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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Occasionally, for my sins, I spend a bit of time with some work to which I am fundamentally unsympathetic. This paper, "The Unbelievable Truth About Morality" by Bart Streumer, has been my most recent act of atonement.

Streumer's site mentions that it is "written for students", and indeed it is lacking a certain tediousness (or fastidiousness, if I'm feeling generous) that often characterizes the hair-splitting gotchas one often finds among the analytic clan. It is a very short precis of a book called Unbelievable Errors, which (to give my own gloss*) defends the claim that all (!!!) normative claims are effectively false (I would have said "meaningless," if I were playing the author's game, and this may or may not be important) because there are no "normative properties" and therefore normative claims cannot ever truly ascribe such properties to any acts. This claim is literally unbelievable (he says), because among normative claims one finds not only such sentences as "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" or "Act such that the maxim upon which you act could be willed to be a universal maxim," but also things like "You should believe this because...". Streumer engages, in short, in cheerfully sawing off his branch; but then he goes on to argue (!!!!!) that this unbelievability should count as evidence for his account being true. And he thinks this unbelievability is a good thing (no, I'm not kidding, he says "we should welcome it", which is a normative claim on (arguably) two counts) because it prevents the theory -- wait for it -- from undermining morality.

Yes, those are normative words in that last clause -- "should," "count", "evidence".... and oh yes, "true" and "good" as well. Yes, this is also my summary, but it is effectively what he writes.

In short, the paper irritated me. But the damndest thing kept happening, as I sat with my irritation. I kept thinking about it. I couldn't just set it aside, or (better) crumple it up. Nor was it just that I needed to nail down every last bit of what was irritating, in a sort of someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet bout of can't-let-it-go. For all that it made me scribble "No!" and "What?!" and "Is this coherent?" in the margins (and I am very sparing with accusations of "incoherence" -- one of the most over-used critiques in the business), I couldn't help but feel the paper was doing something right -- in the very moves that were irritating me, but more in the very esprit of the thing. (Yes, even analytic philosophy has esprit.) To be sure, one can pick apart the moves like "moral claims ascribe 'properties' (e.g., "wrongness")...", or say that these already miss the point, so that once you've begun this game, you are bound to wind up saying something perverse. I think that's true too -- but that's also not really the issue I was getting at. Perhaps a bit perversely myself, I felt as if Streumer has actually come weirdly close to something apt.

This is not just because of certain moves he makes along the way with which I am in agreement (e.g., he argues against non-congnitivism in morals -- he insists that a claim like "theft is wrong" means more than just a hearty and insistent emotional disapproval of theft -- as if it was thoroughly paraphrasable by something like "Theft -- ugh! how could one?!") I do agree with such moves, but that is just as incidental as my disagreement with others. He says something close to what Wittgenstein says in the Lecture on Ethics -- effectively, that ethics can't state meaningful propositions -- but he seems to say this in a blithely blasé way, as unlike the spirit of Wittgenstein -- the most morally serious of 20th c thinkers -- as I can imagine. I'm maddened by this but also feel driven to keep looking at it. Streumer in effect shows how -- on his premises -- the entire space of reasons implodes, leaving one with an inarticulate shrug -- and then he says, "huh!" And goes back to.... spinning reasons. I'm down with pressing philosophy to the point of the unsayable -- Wittgenstein again -- but the spectacle of Streumer whistling past the graveyard makes me crazy -- and yet, again, sort of fascinated. It's a remarkable instance of philosophy going wrong. There's something I admire about it, even -- the way I admired Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A hugely ambitious project of showing how ones project need not be undertaken, and yet everything just keeps going along.

Obviously, I do not think things can be left here; but, sophistry or not, there is something about the strong counter-intuitiveness that I like, even if I feel the conclusions (including that there can be no "conclusions") clearly cannot stand. You don't have to agree -- Streumer after all says you cannot -- but when paradox gets this spelled out, there's something fascinating going on. ("Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense," Ralph Barton Perry wrote, "let us make the most of it.") Streumer concludes -- again, in my own gloss, which he might take issue with -- that we hold whatever conclusions we hold for no reason, because there can be no "reasons". This "for no reason" conclusion of Streumer is an epistemological cousin of more than one ontological claim. Meillassoux holds the same thing about "why is there something rather than nothing," and one recalls as well Heidegger's citation (in The Principle of Reason) of Angelus Silesius -- "the rose blooms without a why". This is also what the SS guard told Primo Levi at Auschwitz -- "here, there is no why" (Survival in Auschwitz p 29). I am not the first to note this parallel, but it ought to give us pause -- the fact that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao should not lead us into embracing just any absence of names. Philosophy must strive to rightly apportion our articulation and our inarticulateness -- which means, also, our struggle with the question of "right apportionment."

* Obviously my depiction of Streumer's project is, let us say, tendentious. And obviously I'm not walking anyone through the actual steps of his argument here. You want that, you'll have to read the book, or at least the paper. But while I have not worried much about giving every little nuance, I hope that I am not misrepresenting anything.

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