moral, and hence take a certain priority over the action-guidance criterion for ethical theorizing.

Recent explorations in virtue theory of ethics have led me to conclude that the fetishizing of rules and principles that so much of deontology and utilitarianism revere cannot encapsulate our moral life. Instead, the virtue ethicist asks two central questions demanded of ethical theory. First, what I ought to do? But, more importantly what kind of person ought I to be? The virtue ethicist is in touch with those traits that lead to a flourishing life, that is, what I would call the moral life. Now, the picture is far from complete, but the intuitions being pumped in virtue ethics parallel my suspicions of Kantian-based and consequential theories that solely seek to answer the first question without ever addressing the overwhelming concerns of the "elements of our moral life."

Going back to resolving the tension, a phenomenology looks at phenomena as they appear to consciousness while at the same time bracketing -- putting out of play -- our presuppositions we maintain of the world already. This is what Husserl called the epoche. Phenomenology, in this way, is a descriptive effort to see what undergirds the claims we make about the world. These descriptions often conflict with people who think that the mind-independent structures posited by science should be privileged as "all that matters." By extension, moral philosophers would put out of play their respective normative theories, and look at the particular instances of, say, guilt and shame. If a moral theory implies or states a conclusion about guilt and shame outside of what is revealed in lived experience of these elements, then the phenomenology could yield not an ethical theory, as Williams observed, but a check of applicability. For, if a moral theory is inapplicable in experience but noble in theory, then such a moral theory will have to be discarded since a developed moral phenomenology can inform us of a theory's inapplicability. From this, it follows that moral philosophers have an obligation first and foremost to develop a phenomenology of all those concepts they employ for normative understanding as to ensure the demands they claim about our ethical life truly supports how it is that we experience the ethical life.