Sunday, April 15, 2007


The chief problem with modern "Kantians" like Korsgaard is that they don't notice the problems that Kant raised but couldn't resolve. Few of us are comfortable with Kant's insistence that morality is a matter of acting according to law, not according to inclination, but Kant had serious reasons for keeping these two so far apart; he had no other way to justify the freedom of the will. If our acts are motivated or even affected by our emotional states, they are implicated in the same system of causality that pervades the phenomenal world, and we've launched ourselves down the slippery slope towards determinism. Human freedom vanishes; we're no more "free" than cockroaches.

But Kant's solution has its own problems, as George Di Giovanni sets out in his tough but brilliant book Freedom and Religion in Kant and His Immediate Successors: The Vocation of Humankind, 1774-1800 (Cambridge UP, 2005, a whopping $75.00). If freedom exists in the intelligible realm that Kant has carved out, how is it effective in the phenomenal one? Or, as Robert Pippin, Terry Pinkard, and others put it, how can "the interest of reason" motivate an action if it isn't a phenomenon itself? And if, as Kant states, the separations between the intelligible world and the physical world and between freedom and necessity are resolved in God, doesn't this mean that freedom is an illusion, that we seem free only because we lack the complete understanding of the divine?

The sad thing about modern Kantians is that they use Kant as an authority instead of taking his project seriously. They preserve his distinctions but avoid their implications, as if the extraordinary creativity of the post-Kantian idealists had been some kind of mass delusion.

In fact, the idealists were right about Kant; he tried to secure a leading role for philosophy, but ended up showing that no rational elucidation of experience was possible. It's today's scholars who peddle a delusion--the delusion that he got it right, and that our pseudo-Kantian universe of autonomous beings in an objective world is something other than an odd cultural artifact.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Free music

My Rimsky-Korsakov site is up until further notice, with three complete opera recordings.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why be moral? Why do anything?

I've just finished Frans De Waal's latest book, Primates and Philosophers. De Waal is a primatologist with a special interest in cooperative behavior and conflict resolution among great apes, and the book is a revision of a series of lectures he gave a few years ago. (A generous excerpt is available from the page linked above.) A little under half the book is De Waal's, and in it he sets out his case that human ethical conduct is based on "good natured" animal behavior. Then a number of prominent philosophers and biologists present critiques, to which De Waal responds.

It's good to have this kind of dialogue within book covers. As usual with De Waal, he makes a strong case but overstates it a bit. But he comes off better in many ways than his more philosophically-minded commentators.

For example, Christine Korsgaard and Peter Singer are still so embroiled in the philosophical tradition that they forget to ask themselves one question: How do we decide what to do?

Both of these distinguished philosophers hold to the notion that we can act either emotionally or on rational grounds. Singer says, "we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them." (p. 149). Korsgaard writes, similarly, that a rational agent "is capable of rejecting an action along with its purpose, not because there is something else she wants (or fears) even more, but simply because she judges that doing that sort of act for that purpose is wrong." (p. 111).

But why would we do that? I'm not denying that we act unselfishly--indeed, I try to act that way myself. But I do it because I want to. It's easier to look myself in the mirror that way. I feel that I'm doing something that makes my living less of a waste, and I do it because of that sudden flame of empathetic delight that kindles between two people every now and then. I desire that sense of human contact more than any number of lesser pleasures, and I fear wasting my life more than most really big pleasures. I try to live ethically because I have an emotional need to live ethically.

How can people act in any other way? Are mothers selfish because their infants give them such great pleasure? Anyone whose mother felt otherwise and performed her parental duties simply out of a sense of obligation knows better.

De Waal cites work by Antonio Damasio and John Bargh, among others, suggesting that our actions are motivated by emotion. But we really shouldn't need neurologists to tell us this. It's only many years of telling ourselves that we are rational creatures that blinds us to the obvious truth, which is that at every moment we do whatever we want to do most of all. Morality involves educating the heart, opening ourselves to the pain of others, and learning that certain pleasures are not worth their consequences. It involves wanting to be a certain kind of person and wanting to live in a certain kind of world. Take away the wanting and none of the maxims, rules, and principles of ethics would matter to us at all.

Monday, March 26, 2007

No new posts?

Sorry to all those who are reading this and wondering when the next post will come along. Nothing I've been doing recently seems to fit into the blog format, so my visits have been largely limited to removing the "comments" hawking fake Vi-a-qra or linking to porn sites. Some days that's a full-time job.

For what it's worth: I'm moving in two directions right now in my work. The myth book is no more, but some of its material is going into a new chain of essays tentatively called The Discipline of the Invisible. Some of that material may get some play here. The main theme of this work is the impossibility of generating a coherent theory that can show us the way out of our current trap. Moving through a study of some other ways of constructing experience, the essays close by suggesting that we view economic activity as a means of structuring time instead of a system of producing and allocating goods. It leads to an all-or-nothing kind of political aporia.

The other work is going to be longer in the preparation, though I may post a detailed outline some time soon. It's titled The Forgotten Question, or, The Birth of Modernity out of the Spirit of Reaction. The central figure in this piece of intellectual history is the late-eighteenth-century philosopher Fichte, and its theme comes from Marx's famous maxim that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is, to change it." The odd thing is that Fichte and those closely influenced by him were determined to change the world, and they were so moved by the critical philosophy that they were developing out of a radicalized Kantianism.

My argument, in a couple of sentences, is that Fichte and the Jena romantics brought the Enlightenment project to its completion, as they turned Kant's self-critique of reason to critique consciousness itself. The restoration in 1815 and the transformation of idealism from a matter of "seeing" to one of "being" in Schelling and Hegel helped conceal this breakthrough so thoroughly that Marx didn't seem to have heard of it at all. Modernity claims to inherit the Enlightenment project, but Fichte's activism and commitment to practice were its real heirs. Our world is not the fruit of the Century of Light; it's a shallow imitation of that period, founded on the fear of its unsettling and liberating energies.

And I'm also preparing a small site on the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, so I can post dubs of two old Soviet-era recordings which have never been widely available.

If anyone is interested, I'll be speaking at Symposium Books in Providence, Rhode Island, on Thursday, April 26, at 6:30 pm.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The perfect metaphor

Ah, Christmas. Time to visit the strange planet Family, where the television set is always on. Where Christmas dinner is followed by hushed attention to --- a special episode of Deal or No Deal.

I hadn't seen Deal or No Deal before, but it didn't take long to figure out the rules. There's Howie Mandel, once a modestly-famous comic and actor, with a bald head, a tiny beard and one earring, looking a bit as if he were hoping to try out for the Village People. There are about 26 spokesmodel types who stand next to Zero Halliburton aluminum attache cases, each case with a number.

There is a sum of money printed inside each case, ranging from one cent to one million dollars. The contestant starts the game by picking one of the cases. He doesn't get to look inside, but whatever sum is printed in that case is what he will win.

The contestant then calls out the numbers of several cases, and one by one the spokesmodels assigned to hold those particular cases opens them. The obvious point is that the guy isn't going to win a million dollars if it shows up in one of the spokesmodel's cases.

Even with all the dramatic music and lighting that game shows can't do without these days this would still be too lame even for network television, so Deal or No Deal has a twist. A mysterious Banker is said to sit in a booth high above the stage, and he periodically offers a buyout sum--calculated on the basis of the odds that the highest sum not eliminated so far is the one in the contestant's case. The high drama of the show comes as the contestant has to choose between taking the offer or continuing the game: deal or no deal.

This is a quiz show in which all knowledge and skill have been eliminated. But the contestants treat it as something far more than a test of luck. One of them kept announcing prayerfully that this was his time to win; he would not deal, determined to "stick it to the banker." Another insisted that he would win because, "If you believe, you can achieve!"

As irrational as the whole setup is, it seems oddly powerful to those involved. And this may be because the show, intentionally or not, reproduces the way life now appears to most Americans. Things just happen. Nothing is causally linked to anything any more. Achievement is indistinguishable from luck. It's a hostile world, in which an anonymous agent keeps trying to keep you from getting yours. If your faith and self-confidence are strong, though, you will prevail in spite of the odds.

It's a magical world view. In fact, it's far more illogical and absurd than traditional magical world views, which generally incorporate pretty sophisticated ideas of causality. It's the world view of people who can't understand the world or play an active role in it. It's the world of small children or of alcoholics, now on prime time for all to share. Ideological masking can't get much more effective than this. Deal or No Deal is the perfect metaphor for the illusionary world we all live in today.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Of course the Democratic Party is being branded as soft on terrorism. Doesn't bother me, any more than it's being labeled soft on crime and soft on communism. I just wish the Party weren't also soft on militarism, chauvinism, American exceptionalism, unbridled neo-liberalism....

Monday, October 30, 2006

Making things vanish

You've got to hand it to Margaret Thatcher. As horrible as the Iron Lady was as Prime Minister of the UK, she was a first-rate magician. David Copperfield gets a TV special for making the Statue of Liberty vanish, and it reappears before the eleven o'clock news. Mrs. Thatcher announces that "there is no such thing as society," and--allakazam!--it's still missing.

Case in point: the latest issue of Mother Jones Magazine, which features on its cover a piece called "The Thirteenth Tipping Point." This is the author's hoped-for moment when humanity "slips from selfishness to altruism." Why are we trashing the planet? Well, we simply don't know enough; children aren't taught in schools about the impact their personal choices have on the environment. If only they realized! And we haven't organized enough to convince the corporate world that there's a market for efficient and green goods. So let's harness the power of the web! Evolution has brought us so far--now let's nudge it along, before we're all either toast or up to our necks in the rising sea level. These little changes will all add up, and then, all at once, human nature will change.

Now, human nature changes all the time and is different in different places, and what our author doesn't seem to realize is that the most recent shift (a partial one, to be sure) went the wrong way--from altruism to selfishness. By "only recently" I mean in the past 25,000 years or so, after the beginnings of large-scale agriculture. For the half a million or more years before then people lived in close-knit, supportive, bickering, sometimes violent but generally intimate and supportive communities. And this way of life, which some people today still prefer to the wonders of the modern world, was itself the result of a change--what anthropologist Christopher Boehm called the "egalitarian revolution." None of our brother and sister apes shows anything like it, not even the much-romanticized Bonobo.

What happened in the part of the world that calls itself civilized was a change in social structure that gave some people power over others. In other words, we undid the egalitarian revolution. From then on everything in social life was a zero-sum game. And in the past 400 years, in one part of the world, a further revolution took place which took almost every decision of any importance out of our hands. Under capitalism these decisions have been turned over to the market, which demands by its logic that production and consumption increase without end.

What really changes--and what makes for those changes in human nature--are the rules of the particular game that a culture plays. Capitalism shapes all production to maximize profits and expand markets. People are selfish in that kind of society because it doesn't make sense for them to act any other way. It's not because they're biologically programmed for selfishness. (They're not programmed for altruism, either, to be sure.) All of the carbon set-offs, buying clubs, acts of self-restraint, and other personal efforts we make won't change a thing as long as our interactions and collective decisions follow market logic.

Maybe you don't agree with me. I don't know if the author of this article does or not, because she never once mentions capitalism and never suggests that our own culture is anything other than transparent, value-neutral, and totally responsive to unfettered individual choices. In other words, she shares the Thatcher fallacy--thinking that all that exists is a bunch of independent, rational actors moving around in a social vacuum. But every human change throughout time has been a change in social structure, too; individual and social are indivisible. If there is no society, then there is really no hope--except for some mysterious global psychic transformation that overtakes all of us in our sleep. That hasn't happened before. I wouldn't count on it now.