On a category mistake: ‘Human beings are weak’

Here are three questions that fascinate me:

1.) How did we go from being creatures who above all ‘desire to know’ (Aristotle, Metaphysics I)–let us say: to understand our place in the world–to being creatures who want most of all to be helped (modernity)?

2.) How did the accidental property of weakness (e.g., feeling weak on Tuesday) become a state or condition (Smith IS weak; human beings ARE weak)?

3.) How was it possible for compassion (or: empathy or pity) to become championed as the supreme virtue of all virtues today?

*

Consider the category mistake made in the second claim. By ‘category mistake,’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle means the attribution of certain properties that rightly belong to one category to another category. For instance, although the body certainly has appendages, it seems to me a category mistake to claim that the mind ‘has’ ‘faculties.’

Continue reading “On a category mistake: ‘Human beings are weak’”

Advertisements

Against empathy

Consider a commonplace yet erroneous metaphysical assumption about (modern) human beings made by most people today (especially those in the caring profession):

In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

*

Two brief anecdotes that tell against this picture:

One philosophical friend suggested, ‘There is nothing more disturbing than the idea that people want to help you.’

An acquaintance of mine told me that therapy carried the implication to him that ‘you need help.’

Why would anyone–though not these two above who are exceptions–desire above all to be helped?

*

Metaphysical-Ethical Picture 1: Humans are Weak
 

1.) Human beings are weak creatures prone to suffering.

2.) Human beings confirm this when they confess to those around them that this is so. (‘I am so miserable,’ etc.)

3.) Their fellows confirm this when they debase themselves (i.e., show that they too are just as weak: ‘Oh, that overwhelms me too.’ ‘Oh, I’m not much either,’ etc.) in the presence of the speaker.

Ethical conclusions:

Therefore, the speaker is seeking to be helped.

Therefore, the highest ethical virtue in such a linguistic community would be compassion/empathy/pity.

Therefore, the strongest ethical bond between persons is cemented as a result of this nexus: confession, debasement/diminishment, and empathy.
Therefore, the highest ethical mission among those who are members of this linguistic community would be to end the universal suffering of the weak. (Marx quote regarding religion: ‘man is a debased, enslaved forsaken, despicable being.’)

*

One thought experiment: you are born in ancient Sparta. Warriors are trained; battles are fought. Would the virtue of empathy emerge in this community?

A second thought experiment: you are born into an inquisitive community. People get surprised; they are fascinated or perplexed; they learn to inquire. Would empathy ever emerge in such a milieux?

No, other virtues would be cultivated: bravery in Sparta, disinterested interest within the inquisitive community.

If human beings are not weak, suffering creatures, then…

Consider a commonplace metaphysical assumption about (modern) human beings made by most people today (especially those in the caring profession):

In virtue of our being inherently weak and prone to suffering, we human beings yearn to be helped.

This argument leads to the corollary that we are all, potentially or actually, victims. Let us reject the claim that human beings are essentially weak and prone to suffering. Then, we need not accept the conclusion that human beings are essentially in search of help.

If human beings are not intrinsically weak and disposed to suffering, then what truly can be said of human beings? That humans are in a range of instances, cases, scenarios, contexts, and situations: strong, easily amused, dumbfounded, alert, boisterous, precious-sounding, vexed, charitable, overly generous, curt, unpalatable, flat, exuberant, unclear, restless, giddy, deceptive, dull, doubled over with laughter…

If there is anything that can be said more basically about human beings, it would be the following:

That we are practicing animals whose lives are constituted by repetitions that either degrade or vitalize, and, relatedly,

That, under the right circumstances, we incline toward inquisitiveness: most fundamentally, posing questions of all kinds, inquiring into the matters at hand, and coming to understand our placement in the world.

A training program in transformation: Implications of Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the tenth and final set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Sloterdijk’s principal theses is available here. An overview of my posts (what I term ‘the thrust of his argument’) can be found here

*

Let us recall that Sloterdijk has investigated whether human beings qua practicing animals can overcome their bad habits. His conclusion is that in the past some extraordinary persons and groups of practitioners have. Let us remind ourselves further of the conceptual muddle shining forth in the modern period:

Modernity is the time in which those humans who hear the call to change no longer know where they should start: with the world or with themselves–or with both at once. (323)

I believe Sloterdijk’s answer clearly resounds that am called to change my life, a project of self-cultivation that can occur alongside those who have also heard such a call addressed to each of them. This untimely time Sloterdijk designates ‘antique.’

Continue reading “A training program in transformation: Implications of Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life”

Overcoming dying: On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the ninth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

*

Here is the thrust of Stoterdijk’s argument:

First, reinterpret human beings as training animals and then see what this reinterpretation ‘opens us.’

Second, reclaim a kind of elitism which allows one to ask, ‘How is it possible for some adepts to become extraordinary?’ at the same time that one can avoid the universal injunction that all persons be this way or follow this path. I have called this orientation, in a felicitous paradox, ‘humble elitism.’

Third, make a distinction between ‘antiquity’ (an untimely, nonexistent epoch) and modernity. Show that ‘antiquity’ is set in motion by a ‘vertical tension’ wherein the ascetic is called by a particular interpretation that he must change his life. Demonstrate that modernity is committed to the expansion of the horizontal plane. Whence an entirely different injunction: you must change (all of) life for everyone. End human suffering. Seek universal equality. Live according to the moral law or the maximization of utility. Against the grain, plump for ‘antiquity.’

Continue reading “Overcoming dying: On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life”