Life is not like water (VI)


We have been following nature’s course through modernity with a view to solving an enigma. How could it be so self-evident during earlier epochs that the virtuous person would, without question, live according to nature when it became just as self-evident in our time that the morally upright person would have to act contrary to nature? The answer is to be discovered, in key part, in the disappearance of what the young Hegel once called the “friendliness of life.”

The leitmotiv of human life as one that flowed like water was well-known in the ancient world. The Daodejing says that “The highest goodness is like water,” Xenophanes says that “All things that come into being and grow are earth and water,” and in one of the extant fragments from Thales we read, simply, that “Life is water.” Among Daoists in particular, it would have been counterintuitive to speak of fighting against water or of striving to swim upstream, perhaps as absurd as Don Quixote fighting windmills or Sisyphus trying to push a boulder uphill. Yet this does not mean that water was always an easy friend.

The paradigmatic example of water’s ferocious power is, of course, the story of the flood. In the Early Theological Writings, Hegel writes that where once there existed unspoken amity, friendliness, and love, the flood sundered man from nature, evoking a “disbelief in nature” and, in turn, giving rise to man’s desire for mastery. Coming to consciousness of his world, man would build a tower impregnable to sea fury and though his wounds would never heal, at least he could console himself with the thought that he would never be harmed again.

Examined closely, the myth of the flood is a story of the emergence of higher order abstract reasoning on the heels of the destruction of a natural amity between friend and friend, human beings and the natural world. And where one might just as well imagine human beings weathering the storm and, once the flood had subsided, giving thanks to the earth and the sun, making love to each other and kissing their children and their gods all in the hope of restoring the general friendliness of life, one observes instead the construction of semi-permanent structures, forms of protection, bulwarks against harm and wounds and possible injuries.

One could do worse than to read this myth as an allegory for modernity. The breakdown of a previous social order led, out of fear and hope and, yes, also hubris, to the supervenience of principle upon lost love. If you do not love me anymore, then let us settle up, call in the law, summon forth the lawyers, draw up our contracts. Let us legislate and codify, regulate and systematize, making ourselves into good Confucians, middle managers, and dutiful bureaucrats. Above all, let everyone follow the rules (and, in the boudoir, eroticize transgressing them).

Given this disenchanted nature, morality must be a struggle against life, a set of duties trumping our inclinations, a list of obligations that at times terminate in tragic conflict. For us, morality must be deliberative and obligatory while nature remains mechanistic, undirected, following its own separate course. Now morality must be universalizable–stern and rigorous stuff–applicable mainly to the good will or good outcomes, or else it succumbs to mere cant, empty relativism, or the shameless will to power.

In Patterns of Moral Complexity, the contemporary moral philosopher Charles Larmore writes candidly about what he deems the “heterogeneity of morals.” He concludes, “We have to live with the fact that we have obligations we cannot honor.” All right, but what obligations are these and why can’t they always be honored? Larmore claims that the principles of partiality, deontology, and consequentialism are the three principles that constitute modern morality. We are partial, he believes, in that we have particular projects that we deem good and that we seek to realize. In the pursuit of final aims that are ours, we do not expect others to value or pursue the same. Additionally, we have incontrovertible duties, as Kant held, duties that admit of no exceptions and that enjoin us always to act, or to abstain from acting, in a certain way (telling the truth, keeping our promises, never using another as a means, and so forth). Finally, we have an obligation to bring into being the most good or least evil overall. To say, therefore, that modern life is “morally complex” is just to say that there will be scenarios in which one principle may come into conflict with another and this with tragic implications. Larmore once again: “I do not think there is any systematic principle [that is, any higher order principle transcending these three] that will decide these conflicts.” Larmore’s honesty is telling, and I think he is right about the inevitability of tragic conflict in modernity, provided we accept the assumption that morality consists solely of incommensurable obligations.

For Larmore takes for granted what we moderns also take for granted–that we act on principles and that these principles “lie,” in his words, “at a high level of generality.” But this is only true once we take on board the assumption that nature is ‘other’ and that our fellows are not our friends but strangers, mere acquaintances, and potential foes. Our distrust runs deep. Yet when life is going well, there is no principle that we apply with rigor and constancy but, more simply, the face to face, the touch, the besito; no abstractions but your words; no Confucianism but, says the Daodejing, “filial piety and fraternal affection” arising and holding us close to one another.

An order collapses, “The state is in chaos,” and “there arises the loyal minister.” These are Laozi’s words of caution. Indeed, once nature flees from us and we, in our turn, seek to bring it back to us by taming it, then we and nature go our separate ways. Truly, modern life may be like H20, but it is not like water. Recognizing as much, we poets of life long for ethical life to be restored.

Part VII (final) tomorrow: Ethical Life Restored…

Kant’s tribunal (V)


One of Hegel’s enigmatic theses from the Preface to The Philosophy of Right is that the actual is rational. The contemporary scholar Robert Pippin glosses this proposition–rightly, in my view–as a demand that being be intelligible. As human beings, we long for order in reality so much so that is scarcely conceivable that we could live at all were we utterly incapable of seeing how we fit into the general schema of things.

Philosophy may very well be the way we go about bringing order to lived reality. In a recent interview, the professional philosopher Raymond Geuss stated quite elegantly that philosophy is thinking in a systematic spirit without recourse to a system. Kant, a systematic philosopher from the first, did not pay heed to Geuss’s delicate distinction between being systematic and building systems. Instead, he developed a grand system in order to hold at bay the powerful forces, the plentiful incoherencies, the fragmented traditions running through the Western tradition and spilling into the modern world. In so doing, he took on board his contemporaries’ disenchanted conception of nature while also seeking to find a place for human beings in this newly emerging age.

The pressures thrust upon this backwaters man from Konigsberg were immense and, depending on your standpoint, Kant could either be charged with hubris or timidity. It is worth recalling that, by the end of the medieval period, the nominalists had already unwittingly and, contrary to their intentions, assigned God a minor role in what was to be a modern drama. If, as nominalists insisted, God acted from a distance from his creation, then it was only a matter of time before deists would see him as bringing the world into being and then removing himself utterly from the order of creation. The Creator and creation were no longer analogous but heterogenous. For their part, materialists would call the deists’ bluff, seeing no reason why efficient causality and the laws of nature could not, on their own, be sufficient to supply explanations for the mechanics and development of nature. Once a deist, Voltaire would later on throw his lot behind atheist materialists; to him, it seemed a logical progression. Applying Ockam’s Razor, materialists would do their part to cut God out of the drama entirely. He was, after all, an unnecessary and unwarranted otherworldly hypothesis. Given world enough and time, this-worldliness would win out and Nietzsche’s madman declaring God’s death would come as no surprise to us.

Nature, accordingly, was governed by mechanism, not directed by teleology. Nature did not flow like water; it consisted of analyzable properties and was governed by physical law. But could this be all for surely it felt as if we humans could act for reasons and with ends in mind. Or were we deluded in regarding ourselves as purposive beings? In addition, since nature was nothing but spatial extension–this, remember, the truth about which Pascal was absolutely horrified–what were we human beings to make of the richly hued, fine-grained objects we perceived and tasted, never mind the blushes and loves we shared? What on earth did we know and where on earth were we anyway?

Kant may have been an awkward Pietist and a tedious man, but he was, in all things, an exceptionally elegant thinker. In his day, he aroused everyone’s interests, was admired by most, was imitated by many, and yet managed to satisfy almost no one completely with his philosophical solutions. For Kant was, by turns, a man of measure, probity, and boldness who cautioned his contemporaries against flying too far beyond from realm of sense experience but who urged them nonetheless–dared them even?–to explore the limits of human comprehension.

His conclusions dazzle and puzzle at one and the same time. Here are a few: God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven, neither affirmed nor denied by rational means; the world may be finite or infinite, a totality or not; we may have free will, we certainly must regard ourselves as acting under the idea of freedom, but human understanding cannot show this to be the case; we are a part of mechanized nature insofar as we have bodies and yet we are a part from nature insofar as we are rational persons; objects do indeed have secondary qualities yet these qualities are the results of our conceptual contributions and yet reality could not possibly appear to us the way it does unless we brought to bear such conceptual deliverances upon that which we receive; and–to round out this very partial list–we are warranted in regarding nature in teleological terms, provided we treat natural beings not as really striving toward final aims but as if they could. Kant’s conclusions, as I say, are breathless, tending toward the beautiful or the sublime depending on one’s mood.

The challenge presented to Kant–as momentous as it was impossibly demanding–was to reconstruct a modern moral order on the ruins of a medieval cosmos. Kant’s critical project is perhaps most succinctly characterized as the attempt to return us to ourselves but on a higher plane of abstraction. One or two levels up (or out), Kant’s is doubtless a fitting project for an increasingly abstract world of law and calculation, of modern states and international trade, a world, above all, that was beholden to a Theoretical Vision. Fitting, yes, but wrongheaded from the first.

This Theoretical Vision first becomes apparent in the question of what we can know and believe. In epistemology, Kant’s question-changing approach is to not to listen to nature as a lover listens to the wind chimes but to issue it a summons to appear in a certain light. And this is precisely what occurs as nature is brought to higher order conceptuality. When we ask, “What can we know?,” we are, Kant thinks following Locke’s lead, inquiring first about what contributions we are making to our comprehension of reality and second about the manner of reality’s appearing to us. We are not asking about nature as it is in itself, such a question being either poorly formulated, unintelligible, or, in any case, beyond the bounds of human understanding. We are asking about ourselves as subjects who come to represent reality. Given this orientation, reality is, as it were, ‘forced’ to appear in the terms we give it, the highly abstract terms of space and time, of efficient causality, of substance, and so forth.

In some respects, Kant’s elucidation of our claims to knowing is little more than a preparatory exercise for an elaboration on our moral lives. By the eighteenth century, it had already become common sense, one baldly stated by Hobbes and held by more cynical types like Bernard Mandeville, that human beings were thoroughgoingly self-interested agents who acted solely for the sake of realizing their own happiness. In time, the marketplace would come to be the sphere in which rational actors would seek to maximize their self-interest and satisfy their preferences. Still, although Kant granted that as natural beings we wanted to be happy where being happy just was identical with satisfying our inclinations regardless of the content of these inclinations, he could not stomach the thought that egoism could hold sway throughout the entirety of social life. But then where would some universally binding claims be discoverable, the herculean task of which would be to hold you fast to me and me tightly to my highest obligations? Where could we find the secular form of morality that would replace God’s edicts? Where indeed.

It is here that Kant draws on the analogy of natural law and moral law, the first applying to empirical beings, the second to rational persons. It is also here in the moral realm where he wishes to show that humans are capable of giving themselves law and of binding themselves to it, thereby transcending the siren calls of their lower natures as appetitive beings even as they achieve their higher ends as rational persons.

Less important for our purposes is getting straight the particulars of Kant’s supreme moral principle, the Categorical Imperative; far more important for us to grasp the Theoretical Vision Kant espouses and bequeaths us. The Theoretical Vision works by ripping humans out of nature, only to reintroduce nature to us in the guise of theoretical entities for use, consumption, analysis, and circumspection. One sees in Kant’s critical philosophy the apotheosis of human beings’ standing over and against nature and coming to confront an estranged reality as a set of theoretical entities revealing themselves to scientific investigations into their truth. Kant’s world, which is very much our own, presents us with over-there objects that are seemingly readymade for theoretical investigation. From a distance, we inspect objects, breaking them up into analyzable parts; we speak of objects as having discernible properties (recall Locke’s primary qualities); we regard morality as being law-like and as applying without exception; we think of humans as deliberative beings from the first, always on the verge of acting rightly or wrongly; we apply principles and laws to cases (e.g., bioethics, foreign policy); we accuse each other of hypocrisy (that is, of acting contrary to stated principle); we think of God, if we do at all, as an abstract entity; we speak to each other in terms of valid and sound arguments; we offer defenses of our firm positions; we conceive of material reality in terms of its abstract uses, its resources, its utility, its market value. In the end, we touch money, eat calories, act based on permissions and forbidden fruits, visit museums filled with mounted butterflies, and have nearly forgotten how to listen to or see each other.

In place of a way of being with nature, we have put Theory. By submitting nature to our questions, we can no longer let be. By submitting human nature to law, we can do no otherwise than act contrary to the natural world, restraining ourselves to act in accordance with duty, not in keeping with the rhythms of love. Whither has fled human beings who were once so fully immersed in a way of being that all these theoretical questions would never have emerged in the first place? Where is the full fecundity of sensuous experience? Where is still that elemental love of living flowingly according nature’s course?

Part VI: Life is not like Water…

Part VII (final): Ethical Life Restored…