Back to Ethical Being

I think Hegel’s notion of concrete “ethical being” (sittliches Wesen), which has been particularly well explicated by Robert Pippin, does an immeasurably better job of unfolding what I will provocatively call the human “essence” — which the explicit level of Aristotle’s notion of talking animals only extensionally picked out — than its more famous 20th century “ontologically” flavored competitors like Heidegger’s Dasein or Sartre’s “being for itself”. In an immeasurably richer and more subtle way, concrete ethical being addresses the order of explanation relevant to human life. It is also happily free of existentialist bombast and melodrama. (See also Beings; Hegel on Willing; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation.)

New Organon?

Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620) was a groundbreaking argument for the importance of an experimental method in science, even though the details of his presentation have mainly historical value. I’m not commending the anti-Aristotelian polemic of this fascinatingly Baroque text, but I do think that polemic in fact mainly addresses kinds of claims for demonstrative science made by later commentators, which I reject and think were quite remote from the views of Aristotle himself.

In spite of Bacon’s overtly anti-Aristotelian attitude, I take his emphasis on the great informative value of active “perturbations” of nature in contrast with mere observation to be a vindication of the relevance of the vital Aristotelian notion of potentiality, as well as a partial anticipation of Brandom’s emphasis on counterfactual conditions as a key to intelligibility. This is a nice alternative to the foundational role of immediate empirical “intuition” in Locke’s theory of knowledge. Locke dwelt much more extensively on a novel empiricist reconstruction of many details of human understanding, but Bacon is the classic early proponent of the idea of an experimental method, which seems not to depend on the representational “myth of the Given” upon which Locke’s theory depends. Experimental methods play an essential mediating role in empirical science.

Instrumentalism?

In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.

Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.

On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.

These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.

In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.

I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)

Which Pragmatism?

“Pragmatism” is said in many ways. There is the crude, morally disreputable sort that means pursuit of narrow self-interest. There is the broad sort associated with a kind of flexible adaptation, which could be viewed either positively or negatively. There are several philosophical pragmatisms, none of which should be understood in terms of either of these.

Philosophical pragmatisms usually avow a deflationary, coherentist theory of truth, and stand in contrast to Cartesian, representationalist, and foundationalist views. They also tend to be associated with an instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation. I’m not in the habit of calling myself a pragmatist, but am sympathetic to all of this.

Charles Pierce (1839-1914) is generally regarded as the founder of philosophical pragmatism, and it was he who invented the word. The quite different version promulgated by William James (1842-1910), however, was initially far better known. At a very broad level it could be said that where Pierce was more Kantian, James was closer in spirit to the British utilitarians and the British empiricist tradition. Pierce apparently had severe misgivings about the work of James, and resented James’ takeover of his term. In later works, he ceded the name “pragmatism” to James and adopted the new term “pragmaticism”, in an attempt to separate their views.

Pierce’s pragmatism, I’d like to think, references the Kantian primacy of practical reason. He broadens the sense of “practical” far beyond Kant’s initial ethical focus, but without losing touch with its Kantian basis. He treats Kant’s rejection of “intellectual intuition” as decisive and deeply related to this, preferring to develop meanings through a kind of practical inference. His original “pragmatic maxim” is as follows: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”). I’m no Pierce scholar, but I think that Pierce’s uses of “practical” are meant to apply in both Kantian and utilitarian/empiricist senses, whereas it seems James lost the Kantian aspect.

Though his interests were wide-ranging, Pierce was initially known for his work in mathematical logic and semiotics, and a few seminal essays. He made pioneering contributions to the mathematics of relations, and is widely regarded as the founder of modern semiotics, or the general study of signs.

Like Leibniz, Pierce left a huge mass of unpublished manuscripts, editing of which will continue for many decades to come. According to my late father, who wrote his dissertation on Pierce in the late 1950s, Pierce’s executors deliberately impeded research into Pierce’s significant engagement with Kant and Hegel and his correspondence with Husserl, in order make Pierce fit better into the American philosophical mainstream of the day, which was a much narrower, more intolerant, and more anti-historical kind of analytic philosophy than prevails among English-speaking professional philosophers today.

John Dewey (1859-1952) was another better known American figure with whose name the term “pragmatism” also became more closely linked than that of Pierce. Like James, he was a psychologist as well as a philosopher. He is known for his writings on education and democracy.

Philosopher, sociologist, and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) developed a pragmatist theory of social life known as symbolic interactionism. John Herman Randall, Jr. (1899-1980) developed a pragmatist reading of Aristotle, and also argued that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a larger and far more positive role in the development of modern science than is commonly recognized.

In the mid-20th century, analytic philosophers W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars used pragmatist arguments to criticize logical positivism, initiating a gradual sea change in Anglo-American philosophy over the next several decades. Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom are also known as analytic pragmatists.

(“Pragmatics” in the study of natural and artificial languages — a discipline concerned with questions of use — comes from the same Greek root, but is otherwise independent of the “pragmatisms” delimited here.)

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.

Memory, History, Forgetting — Conclusion

There is a great deal more in Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting that I won’t try to summarize.

Part 2, entitled “History, Epistemology”, is a nice examination of the status of history as an inquiry, with detailed examination of the historiographical approach of the Annales school, but I got more out of his previous discussion of closely related topics in Time and Narrative.

Part 3, “The Historical Condition”, addresses something of the scope of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Its most prominent feature is another still somewhat deferential critique of Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein as the central, deep, “existential”, “ontological” reality that is also specific to human being. Heidegger’s existential approach to “historicity” explicitly rules out any constructive engagement with actual history or the historiographical discourse of part 2, whereas Ricoeur would like to build a bridge.

Ricoeur also says Heidegger’s discourse about care ignores our embodiment. As elsewhere and as I do, he objects to the emphasis on “being toward death”. In particular, he does not like Heidegger’s insistence that only our relation to our own death can be “authentic”, not the death of others.

More broadly, with uncharacteristic sharpness he says “What is termed authenticity here lacks any criterion of intelligibility: the authentic speaks for itself and allows itself to be recognized as such by whomever is drawn into it. It is a self-referential term in the discourse of Being and Time. Its impreciseness is unequaled, except for… resoluteness…, which contains no determination, no preferential mark concerning any project of accomplishment whatsoever; conscience as a summons of the self to itself without any indication relative to good or evil…. [T]he discourse it produces is constantly threatened with succumbing to what Adorno called ‘the jargon of authenticity’. The pairing of the authentic with the primordial could save it from this peril if primordiality were assigned a function other than that of reduplicating the allegation of authenticity” (p. 349).

It seems to me that a similar point applies to Heideggerian care. Care by itself is not a sufficient criterion for anything, any more than purely formal Badiouian fidelity is. Caring for others, love, Aristotelian friendship are indispensable. What we care about matters hugely. In place of Dasein, I put ethical being.

Ethical Being

Previously I suggested that a modest discourse about beings is all the ontology we need.

At this level, the most distinctive thing about us talking animals is that we are what I would call ethical beings, that is to say beings with potentiality for ethical reason. With Aristotle, I identify each being with its distinctive way of being. Ethical being in the singular is just a name for the quality of being an ethical being. It also translates Hegel’s term sittliches Wesen. Hegelian spirit is actualized by the actions and ethical being of ethical beings. (See also Back to Ethical Being.)

Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)