Name Change

Thanks to an alert reader, I found out today that there is a blog out there with the same name: Public Intelligence.  It’s a right-wing conspiracy blog, especially obsessed with pedophilia.  Truly ugly stuff.

So I have changed the name of my blog in order to avoid all confusion.  And to make sure that Google searches for my site don’t lead people to the other one.

From now on, this blog is called McGowanBlog.  The url remains the same: https://jzmcgowan.com

 

Materialism, Meaning, and the Humanities

Taylor’s theism is directed, in part, against a reductionist materialism, which would 1) in its utilitarian forms (which include Darwinian accounts) “reduce” human motivations to sustaining life (either that of the individual or of the species) and see all human behavior as driven by the efforts to seek pleasure or avoid pain; or 2) in its biochemical forms claim that all human behavior is a product of chemical reactions in the body.  He is adamant that there must be “something more” than this to explain human aspirations and behavior.

In particular, Taylor says there are three things a reductionist materialism cannot account for: 1. Any sense of there being non-human forces or powers to which we, as humans, can connect.  This, straightforwardly, is the place where “transcendence” makes its appearance.  There is something that transcends the exclusively human—and the experience of or faith in the existence of that transcendent something cannot be accounted for in reductionist materialist ontologies.

2.  There is the observable fact that moral motivations play a large (although hardly exclusive) role in what humans do.  There are issues of value—of what gives pleasure or what gives pain, what is seen as admirable, and standards apart from desire itself by which any particular desire is deemed endorsable or not.  We subject out own desires and behavior, as well as the desires and behaviors of others, to judgment—and the materialist view has a hard time accounting for the standards that are deployed in our making of judgments. This is a version of the fact/value dichotomy–and Taylor (I think) is sympathetic to the pragmatist view (most fully articulated by Hilary Putnam, but clearly already there in William James and wonderfully expressed by Kenneth Burke) that we are always already valuers, that our attention to things (to facts, to what is the case) is driven by what “concerns” us, what we think matters, is significant.

3. Finally, we have aesthetic responses, finding beauty in some things, and turning away in disgust from others, along with desires to produce such artistic objects and to spend time in their contemplation and consumption.  We might say that here we find admiration for work well done—for accomplishments that go beyond just getting the job done, just being “good enough.”  Standards of excellence are applied in all kinds of fields—from artistic endeavors to athletic ones to simply the “style” and competence with which the most ordinary tasks are done.

Taylor does not insist that only faith in a transcendent can underwrite objections to reductionist materialism.  But what he does show is that religion (at least in some cases) shares a cause with the humanities: the cause of showing there is something more than materialist satisfactions (the utility maximizing rational individual of classical economic theory) that “matter” to human beings.  The humanities are also committed to a sense that humans derive (find) meaning in a variety of activities and relationships that are not captured by a single-minded pursuit of utility.

Of course, ever since Matthew Arnold (at least), the humanities’ attempts to describe those sources of non-utilitarian meaning have come across as pretty desperate, a kind of hysterical special pleading.  In fact, the humanities seem caught between two antithetical strategies in such presentations of their value.  Either, they try to demonstrate that the humanities have a utility value, just one that is not reducible to pleasure/pain or straightforward economic gain.  Or they try to argue for the uselessness of the aesthetic and of knowledge for its own sake, finding in such non-utility a welcome respite from the obsessions and demands of a consumer culture, where getting and spending rules over all time and effort.

I am more inclined to go the “meaning route.”  That is, I don’t want to focus on what the humanities and the arts “do” for the person who either pursues them actively or consumes them somewhat more passively.  In other words, I am not very attracted to or convinced by the Martha Nussbaum type arguments about how reading the classics (from Lucretius to George Eliot and Henry James) makes us better moral subjects and better democratic citizens.  Perhaps she is right.  But I’d hate to be committed to saying that those who do not do the requisite reading are somehow doomed to be deficient moral subjects and citizens.

Rather, I think it more demonstrably (phenomenologically) true that subjects locate meaning through processes of valuation that prove much more multifarious than any utilitarian or Darwinian calculus can account for.  In particular, I would push the thought that what is found valuable (and hence worth striving to create and working to sustain) is much more the product of a self’s relation to, embeddedness in, others and the non-human world than the utilitarian/Darwinian account would suggest.  Which is to say that, along with Dewey, I believe “morality is social.”  Morality, in this case, covers both what contemporary philosophy (following Bernard Williams) calls morals (rules of conduct mostly directed toward establishing and maintaining optimal relations to others and to the world) and ethics (questions pertaining to what is the “good life,” of what ends I—and others—should pursue).  All the issues pertaining both to morals and ethics are worked out, thought through, acted upon, and subject to the judgment of others within the ensemble of social relations and practices in which the self is embedded.

Does that mean that “society” plays the role of the “transcendent” in my form of humanism?  I am willing to accept that characterization of my position.  The social is the “horizon” (to use that term from phenomenology) within which judgments of meaning and value are made.  The humanities, then, would become the study of how those judgments were/are made by various different people situated in various different societies.  But not just how those judgments were made, but also what those judgments were/are.  The humanities and the arts, as is often said—and Taylor argues that the same is true for religion—proceed by way of exemplars.  There are no hard and fast rules for making judgments—and there is no way to proclaim apodictic truth for any particular judgment.  Which is not to say that there are no reasons one can offer for one’s own judgments.  But we should fully expect that such reasons will prove more convincing to some than to others—and that the extent to which reasons are convincing will depend quite heavily on the social context from within which those reasons are heard and evaluated.

Does this all entail cultural relativism?  Yes, to some extent.  I will in a subsequent post return to the William James’s notion of a “live option.”  There are demonstrably judgments and choices that were “live options” in the past that are no longer so.  Unlike someone living in the 1845 South, I cannot actively entertain the question of whether I should purchase a slave.  This is not simply because no slaves are available to buy.  It is also because, situated where I am in history and culture, being a slave owner is unthinkable for me.

But it is only relativism to a certain extent because cultures are not monolithic; they are in dialogue with other cultures (and with the past), as well as internally riven with all kinds of debates about proper judgments concerning morals and ethics.  The person living in the 1845 South could not be unaware that some of his fellow American citizens found slave-owning abominable.  Being within a culture can isolate someone from others who hold contrary views, but it cannot completely shield him from knowing about those who would dispute his views.  The humanities, we might say, are committed to airing all such disputes—opening out toward the historical record, to other cultures, and to the debates within one’s own culture.  The humanities stake a lot on the idea that the pursuit of meaning and values should be undertaken in and through exposure to as wide a set of judgments as possible.

This open-mindedness of the liberal arts (of the humanities) is, of course, anathema to those who wish to insure the triumph of one particular set of values over another.  All tyrannies try to shut down the public sphere, the full and raucous airing of multiple views.  Established religions have often been guilty of just such attempts to stifle discussion and debate.  Taylor, of course, recognizes that fact.  Hence he has to be very tolerant of non-religious humanists.  His position seems to be that the humanist is missing out on something, on a good thing, by not opening up to a relation with the transcendent (as contrasted to accusing the humanist of heresy).  At issue, I presume, is whether the transcendent of one’s relation to others and to the world is “enough.”

Enough for what?  For fully realizing the potential of life?  It seems like it would have to be something like that.  But I am not sure—and will return to this issue in subsequent posts.

For now, I will finish by considering the relation to the non-human.  I am not inclined (as is obvious by now) to find in the non-human—be it God, Nature, or some kind of life force/energy—a source of meaning.  Yet that does not entail denying that non-human forces and energies exist.  There are natural processes—erosion, earthquakes, weather cycles etc.—that exist apart from the human;  they pre-existed the human and will, most likely, exist after humans are extinct. There are also non-human creatures, some of whom pre-existed us and others of whom (I assume) will outlive the human species.

Moral questions involve, among other things, considering how we value those non-human forces/creatures and what are the optimal relations in which to stand to them.  Am I committed to the notion that whatever meaning and value those non-human forces possess are meanings and values that we, as humans, have created?  Yes, I am committed to that view.  Does that mean that non-human forces can only have meaning/value insofar as they relate to (even serve) human concerns?  That’s a tougher one.  I’d like to think (but don’t fully know how to make this stick) that we humans can value something with which we share the world (whether that sharer is human or non-human) for its own sake.  That is, I can fully acknowledge the other’s right to exist, and to flourish, without seeing the other’s existence as benefiting me in some way.  Here is Kant’s “kingdom of ends.”  That it is humans who see/designate others as ends-in-themselves does not logically entail that such a view is impossible to achieve.

What would be the reason(s) advanced for such a view?  One could be the reciprocity argument.  I am no more responsible for my presence on earth than is my neighbor or a butterfly.  Since I fully expect others to grant my right to be here, it is consistent that I grant their right to be here as well.  Otherwise, I would have to have some argument that would explain why I have more right to be here than the other creatures and processes that I find in the world about me.  Of course, such arguments for the “special status” of humans are rampant in human history, and most religions offer some version of such arguments.  Hence only humans get to be immortal or made in God’s image in Christianity.  There is also the Darwinian/Nietzschean route of saying we live in a totally amoral universe, where it is eat or be eaten, so it is not a question of “special status” for the human, or even for me and/or my tribe, just a struggle for life and death.  But if we accept that moral considerations do have some force in human motives and actions, then the challenge of justifying the “special status” of all humans or of some sub-set of humans is likely to be taken seriously.

A second set of reasons would be more holistic, more ecological.  The idea here would be that the world is sustained (in part) by a set of natural processes that unfold without human direction, but that can be altered by human action/intervention.  We are slowly discovering that such human actions/interventions often have drastic by-products, ones that threaten the sustainability of the world.  Our presumptions of control over the non-human have had bad consequences.  We would be much better off walking with a much lighter tread, leaving others and the non-human to live in peace, exempt from any interference from us.

Are those natural processes transcendent?  In a strict sense, I guess the answer is Yes.  They are certainly non-human.  But they are not transcendent in the more religious sense because they are not, in my view, a source of meaning, or some kind of “personal” entity to which we can have a call-and-response (dialogic) relation.  Taylor persistently wants to reject the “impersonal universe” he associates with modern secularism, while I am fully guilty of finding the non-human “impersonal.”  We stand in relation to the non-human, and can have a drastic impact on its functionings, but I don’t think we can be in dialogue with it, and I don’t think we can establish a relation to it that generates meanings except insofar as we, as humans, find value in the non-human (something which occurs all the time).

Am I fully satisfied with these formulations?  Far from it.  I am using Taylor to sort through my own commitments/intuitions, even as his book challenges me to offer a coherent (and convincing) account of how I justify/understand the assumptions/claims that must underwrite those commitments.  And I am finding that I stand on very shaky ground.

Perfectionism and Liberalism

Adam Gopnik has become one of the most astute theorists/apologists for liberalism, even though his thoughts on that subject simply come as asides in the occasional pieces he writes for the New Yorker.  In the July 30, 2018 edition, in a review of a book about the utopian fictions of the 1890 to 1910 period, he has this to say: “Liberalism is a perpetual program of reform, intended to alleviate the cruelty we see around us.  The result will not be a utopia but merely another society, with its own unanticipated defects to correct, though with some of the worst injustices—tearing limbs from people or keeping them as perpetual chattel or depriving half the population of the right to speak to their own future—gone, we hope for good.  That is as close as liberalism gets to utopia: a future society that is flawed, like our own, but less cruel as time goes on.”

The complaint of non-liberals is that liberals aim too low, that they timidly rule out as impossible things they should be fighting to accomplish.  And surely there is much to be said for the view that liberals are particularly ineffective if they are not constantly pushed by a more radical “left.”  On the other hand, liberal timidity, what Judith Shklar memorably called “the liberalism of fear,” is a commitment to minimizing concentrations of power and maximizing the distribution of power in order to prevent tyranny.  Power deployed for economic gain or power deployed to bring about a utopian vision of solidarity/common effort are equally to be feared.  Pluralism is the by-word, also known as liberal “permissiveness.”  As much as possible, keep to an absolute minimum the power of any entity (be it state, business, church, or another person) to dictate to me the terms of my life.

Another common critique of liberalism comes from a different direction.  The issue here is not that liberals don’t fight hard enough for the justice they claim to cherish, but that the individualism that liberal permissiveness establishes is unsatisfying.  Left to their own devices, individuals will either (this is the elitist, right-wing critique of liberal individualism) choose “low,” materialist desires that are undignified and recognizably bestial or (the left-wing, “communitarian” critique) be left adrift, exiled from all the kinds of intersubjective associations/relationships that actually make life meaningful.

In short, a straight-forward “materialism,” which accepts that our primary motives are for bodily comforts and other basic pleasures—what I called “hedonism” a few posts back—is deemed insufficient for a “full” (now the term is Charles Taylor’s) human life.  There must be more, Taylor keeps saying.

Here’s my dilemma—and kudos to Taylor for bringing it home so forcefully.  A certain version of materialism, with its notion that personal interest in securing material goods plus the psychological satisfactions of familial love and social respect are primary and “enough”, reigns among the aggressive right-wing in the US today.  The old line conservative, elitist critics of the Alan Bloom and Harold Bloom sort are just about total dinosaurs now.  The current right wing scorns elites and their fancy views of human dignity and attachment to “higher” things.  “Freedom” for Samuel Alioto is complete liberal permissiveness in economic matters, tied to a lingering moralistic attempt to suppress non-economically motivated “vices.”

So I certainly want to combat what Taylor insists is the “reductionism” of a materialist utilitarianism—the notion that all value resides in the extent to which something contributes to well-being, with “well-being” defined in very restrictive, mostly economic, terms.  The humanities, as a whole, have understood this as the battleground: the effort to get the public and the body politic to accept (and act on that acceptance) the value of non-economically motivated or remunerated activities. (In a future post, I will return to this topic aand try to think through what the “more” is that a secularist humanities would offer.)

What path should one take in this effort to combat economistic utilitarianism?  Taylor writes that “the question [that] arises here [is] what ontology can underpin our moral commitments” (607).  Now, of course, Richard Rorty (of whom more in a moment) would argue that we needn’t have any ontology to underwrite our commitments, that the whole (traditional) philosophical game of thinking that “foundations” somehow explain and/or secure our commitments is a misunderstanding of how human psychology works.  (Basically, Rorty is accepting William James’s insistence that we have our commitments first and then invent fancy justifications for them after the fact.)  The critics reply (inevitably) that Rorty thus shows that he has an ontology—basically, the ontological description of “human nature” that is James’s psychology.  If, like Rorty, you are committed to the liberal ideal (as expressed by Gopnik, who is consciously or not, channeling Rorty on this point) of reducing cruelty, then you are going to undertake that work in relation to how you understand human psychology.  In Rorty’s case, that means working on “sensibility” and believing that affective tales of cruelty that will awaken our disgust at such behavior will be more effective than Kantian arguments about the way cruelty violates the categorical imperative.

The Humean (and Rorty, like Dewey, is a complete Humean when it comes to morality/ethics) gambit is that humans have everything they need in their normal, ordinary equipment to move toward less cruel societies.  We don’t need “grace” or some other kind of leg up to be better than we have been in the past.  Our politics, we might say in this Humean vein, consist of the rhetorical, legal, and extra-legal battles waged between those who would “liberate” the drives toward economic and other sorts of power and accumulation versus those who would engage the “sympathetic” emotions that highlight cooperation and affective ties to our fellow human beings.  The Humean liberal, therefore, will endorse political arrangements that do not stifle ordinary human desires (for sex, companionship, fellowship, material comforts, recognition, the pleasures of work and play) while working against all accumulations of power that would allow someone to interfere in the pursuit of those ordinary desires.

What Taylor argues is that this liberal approach is not enough.  And it is “not enough” in two quite different ways.  First, it is not enough because it still leaves us with a deep deficit of “meaning.”  It is a “shallow” conception of human life, one that does not answer to a felt—and everywhere demonstrated need—for a “fuller” sense of what life is for and about.  Humans want their lives to connect up to something greater than just their own self-generated desires. (I have already, in a prior post, expressed my skepticism that this hankering for a “deeper meaning” is as widespread, even universal, as Taylor presumes.  To put it bluntly, I believe many more people today–July 28, 2018–are suffering from physical hunger than from spiritual hunger.) People, in Taylor’s view, want to experience the connection of their desires to some “higher” or “larger” purpose in things.  So the ontology in question is not just a description of “human Nature” but also of the non-human—and a description of how the human “connects” to that non-human.  You can, of course, claim (like the existentialists) that there is no connection, that we are mistaken when we project one and would be better off getting rid of our longing for one, but that is still an ontological claim about the nature of the non-human and about its relation to the human.  In that existential case, you are then going to locate “meaning” (a la Camus) in the heroic, if futile, human effort to create meaning within a meaningless universe.

Taylor’s second objection to Humean naturalism is more interesting to me because I find it much more troubling, much more difficult to think through given my own predilections.  Put most bluntly, Taylor says (I paraphrase): “OK, your naturalistic account posits a basic ‘sympathy” for others within the human self.  But, by the same token, your naturalistic account is going to have to acknowledge the aggressive and violent impulses within the self.  Your liberal polity is going to have to have some strategy for handling or transforming or suppressing those violent tendencies.  In short, there are desires embedded in selves that are not conducive to ‘less cruel’ futures, so what are you going to do about them?”

Taylor’s own position is clear.  He doesn’t use the term “perfectionist” (that, instead, is a recurrent feature of Stanley Cavell’s objections to Deweyean pragmatism), but he is clearly (at least in my view) in perfectionist territory.  Taylor is certainly insistent that what non-religious views (those that adhere to a strictly “immanent frame”—his term) miss is a drive toward “transformation” that is often motivated or underwritten by the desire to connect to some “transcendent.”  Liberal “permissiveness” doesn’t recognize, or provide any space for, this urge to transformation—or for the fact that those who pursue this goal most fervently are often the humans we most admire.  Self-overcoming, we might say, is view more favorably than simply “care of the self.”  Taylor is very, very good on how the arguments about all this go—with the liberal proponents of care of the self seeing the self-overcomers as dangerous, with their heroic visions that tend toward utopian-seeking tyranny or a religious denigration of the ordinary, the here and now; and the proponents of transformative striving seeing the liberals as selfish, limited in vision, stuck in the most mundane and least noble/dignified of the possible human ways to live a life, to pursue and achieve meaning.

I am clearly of the non-heroic camp, but the challenge Taylor poses is most difficult to me when he says that even the liberal aims at a transformation of human nature, of built in human desires, insofar as the liberal seeks to minimize violence and even to banish it entirely.  The conundrum: how do you either transform or (where necessary) suppress desire without being tyrannical?  The easy way out is to say it is not tyrannical to suppress the rapist.  But that just gets us into the business of what desires are so beyond the pale that their suppression is justified as contrasted to the desires we should let express themselves.  The prevailing liberal answer to that problem remains Mill’s harm principle—which is, admittedly, imperfect but the best we’ve got on hand.

Meanwhile, it would seem that liberals would also be working on another front to transform those violent desires so that the need for suppression wouldn’t arise as often.  Liberals, it would seem, can’t completely sidestep a “perfectionist” ethics, one that seeks to re-form some basic attributes of human nature–as it has so far manifested itself in history. To put it in the starkest terms: every human society and every moment in human history has manifested some version of war.  Yet the liberal is committed to (in utopian fashion) the idea that war is not inevitable, that we can create a world in which wars would not occur.  But the path to that war-free world must involve a “perfectionist” transformation of what humanity has shown itself to be up to our current point in time.  The issue then becomes: “What is the perfectionist strategy to that end?”  How does the Humean liberal propose to get from here (war) to there (perpetual peace)?

Taylor is not denying that the liberal has possible strategies.  But he thinks those strategies are “excarnated”—divorced from the body and emotion, the opposite of “incarnated.” This is Taylor’s version of the familiar critique that liberalism is “bloodless,” that it disconnects the body from the mind in its celebration of the disengaged, objective spectator view of knowledge at the same time that it extracts individuals (in the name of autonomy) from their embedding in social practices and social communities.  The ideal liberal self stands apart, capable of putting to the question everything, including the most basic constituents of his life (his own desires and his own relations to others.)  This is Rorty’s liberal ironist, cultivating a certain distance from everything, even his own beliefs.  The liberal, then, only has “reasons”—the consequentialist argument that life would be more pleasant, less “nasty, brutish, and short”—if we managed to stop war, stop being violent and cruel to one another.  Or, if we go the Humean/Rorty route, the liberal can work to enhance the inbuilt “sympathy” that makes us find cruelty appalling—and mobilize that sentiment against the other sentiments that lead to finding violence thrilling, pleasurable, or ecstatic.

Taylor, instead, favors a non-liberal route that avoids “excarnation.”  Instead, it recognizes that “in archaic, pre-Axial forms, ritual in war or sacrifice consecrates violence; it relates violence to the sacred, and gives a numinous depth to killing and the excitement and inebriation of killing; just as it does through the rituals mentioned above for sexual desire and union” (611-612).  The Christian experience/virtue of agape, Taylor insists, is fully bodily and emotional—and affords a sense of connection to non-human, transcendent powers and purposes.  And there can be a similar sense of connection in expressions/experiences of violence.

Of course, Taylor relies here on the “containment” that ritual performs.  A safe space, we might say, is created for the expression of violence—a space that highlights the connection to the transcendent that violence can afford but which also keeps that violence from getting out of hand.  (I continue to be very interested in all the ways violence is “contained.”  Why don’t all wars become “total”?  Why do states, in dealing with criminals, or other authority figures, like parents, stop short of total violence, of killing?  Think of spanking; how it is ritualized, how it stops short of doing real physical harm—or how, in other instances, it pushes right through that boundary and does lead to real physical harm.  What keeps the limits intact in one case and not in the other?)

But the ritual is not only “containment” for Taylor; it is also a path toward “transformation.”  Think of how the ritual of marriage transforms the love relation between the two partners.  Do we really want to argue that marriage is meaningless, that it does not change anything between the couple?  The marriage ritual is not, as we all well know, magically efficacious—but that hardly seems to justify claiming it has no effect at all.  What Taylor is pointing toward is some kind of similar ritual(s) to deal with aggressive desires (a complement to marriage’s relation to potentially anarchistic and violent sexual desires).

So what Taylor thinks we lose if we are a-religious secularists is this way (habit?) of thinking about the connection between desires found in selves and some kind of larger forces out there in the universe.  And losing that sense of connection means losing any taste (or search) for rituals that take individual desire and place it in relation to those larger, non-human forces.  As a result, we lose an effective strategy for the transformation of those desires into something more “perfect,” more in accord with our (utopian?) visions of what human life could be—where that utopian vision in Taylor’s case includes both a more meaningful life on the personal level (since connected to powers and purposes beyond the isolated self) and a more just, less cruel society because rituals contain the destructive potential of sex and violence.

Rorty’s alternative is instructive if we consider the modesty, the anti-utopianism, of liberalism.  Rorty doesn’t rule out perfectionism (that would violate liberal permissiveness), but he relegates it to the “private” sphere.  Self-overcoming is all well and good—from training for marathons to trying to overcome one’s tendencies to anger—but is a “project” undertaken by a self—not a path mandated by any other power.  The “public” sphere is devoted (for Rorty) to overcoming cruelty and to something like a minimal social justice (making sure everyone has the means to sustain life).  But any public mandate to “transformation” is opening the path to tyranny.  What this Rorty formula leaves unanswered is whether the public (think of the French Revolutionaries and their festivals) should strive to create rituals for the expression/transformation of basic desires.  These rituals need not be mandatory, but could still be useful in the effort to curb cruelty and heighten (emotional and moral) commitment to social justice.  That is, even a minimalist public sphere (in terms of what it hopes to achieve and in terms of how much its leaves to the discretion of individuals when it comes to where they find meaning and how they spend their time) might still benefit from not being so minimalist in terms of the occasions for public gatherings and rituals that it provides.

Let me end here by saying that I am one of those anti-clerical, anti-religious people (so well described by Taylor) who worries that religion’s focus on the transcendent implies a neglect of, even a contempt for, the ordinary.  I am always troubled by a search for salvation—whether that search take a religious or a Utopian form.  I think we are better off if, as Gopnik puts it, we accept the imperfections of the human condition, and work on improving that condition, without thinking that some kind of “transformation” will change our lot very dramatically or, once and for all, insure that peace and justice will reign undisturbed from now on.

In my most extreme moments, I want to say not only can’t we be “saved” from the human condition as we now experience it, but that we don’t need to be “saved.”  What we need is to take up the work at hand, work that is fairly obvious to anyone who looks around and sees the rising temperatures and the homeless people on our streets and the people going bankrupt trying to pay medical bills.  There isn’t a “transformation” of a political or religious/ethical reality that is going to address such issues.  It’s doing the gritty down-to-earth work of attending to those issues that will lead to some desirable changes, although not to the end of all our cares and worries.  In short, I am secularist insofar as I don’t think help is coming from elsewhere.  I have no faith that there are non-human powers to which we can connect—and that those powers will enable some kind of “transformation” that will solve our (humanly created) problems.

“Perfectionism” is a fully permissible add-on, but please do that on your own time (i.e. I accept the Rortyean notion that it is “private”), while the “public” of legal politics will demand that you act decently toward your fellows.  Still—with all that—I acknowledge that Taylor poses a significant challenge when he says that even the liberal (whether a Humean or a Kantian liberal) will look to “transform” certain human desires in the name of a more just and less violent society.

Gandhi on Fear and Political Action

Here is yet another attempt to state succinctly one question I have been worrying on this blog for the last six or seven months:  if you deny any legitimacy at all to currently constituted order (whether that order is political, economic, or social), what does that entail for the strategy and tactics to be adopted by your politics?  If there is no justice to be found or means toward gaining democratic access within current political institutions (i.e. if our democracy is rotten to the core, completely unreachable by its citizens), then how to move forward?  Not surprisingly, good answers to these questions are scarce.  In the place of good answers, what I have encountered in my readings over the past year (Hardt/Negri, the material on contemporary social movements, Butler on assembly, Moten and now Livingston’s essay) either gesture toward some kind of “multitude” that gathers (but then does what?) or suggests a retreat into some kind of elsewhere, outside of the prevailing madness of the current political/economic reality.

One claim, found in almost all writing about non-violence as a political strategy (so it is present in Todd May and Gene Sharp), is found in Livingston as well: the jujitsu argument.  Basically, the idea is that non-violence often works by making the adversaries’ power/strength into a weakness.  As Livingston puts it, “the police and the state cannot threaten or coerce where there is no fear of death” (12).  Bertrand Russell’s somewhat different version of this argument was to say that if the Belgians had simply laid down arms in 1914 when the Germans came marching in, there would have been much less bloodshed.  Armies are not going to kill people who are not actively resisting/fighting against them. Set aside for the moment the fact that 20th century tyrannies have been all too willing to kill non-resisting, passive people.  More germane to my concerns here is that such non-resistance does nothing to undo, to effect a transformation, of the status quo. Just because power is nonplussed or embarrassed, that hardly means it is going to dissolve.

If non-violence effects a jujitsu reversal of the relations of force it can only do so because of the effect on witnesses—witnesses who have some kind of power within the polity.  In Gandhi’s case, that appeal would have to be to British subjects.  He would demonstrate to those people the moral outrages of empire—and thus make empire unsustainable.  King’s work in the South followed a similar path.  He was out to demonstrate to the polity the cruelties of Jim Crow.  In other words, as I said in the last post, sacrifice is only politically efficacious if it is theater, if it is public.  If the state (or other constituted authorities) can kill and keep the fact of its killing a secret, then non-violence has no other way of achieving that hoped-for jujitsu. In short, I don’t see how any non-violent strategy is not deeply and unavoidably dependent on moral appeal–and such appeals rely on the faith/hope that political actors can be swayed by moral considerations.  Our current hopelessness resides, in large part, in loss of faith in the efficacy of a politics based on morality–where the key framework for moral positions circle around questions of justice.

But today I want to go down a different path, one that engages with the problematic of “life.”  Basically, another track I have been trying to tread this past year concerns the suspicion of “life” as a goal/end, a suspicion found in the work of Foucault, Arendt, Agamben, Charles Taylor, and (now) in Gandhi as represented by Livingston.  An attachment to “life” and a notion that the primary political goal is to ensure its “flourishing” is identified as an absolutely core feature of liberalism (Martha Nussbaum is one key figure here) and is seen, at best, as the legitimizing premise of a “bio-power” that augments the power of the state in the name of its ability (through public health measures, compulsory education, policing measures that promote “public safety,”  food and drug administrations, welfare policies, and other interventions) to make its citizens lives better.  In more extreme critiques, such as found in Taylor and Gandhi (it would seem, as I will show in what follows), those suspicious of setting up “life” as a goal argue that, perversely, the attachment to life serves to create political regimes that end up violently dealing in destruction and death.  Such writers employ the rhetorical strategy that Albert O. Hirschman, in his wonderful book The Rhetoric of Reaction, called the most exhilarating piece of reactionary rhetoric, namely the argument that the efforts to cure a certain ill were actually the means toward perpetuating and even augmenting that ill.  Hence, in Hirschman’s example, the Charles Murray argument that welfare payments actually make their recipients worse off than if you left them in utter poverty.

Gandhi (let’s leave Taylor aside for the moment; I will return to him in subsequent posts) was undoubtedly a reactionary, if we mean by that term someone who wishes to turn aside or even reverse what is deemed “modern.”  Gandhi unabashedly denigrates and wishes to secede from “modern civilization.”  In the Western context, as Corey Robin has shown, reactionary thought is almost always tied to a repudiation of the modern in its egalitarian clothes.  Western reactionaries are defenders of privilege against what is seen as the leveling effects of modernity—both its political attachment to the equality of all citizens (reactionaries thus fight against the extension of political and social rights—such as the right to vote—against each attempt to extend those rights to new groups like non-whites and women) and modernity’s more radical (in all its leftist forms) attachment to social (status) and economic equality.

It is not clear to me where Gandhi stands on equality; I suspect that he believes the path to “self-rule” that is to be achieved by the practices of satyagraha (the quest for truth) are open to all.  So he is not a western style reactionary, fighting against the vulgar masses’ accession to the privileges, status, rights, and prosperity of the chosen few.

But Gandhi is deploying the perversity thesis in his attempt to step outside of modern civilization.  The linchpin of his argument (as Livingston portrays it) is an analysis of “fear.”  “Modern civilization is intoxicated by its attachment to a materialist conception of the self as an organic body struggling to sustain its corporeal integrity in a hostile environment. The highest good of modern civilization . . . is to promote bodily happiness” (10).  It is this attachment to bodily happiness that underwrites the modern subject’s willingness to grant the state such huge amounts of power—power ostensibly used to help secure that bodily happiness, i.e. “bio-power” (although, of course, Gandhi does not use that term).  However, “the attachment to bodily happiness engendered by civilization produces illness, disappointment and, ultimately, fear.  The modern self clings to bodily happiness out of a fear of harm and death; civilization unwittedly perpetuates this very fear in its attempt to redress it” (11).

We are slaves to our body—and to the fears generated by that body’s vulnerability to various harms, most drastically death.  We are incapable of “self-rule,” of true freedom, in Gandhi’s view if we do not get over that fear.  “Cultivating fearlessness in the face of death is not simply a preparation for political action; it is itself the practice of freedom itself” (13).  Gandhi preaches the abandonment of “the cowardly attachment to mere life. ‘If we are unmanly today,’ Gandhi asserts in 1916, ‘we are so, not because we do not know how to strike, but because we fear to die’”(12).  In advocating for this “courage,” this fearlessness, that is required for those aspiring to “self-rule,” Gandhi “fuses the renunciation of the sannyasi priest with the fearless activity of the warrior class (Kshatriya) as two sides of a singular search for truth” (16).

The priestly side is premised on a metaphysics of spirituality.  Gandhi writes: “The body exists because of our ego.  The utter extinction of the body is maksha [attainment of the truth; full self-realization]” (16).  I don’t have anything to say about such a claim, except to say that if Gandhian politics is dependent on accepting that the body is illusion, that it does not truly exist—or that its existence can be nullified by some act of self-transcendence—then I can not participate in Gandhian politics nor do I want to.  The pleasures of the body—food, sex, vigorous exercise—seem to me among the chief goods of human life—and I am looking for a politics that affirms and enables the ordinary rather than one which extols a repudiation of the ordinary in the name of some “higher” good.  Furthermore, I think the historical record rather convincingly demonstrates that politics driven by “non-ordinary” pursuits have a considerable track record of proving tyrannous and death-dealing.

But I want to focus on the “warrior” side of the occasion at the moment.  I think Gandhi’s understanding of the stakes—and even as the way the game plays out—are eerily and disturbingly reminiscent of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic.  Basically, it seems that the fundamental path to freedom for Gandhi is to overcome the fear of one’s death.  Recall that in Hegel the one who lets the fear of death motivate him becomes the slave; the one who can put his life unreservedly on the line becomes the master.  The Gandhian twist is to achieve that overcoming of fear by basically declaring that life—at least bodily life—has no value anyway.  The master tries to gain control over me by playing on my fear of death.  So the best response is to overcome that fear, to be fearless.  And the benefit of—what I gain by—overcoming that fear is freedom.  (A pretty empty freedom to my mind if it entails renouncing all bodily pleasures, but maybe freedom is worth that high price.)

My kids gave me a bumper sticker that read: “Oh well, I wasn’t using my civil liberties anyway.”  Gandhi’s position strikes me in some ways as similar.  The outrage of tyrants is that they make living my ordinary life impossible; they threaten that life everyday, and make it miserable in various ways when they don’t actually take it away.  And the best response is to say, “well, life isn’t valuable to me anyway.  Do your worst.”  Hard for me to swallow.

What also troubles me is the very acceptance of the Hegelian scenario.  It leads to two things: first, the notion that manhood—i.e. true courage, the status of warrior—rests on this confrontational encounter with the other.  You can only have political freedom, full status, by facing down this other who aims to dominate you.  Your options are very few: a) you have to dominate him instead, b) you can cowardly submit and hence become a slave, or  c) (in Gandhi’s playing out of the game) you can achieve fearlessness by showing that you don’t care a fig for the life that your adversary aims to take from you.  A zero-sum game if there ever was one—and one that fatalistically seems to accept that there is no other basis, no other way for organizing, fundamental human social relations.  Our relations to others are antagonistic to the core; it’s a pretty fable to tell ourselves otherwise.  No wonder there is then the spiritualist temptation to say there is another realm altogether, one where we can step out of this terrible scenario of endless antagonism.  This world is inevitably so bad that we need to invent one elsewhere.

Hegel, of course, then is at pains to show that the master’s “victory” is hollow; the battle over, the master’s life becomes meaningless.  The struggle is all for the warrior.  Once it is over, his occupation is gone.  Whereas the slave finds meaning in his occupation, in the very work that the master makes him do.  Not surprisingly, I interpret that next step in Hegel’s text as a discovery of the resources resting in the ordinary.  Apart from the heightened moment of confrontation, in the daily rounds of living a life, lie meanings and pleasures sufficient to day thereof.

I want to develop that notion of the ordinary—and of a politics that would nurture/attend to/be built on the cooperative relations that function within the ordinary in subsequent posts (while continuing  to think about Taylor’s claim that such “bodily happiness”—to use Gandhi’s term—is “shallow.”)

But to finish up today’s post, I want to highlight something else: namely, the implied (or not so implied) contempt in using the term “coward” to refer to those who are attached to “bodily happiness.”  It is no accident that Gandhi resorts to gendered terms (lack of “manliness”) when his thoughts turn to fear and fearlessness—and no accident that this proponent of non-violence talks of “warriors.”  (Livingston tries to claim Gandhi upends traditional gendered associations, but I find his argument strained at that point.)  Running throughout all the critiques of “life”—which entail, as I have been suggesting, the recognition that attachment to life is joined to an intense valuation of “the ordinary”—is an affinity to the long-standing disdain for the “bourgeois,” for the unheroic lives of the classes that have the nerve to push the aristocracy to the sidelines, and who devote such attention to “getting and spending.”  (I think we get this contempt for the bad taste and vulgar pleasures and petty ambitions of the masses in spades in Arendt’s hatred of the social and her diatribes against a politics geared toward issues of sustaining life.  Her politics is meant to be heroic through and through by showing its disregard of such material issues.  “As for living, we have our servants to do that for us”—a favorite quote of Yeats’s, taken from a French symbolist writer.)  The haughty aristocrat merges with the splendid warrior, the one who doesn’t count costs and give a fig for his life, willing to put it on the line at any moment since his honor, his sense of self-worth, and his dignity are all far more valuable than life.  (Nietzsche also obviously partakes in this lingering aristocratic disdain for the bourgeois and his material concerns.)

Gandhi is hardly as outrageous as Arendt and Nietzsche in his contempt for the masses.  I have already mentioned that he certainly seems to believe that the quest for truth is open to all.  (Similarly, Arendt certainly believes that the realm of political action is open to all.  She just laments that the moderns, because of misplaced desires and allegiances, seem to prefer social activities to political action. Nietzsche is another matter altogether; he does think most humans incapable of heroic action.)  Nevertheless, Gandhi is accusing the mass of men of cowardice.  He is saying that lots of people desire the wrong thing.  They are living their lives in a fundamentally misguided way, one that also entails their unfreedom.  The use of the term “mere life” (12) is a strong indicator here.  Somehow, “life” itself is not a sufficient reason for living; there needs to be something more.  It is that insistence, that hectoring admonishment, that I am suspicious of.  I think the heroic life, with its attachment to the agonistic encounter we find in Hegel, much more trouble than it is worth.

Sacrifice and Politics

Every day it seems I discover a new reason to understand how completely I am a secular, liberal humanist.  And I am pushed each time to double down on that commitment.  The latest occasion is reading a superb essay by Alexander Livingston, “Fidelity to Truth: Gandhi and the Genealogy of Civil Disobedience,” published in the journal Political Theory (2017: pp. 1-26).

Livingston makes a compelling case that Gandhi’s understanding of non-violence and of political action are severely misunderstood (“creatively misread” if we want to be more generous) if adapted to a means-ends understanding of politics (i.e. non-violence adopted as a tactic to gain certain ends) or if non-violent civil disobedience in Gandhi is interpreted as entailing an appeal to (hence a respect for) constituted legal forms and authorities.  Livingston calls the theory of disobedience that sees it as mobilizing a certain kind of action in order to sway constituted authority “liberal”—and claims (persuasively) that such a view accords those authorities a legitimacy that Gandhi does not grant them.  Gandhi, instead, advocates a political practice that steps outside of constituted modernity and its self-praising notion of itself as “civilized” in order to seek an elsewhere.  That search is, in Gandhi, the search for truth—which should be the locus of action.  Gandhi seeks “to reorient the time of action away from the teleological pursuit of abstractions, like principles of justice, towards giving oneself over to the experience of seeking truth in the lived present” (19).  “The pursuit of truth reorients political action inwards toward a transformation of the self rather than primarily outwards as an appeal to the law” (14).  It entails “courageously acting without attachment to the fruits of action” (18).  As contrasted to the “impatience” that characterizes ends-driven political movements, Gandhi issues a “call for patience” that “by contrast, repudiates the very idea that the future can provide redress to the present” (9).

The similarities to Fred Moten’s work (my post on Moten here) are apparent to me.  On the one hand, there is the totalizing rejection of modernity as rotten all the way down.  (Livingston explains to us how Gandhi includes modern medicine in his totalizing renunciation.)  On the other hand, there is a search for an “elsewhere” to modernity, a place where one can live somewhat sheltered by its horrors.  For Moten, that elsewhere is “black sociality,” the undercommons.  For Gandhi, it is the pursuit of truth.  In both cases, I find the elsewhere disappointingly vague.  Truth in Gandhi is radically unspecified, which (of course) its adherents would say is partly the point.  The closest we get is the recommendation of a set of practices of “humility and self-renunciation” that, combined with exhortations to be “fearless” in the face of death, are supposed to lead (admittedly paradoxically) to “self-realization” (16).  Equally paradoxically, this patient self-renunciation will prove politically more efficacious than more direct, ends-oriented political action.

I don’t see it.  Here’s my basic position.  We live in a social/political order that imposes sacrifices on the many.  That imposition is wildly unequal. The politics to which I subscribe is oriented toward challenging—and changing—that inequality.  Three issues immediately arise.

One: is the goal access to the goods that the privileged already enjoy or to establish an entirely new social/political order?  I read the suffragette movement (with which, as Livingston shows, Gandhi was in continuous dialogue) and the American civil rights movement as seeking access.  Hence the huge emphasis on the getting the vote.  They wanted in; so, I guess, their movements qualify as “liberal” in Livingston’s terms.  They affirmed the current order of law; they just sought a voice within it.

A similar question would arise in relation to economics.  Is the goal a piece of the pie—or a transformation of the whole economic order?  Social democracy, as I understand it and am committed to it, looks to state/political intervention in the economic to see that its goods are more widely and equitably distributed while also attending to the conditions of labor, and controlling environmental devastation—not some vision of an entirely alternative economic order.

It looks like Gandhian politics doesn’t even address those questions in any specific way.  There is the total condemnation of modernity and the desire/set of practices to step entirely aside from it—but no strategy for the dismantling of the modernity that is loathed.  Except perhaps the old “what if they declared a war and no one showed up.”  Seceding from modernity seems to be the path both Moten and Gandhi offer.

Which leads me to number two of my responses.  Here’s the oddity of my—and many other intellectuals’ political position: I am doing just fine, thank you.  The inequalities of the current order do not afflict me.  So what is the appropriate political action for someone of my sort? I cannot help but feel that devotion to self-realization through a search for a vague and never to be fully attained truth is a cop-out.  It may be a deeply satisfying practice, but I can’t see how it does anything for the many who are living lives of misery in the current order.  The powers that be would be very happy to see all the trouble-making activists and intellectuals turn to the path of truth-seeking.

In short, politics is rhetorical.  And a key feature of its rhetoric is appeals to principles of, intuitions about, justice.  Practices of political action take place in public and are meant to persuade others of the righteousness of one’s cause.  Gandhi’s truth-seeking is only political because it was conducted in public—and was meant to sway the many fence-sitters, those who were still sitting on the sidelines.  The extent to which such political action does accord legitimacy to currently constituted power depends on the extent to which it rests on a notion that democratic power should rest in the majority.  Politics as rhetoric is premised on the need to create that majority through public action/speech that tries to win the undecided (or even your adversaries) to your side.  Non-violence to my mind always involves this acknowledgement (even if never explicitly enunciated) that the only means to legitimate power is through democratic processes and persuasion.  To seize power through violence is illegitimate—and (furthermore) usually has deeply undesirable consequences.

So: I can’t buy the notion of political action that does not have any eye on its “fruits.”  The pursuit of self-realization is not political (to my mind) unless it aims for political effects—and I prefer action that aims for those effects by trying to mobilize a democratic majority.  What worries me about Moten—less about Gandhi–is that their attempt to step outside of modernity leads to a non-political quietism that doesn’t challenge modernity on the grounds on which it could be changed.  Non-political efforts of self-realization are not outlawed; I just don’t like it when they claim to be political, to be transformative as some level beyond that of the self.

Third, I have the traditional worries about power when I read this account of Gandhi.  I.e. that established power is perfectly happy to allow people to sacrifice themselves and/or retreat into some space of spiritual transformation.  If we live in a world of unequally imposed sacrifices, then it seems dangerous to me to embrace sacrifice.  Furthermore, the worldview that sees sacrifice as a (necessary?) pathway to achieving certain goods is precisely the one I wish to combat.  The logic of sacrifice partakes of an economic logic—that everything has its cost—that I want to repudiate.  It seems to me that adherence to that logic only augments suffering—while providing a facile explanation of why suffering must be endured.  I want to see sacrifice as (in the vast majority of cases) as what power imposes on the non-powerful—so I respond to an embrace of sacrifice as the non-powerful doing power’s work for it.

Additionally, I don’t see any compelling reason to believe that practices of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice will lead to “truth.”  Just as possible to claim—like Blake or Wilhelm Reich—that a full-scale embrace of one’s desires is the path to full self-realization.  What would/could count as evidence here? When the desired end—truth or self-realization—is so nebulous?  Even if self-sacrifice has pay-offs you affirm, what would lead me to believe I would get similar results?  Try and see is fine.  But praising sacrifice in the name of truth doesn’t seem to me enough.  Livingston writes: “Truth is one but our perspectives on it are plural” (19), but I would argue (instead) that truths are many.  The pluralism goes deeper than just a multiplicity of perspectives.  There is not one Truth with a capital T, but many truths—and they are not even all compatible with one another.  It’s a messy universe we inhabit—and I am suspicious of all efforts to clean up the mess via assertion of a unifying truth (or any other covering term one prefers.)  In short, I am not a monotheist, but a full-bore pagan.

“Ends-oriented political action characterizes the weapons of the weak: non-violence is a commitment that remains conditional on the good will of others to concede to the justice of one’s demands,” Livingston writes (15).  But I would read it exactly in reverse.  Stepping aside from pushing for ends and eschewing incessant clamoring for justice is the weapon of the weak.  It is tossing in the towel, using non-participation as the only option open because the battle is lost.  And, yes, politics is about trying to engage the “good will” of others by convincing them of the facts of injustice that need to be addressed.  There is no politics without that rhetorical work, without that attempt to sway the others with whom one lives in the polis.  To cede to others the political work that centers around disputes about justice is simply to accept defeat.

I am going to stop here—but will use tomorrow’s post to take up another thread in the Livingston’s essay: Gandhi’s analysis of “fear.”  Let me finish by saying that I have no doubt that Livingston’s reading of Gandhi is correct—and that Livingston, in channeling Gandhi, is not necessarily fully endorsing his views.  My point is to say how those Gandhian views do not seem to me terribly productive in the context of our current political battles.

Death and Hedonism

Here’s Charles Taylor on the failure of modern humanism to confront/adequately understand death:

“Modern humanism tends to develop a notion of human flourishing which has no place for death.  Death is simply the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing; it must be combated, and held off till the very last moment.  Against this, there have developed a whole range of views in the post-Enlightenment world, which while remaining atheist, or at least ambivalent and unclear about transcendence, have seen in death, at least the moment of death, or the standpoint of death, a privileged position, one at which the meaning, the point of life comes clear, or can be more closely attained than in the fullness of life.  Mallarmé, Heidegger, Camus, Célan, Beckett: the important thing is that these figures have not been marginal, forgotten figures, but their work has seized the imagination of their age” (The Secular Age, 320-21).

Where to begin?  Let me start by trying to state the “modern humanist” position—which is where I take my stand.  First, life is a precious good.  It is not necessarily the only good.  There are situations in which life may be sacrificed in the name of an other good.  Within the plurality of goods, there are always going to be trade-offs, compromises.  But within that plurality of goods, life stands as a very high good, one that is sacrificed only in very severe (what might be appropriately called “tragic”) circumstances.

Second, life is a good possessed by every living creature.  (I am going to put aside the issue of non-human living creatures for the moment, but acknowledge that a humanist like Martha Nussbaum accepts that placing such a high value on life entails extending that value to non-human creatures.)  For that reason, decisions and actions that deprive humans of life are to be viewed with great suspicion.  The burden of proof is always on the one who wants to sacrifice life in the name of a different good.  I think individuals have a right to suicide—to deciding that their individual life is not worth extending in relation to any number of different considerations.  But I just as firmly want to hold to the illegitimacy of any third party imposing or inflicting death on another individual.  Here’s where I buy into liberal notions of self-possession.  One’s life belongs to, is possessed by, the person in whom that life inheres.  How to live that life and how to end it are the individual’s prerogative.  It is a formula for tyranny to hand that prerogative over to another.

Third, I completely buy into the Sen/Nussbaum reincarnation of the Aristotelean notion of “flourishing.”  The quality of a life matters—and, to a certain extent, can be measured.  There are material necessities to the sustenance of life, and there are political/social necessities to the ability to act effectively to live the life one desires to live.  Full autonomous freedom is not possible given the facts of human sociality, starting with the extended dependence of children upon the nurture/care of parents and the ongoing dependence of all upon various forms of social cooperation to create the material and emotional goods humans require to flourish.  In other words, the notion of “flourishing” complicates enormously any notion of individual autonomy and “self-possession.”  But such complications do not render meaningless the idea that selves should get to choose their sexual partners, their friends, their occupations, their manner of living.  And certainly those complications do not mean that an individual’s life is at the disposal of others.  The reverse.  All the obligation runs the other way.  It is the responsibility of a well-ordered just society to do everything in its power to assure the flourishing of its members.

Fourth, as Taylor puts it, death is the antithesis of flourishing.  There are many other ills life is subject to, but death is an absolute negation.  As I have already said, there are circumstances in which death is not the worst option.  But I would say that such circumstances are understood in relation to the goal of “flourishing.”  Thus, many old people in our society are kept alive past the point where a flourishing life is possible.  In such cases, death can be preferable to the diminished—and often painful—life that is its alternative.

Fifth.  Even in such cases—where death is chosen over a diminished life—I can’t see how (except in a spiritualist or Romantic view that is utterly foreign to me and seems, in fact, dangerous in ways I am about to explain) one can imagine that death offers some kind of special insight (is a “privileged position” to quote Taylor).  For starters, most deaths are random.  Not just accidental deaths, but also cancers and heart attacks.  Who gets a brain tumor has no relation to the way the sick person led her life.  Moralistically, we may like to link some cancers and heart attacks to bad habits: smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise.  But even there the results are random.  Smoking increases your chances of lung cancer and stroke, but doesn’t guarantee either outcome.  Death is, no doubt, a momentous event.  But to “privilege” it is to (desperately it seems to me) attempt to assign meaning to something that is devoid of meaning.

Maybe here is where my “humanism” is most obvious.  Life has meaning, I would say, precisely to the extent that humans create or assign that meaning.  Life in and of itself is just a biological fact, generated out of the randomness and chance that is Darwinian biology.  Death is no different.  It, too, is a biological fact.  Any meaning it acquires comes from humans, the meaning-creating, meaning-obsessed species.  And given that I value life over death, I find a claim that death is “privileged” in some kind of way troublesome.  It seems wrong to take one moment in a long history (the whole trajectory of a life) as somehow definitive.  I don’t think lives possess that kind of unity; lives are much messier, pluralistic things, composed of many parts, not all of which fit together.  In other words, I don’t see a life as generating a narrative that somehow accounts for all of it.  And, even more, if I did think some special moments offer a particular insight into the nature of the life an individual lived, I would not be inclined to say that the way that person died was especially significant.  Yes, in some cases, the death tells us a huge amount.  Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or even Primo Levi.  But I would say that in many more cases, other moments are more significant.  For most of the victims of the Holocaust, to say their deaths offered the moment (again to quote Taylor) when “the point of life comes clear” borders on obscenity.  In their case—as in many other cases—how would we think of death in any more meaningful terms than (again to quote Taylor) as “the negation, the ultimate negation, of flourishing?”  I don’t see any more acceptable way of describing what their deaths mean, or how we should think about those deaths.

Sixth.  All of this relates back to my central reason for reading the Taylor.  He is convinced that “life” is not enough.  That humans need something more than life, some connection to a divine, some relation to a world apart from the biological, material one, in order to . . . what?  Lead a full life? (But that would return us to ground of life.)  Be fully moral?  (He usually wants to eschew moralism.)  Realize their full potential?  (He does seem attracted to this notion, as I will consider in subsequent posts.)  Avoid selfish, mindless hedonism.  (Again, a hint of this idea in Taylor.  The issue is, even if I value my life and its flourishing, why should I value others’ lives, and what if my flourishing can only be purchased at others’ expense?  Taking a flourishing life as an extremely high value might lead to behavior roughly characterized as social Darwinism.)  Even if we grant all of these Taylor worries about valuing life, none of them would justify giving death some special privilege.  Altruism, sacrifice, a relation to a transcendent are all understandable alternatives to a cult of life—but it is much less clear what a focus on death has to offer.  That focus seems tied to two ideas that seem to me simply wrong. One, the idea that a life possesses a unifying narrative that locks into place at the moment of death, with that moment serving a particularly salient purpose in shaping that narrative.  Two, that the meaning of human life is only secured by a relation to something that transcends life—and that death offers some kind of privileged access to the transcendent realm.

The bottom line, I guess, is that I believe that the nothingness that preceded coming into conscious life is mirrored by the nothingness that comes after death.  If death has some privileged relation to meaning, it can only have that for the living, for the survivors, not for the dead person himself.  Meaning is tied to consciousness—and dead people are not conscious.  And I don’t believe that in the moment of death, for a fleeting instant, “the point of life comes clear” to the person who is dying.

All of this is not to say that the fact of death is irrelevant to the meaning of life.  But the fact of death is not more relevant or more crucial than the facts of love, of sex, of our need to eat food and drink water, of our dependence on a whole social order to survive.  All of those facts and many others add up to what we might call “the human condition.”  And we can certainly identify the ways that different cultures have understood and responded to death.  But I still don’t see where the “modern humanist” response to death is so obviously less adequate than other possibilities.  And let me go on record as saying, yes, death “must be combated” (to quote Taylor again.)  A society that thought illnesses should just be passively accepted or, more germane to actual cases, or thought that death on a mass scale was to be accepted as the price for social progress, or glory, or victory/revenge over one’s enemies, or economic prosperity for the few would not qualify as a “good” or desirable society for this modern humanist.  Placing life as a very, very high value—and combating all the ways humans have denigrated life and cultivated death—seems to me the right way to go.

What could ground this high valuation placed on life?  Mostly I would like to resist this call for grounding.  I want to say (after Wittgenstein) that the spade turns here, that the mistake is to ask for grounding, as if skepticism about the fact that most people value their lives, try in their every day practices to sustain, nurture, and enhance life is not enough.  That somehow they need some other reason to be devoted to their lives and the lives of the people they care for, they love. (The primary goal of a liberal ethics is to extend that circle of care out to include all with whom I share the world; Rorty is particularly good on this point.)

We can give a fancy name to this devotion to life.  Hedonism—a name that the philosophic tradition has usually used pejoratively. I would define hedonism as “the effort to live the best life possible, given the inevitable constraints under which any life is lived.”  How “the best life possible” is understood varies widely, which is what gives us human variety even as it is also a source of conflict.  But I am taking the position that hedonism ought to be a respectable position.  Here is life—a gift given to us out of nowhere or, at least, out of a void of which I, the holder of this life, have no knowledge and no experience—and one possible response is to live this life to the fullest, knowing that it will end as it began, with the passing away of my consciousness into that void. Life presents a myriad of possibilities—and I undertake to realize at least some of them, trying to activate the ones that make me feel most alive.

The specter haunting hedonism, of course, is selfishness.  Two responses have been to say that happiness and flourishing, feeling most alive, are best served in collective, cooperative enterprises with others (from raising a family to engagement in larger social endeavors) or, alternatively, to a feeling that my flourishing is not fully enjoyable, is somehow spoiled, by seeing others who cannot flourish in the world I and they inhabit together.  Taylor calls such views the “modern social order” and sees them, with their focus on altruism and on the equality of all individuals (their equal right to the means for flourishing) as legacies of Christianity.  I actually don’t care much one way or the other if he is right about that.  I do think that such views are more a matter of sensibility than of rational argument.  (My understanding of morality goes back to John Dewey and Richard Rorty.)  And it is certainly a matter of history and one’s upbringing in a particular social milieu that shapes sensibility–and I hardly want to deny that my personal history and my society’s history includes much Christianity, as one among other shaping influences.  How to weigh the various inputs and their respective contribution to my own–and to a “modern moral order’s”–sensibility is a trickier matter.

In any case, hedonism can incorporate altruism if the path to happiness includes attention to the needs of others as part and parcel of my well-being.

Now, quite obviously, others find well-being in competitive relations to others and seem unable to even experience their own good fortune unless bolstered by the sight of less fortunate others.  The moralism that an atheist links to religion finds plenty of secular analogues here, with the notions of the undeserving poor, and attachment to the idea that the market somehow rewards the virtuous and justly punishes the ne’er do wells.  The hedonist cannot discount the pleasure humans take in punishing other humans, even the pleasure humans have taken in inflicting death on other humans.

But the impossibility of a fail-safe hedonism (or humanism for that matter) adheres to every other –ism and every religion.  The mistake is to think that some system of thought or of beliefs will guarantee for once and for all virtuous human behavior.  No system is up to that demand.  That’s why I am saying that morality is not a matter of ideas or arguments or grounding principles or beliefs.  Nothing in human history suggests that such things will insure that the most fundamental of moral tenets—say, the injunction against murder—will be upheld.  Just the opposite.  The systems will be used to justify murder.  So hedonism—an attachment to life and its flourishing—fares no worse than the alternatives.

Can I argue it fares better?  I want to, if only because placing such a high value on life should give pause before spreading death about.  But I will leave off here—saving for another time the attempt to claim humanistic hedonism will have less blood on its hands than its rivals.

Meaninglessness and Modernity

My goal for the month is to get through Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, which was the “it” book about ten years ago.  I read 250 pages of it at the time, then put it down and only picked it up again about a month ago.  Now I have managed to get through another 80 pages or so—which only leaves about 350 pages to go.

Anyway, Taylor has always been a liberal critic of liberalism—going all the way back to his first “big book,” the one on Hegel, published in 1975.  He was thought of as a “communitarian” in those days because his theme was the emptiness of “negative liberty” as contrasted to the notion of “situated freedom” that he derived from Hegel. (In A Secular Age, Taylor calls the liberal, autonomous self “the buffered self,” barricaded against “communion” with others or with the world, taking a detached, “objectivist” view of things, better to maintain its disengaged, “cold” autonomy.) The basic idea was that the autonomous, disconnected self, that sits at the center of any idea of negative freedom, is so contentless that its freedom to act is basically meaningless.  I was greatly influenced by Taylor in my Postmodernism and its Critics, where I took his “situated freedom” in a more materialist direction, thinking about the ways in which social structures and access to/distribution of material resources were central to any ability to act.  From there, I later moved to using the term “effective freedom,” which I got from John Dewey.  The notion is fairly simple: freedom is just another word for nothing unless you have the wherewithal to actually enact the things you dream of accomplishing.  In other words, a certain social organization that attends to material needs is required for freedom to be enjoyed.  A version, in other words, of the Marxist critique of the “formal freedoms” of a bourgeois society.

But I want now to think about Taylor’s assertion that modernity is afflicted with a certain kind of spiritual “malaise” (his word), a pervasive uneasiness (not felt by all, but by many) that their lives lack purpose or meaning.  This is the nihilism that Nietzsche saw all around him, or Durkheim’s anomie, or Baudelaire’s ennui.  Taylor insists this is new.  “What you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning.  This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (303).

Note the hedge: Taylor doesn’t commit himself fully to asserting that modernity is truly a realm of meaninglessness.  He only insists that the feeling that one lacks meaning is prevalent.  And, elsewhere, he also admits that this feeling is mostly articulated by elites.

My basic reaction is to say that I don’t see it.  Sufficient unto the day is the meaning thereof.   What strikes me as much more evident is that the daily round, the struggle to keep life going and halfway bearable, provides more than enough purpose for most people.  I am fully persuaded that meaning is generated through the daily entanglement within social practices and our relations with/to others.  One possibility, I guess, is that modernity pushes more people into loneliness, into disconnected lives that exclude them from being embedded in larger social relations.  And I don’t doubt that something like “modern individualism” means that some selves (again, we need to think about privilege and elites here) develop strategies that provide them greater autonomy vis a vis the social orders in which they are embedded.  Buffered selves are not, however, necessarily (or even, I would argue, primarily) disconnected selves.  Rather, they are selves who enjoy (I choose this word deliberately) some power within the social relations in which they are entangled.  Everything we know about human social orders tells us that power will be abused where it is possessed.  Which is why idealizing traditional communities, with their strict hierarchies, is either foolishly naïve or tantamount to an inegalitarian defense of privilege.  As with wealth, the only good way forward is for a fuller, more equitable distribution of power.  Unbuffered selves are exploited selves.

But back to nihilism.  I just don’t see it (as I have said.)  I am tempted to go so far as to say it takes leisure—and lots of it—to suffer from ennui.  Just getting by takes all the time and attention of lots of people—and they don’t seem inclined to wonder if somehow there is more, that somehow their lives are missing something.  Rather, I think it much more likely that what we have is a case of elites who disparage what keeps “ordinary people” engaged.  I am thinking here of Thoreau’s claim that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or even of Wordsworth’s complaint that “getting and spending takes all our power.”  What is troublesome about the masses is that they don’t experience anomie, that they find “getting and spending” good enough for them, thank you very much.  They aren’t searching for meaning, they are searching for a way to get ahead.  Life is hard enough to keep one going; it provides plenty of purpose in its daily rounds.

Let me be clear: I don’t think it actually functions all that differently for elites.  I think that they, too, are mostly sustained by the demands that each day brings, along with their own ambitions (for acclaim, recognition etc within their own social spheres).  I just think elites are endlessly snobby about the form that they see non-elite desires taking.  (I am somewhat channeling Bourdieu’s Distinction here, with its wonderful discussions of how elite taste scorns everything bodily and material in the name of “higher” pleasures.  We arrive here at J. S. Mill’s worries about and scorn of the pleasures of the pig.)  Elites may have a different content for their purposes, but I think the form is much the same, i.e. generated out of the social relations in which they are embedded.

What to conclude? 1. I am with Taylor in seeing “meaning” as a function of social entanglements.  Thus, if modernity truly extracts people from such entanglements, then modernity would be afflicted by a loss of meaning.  But that is a very, very different claim than saying that a secular age that only offers entanglement in the here and now—and not some kind of additional relationship to the transcendent—leaves us short of meaning or purpose.  I am willing to grant to Taylor that for some people a relationship to the divine stands as an important motivator in their lives.  But that is, for me, just like saying that for some people reading books, with their relationship to absent, often dead, authors is important to their lives.  Many don’t read books—and never feel any absence of purpose because they don’t read.  Similarly, many will do just fine without any relation to a divine.

  1. I am suspicious, as is obvious, as anyone imputing to others a state of desperation, anomie, loss of purpose etc. I don’t quite know what would stand as evidence to back up such a claim.  I suspect that, much more often, the basis for the claim is a distaste for, even incredulity about, the things in which people find purpose.  Surely, the critic says, that can’t be enough to sustain a meaningful life?  There must be more, there must be a longing for more.  Why?  Just because it wouldn’t satisfy you, that’s no evidence that it is unsatisfactory to that other guy.
  2. I hardly want to deny the existence of despair. (Let me for the moment make a false distinction between despair and depression, where depression is [as we say these days] a “clinical” condition while despair is something produced by the external circumstances in which the self finds itself.)  I suspect that despair is rarely a function of the general conditions of modernity; in other words, I don’t believe in some general malaise inflicting our (or some other) culture.  Rather, despair (at least within the structures of feeling that I see as fairly general in our culture) comes from one of three sources.  (Pardon the wild generalizations here.) 1. Suffering, either one’s own and [even worse] that of one’s loved ones that cannot be alleviated.  2. Being caught into dismal situations that one cannot alter or escape.  Such situations can be a job which one hates because constantly humiliated or exploited or made to do things that are shameful, or caught in certain social relations that, for whatever reason, one thinks must be endured even though terrible. 3. Being excluded from entanglement in the kinds of social relations that generate meaning.  The obvious case here is unemployment.  Work is a central producer of meaning in modern societies.  The weight (in terms of senses of self-worth and of engagement with others in a collective enterprise) placed on work in our society is truly frightening—and is what makes unemployment an existential as well as a financial disaster.  I do think Taylor is good in pushing us to think about the possibility of societies which would have many more sources of meaning aside from one’s work.

Three further thoughts for today.  The first is that (again, generalizing wildly) I don’t actually think religion (at least in contemporary American society) functions primarily as a source of meaning.  Or if it does, it does so by way of conferring an identity and offering a set of social relations apart from work and family.  I don’t think it has much to do at all with a relation to the transcendent, to god.  I do think it offers some consolation for suffering, some modes of coping with sickness, death, and other ills.  But it does not seem to be offering some kind of alternative path through the modern world, some other way of constructing a life.  Again, for a few it does do that.  But the Simone Weils among us are few and far between.  For the vast majority, their religion sits comfortably with their leading completely conventional modern lives.  I just don’t see where the religious in America today acknowledge or act upon some kind of “malaise,” some kind of awareness of modernity’s constitutive shortcomings.  The religious, in other words, are as casually modern as the rest of us, unmoved (by all appearances) by a sense that there must be “more.”  Religion is a source of meaning, yes, in that it affords participation in another, different, set of communal relations, but it hardly seems at odds with modernity.  Evangelicals may deplore modern permissiveness and keep their children out of public schools, but they still associate virtue with toeing the line in a capitalist economy and find purpose in constructing a life in the here and now.

The second thought concerns “bullshit jobs.”  Reading David Graeber’s book of that title is on my to-do list.  The issue it raises is the extent to which people find their jobs meaningless.  Again, I suspect this is an elitist projection.  I could never find that job meaningful, so how could someone else.  There must be millions and millions of people unhappy at work, pushing paper and doing it only out of raw economic necessity, the elite observer opines.

I spent eight years running an institute, with eight to ten employees underneath me.  At least four of them did jobs I could never stand doing for more than three weeks.  But they were conscientious and engaged workers.  Some were less competent than others, but the less competent ones were, in some ways, even more engaged because it took all of their effort and attention not to screw up.  There was some grousing, of course, about various kinds of bureaucratic requirements that created work for our staff, but, generally speaking, loyalty to our little platoon trumped issues about the meaningfulness of (or need for) the work that had to get done.  In short, like soldiers (as every study of them has shown), the meaning is generated out of the relation to one’s comrades, one’s fellow workers, without much attention paid (no less worrying about) larger meanings or purposes or the larger organization’s stated goals (or “mission” in today’s jargon.)  Thus, cynicism about the larger organization (again, a mainstay of soldier’s lives) can easily be combined with a deep, and satisfying, engagement with the daily round of tasks performed in the company of a group of comrades.

As I say, I will read Graeber, since he has done some field work among those who have bull shit jobs—and maybe he will convince me that a pervasive sense of meaninglessness exists among such workers.  For now, I don’t see an epidemic of meaninglessness all around me.

Third, and finally, I do however see an epidemic of depression (coupled with its evil twin, anxiety).  But I see it as produced by the crisis of work.  Even in 1951, Arendt (in Origins of Totalitarianism) could point to the problem of “superfluouness,” her euphemism for unemployment.  The idea was that the Depression created the opening for fascism.  People want to be needed, to be put to work, to be asked to join something, to be given something to join.  The Nazis offered the nation, while the work was war.  Our current epidemic of depression is caused by the lack of work—and the deep insecurity of those who do have jobs. [Neat that the same word, depression, stands for the economic condition that causes unemployment and the psychological condition that follows upon unemployment.] For our young people, finding a job that in some ways matches up with what they were educated to do has become a terrifying—and often unsuccessful—quest as the ranks of the solidly middle class are depleted.  For our blue collar workers, either the jobs have disappeared forever or are on the verge of disappearing.  Here is where the devil of the modern location of primary meaning in employment makes its horrors most felt.  We need to proliferate the sites of meaning production, of social entanglement in cooperative endeavors that strike people as meaningful.  We have to learn how not to work—and to not feel bad when we are not working.  And if there are bullshit jobs, ones that people find utterly meaningless, then the problem is compounded.

Perhaps (it is at least a plausible argument) the loss of a sense of transcendence, of a relation to the divine, partly causes the way meaning gets so centered in work in the modern age.  And if meaning and work are so entangled, an end to work (on the personal level as involuntary unemployment, and on a societal level with the advent of robots) is a disaster that we need to figure out how to address.  But I still want to say that engagement in the things of this world, with the people with whom we share it, provides plenty of meaning for the vast majority.  If there is a “malaise,” it is a product of the specific ill of unemployment (taking that term in its largest possible sense of exclusion from doing things with others) that is to blame, not some sickness unto death lodged in the modern soul.  And if the remedy is to learn how to find meaning in things apart from work, that doesn’t necessarily entail turning our eyes away from the things of this world.