Saturday, June 15, 2013

Barzun on William James

I am reading some of Jacque Barzun on understanding and reading William James. I found this passage rather unique:

[The real problem] in James as writer of philosophy is his irrepressible humour. He shares with Swift, Lamb, Samuel Butler, Shaw, Chesterton, and Mark Twain the disadvantage of having used yet one more rhetorical means which, though legitimate in itself and generally pleasing, somehow distracts all but the fittest readers. Most people seize on it as an opportunity to escape from the serious thought just preceding and thus miss the seriousness in the next, the humorous one. The great humorist always runs the risk of not being taken thoughtfully, while the normal men of ideas, faithful to solemnity, invariably are.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Caputo and the End of Ethics

Caputo has a book, Against Ethics, that deals with the same thesis in the Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory; it's entitled End of Ethics. I hate the article. In fact, I despise the point: regurgitate Levinas about singular uniqueness of the individual, the radical alterity of the Other, and think Levinasian phenomenology calls into question the existence of ethics as a discipline in philosophy that seeks out how to deliberate about right and wrong. For Caputo, ethics deals with universal rules and duties, and Caputo simply continues the well-intentioned Levinasian line when Levinas says in the opening of Totality and Infinity, I hope to "not be duped by morality." Instead, we should be uber-ethical and allow for the singular uniqueness of others to overflow. The ramification of accepting his critique is that he has given us one duty at the expense of thinking his critique is not a replacement for the supplanted duty. Yet, it is. The Levinasian critique just functions as a super-duty from which everything else depends. However, Levinas never gives you a way to think about respecting the radical alterity of the other except maybe to never reduce the singular uniqueness to another. However, this superduty could be equally guilty of the same reproach of formalism often accused of Kant's categorical imperative.

The contempt for ethics originates in the following two claims: A) a very Kierkegaardian reading of morality as singling out the universal and B) somehow believing that the universal harkens back to the language of presence called into question by so many of the poststructuralists discourses in other disciplines (the very same stupid disciplines that give rigorous study of Continental texts a bad name). The belief is so widespread in these circles that to make any universal claim - let alone a philosophical claim about the methods of normative ethics - is to commit to the impossible. These critiques are many and they might focus power or language as reasons to why we cannot know or utter universal claims in ethics.

However, limiting a discussion about ethics to rule-following is idiotic. If contextual-dependency really undermines the capacity for universal claims and a global morality, then it is not the content of morality we should be so concerned. Instead, we can still talk about the agential capacities and offer robust conceptions of ethical experience to mesh with how we experience values. We will find that a variety of capacities are shared between people, and that we can talk about how best to apply these capacities in a world where morality is seen as only following rules and doing one's duty. All in all, Caputo's pronounced end of ethics is always offered too soon. Just because we are skeptical of a particular research program does not entail the immediate dismissal, but instead we should see just how far our skepticism extends. In limiting his critique to duty, he cannot delimit virtue ethics (though he does some work to dispense away with virtue ethics as yet another way in which believers in ethics are deluded), which calls into question duty-responses to moral reasons inherent in the context now facing us.