Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The uncanny philosopher

Philosophy makes no one happy. Except -- maybe -- philosophers. And one mark of the philosopher is that they are asking, a least privately, whether anyone else -- or maybe even they themselves -- can be called happy.

For many Plato exegetes, Socrates' supposed "willingness to learn from anyone" is an instance of his famous irony, an overstated pose. I am in a minority, in that I take this declared willingness seriously. Socrates' openness, I think, was part and parcel of his thoroughgoing seriousness about philosophy, a pursuit for which he was famously willing to die. One doesn't spend one's time taking on any and all comers for the sake of scoring cheap points. If it's worth your life, those points are not cheap.

But of course, this willingness did get Socrates into deep trouble, and his ironic stance in the world is part of what made this so sticky. It is true that Socrates does not conduct himself with perfect openness and candor. People -- even the well-disposed -- began to suspect that Socrates' stance might well be dangerous, and possibly not a "stance" but a pretense. Nor is this suspicion completely ill-founded, even if it misses the point in a sense; for in fact, the philosopher is suspect, ethically, if "plain speaking" is in question. The philosopher enacts in person the very tension between appearance and reality that is at issue in experience itself.

Ideally -- and I am going to talk about an ideal philosopher, as I conceive her, a thinker who conducts herself with just such Socratic openness but also the Socratic aim of understanding and bettering one's soul above all else -- ideally, the philosopher is able to begin to speak with anyone at all, of no matter what persuasion. She can even, in a certain sense, "pass the Turing test," mimicking the language of their concerns -- not, however, because in her case these memes have successfully replicated themselves in the philosopher's brain, but because she can find the validity of care which expresses itself in whatever language. She can talk like an off-the-grid hippie artist, or a blue-collar struggling taxpayer; a radical dreaming of or even planning the revolution, or a reactionary sure that the nation went off the rails fifty or a hundred years ago; a pessimist who preaches anti-natalism, or a technophile who's sure that science will unlock the charms of happiness tomorrow. Of course, anyone who already knows the philosopher -- who heard her talk yesterday with the radical gun-rights survivalist, when she now sounds so cozy with the tree-hugging vegan or the Black Lives Matter activist -- might expect her of being mealy-mouthed, of "wanting it both ways," or of simply dissimulating. And inevitably, at a certain point -- which may come soon or late -- a new acquaintance also becomes on guard. A certain note creeps into the conversation -- a hint that, whatever shibboleths are being pronounced, nonetheless a challenge is also being laid down as well -- to care about something else. The philosopher can speak whatever language (again, ideally), but does not share the same assumptions. At some point, it cannot fail to appear that the philosopher means something different. She gives a bit too much credit to "the other side," or seems to hold back on the brink of victory; she won't join in the laughs of character-assassination, or gets a far-away look in her eyes just when the fun is right here. Try to pin her down, and she won't deny it, won't lapse into incoherence; she might shrug, or start asking questions as if changing the subject, or posing a weird table-turning challenge. "Won't take their own side in an argument!" Sheesh! Or: "Always going meta-!" Yawn. Even nodding "Yes" when they are criticized! What the hell is the point?!

The philosopher looks agreeable -- "soft," even, at first. But at a certain point (again, it may occur within five mintues' time of meeting, or it may be months later) the "hard" appears, and changes the meaning of that "soft". Now it isn't agreeable -- it's just casual, or too easy, without the courage of conviction. Except that what provokes this shift is the indirect appearance of the philosopher's true conviction. And this conviction, this "hardness," looks alternately bull-headed and pointless, arguing-for-the-sake-of-arguing. Other adjectives that come to mind may be "slippery," "hair-splitting," "vague" ... all terms that have a tactile provenance, and that reduce, I think, to variations on "soft" and "hard."

I take these two terms -- duce et dure -- from Michel Serres, a philosopher of my parents' generation and one whom I esteem very highly, though I have written very little about him. One thing I love about Serres is his apparent nonchalance with regards to discursive distinctions like that between the sciences and the humanities, and between the moderns and the ancients. Serres deploys many sets of apparent oppositions in his rather sprawling oeuvre, but I am not alone in finding the hard/soft distinction to be an especially apt way in to his work. The best long introduction I know to Serres is the book of interviews between him and Bruno Latour, but the best short introduction is this essay by Steven Connor, which includes this passage:
One of the difficult things about the work of Michel Serres is that it shuns unilateralism, the taking of stands and occupation of positions. This means that it is almost impossible to say what his work might be for or in favour of, what in the end and all things considered would come down on the side of. This is certainly true in relation to the hard and the soft.... The opposition between the hard and the soft turns on and feeds back into itself.
Many are repelled by the philosopher at this point. Some the philosopher continues to know, and perhaps eventually stops provoking. Some turn away and don't much want to pursue the relationship. And sometimes it gets mean. Occasionally, charges are brought, even a conviction, and the philosopher goes into exile or under house arrest.... All because they won't go soft at the right time, for the right people.

In contemporary terms, the philosopher inhabits the "uncanny valley" -- resembling the interlocutor very much, so much that the residual dissimilarity provokes an instinctive recoil. Attraction builds up until suddenly it reverses -- almost as if some treason had been committed. The repulsion arises because the "soft" and the "hard" of the philosopher are functions of each other; but this is weird, and it can be almost a visceral turn-off. Interest, even affection, inverts into hostility.

It's not completely uncalled-for. Philosophy, as the pursuit of the vision of the Whole, may well be impossible, in a certain sense, and there are multiple dangers of multiple kinds -- perversity, delusions of grandeur, blind alleys -- that come along with an apparently impossible undertaking; abysses where the unwary do not suspect even a speed bump. "The crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead," warned Auden, and the interminability of those roads are perilous. The recoil one feels from the uncanny can be a sign of health, or at least a healthy instinct. I've mentioned some of this before. There's no virtue in uncanniness itself; and sometimes the exasperation with "going meta" or apparent failure to commit or eternal hairsplitting is well taken. The philosopher must, precisely qua philosopher, always listen to such warnings -- but even this listening does not really lessen the familiar strangeness (and vice-versa) of the philosopher in the eyes of others; even when apparently heeding the warnings, the philosopher is concerned about different dangers.

It can also happen that someone moves swiftly across the uncanny valley to a place of rekindled attraction, and loves the philosopher all the more. (Compare Alcibiades on Socrates and the Silenii). Part of what happens in this case is that the interlocutor makes a responsive movement of the soul. There is a choice, a decision. Part of this is also that the philosopher's risk-taking is genuine. They haven't merely a "hidden agenda," for -- pace Strauss -- Socrates would actually be (say I) willing to learn from Ion or Euthyphro or Anytus, had they any wisdom (perhaps even without knowing it -- if "unconscious wisdom," besides being an anachronism, is coherent for a Platonic view of things). The interlocutor passes to what Ricoeur calls a second naïveté, a renewed openness, wherein one takes again the philosopher at "face value," and yet also knows that at any moment one may be led beyond. One's "enchantment" here is akin to what happens when reading a poet -- the strangeness of a language one thought one knew; or the thrill, slightly unsettling but undeniably beautiful -- of the queer glamour of the sexually- or gender-ambiguous. Here too one stands in the glowing radius of the uncanny, the like-and-unlike. At this point one experiences either a mere perplexity, a kind of sour, what's-the-point irritation; or a sort of curiosity, even attraction, takes root. One can wonder about this attraction, be cautious or even suspicious, but so long as one doesn't foreclose it, one maintains oneself in potential likeness to it. For one "becomes like" what one sees, and here is the real point: one suspects that the philosopher may be closer to the "real" than oneself -- that it is one's own profile which is "uncanny", not the philosopher's. Here is at least one meaning of that fay-ery which is philosophy. Shape-shifting. Metamorphosis.

Needless to say, despite my invocation of Serres above, I've got no specific thinker in mind here. My figure of "the philosopher" is idealized, a fictional amalgam. Although Socrates may well be the first one you think of, in fact when I began to formulate this, I found myself reminded of St Paul: "I became all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."

Save. Because at play in the apparent tremendous leeway of opening positions the philosopher allows herself is the conviction that what really is at stake is the most important thing of all. This is part of what makes for the danger of philosophy. Not only is it alienating from those who won't go there with you; you are never sure yourself that you aren't prey to the worst hubris. Which is why you are well advised not to take your won side in an argument. Ideally, this leverages the alienation of philosophy into a step beyond it. Which is yet another reason why it's hard to say what the "point" of philosophy is; it points beyond pointing, beyond the question of "what's the point." Which is not the same as the negation of the question.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Against fake paradox

Over at Ombhurbhuva, I was pointed towards a post at Philosophy et cetera, by Richard Chappell, on deontology and consequentialism. On Ombhurbhuva I left a comment but deleted it when I decided I wanted to nuance it a bit, and when I tried to re-post, I got caught in an endless internet-reloading loop. Here is the slightly refurbished comment, with a bit of context.

Chappell's original post tries to give one a puzzle: suppose -- just posit this, don't trouble yourself about particulars -- that "unless you kill one innocent person, five other innocent people who you know and love will be killed." Open-and-shut case, supposedly, for the consequentialist (for whom things count as right or wrong depending on what follows from them) against the deontologist (for whom things just are right or wrong by definition.) (I'm leaving out all sorts of subtleties and qualifiers here in these positions, because I'm not really interested in them as abstractions.) The rationale proceeds along the following lines:
Impersonally: five murders are worse than one. Personally: there is a special moral cost to you in committing a murder, sure, but it is not so great a cost (we may suppose) as losing your five loved ones....
So the deontologist is supposedly left with an uncomfortable question: "if murder is so morally horrendous, why should we not be concerned to minimize its occurrence?" This is supposedly the puzzle which is called, in the post's title, the "Paradox of Deontology" (a paradox Chappell attributes to Samuel Scheffler, with reference to the his article "Agent-Centred Restrictions, Rationality, and the Virtues" [I found a pdf here.]). At least in this formulation, though, I am at a loss to see the "paradox" here. If this were all paradoxes were, one could have a steady diet of them and be none the weirder. (At Ombhurbhuva, Michael R. spun Chappell's thought-experiment in the direction of time-travel paradoxes, but it seemed to me that the family resemblance was more in the direction of the Trolley Problem, an impression which was reinforced when I read Scheffler's article and realized he was responding in large part to Philipa Foot.)

Chappell asks,
How do you think the deontologist might best respond to this challenge?
Hmmm. How about with something a bit more ... paradoxical? One could start by denying both premises. In what sense are five murders worse than one? And indeed, in what sense is the "cost" of losing five friends greater than the "cost" of becoming a murderer?

I'm not arguing that this reversal makes for a suddenly obvious open-and-shut case for the deontologist, just that the premises for the consequentialist's argument, as Chappell puts it, are so patently open to question that the word "paradox" is being abused in being applied here. This matters not just because we need precision in terms. Paradox is among the most potent of rhetorical and dialectical indices -- a sign that things are becoming really interesting. It's important to know what we mean by it. (To be fair, Scheffler speaks more often of "appearance of paradox" or of "something paradoxical," which seem less strong claims).

Chappell gives an interesting suggestion here:
the deontologist must hold that you are morally special (to override the impersonal verdict and get that your murdering one is morally worse than allowing five other murders to occur), but you're not so special that your interest in saving your loved ones overrides your putative moral obligations. It's an awkward combination of claims."
This strikes me as an infelicitous way of putting things, but if we dig a little, just here is where a kind of paradox could be rightly held up to sparkle. If we dropped the attempt to find just the right amount (or "type") of specialness and instead went for both absolutely special and entirely not, we might be getting somewhere.