Monday, August 06, 2007

The General Requirement That Writing, If It Is Going To Be Truthful, Should Listen To What It Is Saying

I have been reading Bernard Williams again; this time, Philosophy As A Humanistic Discipline. Williams is, as usual, a wonderful stylist, although one sometimes feels that that ability to apparently effortlessly locate a cutting aside elides, glazes over, holes in the argument. I suppose he would think that the fact that his ability to find easy ways to reinforce prejudices is probably a good indication that for all that they are prejudices, they are well-founded; we must always remember that we must live after the reflection. There's one essay in particular, 'The Human Prejudice', where Williams manages to bring home very nicely the sense in which we look at the world from a particular place, which brings with it a set of ways of relating to that world, a set of ways which is, in some sense, unavoidable. Discussing, in the context of what might be said in favour of anthropocentrism, how we - and of course for Williams the point is that it is we - might relate to aliens, having noted the way in which in popular culture appearance tends to track intention, he immediately tries to complicate the issue:

However, we can imagine situations in which things would be harder. The arrivals might be very disgusting indeed: their faces, for instances, if those are faces, are seething with what seem to be worms, but if we wait long enough to find out what they are at, we may gather that they are quite benevolent. They just want to live with us - rather closely with us. Some philosophers may be at hand to remind us about distinguishing between moral and non-moral values, and to tell us that their benevolence and helpfulness are morally significant whereas the fact that they are unforgettably disgusting is not. But suppose their aim, in their unaggressive way, is to make the world more, as we would put it, disgusting? And what if their disgustingness is really, truly, unforgettable?

Part of the way that this thought that philosophy had better be for some people, at some time, rather than sub specie aeternis comes across is in the demand that it be done with an awareness of how the people who are doing it came to be in the particular place, have the particular understandings, that they do. This is not just because those who do not know the history of philosophy will be doomed to repeat it - not just to "reinvent the wheel, but reinvent the square wheel", as Williams puts it - but because otherwise they are liable to reify local understandings in ways which both fail to do justice to those understandings and will cripple their ability to deal with those who do not share them. My resistance to this thought, as what seems like an instance of conservative apologia for failure to probe hard enough - or of willingness to accept the results of probing - I suspect turns on the thought that the we of at least my branch of philosophy is more or less all humans living in reasonably stable social groups: the problems of politics are eternal, as Williams' own Basic Legitimation Demand suggests, even if his problems are much less thick than mine.

Where I am quite happy to agree with him is about the reflexivity of philosophy - a point where he acknowledges Rawls' change of heart, albeit in a footnote. I take his point here to be a kind of vulgar Hegelianism; Hegel with the really crazy metaphysics taken out, which is to say, Kant1. We had better think philosophically about what philosophy is doing, what it is for, whom it is for. Once we understand (better) whom philosophy is for, and what it might be trying to do for them, we will be able to avoid certain kinds of traps into which philosophy can be prone to falling, most usually those posed by supposing that an absolute - in the sense of being stripped of any local peculiarities - conception of the world is something it would make sense for us to aspire to over any other conceptions2 - reductionists, he is talking to you here3. The real point to be made here, of course, though, is that if philosophy is for us, to help us understand how our lives work, are structured, might be better structured, then one would expect that reflexivity to extend into them as well. It's not just that you have to live after the reflection, it's that you have to live after the reflection. Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, and that kind of thing, at least where Socrates is understood as standing in for lives, which, if we think of those who live them out as their authors, are aware that they are written; novels, almost, with beginnings, middles and ends; with a past and hopefully a future, all of which interact with each other, not necessarily in obviously pleasant ways.

1. I now, on the basis of absolutely no (Hegel and not much Kant) scholarship whatsoever, have a well-developed sense that everything sensible which Hegel said, is actually Kant. Because of the lack of scholarship, I have no idea whether anyone else - or at least anyone else who might matter - finds this view compelling. But, for starters, think of Kant's view on suicide; that it is wrong to commit suicide because it disrespects one's own agency. That is clearly a view about how one's own agency should reflect on its own normative significance, and as such, not that different from all that stuff I understand, without having read, that Hegel wrote about the master and the slave. Or something.

2. Now that's a bit Kantian too, isn't it? Synthetic a priori, unknowable noumena, and all that. See?

3. Most obviously utilitarians, who have the arrogance to think the universe cares about their happiness, as opposed to it being a matter for them, and maybe, but probably not if they're utilitarians, some other people who happen to care about them, but also some other people as well.


Ben said...

I think the dig at utilitarians is slightly unfair. When they say 'the point of view of the universe' I think they just mean from an impersonal standpoint, or from that of an 'impartial spectator'. I don't think they mean that the universe actually cares about anything at all.

Rob Jubb said...

For starters, notice that's not a complaint that a utilitarian can obviously consistently make, since they don't care about fairness as such. More substantively, just who is this impartial spectator? Where is this impersonal standpoint? Although I was nasty about it when I first read it, there's (from what I can remember of it) a decent Dworkin piece on this, in PPA I think.

Ben said...

There doesn't have to actually be an impartial spectator, but couldn't anyone without a personal interest at stake do?

Tom said...

Aren't footnotes on a blog missing the point? Or did you just discover the tool? ;)

Rob Jubb said...


no, they wouldn't. An impartial spectator in the utilitarian tradition has no personal interests at all, just an dislocated and general benevolence, whereas someone else who happens not to have a personal interest in whatever the case at hand is someone who happens not to have a personal interest in the case at hand. They are therefore different from an impartial spectator in that they have personal interests, and just contingently lack one in this case in particular. There is no (moral) standpoint of the universe. You can tell I've been reading Williams again, I think.


comedy footnotes are surely in principle a worthwhile addition to the blog format. The problem here may be that they're not funny unless you're me. And I don't know whether or not there's a tool; I just changed the text size (ineptly).