Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Roxanna Again

Today, I called with grave concern about Roxanna Saberi. She's supposedly on a hunger strike for the last 5 days. Her lawyers are continually barred from Evin Prison, and Tehran is asking the West "respect Iran's independent judiciary and not hype this situation up."

I suggest a digital sit-in. I found out that the number to the receptionist of the DC Embassy is 202.965.4989. Bombard them with concern. Make their DC Office know that we will not forget this young lady!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Political Language, Abortion and the Middle Road

Every once in a while, it is good to remind people (there are many that come here) how powerful interest groups employ language to reflect their interests. This is an unfortunate reality, and while I have no empirical data, I do have some qualitative notions that help to pump this intuition. In the American political climate, we can just see how normal people discuss "abortion." Consider that there is no nuanced position that reflects the following two propositions: 1) Some abortions are morally justified and 2) Some reasons don't justify abortion at all. One must be either pro-life OR pro-choice. In that forced disjunction, 1) or 2) make little sense. I contend that 1) and 2) make more sense when we consider how complex the different moral situations are across cases of abortion.

At the outset, I'm not going to claim that I can solve the abortion debate. Many philosophers have engaged this problem in a variety of ways. From Mary Anne Warren, Judith Jarvis Thomson to Don Marquis have said a great deal. Moreover, I am not going to engage in popular debates (like the argument from bodily autonomy), nor propose some radical new idea in this post. That's not the point. The point of abortion is a test case for seeing how 1) or 2) are excluded.

We can take a better look at the interest of pro-life groups by understanding the term "pro-life" and "pro-choice." First, the term suggest that the opposition would be "anti-life." The term sets up that one would never want to be against life. But, that's just an oversimplification of a very complicated moral issue. Consider the opposite of pro-choice, "anti-choice." Would anyone really want to be against the ability to make choices? That also doesn't sound to fruitful. In both cases, the actual complexity of the moral issue is reduced to bumper-sticker mentality, and I've always been more attracted to a view of morality that attempts to see a moral issue in terms of the case by case basis that one might adjudicate, say, in a court room. Not all cases are identical, and for that reason, a little intellectual humility is involved in seeing in what types of cases succeed in allowing abortion, and others that fail to generate a reason for abortion.

Consider the following bumper sticker. Keeping your laws off one's body follows the idea that the positive argument for abortions stem completely from bodily autonomy. However, this idea that one can do with one's body what one may doesn't follow or make much sense. Getting an abortion isn't morally neutral like cutting one's hair and painting one's fingernails.

Consider the bumper sticker that abortion stops a beating heart. Such a sticker construes again the oversimplified notion that the impermissibility of abortion rests on the presupposition that a fetus is like you or I---a fully blown member of the moral community with a status of personhood.

In both cases, the language used conceals the philosophical complexity of two concepts central to the abortion debate: autonomy and personhood. Critical reflection moves past these, and I think I could show cases for 1) and 2) or refer back to Thomson, Warren and Marquis for how these terms get better attention in moral philosophy.

Now, one should take this case by case basis for morality without conflating morality and legality. Morality is more fundamental than the law. We don't legislate all forms of immorality. We don't make it illegal to cheat or your spouse, or lie to your neighbor. So, when I say that morality is complicated by the types of situations that engender different moral responses, we should take moral justification for what it is, and not confuse the analogy of cases with legal justification. That's not where I am going.

Let's take 1) Some abortions are morally justified. There might be several cases in which abortion is justifed prima facie. First, if a woman is raped, she has no responsibility for being the victim of a sexual offense. Typically, we do not hold victims of crime's accountable for the effects of the crime, and this is the central premise that will do the work needed to explain the sexual offense case. An insurance company would never make the claimant pay for things damaged in a fire as long as the fire was not initiated by the claimant. Secondly, if the mother's life is in danger due to pregnancy, the life of the mother trumps the life trying to enter the world. Our moral intuitions favor the health of those that are here before us, present in our lives. A husband might have to decide in favor of aborting the fetus while the wife is incapacitated during labor.

Let's take 2) Some reasons don't justify abortion at all. Let's go back to the bumper sticker about bodily autonomy. If I wanted to do with my body as I wanted, and part of this was vanity, then it is conceivable that someone might be vain about their personal appearance. If I heard someone say they didn't want to get fat, or would not look good in a skiing outfit due to pregnancy, these reasons do not support or mesh with the seriousness of abortion. In fact, we would think there is something seriously wrong with this person. Consider a second case. If a teenager said that simply out of fear, she wanted an abortion. We couldn't take fear alone as a reason to justify abortion anymore than vanity.

Moreover, the later development of a fetus provokes reactions in us that early first trimester abortions don't. We seem more permissive with first-term abortions than the complexity revealed in selective late term procedures. Clearly, the fetus has developed and the closer it gets to emerging in the world as a moral person.

To summarize up to this point, I have not proposed anything substantial about the abortion debate. Instead, I have only advanced the opinion that morality by a case to case consideration actually reflects a proper understanding of the issue. This is meant as a contrast to the over-simplified politics of abortion. My point is to show that this understanding of morality should be reflected in how it is portrayed in public debates, yet this is not the language employed. Instead, one is either for abortion in all cases, or strictly against it. However, like all either/or's in political language, it is a false dilemma. There is more going on in abortion than reflected, more options between the one's presented in the either for it or against it categories.

In some ways, I feel that politics and our culture dumb things down for our immediate consumption. News coverage, political debate and the populism of information have all contributed to a culture so bent on attaining what is needed now that the civic virtues of understanding, organizing and communicating have flown out the window. Being a philosopher leaves one with a bad taste in one's mouth as I look at the case of politics. I take my cue from Socrates that most profess knowledge they truly don't know, and every once in a while, you have to remind people that the world is more complicated philosophically than the comfort of faith, science or common-sense alone provide.

Maverick Again on Nietzsche

Okay, that's it. I'm calling you out, Maverick.

I don't like doing this. In fact, as a philosopher, I'm supposed to be charitable. I'm supposed to build up the damn reasons as to why I interpret a text T as supporting X. That's one of the very few things I do, and as an aspiring Continental philosopher (such a skill at exegesis surpasses any pejorative division in my discipline), I am practicing all the time. It pains me to see that this is not done in a recent my Maverick philosopher. The blog post takes the following rough form (note this is heuristic only)

1) Nietzsche says X in T.
2) I interpret X in T as supporting National socialism.
3) Cite passage of Gay Science, 325.
4) Proviso: X in T as supporting National socialism cannot be maintained on one passage alone, and mention that there are many passages that fit this bill.
5) Even with the proviso, Nietzsche's saying X in T could support National socialism.

The immediate problem with his post is the purpose of the post equivocates in the sense meant by 2) and 5). We see this in how he refers to Kaufmann's footnote as derisive as well as those that would "scream in protest." He doesn't honestly accept the dialectical challenges of his opponents, or he would present a better case for support of 2). If pressed into a corner, I think he would suggest that 5 is what he is really doing although he wants to conclude definitively 2.

Given 5, he admits that he is not offering a sustained treatment or objecting to reading Nietzsche and his worth as a philosopher. He is only suggesting that Nietzsche can be read this way. Yet, before this humility sets in, he pedals some provocative statements meant to provoke the interpretation he favors without substantial argument mind you--really wanting to pass of 2 from above. First, he is observing the inadequacy of Walter Kaufmann's translation footnote, specifically taken issue with the fact that 325 can be explained by reference to another aphorism "how boldness in expressing one's ideas can cause emotional hurt to those near and dear." Without really offering a reason why we shouldn't accept this footnote, Maverick only points to the possibility that the passage can still be read this why being situating his favored interpretation as an explanation for why this is not the case. This amounts to the stupid undergraduate mistake of reasserting your conclusion as a way to answer an intelligible objection to one's view. Reassertion is not a way out of a dialectic.

Secondly, he implies that Kaufmann's translation of the Übermensch as "Overman" is motivated to stem the interpretation to sliding this way. Über can mean ultimate, above all, and best. In this sense, choosing Over, at least in my eyes, has always been meant to usher in a conception of a certain ethical archetype set over and beyond the current moral conception, essentially someone healthy, self-creative and passionately dedicated to a life-affirming project. The English "Super" seems to suggest not the over and beyond sense that Nietzsche means since super exaggerates something in the here and now. As such, I think the rendering by Kaufmann responsible.

When considering a counter-argument to his interpretation, we are told that LIBERALS do not want to be reminded of certain things, which Maverick fails to prove as objectionable. It could very well be the case that God is dead among the other doctrines:

when one interprets these passages in the light of such key Nietzschean doctrines as the death of God, the Will to Power, the perspectival nature of truth, (which amounts to a denial of truth), the denial of a moral world order, it becomes clear that there are definite links between Nietzsche's philosophy and Nazi ideology. But I can understand why leftists don't want to be reminded of this.

Here's a brief synopsis of my remedy. One way of interpreting Nietzsche is that he is trying to offer an ethic to combat the impending nihilism in the wake of the Death of God since so much meaning is invested in this notion; its collapse would wreak havoc. If this interpretation is true (as I think it very well is), the honest passages of life-affirming values and the myths to reinvigorate this conception prove to establish a remedy to this nihilism, not the support of national socialism. I could even supply those passages I feel warrant this interpretation over the one favored/but-not favored by Maverick (confusing as it is to read his post) Moreover, the biographical observation of his sister's proto-Nazi leanings and meeting of the Fuhrer go unnoticed by Maverick. It's simply that I am a liberal and don't want to think about these things. That's really lame if you want to meditate on the value of Nietzsche's thought.

Well, Maverick, I do think about these things. I also think about exegetically responsible views. Your passing reference to some Nietzsche lovers "in protest" is an attempt to lessen those that read him responsibly. I find this distasteful, and like last time, I invite you to comment--hoping that you find my criticism accurate of how irresponsible your characterization of Nietzsche's view really is.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Maverick Philosopher on Nietzsche

I really like the attempt at understanding Nietzsche.

I'm wondering however if Maverick is aware that Nietzsche's critique of truth gives up on the idea that it is a thesis about the epistemological sense of knowing a proposition, or a fully-blown nature of truth thesis like correspondence theory. In this way, the truth doctrine of Nietzsche is more about the determinative social forces that determine the strength of an idea as a historical product, as he describes towards the end.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Skeptical of a Heideggerian Ethics, Reading Hatab's Ethics and Finitude

As I read more Continental philosophy, the project of moral philosophy becomes suspect. Most have inherited a Nietzschean skepticism of ethics as rule normalizing that threatens heroic creativity, individual eccentricity and the openness of life. In some ways, maybe the climate in Continental circles is right. Analytic moral philosophy proceeds to ground systematic principles that explain normative praxis. What is missed in any conceptual analysis is the pre-reflective dimension of our practical involvement, social relations, concerns, emotions and very historic situatedness. Passing over, concealing over these dimensions, ethics has construed itself as moving beyond the limits of what Lawrence J. Hatab would call our finitude. "The finitude of being-in-the-world also refers to the limits of human selfhood caught up in the encumberances and contingencies of life" (p. 3, Being and Finitude)

Moving past these concerns, Hatab contrasts the presuppositions of Anglophone moral philosophy. It is preoccupied in theory, and measures its philosophical validity by logical consistency, universality, impartiality and indefeasability. In fact, I find some of these features very compelling, and am not inclined to shy away from all these criteria whereas Hatab sees them as detrimental to a deeper understanding of ethics as an engaged, interpretive, contextual, addressive discourse for the sake of disclosing ethical bearings in life. (Ibid., p. 4). Attempts at deeply universal or theoretical approaches that justify ethical principles extended over time are abandoned, and an anti-foundationalism is enacted to reflect how we are already situated in the threshold of our own finite limitations.

I take it that Heideggerian phenomenology empowers this type of analysis. However, I am unsure that ethical pronouncements can strictly be embedded in socially pragmatic and finite contexts. As I grow older, the same old patterns of human life repeat throughout history and forward in time. As such, if this is even a remotely accurate intuition, then the repeated patterns and forms of life enacted by human beings may generally be subsumed under moral principles, or in my case prima facie intuitions that have acheived a theoretical recognition of human life have validity despite the want for contextual-sensitivity that a Heideggerian would want to foster. This repetition throughout history is not a collapse into a human nature essentialism. On the contrary, it is just an observation that human beings seem quite comfortable in choosing what has worked in the past until there is a major rift in the necessity of life engendering a new pattern of life. I still maintain human beings are free amongst the contingent freedom they possess to choose between what pattern of human life would best suit them.

It would seem the one lesson to learn from Hatab stems from the contextual-sensitivity of ethical principles. Following his insight, we could say that the responsiveness of some people stem from observing the theoretical need for contextual-sensitivity and the pre-reflective dimension of human experience. This point has been made reluctantly by Simon Critichley who thinks that religion and politics will never go away despite the philosophical want for a secularly enlightened society (See Continental Philosophy Review, Dec. 2008). While leaving the question of religion aside, it does point to the fact that ethical pronouncements engage us traditionally and historically. The point remains whether or not such insights are more true, that is intuitively self-evident, beyond the manifestation in a particular traditional, religious or historical milieu.

At the outset, I am suspicious of Hatab's efforts here. The phenomenology of moral experience is concealed from the "view from nowhere" efforts at moral theorizing, yet the contexts of Heideggerian finitude cannot ignore the vast similarities throughout time that human beings have exhibited. To remedy this, as I have may said here in the past, the search for a phenomenology of moral experience should rest on the transcendental variety found in Husserl.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Iranian American from North Dakota Imprisoned (Updated)

Here goes. I'm using every tool I have, my facebook, my blog, my telephone, and my email. I get about 15-20 people from around the world. I can't list all the phone numbers, but it's easy. All you have to do is google the Iranian Embassy in your home country, and make the call. I ask that you copy this blog post to your friends, family and strangers. Anyone that can help.

Here's a list of Iranian Embassies Abroad

This is about someone you don't know, but is an American suffering in an Iranian prison for no reason other than being a journalist in a country that doesn't like transparency or a free press. She's a 31 year old and reportedly frail according to her father.

I'm asking you copy this note to more than just people I know. I am asking you to call, write, email and FAX the Iranian Embassy. In addition, call your own Senator and US State Department.

Roxanna Saberi is a North Dakotan of Iranian heritage that went to file stories for a host of networks in Iran.

She was tried without her lawyer present. She was sentenced for 8 years for espionage. The trial lacked any transparency, and the ruling comes at a shock to a host of media outlets. The charges are baseless.

Here is the full CNN story.

Call the Iranian Embassies and Declare her trial baseless as Senator Conrad did from North Dakota.

I ask that you tag everyone you know, and get her home. But make the call.


2209 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington DC 20007
Telephone: (202) 965-4990
Fax: (202) 965-1073

Ottawa, Canada: (613) 2334726

Some minor development:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Phenomenological Properties Ground Moral Ones

Well, I just heard Robert Audi give a talk at the APA about moral perception, and I was suspicious about his project since anytime anyone would object; he'd just give him/her another distinction. One wasn't really sure how much work or what those distinctions are doing. The reason for positing moral perception is to make intuitionism somewhat more naturalistic since according to him moral properties are anchored in natural properties. Both the realist and the anti-realist I think accept something like moral properties are anchored by natural properties. I deny that moral properties are anchored in natural properties.

In this post, I only talk about my reasons for rejecting the relationship, and will not outline a substantive proposal to replace it. Much of moral philosophy is driven in terms of the larger body of philosophy, namely, that ontology drives what is legitimate. In this day, it is naturalism that drives all forms of philosophical legitimacy. The drive for this form of legitimacy first has grown so popular, it is actually uncritically accepted.

Moral properties resist articulation in more precise naturalistic terms. In fact, if you look at how we apply the term right and wrong, they are applied wholly to deed+agent. At first, this looks like a massive confusion to some that want more clarity in our usage, application and articulation of what exactly is going on in our moral language. Yet, the want for more clarity is, under my view, impossible. Our moral language encompasses qualities of an entire situation, and speak of morally relevant considerations as they might qualitatively change the situation. The frustration, I think, with this feature of our moral language makes some so frustrated that they impose standards from more scientific discourses onto our moral language for the want of rigor and precision that just can't be there.

So given the lacking precision of our moral language, I ask what kind of properties hold for situations in general, and what could possibly ground them? A philosophy that is driven by ontological naturalism tries to over-determine the possibilities of what exists in a top-down method. Phenomenology works from the bottom-up, and so I think that when I deny moral properties being anchored in natural properties what I really mean is that phenomenological properties ground our understanding of the world in general, including ethics. What naturalists often forget is that their understanding is a subjective accomplishment. Subjectivity is so embarrassing to them they would rather eschew the subject and the intentional life of consciousness than bring to light those implicit intentional structures that constitute the emergent-sense of our world.

If one were to ask what we could get from focusing on the experience rather than explaining the phenomena, I resist that objection on the grounds that there is no difference between explanation and experience as the naturalist would want. The explanation is not apart of how we experience it, and in ethics, we are trying to capture the structures of morality, judgment and our language without losing sight of the normative. Take for instance, B. Williams. His efforts at spelling out the internalism requirement of practical reason is an effort to philosophically explain AND capture how we experience the world. In fact, that's the appeal of motivational internalism, it explains how we experience ourselves in the world, and deflates a confused notion -- externalism -- based on our experience of the world (I'm just using this as an example; I happen to be more of an externalist) .

It's as if the world is not carved up so nicely that many of our distinctions do not work to bring it to light, I especially think this in relation to the top-down method of just doing meta-ethics without keeping sight of what we are trying to explain, the moral life.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New York Times Op Ed: End of (Moral) Philosophy

The article in question...

Some challenge the independent evaluative nature of normative ethics. They argue that a more naturalistic description of morality and all that it involves -- including the emotions -- is a natural way to proceed. The effect is that there is no science of the Good as traditionally conceived. Ethics is overtaken from the outside by larger descriptive projects. The climate of modern philosophy is to let ontology drive all other divisions in philosophy. Ethics is no exception.

However, a lesson from Husserl (and Nagel of all people) is extremely useful. First, the objective viewpoint of the sciences cannot explain all facets of the human condition. Science is not exhaustive. Husserl reminds us that the natural attitude, the objective viewpoint, can overtake our understanding of the world making us forget how much our subjectivity is involved and structures elements of our awareness. If we attend to these structural elements through the phenomenological reduction, phenomena are illuminated in ways that the sciences cannot see.

The above fairly naive article accepts the truth that morality is a product of the emotions. Evolution directs our cooperative behavior, and this understanding has three benefits. They are a) it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition, b) a warmer view of evolutionary-based human nature and c) dignity and choice are maintained despite the descriptive explanation implying facts about our decision-making. I'll speak to each of these in turn.

Concerning a), there was never a time in which our moral intuitions weren't social. When ethicists consult intuitions, they are looking at their prima facie reflective judgments that are other-regarding already. Within a Rossian framework, they were always social to begin with. It is not a new insight to the coinage and use of the term.

With respect to b), when we conceive of agency in the moral framework independently of any science, the warm view of humanity's cooperative nature is generally assumed. Morality is usually construed as a set of reason that prohibit or permit a range of behavior. Morality is taken to be overriding my interests when they confict with the larger set of reasons. In this way, a bear minimum of the assumption in ethics already has the warmer view at heart.

It is true that not everyone emphasizes the cooperative nature of human beings. Neo-Hobbesians like David Gauthier argue for a self-interested account that see morality as nothing more than one device among many to instrumentally solve coordination problems. The coordination problems can be very competitive given the implicit Hobbesian views of our moral psychology. But, not all of us are Hobbesians.

As for c), this makes no sense and only conflates the descriptive and the normative projects already. Even if our decisions are explained in great detail from this emotion-based view, it does not follow that the range of the description does not intend to overtake the evaluative parts of our choices. According to the cognitive science view, the more we understand, the more we can predict (unless, I am assuming more than can be fairly attributed to the view of science in question, which I think I am not). The view does impede our conception of free choice because as Kant's third antinomy shows if we construe ourselves as an object of causal understanding, we lose our freedom. If we conceive of ourselves morally, we conceive of ourselves as acting freely beyond the causal nexus of the world. What Kant teaches us, apart from this being an antinomy of pure reason, is how in tension these viewpoints are.

The phenomenological impulse in me thinks Kant had it right. We have a phenomenologically adequate conception of ourselves as agents to initiate action freely and evaluate our own terms of action. Thus, you can see where I stand. Phenomenological descriptions underwrite our claims of the naive natural attitude, and it seems foolish to reject agency for the science that would vitiate how it is that our agential experience of the world occurs.

In summary, a) and b) are anticipated by much of moral philosophy, and Brooks is not entitled to conclude c). Thus, Brooks misrepresents moral philosophy while not observing the history of philosophy, and what current ethics entails. Given the misrepresentation, we cannot conclude that ethics has ended. Moreover, even if Brooks is entitled to the conclusion of c), ethics would lose its evaluative component becoming descriptive. These are just some of the mistakes I see in his article.

Finally, it is not clear how this new conception of morality infers the "challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning." Being involved in one dialectic in which the shape and form of morality is at issue bears no direct relation to the metaphysical debate concerning New Atheism. New Atheists are not talking about reason in the practical sphere, but in the theoretical sense.

Friday, April 10, 2009

APA Adventures

Well, I'm no longer a stranger to the way of the current APA. I'm missing out on some morning sessions to recuperate myself. It takes about 2 hours from Burnaby by transit to get to the downtown location, the Westin Bayshore Hotel.

Here are some humorous observations.

My wife commented that there were three categories of philosophical dress. I thought these were really entertaining.

1. The Disheveled Unorganized Grad -- this PhD student simply hasn't gotten elements of his personal life together. This student has his personal affairs in order, and is organized in their philosophical work--but that's all they have organized. Their manner of dress includes just rolling out of bed and putting on what is available. No fashion sense. Hair is unkempt, but fashionably appropriate when one recalls the outlandish hair of Wittgenstein, or the side portrait of Nietzsche.

My wife also has labelled 1. "The YOU category" when talking to me.

2. The Eccentric -- As is hard to do philosophically, the defense of a middle position between two extremes is difficult to defend, but not this time. Being eccentric amounts to having some manner of either hair, dress or last night, someone's glasses were tubular plastic in perfect round circulars, as if someone had wrapped think insulation wire around the frame. Said person was really nice, and smart as hell. It was just one oddity about said person. The eccentricity is usually just one personal aspect that signifies said person.

3. The Prep -- this PhD student comes from money. The leisure afforded to philosophical pursuit is strengthened by coming from money and not to mention shoes that cost your rent for a month. Eeegads. To boot, if these students are near defending their thesis they can be slightly stand-offish from the more under-developed budding PhD students that surround them.

Now, I am not saying these are all the categories that could possibly exist. In fact, there could be many more. However, these three categories best explain the maturation of these individuals into -- shall we dare say -- faculty. From the men I saw, this means that wherever we fit into 1, 2, or 3, our blazer will reflect where we come from. As PhDs move into something called jobs (a foreign word at this point in time even to myself) the manner of their dress improves in quality, but the assemblage of it will still fit 1, 2 or 3 (usually exemplified by the sports coat). I assume that this works for female faculty, but I know next to nothing of the stylish habits and manners of dress to render a plausible opinion without offending.

I should also comment that there are several types of responders. These come from faculty who bemusingly barrage PhD students into submission. The hope is that they survive long enough to learn that it is appropriate for them to train "the next stock" of upcoming PhD when they are "landed". This behavior has its roots in Socratic gadflyness for sure.

1. I loved your presentation...
2. I loved your presentation, but...
3. I wonder if you would consider (insert non-sequitur theoretical approach exemplified by the Professor asking)
4. zzzzzzzZZZZ (The long-winded, opinionated interlocutor that finds it suitable to ask his/her question, taking the entire question period to explain their point. The upshot of this is usually this person specialized in the area has something significant to say.)
5. I disagree
6. I disagree wholly (This approach can be mildly presented in tone or come at you like an F-22 Raptor fulfilling its sortie. In this exchange, the whole point of someone's project and/or dissertation is shot to hell. PhD students can come back, or choose to humble themselves.)
7. I'm confused on this one point of your argument. (Essentially the clarification question, this is the most hoped for question. As it is expository, the PhD student can have some reprieve from the other manner of questions. However, allowing a follow-up from this same person generates a 5 or 6 usually)

Well, that's all I have to share. I've gotten a few ideas to address from some of the sessions. I'll be more active after the conference for sure.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maverick Philosopher's Distortion of Continental Verbage

Some analytically-minded philosophers continually mock Continentals for the manner they compose, write or explore an issue. Some CPers are more literary than substantial, as the saying goes. The rhetorical flourish is mocked for obscuring clarity and concealing the argument within. This is an old strategy, probably Carnapian in some weird tangential ways. I digress. For the purpose of this entry, let's take a look at the passage Maverick Philosopher looks at from Paul Tillich, the Christian existentialist theologian. Maverick cites:

Atheism can only mean the attempt to remove any ultimate concern – to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence. Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism. Whether it is possible is a problem which must remain unsolved at this point. In any case, he who denies God as a matter of ultimate concern affirms God, because he affirms ultimacy in his concern. (Dynamics of Faith; quoted from White, Eternal Quest, p. 94)

Before, I forget. This is the blog entry I am taking issue with.

The example is supposed to be from someone highly influenced by Heidegger, but not a philosopher per se. Pau Tillich was a theologian. We'll let that slide (I could be a "stickler" for that one) since many European thinkers crossed disciplinary boundaries. Merleau-Ponty taught child psychology, and Husserl was a mathematician originally.

Now, Maverick takes this passage out of the text, and I want to discuss the second point he makes at the end. Maverick tries to summarize puts Tillich is making. He introduces the following summary of the argument:

1. God =df one’s ultimate concern.
2. To deny God is to deny that God is one’s ultimate concern.
3. To deny that God is one’s ultimate concern is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
4. To deny God is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
5. To deny God is to affirm God.

The problem with this argument is the initial assumption, (1). God cannot possibly be identified with whatever is one’s ultimate concern, since this is different for different people. God is not a role occupiable by different things for different people, but an individual. Once this is clearly seen, it will also be clearly seen why atheism cannot be defined as the attempt to remove any ultimate concern. Atheism is not the denial of ultimate concern but the denial that a certain being is a possible object of one’s ultimate concern. The fact that ultimate concern cannot be removed since everyone has one does nothing to show that God’s existence cannot be denied (Maverick Philosopher blog entry).

My concern is that such re-positioning of Tillich's point might distort what he is doing, and the context he's writing in. Since he is a theologian, he is most likely not concerned about the different ultimate concerns others might have. Theologians have a particular way of ignoring that one.

Secondly, I wonder if Heideggerian influences are abound here, especially with making God is not an individual being, but something we relate to (or in Heideggerian language the object of our comportment). Heidegger looks to analyze and describe the practical activity of how we relate concretely to the world. Now, defining God as one's ultimate concern would seem to fit the Heideggerian motif. However, such context is displaced when you extract passages with no context and judge them on their intellectual merit alone. I'm only suggesting this as one possible way why God is seen as one's ultimate concern, and one of the many possible dangers to posts like this.

Now, it should be clear: I'M NOT SAYING I KNOW WHAT TILLICH IS DOING (The floor is open to anyone who could amend the observations herein). There's just a range of hermeneutic concerns not addressed by reproducing the argument from the passage formally---meaning, "God cannot possibly be identified with whatever is one’s ultimate concern, since this is different for different people" might be a distortion. Following Heidegger, we have a way to say that there might be reasons why Tillich sees God as "someone's ultimate concern" since we're analyzing subjectivity phenomenologically. To know that, however, would require a more detailed and nuanced discussion of the text in question. In other words, I would think that only a very charitable reproduction could succeed since the charity would extend to knowing exactly the context and the history of the particular text in question.

Any suggestions?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gendered Ethics

I've always been fascinated with arguments that derive philosophical insights from the social position and identity of the knowers rather than an abstract conception of an epistemic or moral agent. On one level, philosophy has proceeded usually to claim that epistemology attempts to discover the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge. For moral agency, moral philosophers usually attempt to discover what practical reasoning is across the spectrum for all human beings and what is entailed by this faculty has direct implication for knowing and acting morally. Traditional philosophy tries to achieve an abstract and universal understanding of agency in which what holds for one agent will hold for all others of the same kind. Feminist philosophers and social epistemologists are skeptical of this impersonal characterization of agency in both epistemology and moral philosophy. Instead, more attention is paid to the actual context in which knowledge emerges, and an open honest assessment usually reveals that the production of philosophy by men typically favors the abstract conceptions of agency, conceptions that only the most educated historically could emulate. In a way, traditional philosophy justifies conceptions and interpretations that favor the position they occupied.

In creating my own syllabus recently, I decided to include a reading of Annette Baier. Instead of agency, her target is an entire systems of moral philosophy, and their subsequent concepts. I've picked up on the agency requirements since its range of concern is familiar to me, and is one essential concept within moral philosophy. The argument is made similar in kind. Let's see if I can reproduce it with any satisfaction.

(1) All moral philosophies of the past favor conditions of agency that only men (the elite) could emulate.
(2) By (1), it is evident that all past philosophies are gendered meaning that philosophies produced by past social systems are products of their times in which women did not even participate in philosophical discourse.
(3) Females have a distinctive moral perspective
(4) Given that moral philosophy is gendered and females would have contributed to philosophy uniquely had they done so, a new feminist ethics is necessitated by the historical realities to address the conceptual gap of previous historical moral philosophies.

There are two major assumptions here that demand attention. First, the argument turns on the assumption that philosophy cannot reach anything near the universality of its claims. Instead, making universal claims is just a way of rationalizing or supporting one's social position over others. Post-structuralists are fond of this claim, thinking that the idea of the subject in philosophy is only a tool for oppressing those that are different from the subject. I'm unsure of this claim. While there might be something said for a sensitivity to historical context in which philosophies emerge, does the truth of a view depend entirely on that context? I answer in the negative. This cannot be a reason for thinking entire contributions to tradition are foolhardy. Otherwise, we would not think through Aristotle's text in our intellectual history since he doesn't understand particle physics. Aristotle's physics are regarded as false because of reasons beyond which history and context imply.

Still, the first assumption of history and context are not the most powerful assumption. It is premise (3). Proving that women have a different moral perspective than men is the most substantial claim a proponent of feminist ethics makes. The truth of (3) is usually based on Carol Gilligan's work in children psychology, or some qualitative analysis of how women favor more nurturing caring relationships than the impartial justice morality typical of past philosophies. As for agency, this conception is very compatible with a model of practical reasoning that stresses community over atomistic individualism of moral agency.

The problem with (3) is thinking that it follows had women been liberated in previous centuries that moral philosophy would have turned out differently. Maybe, it wouldn't change. We note the gendered differences now, but what holds for our experience of gender now is or could be starkly different than if women had been equal to men in a very Greek context. Such moves only invite speculation, and that's not the biggest problem with this expectation either. Essentially, this expectation is bugged down in a deeper problem, and the expectation purports the very gender essentialism that women needed to shrug off for the advances in feminist activism. Allow me to explain.

The belief that philosophy would have been different had women participated in our ethical tradition relies on the assumption that women differ essentially from men in the first place. The claim is not just an evaluative claim about the fairness of past philosophical discourse. Any self-respecting philosopher could see the disproportionate past from still the under-represented female amount of philosophers today. Moreover, the insights from those same social science studies that corroborate the truth of (3) rely on the categories of men and women to the exclusion of spectrum of bisexuals, trans-gendered people etc.

I'm not dismissing the truth of (3). I'm just thinking the claim should be less robust than feminist ethicists want. The criticism might be something like the moral content of our duties may not be as sensitive to caring relationships, and the failure of what we require from morality is the issue. The view of feminist ethics, I think, has more value in uprooting the past injustices of philosophical praxis. I think they are right in a very broad sense, just not for the reasons they hold about a range of issues.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Last Class

I have reached a sense of ending, to put it strangely. I was saddened today--I taught my last tutorial at Simon Fraser. My students couldn't comprehend the sad face, and nostalgia that accompanies the backward glance of life, the sense where you move onward in life from something comfortable to something new and foreign. Before them, they have the whole world and were more interested if I knew anything about the impending doom of their final.

I went back into the classroom after they had departed. I remembered my first class, and those undergraduates that have soared. During my time here, I even got a few students to major in philosophy.

My mind soars with possibility about the future, not the past. I am directed and comported towards mastering phenomenology, learning the the things that Carbondale can teach me, and what I can offer my peers at Carbondale. Already, I am reminded of the congeniality of my fellow Americans and the smalltown Pennsylvania life I left behind when I came to Canada nearly three years ago. I have talked over email to a great deal of the graduate students at Carbondale, my future peers. My wife and I were curious about the town, the life there and most importantly where we were going to move. While any of this still hasn't been decided, within just two short days, my box was populated by eight strangers nice enough to give me the low-down on the best parts of town and where the party centers were. I agree it is best to pursue one's PhD not amidst the swarms of undergraduate partying that plague American universities.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Climate of Philosophy: Images and How They Speak to Us!

I'm reminded of the comments Heidegger makes about Van Gogh's Peasant Shoes. Heidegger regards the shoes as coming into being from concealment, the truth of their being is shown. The true practical nature of the shoes is rendered weathered, worn and worldly in Van Gogh's canvas.

Thus, art work has a revelatory power set truth in motion. Since I have moved to some brief flirtations with Italian futurism, the deep love of Friedrich's work, and I am now harkening back to the day where after leaving my undergraduate days, I went to the Cleveland Museum Of Art and witnessed Anselm Kiefer's Lot's Wife.

At the time, I was reading lots of Arendt, and thinking about the problem of evil. I immediately thought of the train tracks that went into Oblivion, like the famous tracks that are pictured into Auschwitz . This image struck me with the sense of abandonment evoked by the empty railroad tracks. A friend looking onward used the phrase "post-apocalyptic." There is some sense of abandonment, isolation or void left by this work. The landscape is ripped asunder.

This post has no real philosophical purpose. These are just the images that strike me. Some philospohical things may be said. Sartre seems fairly misanthropic suffering through WWII, and Adorno has even said that no poetry, no beauty is possibly articulated after Auschwitz. The climate of philosophy is entrenched in a modern dreariness, and one can understand why some thinkers offer an emancipatory component in their thinking.

In addition, I'm wondering if our contemporary culture of void -- the Heideggerian groundlessness left in Heidegger's wake -- bespeaks the silence we all suffer. God is dead. Science is uncertain, and the analytic optimism through scientism is left wanting in me (and many other Continentals, I imagine). Even Husserl in the Krisis, says "The dream is over [of founding phenomenology, I suspect]". The dream and confidence we should have in the world and our philosophical ability is surpasssed by the limit of our own cruelty in the past century.

Of course, maybe these images can be taken as signifying avenues for reasons to be moral. While we can be skeptical of ourselves and the claims we make about morality, we should be prompted for the ever-growing demand that morality imposes on us. Through these images, at least for me, the abandonment, the desolation and the very landscape speak volumes about how we should treat ourselves and this Earth.