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Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”

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Before I begin on Hegel, I want to note that Terry Pinkard’s recent translation of this work is a vast improvement over the previous standard translation by A. V. Miller. It is better, more readable, closer to the original, and more consistent, and should be heavily preferred. I do not agree with every choice Pinkard makes – for example, rendering “die Sache selbst” as “the crux of the matter,” his dubious rendering of “Bildung” as “cultural formation,” or his somewhat distracting rendering of “überhaupt” as “full stop” – but when his translation makes a contestable choice, he nearly always calls it out in footnotes, and includes a valuable translation glossary.

Photo of Hegel's grave, Berlin
Hegel’s grave in Berlin, a two-minute walk from my first office in the city

Now on to Hegel.

I have tried to read this book many times before, and have always been blocked by Hegel’s prose, which is atrocious, at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but most often because of his penchant for impenetrable jargon, and most especially, because he very rarely tells you what he’s doing, or what he’s even talking about. For example, when he tells you that the spirit has projected itself back into indeterminacy driven by its newly-adopted ironic stance, it is left entirely to you to figure out that he’s talking about the society of manners that prevailed at the Valois court of France, and never once uses the words “Valois” or “France.” And that is how the book is written.

It is wearisome, and it is my belief that this book is literally incomprehensible without the assistance of commentary – either that, or spend 10 years on it. I myself relied heavily on four commentaries, by Terry Pinkard, J. M. Bernstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Charles Taylor, and availed myself of many additional articles, essays, and references, and I believe that is about what is minimally necessary to have a sense of it. I would warn against using a single commentary, because the more sources you use, the more you understand the various ways that Hegel has been understood, and especially the degree to which every key term and idea in this book has been contested.

I would add that before beginning I had read Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant’s three Critiques, Goethe and Schiller, Fichte and Schelling, Heidegger and Derrida. If, armed with that background, I was incapable of understanding Hegel without considerable assistance, it raises real questions about who exactly he thought he was writing for.

The narrator of Proust’s Remembrance observed that people tend to think that geniuses are like everybody else, only with some additional power or faculty grafted on to their otherwise-normal person, sort of like they have a third arm or eye. In fact, he reflects, people are generally misshapen or even deranged by genius in ways that make them intolerable to other people. I thought of this several times reading Hegel, wondering if it is possible he could have found a better language for his ideas, while remaining who he was.

I dwell on this aspect of the book for two reasons. First, it is a fact of the book that will continually confront any reader who dares to attempt to plumb its depths, and they must be prepared. Second, it is unfortunately part of the book’s negative legacy. Hegel helped inaugurate certain obscure tendencies of style in Germany and France that have haunted philosophy to this day.

So why read it at all, then? For myself, the answer is, I found after long years of trying to avoid it that Hegel remains at the center of many corners of the Great Conversation that I want to be in on, and it increasingly occurred to me as a great hole in my education. And I was not wrong – now that I have read it, I have recognized just how colossal his influence is, and it has turned up in places where I didn’t expect to find it. For example, it seems to me that Nietzsche owes a great debt to Hegel in his historical treatment of philosophy, and readers of Nietzsche may be surprised to find the phrase “God is dead” in the Phenomenology. And Jürgen Habermas, whom I have long thought of as largely a Kantian-type cosmopolitan, I now see as equally influenced by Hegel’s work in his theory of communicative action.

And so I set out to cross the sunless sea of this book, armed with commentaries, about which a word is essential.

As far as I can make out, Hegel interpretation in the last 40 years in the English-speaking world has been primarily divided into two camps, based largely, I would argue, on how they understand the idea of “spirit.” The older camp is dominated by Charles Taylor, and its primary commitment is the belief that the spirit is something “real”, a kind of self-positing collective consciousness that knows itself by virtue of individuals, who are its instruments or means of knowing. Essentially, spirit is a kind of semi-secularized stand-in for deity in a neo-pantheistic or neo-romantic interpretation of culture and the world.

The second camp is often referred to as Neo-Kantian in the literature, though I’m not sure which figures would actually claim that term. It seems to include Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, and J. M. Bernstein, the latter of whom has referred to his own reading of Hegel as “deflationary.” This approach regards spirit not as a kind of super-being, but more like the totality of what human beings do with respect to the intersubjective character of their lives and experience, and particularly how they collectively deliberate about the basis of their own consciousness, intersubjectivity, and sense of meaning through art, philosophy, and religion.

I was surprised to come down rather strongly on the Neo-Kantian side of this issue, although I was initially skeptical. Certainly one advantage that the Neo-Kantians have is that their commentary is much clearer and more useful than that of the Taylor camp. I found Taylor’s classic study of Hegel, for example, to not be very useful or well-written, though one thing I did really admire was Taylor’s insistence on the importance of Herder for situating Hegel’s thought. I think this is quite correct, and that a serious reappraisal of Herder’s value and influence is past-due.

Detail from "Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers" by Johan Christian Dahl
Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers (detail), Johan Christian Dahl

Based on my own careful reading of Phenomenology, I believe spirit is in fact something like a faculty – specifically, the faculty that enables and requires human cognition to function intersubjectively. As to the question of its ontological status, in my view, spirit is analogous to a language, which, on one level, it is nothing more than the sum total of practices and capabilities of its actual speakers, but we nonetheless have a strong concept of language as if it had its own autonomous being. It would be hard to conceive of language without that conceit – we want to say, for example, that German verb tenses are easier to learn than English verb tenses, as if German is a “thing,” even if we don’t believe that German is somehow floating around “out there”.

Indeed, as J. M. Bernstein correctly insists, one of the whole points of Hegel’s thought is that we have to jettison any concept of the transcendent, which Hegel continually refers to as a contentless “other-worldly beyond,” and identifies as one of the most destructive bad ideas that has haunted the history of philosophy. Hegel wants to drive us out of the cloud-cuckoo land of the thing-in-itself and back into historical actuality, because the very idea of the transcendent keeps us locked in what he calls the “inverted world,” in which we insanely insist that what is least real is in fact what is most real, and vice versa.

What does this mean? A key example may be found in Kant, who argues that the unknowable thing-in-itself ultimately serves as the basis for all experience. He thereby keeps us forever locked out of any satisfying possibility of getting at the truth, or of knowing the world as it is, because the thing-in-itself is forever unavailable. That is to say, what is most real, or the concrete actuality of our lived experience, is for Kant what is least real, and the most contentless of all possible concepts, the thing-in-itself, is what is actual.

This is the general structure that inevitably falls out of subject-object dualism, and the first half of Hegel’s book is largely focused on criticizing the structure of that dualism, which casts us back again and again into the inverted world and keeps us locked out of the possibility of truth. Hegel defines this problem as the situation of modern philosophy, ever since Descartes argued that epistemology is first philosophy, and that the foundation of philosophy is to understand how we reconstruct a mental image of the world and determine if those reconstructions are correct.

Hegel has two ways of dealing with this problem, and his solution constitutes one of his main contributions to philosophy. The first is to jettison the idea of the self as fundamentally a knower of objects out there in the world, and to replace it with an idea of human beings as actors, who live in a world that is given to them, and who know it not through consciousness of an external world, but through self-consciousness of their own lives. The second is to jettison the idea of subjective atomism and to argue – quite persuasively, I think – that human experience is fundamentally intersubjective; specifically, that all forms of experience are always already permeated by concepts, and that concepts are fundamentally intersubjective in their character.

In my reading, it is this intersubjective faculty that Hegel refers to as spirit, and this book, as we well know, is the phenomenology of spirit. Hegel uses the term “phenomenology” in a rather different way than later phenomenologists like Bergson and Husserl – he uses it to refer to the understanding of knowing as self-consciousness.

This conceptual analysis of self-consciousness is part of Hegel’s program for making philosophy “scientific,” by which he means that spirit will give a full account of itself to itself using concepts. It will turn out in his fascinating chapter on religion that Hegel believes spirit has always attempted to work out an understanding of itself through religion, using images and representations, and that this is in fact what religion is. Religion, however, cannot recognize that this is what it is actually doing. It serves the spirit as a procedure for collectively deliberating about itself – that is, on the very ways that we collectively define our own ultimate sources of authority and value and then take them as binding – but it thinks it is actually discovering a truly-existent transcendent basis for its value and existence, which it calls God or the gods, or what have you.

It is only by preserving the concept that spirit can reflect on the ways in which ultimate values are collectively posited without losing hold of what it is actually doing and becoming confused, and taking the representations for the thing itself, thereby getting lost in the inverted world. Hegel argues, and I agree, that this requires conceptual analysis, and that this very process itself has only recently become possible for human beings. Prior to, say, the 18th century, it was possible to deliberate in sophisticated ways on the nature of the ultimate, but it is only after the Enlightenment that we have been able to deliberate on these matters self-reflectively, instead of doing so from within the closed framework of a particular value system.

The two tasks of Hegel’s book, then, are to explicate the way that spirit comes to know itself, and to trace the evolution of its various historical forms or moments – to consider the various historically-bound shapes of spirit’s self-understanding – in order to see how it is that we have now arrived at the point where we are at last able to do this work self-reflectively for the first time, not only grasping the spirit, but grasping it through concepts, philosophically – or, in Hegel’s language, scientifically – so that the richness of its manifold content can be preserved and known, and not dissolved into some kind of generalalized fuzzy idea of an absolute that contains everything but explains nothing.

Viewed from one perspective, what Hegel is doing is philosophically anticipating what was about to happen in the nineteenth century, and providing an account of it in advance. I think even he would have been surprised by the degree to which the European tradition’s understanding of itself would, in the next 200 years, be taken over by psychology, anthropology, modern historiography, economics, sociology, and so forth – by all of the conceptual disciplines which have taken up the problems historically dealt with by narrative history and religion.

As to its uniqueness – if you believe, as I do, that Hegel is right in saying that Kant towers over Descartes, but nonetheless could be considered a kind of modification of Descartes, Hegel replaces the entire core structure of the problematic in a fundamental way, and in so doing gives us conceptual tools to bring to light various social, historical, and existential phenomena that would be extremely difficult to explicate using a prior framework. When Hegel begins his chapter on spirit half way through the book, we suddenly see the payoff – how easy it is for him to talk about phenomena like social movements, politics, world views, religion, and the history of ideas, which you could address from a strictly Kantian framework only with great difficulty. I think this can be seen by a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he begins pushing in that direction, and you can feel the whole fabric of his approach straining with the difficulty of managing to provide an account for complex phenomena.

I have seen countless versions of what I would call a perennial philosophy, which says we’re all islands of structured consciousness on a sea of the inchoate absolute. Hegel decidedly does not provide yet another version of that account, because consciousness, for him, is intersubjective, and because the impossibility of fully grasping the ultimate is not because it is transcendent, but because it unfolds historically, over time, and it must be comprehended in its totality of forms, as the sum of its history. This argument is, to my knowledge, wholly new, and an astonishingly creative approach.

This is the shortest account I can give of what Hegel is up to in this book, and I think it suggests something of its novelty. It has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness-as-such, and not without good reason – it does in fact comprise an attempt to retrace the evolution of consciousness from within, as it were, and to apply a consistent phenomenological frame for explicating its various moments in terms of the larger project.

As much as I loathe Hegel’s style, this is a towering work of creative and philosophical genius, and one of the very greatest works of philosophy I have ever seen. His project and execution are staggeringly original, and terrifically exciting, and he gives an account that is wholly new and extremely productive. It has already deeply shaped my thinking, and I expect it will be one of my primary intellectual reference points for the rest of my life.

Written by Mesocosm

July 10, 2022 at 4:19 am

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

Wendy Brown’s ‘In the Ruins of Neoliberalism’

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After decades of conflict, democracy had emerged by 1992 as the undisputed winner of the Cold War, holding a position of dominance so universal that the term “democracy” became synonymous with political legitimacy. Even authoritarian states often imitate its discourse to justify rule, using sham elections and fraudulent polls to shore up their legitimacy. 

Theo Balden's sculpture "Newspaper Reader"
Newspaper Reader, Theo Balden

Yet a few decades later, despite the complete absence of any serious external challenge or internal crisis, democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and France are awash with anti-democratic popular movements. Some of them openly flirt with abandoning democracy altogether, others have already done so. 

In the United States, the Republican party has openly embraced an anti-democratic platform on the national level. To take one of countless examples, in October 2020, GOP Senator Mike Lee from Utah tweeted “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” 

“Rank democracy”? 

Yet this statement from a US senator, which would have recently been regarded as inflammatory and shocking, provoked no controversy whatsoever. The question a lot of us are asking with increasing urgency is: “How the hell did this happen?” 

In seeking to provide a social-theoretical account of the historical process that led us to our current situation, Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism; The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West offers an indispensable contribution to the growing body of literature on the subject. I believe this important book deserves careful consideration and discussion, and I recommend it very highly. 

Brown’s argument is complex and wide-ranging, so in this review I will restrict myself to highlighting some of its principle features. 

Brown begins by sketching a typical account of the process leading to the 2016 election, highlighting factors like racial resentment, the government’s failure to redress inequality and misconduct following 2008 economic crisis, and the growing gulf dividing a globalized, urban, highly-literate majority from a displaced rural minority. She* argues that while such an account is useful, it has important omissions that fail to account for the novel characteristics of what we are seeing now.

The current wave of reactionary politics does not always accord with familiar political categories. Indeed, many of its features are difficult to account for with any coherent ideology, and as such, they have defied analysis and frustrated opposition: 

Failure to predict, understand, or effectively contest these developments is due partly to blinding assumptions about perduring Western values and institutions, especially progress and Enlightenment and liberal democracy, and partly to the unfamiliar agglomeration of elements in the rising Right – its curious combination of libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservativism, and racism. These new forces conjoin familiar elements of neoliberalism (licensing capital, leashing labor, demonizing the social state and the political, attacking equality, promulgating freedom) with their seeming opposites (nationalism, enforcement of traditional morality, populist antielitism, and demands for state solutions to economic and social problems). They conjoin moral righteousness with nearly celebratory amoral and uncivil conduct. They endorse authority while featuring unprecedented public disinhibition and aggression. They rage against relativism, but also against science and reason, and spur evidence-based claims, rational argumentation, credibility, and accountability. They disdain politicians and politics while evincing a ferocious will to power and political ambition. Where are we?

Where, indeed? 

Cold-War-era tools of political analysis are insufficient to account for this nihilistic witch’s brew of characteristics, and understanding why that is so is an urgent task of theory, for the conventional responses that the left has reflexively relied upon have been ineffective. The rhetorical appeal to a putative sense of shared values of a kind exemplified by the editorial missives of Dan Rather have fallen on deaf ears, as have charges of hypocrisy leveled against the evangelists who enthusiastically support a man who has illegally misused campaign funds to silence a porn star with whom he had an affair. Countless attempts to replicate the moment of Joseph Welch’s “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” have failed, and we need to understand why. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which such appeals no longer connect with their audience, psychologically or ideologically. 

It is this gap in understanding that Brown endeavors to fill, so that we can, at last, identify the real ideological battleground, and shift our focus there. Otherwise we will be left to ask Senator Lee in disbelief, “Surely you can’t be saying that democracy is secondary!” But he can, and he did, and we need to understand why. 

Democracy is the foundation of Brown’s analysis. Her initial salvo on this point neatly suggests the conceptual clarity and rhetorical precision that typifies her book: 

Political equality is democracy’s foundation. Everything else is optional – from constitutions to personal liberty, from specific economic forms to specific political institutions. Political equality alone ensures that the composition and exercise of political power is authorized by the whole and accountable to the whole. When political equality is absent, whether from explicit political exclusions or privileges, from extreme social or economic disparities, or from the manipulation of the electoral system, political power will inevitably be exercised by and for a part, rather than the whole. The demos ceases to rule.

The importance of political equality to democracy is why Rousseau insisted that differences in power among a democratic people must “not be so great that they can be wielded as violence” and also that none may “be so rich that he can buy another and none so poor that he is compelled to sell himself.” Rousseau’s point was that more than a matter of injustice or suffering, systematization of group violence or destitution puts an end to democracy. 

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade. 

In Brown’s analysis, two distinct features of Hayek’s neoliberal theory pave the way to today’s populist authoritarianism: his attack on the concept of the social as such; and his desire to drastically curtail the reach of the state as much as possible. Through aggressively promoting these viewpoints, neoliberalism has substantially helped to foster a social and economic climate that Hayek himself would have despised, in which the government is largely captured by economic titans, rather than markets and government functioning independently and autonomously. 

Hayek directly opposes his conception of freedom to the very idea of the social. Any situation in which individuals are “compelled” by the state to act against their will (or “against their interests” as he put it) is eo ipso a curtailment of their liberty. The concept of the social gives rise to a kind of tyranny of the majority. In his view, the only free society is one in which individuals are bound only by the traditional moral codes to which they voluntarily adhere. 

Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice. 

Like libertarian economic theory, an account of freedom that focuses exclusively on the individual right to chose completely disregards the problem of externalities. That is to say, my freedom to dump toxic chemicals into the river curtails your freedom to grow crops and to live cancer-free. When people share resources or a physical environment, it is not so easy to disentangle where one peron’s zone of autonomy ends and another person’s begins. 

This obvious fact can only become obscured by a willful act of ideological repression, which, in the case of neoliberalism, occurs largely by automatically resisting any act of mediated social compromise as transgressive against liberty as such. In the light of a neoliberal theory, the need to mediate competing rights and claims in the spirit of compromise is simply excluded, and, as a consequence, the realm of the social is abandoned. Attempts to appeal to the interests of society appear to be nothing more than content-free complaints by “social justice warriors.” As Brown put it: 

If there is no such thing as society, but only individuals and families oriented by markets and morals, then there is no such thing as social power generating hierarchies, exclusion, and violence, let alone subjectivity at the site of class, gender, or race. Outside of a neoliberal frame, of course, the language of the social is what makes inequalities manifest; the domain of the social is where subjugations, abjections, and exclusions are lived, identified, protested, and potentially rectified.… As every serious student of inequality knows, the social is a vital domain of justice because it is where the potted histories and hierarchies of a particular region, nation, or civilization are reproduced. Appreciation of social powers is the only way to understand ‘taking a knee’ or the claim that black lives matter, the high suicide rates among queer teens, or women working more for less. Moreover, the social is what binds us in ways that exceed personal ties, market exchange, or abstract citizenship. It is where we, as individuals or a nation, practice or fail to practice justice, decency, civility, and care beyond the codes of market instrumentalism and familialism. And it is where political equality, essential to democracy, is made or unmade. 

If we want the social to exist as a meaningful framework for understanding and evaluating experience and action, we are now in a position in which we have to explicitly defend it as such. Welcome to our wonderful future. 

As with the social, Hayek repudiated the concept of the political as such. Grounding political legitimacy exclusively in a concept of individual freedom constrained solely by voluntarily-accepted traditional moral codes and free markets, Hayek distinguishes between “liberal democracy” and “social or totalitarian democracy” and regards the concept of popular sovereignty as a “ nonsense notion.” To “protect democracy against itself,” the powers of “so-called legislators” must be restrained, and the coercion of individuals by the state must be absolutely minimized. Indeed, Hayek identifies an inherent paradox in the notion of a liberal democracy, as liberalism is concerned with “‘limiting the coercive powers of all government’ while democracy limits government only according to majority opinion.” 

It may be hard to believe that the near-equation of any legislative act with totalitarian coercion has much traction in society at large, but Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom sold more than two million copies, and both Hayek and Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theories. 

Now we are at a point where we can begin to understand how an anti-regulatory and anti-government political theory such as neoliberalism can help explain the seemingly-contradictory co-occurrence of anti-government and authoritarian ideologies in contemporary right-wing movements. 

Above all, Hayek argues, democracy and liberalism have radically different opposites. Democracy’s opposite is authoritarianism, concentrated but not necessarily unlimited political power. Liberalism’s opposite is totalitarianism, complete control over every aspect of life. This makes authoritarianism compatible with a liberal society – freedom, traditional morals, a protected private sphere. And totalitarianism can be brought into being and administered by democratic majorities. 

Senator Lee’s opposition of “rank democracy” to “liberty” now makes more sense. We can also understand why so many appeals to shared values falls on deaf ears. The terms “freedom” and “liberty” mean substantially different things to different people, and the consensus on the essential nature of the American political system has fractured between the left and the right to a degree never seen since World War II. 

With a critique of the social and the political in hand, the neoliberal is in a position to argue that the sole legitimate spheres for deliberating and adjudicating values are the domains of the family and of the individual, and not in any kind of larger interpersonal domain, which has been rejected as such. This conception of values and their proper domain has increasingly become the basis for attacking laws or policies intended to redress inequalities or protect minorities. Such attempts are framed as an encroachment by the tyrannical majority into the private conscience of individuals, and are treated as an intolerable violation of the sanctity of moral, and, especially, of religious freedoms.

In one of the most disturbing sections of the book, Brown analyzes how this theory has been developed into a novel legal strategy which has been designed to advance a dangerous new legal framework, as seen in two cases that recently appeared before the Supreme Court: Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute of Family Life Advocates, DBA NIFLA, et al. v. Becerra, Attorney General of California

In the former case, a baker in Colorado claimed that a combination of his rights to free speech and his right to free exercise of religion excuse him from being compelled to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. 

In the latter case, a network of so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centers sued the state of California, which passed a law requiring such institutions to post notices stating that they are not medical centers, and to refer people to nearby free and low-cost reproductive medicine facilities. This law was passed in response to the fact that Pregnancy Crisis Centers, according to their own unambiguous claims, attempt to confuse pregnant woman into thinking they are neutral providers of health services, when they are in fact conservative Christian organizations that exist for the sole purpose of persuading women not to have abortions. 

Brown’s full analysis is essential reading, but the upshot is this – both cases were carefully designed by the claimants to provide the Supreme Court with an opportunity to affirm a novel reading of free speech and free exercise which would dramatically curtail the government’s ability to enforce a wide range of laws and regulations intended to protect vulnerable populations. As with Citizens United, the very concept of speech has been expansively redefined not just to include corporate political contributions, but the baking of cakes and the freedom not to post legally-mandated disclaimers. 

The cases are carefully formulated to invite this interpretation, and the conservative majority has shown itself more than willing to go along with this approach: 

Indeed, only through the artful conjoining of free speech and free exercise can one make sense of this otherwise bewildering summary of [Masterpiece Cake claimant] Phillips’s claim by the court: ‘requiring him to create a cake for a same-sex wedding would violate his right to free speech by compelling him to exercise his artistic talents to express a message with which he disagreed and would violate his right to the free exercise of religion.’ 

In this sentence, the sheer number of prepositions and verbs and lack of subordinate clauses makes it nearly impossible to specify the site of the violation. Where, precisely, is the action? Requiring the creation of a cake does not violate a right to free speech. Compelling exercise of artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees does not violate one’s First Amendment rights. (Commercial artists presumably do this all the time at the behest of their bosses or managers.) And creating a cake for a  wedding does not violate one’s free exercise of religion any more than being required, commercially, to exercise one’s artistic talents to express a message with which one disagrees. However, all of these phenomena pressed tougher – required creation of art expressing a message contrary to one’s religious beliefs – bolstered by the unmentioned right of commercial ownership, sets free exercise loose in the public and commercial sphere and generates the scene of its entitlement to discriminate, indeed, to abridge laws of equality. This is more than constitutional constructivism. This is the U. S. Supreme Court empowering a revolutionary antidemocratic force through a novel joining together of ownership, religion, and speech. 

In Masterpiece, the Supreme Court opted to rule narrowly, finding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission did not weigh the facts in a neutral and fashion. But in National Institute they took the bait, striking down a clearly-warranted public health and safety law on the grounds that requiring any disclaimer of any anti-abortion group whatsoever was tantamount to coercing compliance with one side of a matter of public controversy, as though a woman’s right to choose were not settled law and a guaranteed right, but merely a matter of disagreement. This is a terrifically ominous sign of things to come, and I think it’s likely the conservative super-majority on the Supreme Court is likely to reshape the American legal landscape to a degree that is currently difficult to imagine. 

In her final chapter, Brown leverages Nietzsche’s theory of ressentiment from his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and Macruse’s theory of repressive sublimation from his One-Dimensional Man to analyze the psychology of anger, resentment, and naked hatred motivating so much political discourse on the right. As this review has already gone long, I’ll mention only two key movements of this argument. In the first, Brown unpacks the relationship between resentment and a nihilistic crisis of values: 

It is significant that Trump himself identifies revenge as his sole philosophy of life: revenge and nothing else, revenge without end, because there is nothing else. Beyond efforts to destroy anyone who questions or opposes him, revenge saturates his so-called agenda and is also what satisfies the basest part of his base. It animates the drive to overturn every Obama-era achievement, of course, from climate accords to the Iran deal, but also to destroy what those policies aimed at protecting or preserving: the earth and its many species, the rights and protections of the vulnerable (LGBT, women, minorities), and the health of Americans secured through Obamacare. 

It is also significant that many Trump supporters, when interviewed about his lies, affairs, and flouting of truth or law, say ‘I don’t care. I’m tired of the disrespect his opponents have for him and for me.’ What kind of defense of your man is this? … In confessing that Trump embodies a retort to their pain, it explains why it does not matter what policies he pursues, only that he opposes those they hold responsible for their suffering. 

In describing the unique character of contemporary nihilism, Brown argues that the crisis of values that motivated so many philosophers and theorists in nineteenth-century Europe pales in comparison to the nihilism that haunts us today: 

Today … nihilism intensifies in a world that reflects humanity as having brought the species to the bring of destruction. ‘Man’ has not merely lost values or stable meaning, but is indicted by myriad powers generated, but not controlled by humans, powers that diminish, mock, reproach, and endanger us, not only devalue us. We appear not only without nobility and greatness, but without even the ability to provide for ourselves or clean up after ourselves. A species of giant toddlers, appetitive for power, pleasure, and play, we have yet to become responsible for our own creations, our history. 

There are no solutions suggested in this book, only an invitation to think and respond creatively and aggressively to the novel constellation of ideas that we oppose. 

As a final note, Brown does not do any of the hard work that would be required to extend this analysis beyond the borders of the United States. Despite her early assertion that her engagement with neoliberal theory is applicable to authoritarian movements around the world, she doesn’t spare a word for how it applies, say, to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or to Modi’s BJP. 

The closest she comes is a half-hearted attempts to generalize her arguments to ordoliberal theory in Germany, which, she argues, is analogous to neoliberal theory insofar as it mandates a political administration of technocratic experts who are not directly accountable to the public. Having lived in both in Germany and the United States, I found those arguments half-baked. I have little patience for her characterization of ordoliberalism as “a type of neoliberalism,” and the degree to which the actual operation of the government and the formation of policy must be directly representative is a question that she has not taken up on in this work. Certainly when it comes to democratic representation, the electoral system in Germany is far more representative than that of the United States. 

That said, as I have repeatedly urged, this short book contains many powerful ideas and is written with great clarity and force. I highly recommend it. 

* Brown has publicly invited the use of “she” or “they”. 

Written by Mesocosm

October 30, 2020 at 6:29 am

Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

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Over the last few years I’ve been reading a group of loosely-associated German conservative philosophers and theorists from the twentieth century – specifically Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and, most recently, the jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt. These authors share an interest in formulating a critique of the Enlightenment based on a sense of the limited capacity of analytical reason to account for the complete register of human experience, and an objection to the tendency for Enlightenment advocates to demonize the nonrational element of consciousness.

This is a critique that I share to a certain degree. In my view, rationalist thinkers share a tendency to pre-reflexively identify the rational with progress, science, social justice, and political freedom, while identifying the irrational with the historical past, religion and superstition, economic exploitation, and servitude or authoritarianism. To the degree that such a posture is pre-reflexive, many self-styled defenders of Enlightenment rationalism regard themselves as eo ipso rational, even when advancing plainly irrational, angry polemics at the targets of their ire. 

Where I have generally parted ways with some of these conservatives is in what I find to be three very serious liabilities: 1) a drive toward a metaphysical essentialism that places the source of its own authority beyond the reach of critical analysis as such; 2) a tendency to assert a monolithic political identity as the essence of the body politic, which usually segues into or takes pains to defend xenophobic nationalism based on an ahistorical concept of the people or Volk; and 3) a general poverty in providing a basis for the legitimate formation of policy other than by the fiat of a sovereign.

This is the context in which I read Carl Schmitt’s seminal essay The Concept of the Political. Initially written in 1927 as part of a sustained critique on liberalism and Weimar constitutionalism, this book remains a cornerstone of conservative and anti-constitutionalist political theory. Although barred from teaching by the Allies for his unrepentant defense of Nazi procedures, Schmitt continued to exert a substantial influence on conservative political thought until his death in 1985, and also motivated an energetic response by German liberal theorists whose arguments took shape in part as an answer to his stance. 

In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt purports to take up the task of defining the political and fixing its proper bounds – a task he accuses leftist theorists of ignoring, in favor of producing bungled analyses that confuse the political with the economic and the ethical.

In Schmitt’s view, to understand the political, we have to grasp its essence (Wesen). He discovers the essence of the political in a fundamental criterion he derives from the antithetical terms that describe its limits. Just as we delineate the aesthetic as the field concerned with the beautiful and the ugly, and delineate ethics as the domain concerned with the good and the evil, politics is delineated by the distinction between friend and enemy (Freund und Feind).

A system or action is political insofar as it pertains to the determination by a sovereign that another group threatens its way of life. Schmitt leaves this key term entirely unexamined, but generally speaking, it refers to the degree to which another body constitutes an existential threat. Once that determination of enmity has been made, the sovereign possesses the sole authority to require members of the polity to kill and risk death in war. No individual or social group is capable of making such an imperative on its own authority, and individuals have no authority to exempt themselves from their binding duty to comply, once such a determination has been made. Determinations of “friend and enemy” may be analyzed by ethical and pragmatic criteria, but such analyses are by definition outside the scope of the purely political. 

Schmitt’s metaphysical realism – his belief that the political has an actual essence that may be discovered and described – is one of the most visible signs of his heavy debt to Plato’s Republic; another being Schmitt’s agreement that the central duty of the polity consists in defense and attack. Readers of Republic will recall that Plato returned again and again to the watchman or guardian as the exemplar, paradigm, and embodiment of the state.

The manifold links Plato draws between essence, purity, goodness, simplicity, and self-givenness cohere in a normative determination of the character of the sovereign. This set of thematic associations was carried over wholesale by Schmitt. When I browse through Plato’s discussion of the guardian in Republic, I find a clear articulation of the core values that Schmitt affirms or embraces in his own approach. The ideal guardian is possessed of unity in thought and action, unclouded by distraction or plurality of character, and masculine and forceful in temperament. I note that Plato’s guardian is also sober and not given to “fits of laughter” – and is there a single moment of lightheartedness in Schmitt’s glowering corpus

One of my many fundamental differences with Schmitt is my rejection of the belief that a complex social phenomenon like “the political” derives from an essence, and that it must be delineated by simple criteria, or else it becomes intellectually muddied. This insistence on simplicity, directness, unity, actuality, and purity is clearly one of Schmitt’s primary intellectual commitment.

I will not the first to note there is a link between conservative theory and a drive toward epistemic closure, which I would gloss as an intolerance for uncertainty, complexity, heterogeneity, and dynamism. In my frame of reference, the imperative toward epistemic closure can find no theoretical basis, and merely reflects a psychological posture rather than a motivated conclusion. Complex social phenomena require complex, multifactorial, interdisciplinary descriptions, which often have a provisional rather than final character. To certain personalities, such accounts are intolerable. 

In my view, the drive to epistemic closure is developmentally immature and leads to theoretical confusion. In this I am in agreement with Jürgen Habermas, who characterized a such a posture as a mythological engagement with the world in The Theory of Communicative Action in the following way, based on Jean Piaget’s developmental theory:

If we assess cultural systems of interpretation from this [developmental] standpoint, we can see why mythical worldviews represent an instructive limit case. To the degree that the lifeworld of a social group is interpreted through a mythical worldview, the burden of interpretation is removed from the individual member, as well as the chance for him to bring about an agreement open to criticism. To the extent that the worldview remains sociocentric in Piaget’s sense, it does not permit differentiation between the world of existing states of affairs, valid norms and expressible subjective experiences. The linguistic worldview is reified as the world order and cannot be seen as an interpretive system open to criticism.

This exactly characterizes Schmitt’s approach, which systematically elides distinctions between his own normative determinations about the character of the state and his project of recovering the essence from the political, which is largely divorced from any empirical determination of the actual state of affairs. His normative judgments are interpreted as discoveries about the actual state of affairs, and people like myself, who believe that complex historical phenomena require complex explanations, are dismissed as obfuscationists. 

To illustrate the extent of Schmitt’s commitment to his essentialist procedure, I would note that, in his view, not only is a hypothetical enemy the basis for positing political bodies, but enemies must in fact actually exist, or there is no political sphere. He says, for example, “The political entity presupposes the real existence of an enemy and therefore coexistence with another political entity.”

The specific form of his argument deriving an essential definition of the political based on his dichotomous criterion reads to me like sophistry of a weak and archaic type, as unpersuasive to the uninitiated as a medieval proof of God’s existence. Such an argument does not convince, and does not seek to convince, but uses the form reason as a kind of ritualized affirmation for political determinations based solely on power. It is the philosophical equivalent of a show trial in a totalitarian state where the verdict has already been decided before the trial begins. The question of political legitimacy does not arise for Schmitt, other than as a sign of intellectual confusion. 

Schmitt focuses resolutely on the antagonistic character of politics, completely ignoring its cooperative character. Although he claims the political is based on the friend-enemy distinction, he focuses entirely on the enemy. I do not believe he even defines “friend” in this work.

This focus offers no account for the cooperative functions of the state, which are universally considered “political” functions. These include, for example, collective deliberation, the selection of executives and officers, legislation, common planning, and infrastructure management. 

“The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense,” Schmitt argues, “not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.”

“Mixed and weakened.” You don’t have to scratch very far under the surface to find a pervasive attitude of hostility to heterogeneity of every kind, and the distance between his theoretical complaints about heterogeneity and his openly antisemitic writings of the same period is not great. For Schmitt, the enemy is “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in extreme cases conflicts with him are possible.” Such characterizations are, of course, dehumanizing in precisely the way practitioners of genocide have always dehumanized their victims, though not always with such clarity and candor. Schmitt provides a general model validating such procedures.

It should also be noted that Schmitt’s motive for deriving a concept of the political from such a “first philosophy” of Platonic essences stems from his interest in justifying a theory of sovereign power that doesn’t rely on an underlying constitutional or legislative framework. In Schmitt’s view in this essay, political authority derives directly from the self-interest of communities in defending themselves against existential threats, and legal justifications for sovereign legitimacy are post facto. This became the theoretical basis for his attack on Weimar democracy.

From Schmitt’s essay:

[Thomas Hobbes] emphasized time and again that the sovereignty of law means only the sovereignty of men who draw up and administer this law. The rule of a higher order, according to Hobbes, is an empty phrase if it does not signify politically that certain men of this higher order rule over men of a lower order. The independence and completeness of political thought is here irrefutable. There always are concrete human groupings which fight other concrete human groupings in the name of justice, humanity, order, or peace. When being reproached for immortality and cynicism, the spectator of political phenomena can always recognize in such reproaches a political weapon used in actual combat.

Schmitt’s argument here is that the political does not exist in the abstract, but always arises on the basis of the interests of actual groups of people. In this view, a liberal viewpoint which sublimates political concerns into an abstract field of universal values divorces it from its own essence, and in so doing either neutralizes the political as such, or covertly transforms its own value-determinations into the political realm and wields it as a political weapon.

Of the conservative thinkers I have read in the last few years, Schmitt is by far the worst. I disagree with him on every level – philosophical, ethical, practical, formal, psychological, and empirical. He epitomizes what Nietzsche describes as the worst characteristics of German intellectual life – ponderous, metaphysical, impatient, hostile, totalizing in his rigid framework, and completely humorless. I haven’t disagreed with a work so completely since I read Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, which is not altogether dissimilar from Schmitt’s essay in spirit.  

Written by Mesocosm

October 15, 2018 at 12:45 am

Thoughts on the Romantics part 1: transcendental idealism, Buddhism, and Novalis

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schinkel

Schloß am Strom, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Over the last few months I’ve been making a study of the early German Romantics, and I’ve been impressed by the continued relevance of their arguments on aesthetics, their analysis of the relationship of the individual to the absolute, and their critique of the totalizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Some of the key figures I’ve focused on include the art critic Friedrich Schlegel, the poets Novalis and Hölderlin, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling.

As the scholar Manfred Frank has exhaustively chronicled, the early Romantics were extremely self-conscious of their status as the first creative generation to succeed the intellectual revolution inaugurated by Kant’s Critiques, and their subsequent elaboration by Fichte. The metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns of the Romantics were largely shaped by the problematic of transcendental idealism, especially the relationship of the knowing subject to the unknowable ultimate ground of experience.

As a Buddhist, it has been enormously useful for me to explore a development of transcendental idealism conducted by artists and intellectuals firmly ensconced within the European tradition of psychological maturation and individuation, which differs in key respects from traditional patterns in India, Tibet, China, and Japan, where the individual ego is generally not valued in itself. The European tradition represented by the Romantics places high value on the individual development of a unique and independent perspective as integral to the process of becoming a mature adult. They likewise place a deep value on creative art which my Tibetan teachers would not have understood. I was once told by a Geshe from Drepung Loseling that the only art that has value is iconic contemplative art – all other forms of art are merely ornamental, essentially toys for children.

I know that that is false, of course – great aesthetic experiences can provide insight and illumination of a high order. Some of the most profound experiences of my life have involved great works of art – I think of my first experience seeing Wagner’s Ring cycle, or seeing the Sistine Chapel, or reading Dante’s Commedia, or Finnegans Wake, or Hamlet. Aesthetic experiences can be a vehicle for the veridical intuition of deep truths about life and the nature of consciousness. 

It is illuminating to explore the work of thinkers who are deeply concerned with the transformative and enlightening qualities of great art, while sharing a philosophical perspective that in core respects closely resembles the Buddhist philosophy with which I otherwise feel so at home. I have argued before that there are pervasive and important similarities between Buddhism and Kantian transcendental idealism, and if anything this sense has only been increasingly borne out by my deeper study of Kant in the last several years. I would emphatically recommend reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to any serious student of Buddhism.

The early Romantics also sensed a deep kinship between their philosophical enterprise and some of the traditions of India. For example, in his “Speech on Mythology” in 1802, Schlegel wrote (my translation):

If only the treasures of the Orient were as accessible to us as those of the ancient [Greeks and Romans]! What new sources of poetry could flow to us from India if some German artists had the opportunity, with their universal scope and depth of sense, and with the genius of translation they possess. [Our] nation, which is becoming ever more dumb and brutal, scarcely comprehends the need. We must search in the Orient for the ultimate Romantic, and if we can draw from the source, perhaps the appearance of the southern glow, which so charms us in Spanish poetry, will again appear, only sparsely and in Western guise.

In this perspective, Schlegel followed Goethe, who praised the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa in 1792, and who would emulate the Sufi poet Hafiz in his West-East Divan in 1819. It is my belief that the “Prelude in the Theater” in Faust was modeled after the introduction of Kalidasa’s magnificent play Recognition of Shakuntala, which includes a similar introduction of the work that will follow to the audience by the director.

Transcendental idealism is ultimately focused on the limits of reason and experience, and accounting for how consciousness is made coherent by regularities which structure any possible experience, such as space, time, and causality. These are seen as necessary features of consciousness, but their ultimate relationship to reality itself, independent of how we experience it, is unknowable.

This problematic was exhaustively analyzed philosophically by Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and also inspired a creative response from poets like Novalis and Hölderlin, who developed it from a very different center of gravity in the human psyche. Having assimilated the implications of transcendental idealism through exhaustive study (see Manfred Frank’s Unendliche Annährung), the early Romantic poets worked through the relationship of individuals to the absolute – of the knowing subject to the ineffable transcendent ground of experience – with the metaphorical tools of poetry and myth.

For example, in his celebrated “Hymns to the Night” (here in German, here’s a dated English translation), Novalis employs this problematic as a framework for rendering his deeply personal experience of mourning the death of his young betrothed. He joins the image of the lonely consciousness in the inchoate night of the Absolute with the memory of keeping vigil at the lonely grave of his beloved all night. In both cases, subjective experience is like an isolated lighthouse in an infinite, dark, and silent sea (see the Caspar David Friedrich painting below). 

This poetic work harnesses the structure of transcendental idealism as a framework for giving modern expression to the age-old motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which has been a major feature of German literary culture at least since the time of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan in the early thirteenth century. The image of the falling night encompasses sleep, death, the unconscious, the undifferentiated sphere of the absolute, and transcendent union with the Beloved.

Here is my rendering of Novalis’ second Hymn:

Must morning always come again?
Will earth’s dominion never end?
Profane commerce consumes
The heavenly advent of night.
Will love’s secret sacrifice never
Burn eternal?
Light and waking’s time
was measured,
But night’s dominion is timeless,
The span of sleep eternal.
Holy sleep!
Do not too seldom bless
those in Earth’s acre
who consecrate the night.
Only fools mistake you,
Knowing no sleep
But the shadow
You compassionately cast upon us
In that dawn
Of true night.
They do not feel you
In the golden flood of grapes,
In the almond tree’s
Miraculous oil
And the poppy’s brown juice.
They do not know
It’s you
Who float about the maiden’s
Tender breast,
Making heaven of her bosom;
Do not sense
That out of old stories
You open heaven coming forth to meet us
And carry the key
To the chambers of the blessed,
Silent messenger of
Infinite secrets.

In my next post on this subject I’ll look more specifically at the aesthetic theory underlying the work of the Romantics, especially as it was expressed in Friedrich Schlegel’s “Speech on Mythology.” I’ll also have a look at how this theory has been interpreted by the modern theorist Karl Heinz Bohrer.

CDF

Zwei Männer am Meer, Caspar David Friedrich

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May 25, 2018 at 3:11 am

A brief response to Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

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I have a confession to make – I have never until quite recently read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. It’s an embarrassing admission for me – akin to a film buff admitting that they’ve never seen The Godfather, or worse. If you haven’t read it yourself and would like to, you can find it here in English and here in German.

Now that I’ve read it and spent some time analyzing it I can understand why it attracts so much discussion. It seems to me that much of the productive appeal of The Work of Art lies largely in its beguiling invitation to the reader to try to understand and resolve the hermeneutic fissures that cleave it. In my reading, Benjamin was averse to comprehensive systematization, and preferred to apply and juxtapose new analytical frameworks on problems of perennial interest, and in this work we encounter fault lines where he has applied dissimilar systems to his persisting interest in a certain kind of experience – to wit, a disclosure of what he characterized in his early writings on Romantic aesthetics as the immanent absolute. One of the primary tensions that drives The Work of Art is the contradiction between this mystical-existential modality and his burgeoning interest in Marxist ideology criticism.

In my reading, this work has two primary interpretive challenges. The first is understanding what he means by this statement in the introduction:

[T]heses about the art of the proletariat after its assumption of power or about the art of a classless society would have less bearing on these demands than theses about the developmental tendencies of art under present conditions of production. Their dialectic is no less noticeable in the superstructure than in the economy. It would therefore be wrong to underestimate the value of such theses as a weapon. They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism.

On the surface, Benjamin appears to associate the concepts of genius and creativity with fascism and warns against their “uncontrolled application,” suggesting that a social criticism of aesthetics prevents his analysis from being misappropriated by fascists. The meaning of this statement, to which he returns to in the epilog, remains largely unexplained, and is to me somewhat inexplicable.

The second interpretive dilemma pertains to what exactly he means by “aura,” which the work of art has hitherto possessed, but which now “decays” in the age of mechanical reproduction. For reasons of his own, he refrains from analyzing or explaining this core concept, and much ink has been spilled in trying to elucidate its meaning.

So what does he tell us about it, exactly? I read in secondary literature that Benjamin’s earliest extant discussion of the concept of aura is preserved in a notebook describing the influence of hashish. This makes a certain amount of sense.

In an earlier work on photography, he defines the aura as “A strange weave of space and time; the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close it may be.” In The Work of Art he distinguishes between the natural aura, repeating this definition, and the artificial aura, which primarily refers to the “uniqueness” of the work of art – the fact of its having only one historical actuality. In this sense, the loss of “aura” means nothing more than the fact that our traditional aesthetic categories, which have depended on the uniqueness of works of art, have been displaced by new considerations, and will have to be reevaluated.

I have argued at ponderous length with other readers of this text on this point, but it’s clear to me from how he uses the term “aura” that he means much more by it than historical singularity, and conceives the loss of aura as a phenomenon tied to a decline of certain kinds of existential experiences of profound value that he is deeply concerned with. The narrative he describes of the various ways that works of art have claimed autonomy and authority for themselves is one of movement from the cultic ritual value of art to the veneration of “art pour l’art” aesthetics to the logic of mass manipulation that he sees exemplified by film, which “shocks” and motivates the masses, and replaces the act of art criticism which he has elsewhere described as a kind of mystical or sacred office of truth-disclosure into a kind of mass-market “anyone with a blog can say anything these days” situation.

It’s my view that it is precisely by refraining from critically analyzing the aura, he posits it as an irreducible category of direct experience and a locus of value, thus insisting upon its givenness and non-rational character.

In another writing, Benjamin claims that regarding the loss of aura as “merely a symptom of decay” would be “fatuous,” which would seem to suggest he doesn’t see it as a kind of nostalgia for a more innocent time. But he left me with little doubt in his application of the term in this essay that this is how he uses it, whether or not it’s what it necessarily means.

I found his discussion of reproduction a little thin – for example, in his analysis of the cult he neglected what I would consider an important precursor to mechanical reproduction, and in so doing, misread the character of cult art substantially. Specifically, I would argue that the production of iconic art is a form of reproduction.

In this sense, iconic art refers to works of art that are valued not in terms of their unique content, but insofar as they duplicate established types. Anyone who has walked through a gallery of Italian Renaissance art and seen canvas after canvas depicting with formulaic fidelity the Annunciation or the Virgin Enthroned with Child will recognize that was is principally salient about many of these paintings is their expression of a sacred formula. This is a characteristic of most cult art, from the thangkas of Tibet, with their rigorously-determined proportions and attributes, to the cases of Cycladic Bronze Age goddess sculptures you can view in the Louvre, displaying dozens of nearly-identical design created over the span of centuries. I think it opens up the concept of reproduction to recognize that it occurs on many different planes.

 

May 2018 note: I substantially re-wrote this post after additional close readings of the essay and several useful discussions about it with a study group. 

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April 14, 2018 at 3:32 am

Posted in Art, Philosophy, Reviews

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason

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The question that practical reason asks us is, what ought I to do? In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers his analysis of how pure reason, which relies on no empirical input whatsoever, can help us answer that question.

As a follow up to Critique of Pure Reason, this book is a grave disappointment. Altogether abandoning the exacting critical standards he established in his earlier, better work, Kant argues on behalf of an ethical theory that I find intellectually flawed and personally repugnant. It is a morality of pious bureaucrats who distrust anything emotional (for Kant, feelings are “pathological”), contingent (i.e., “real” or “actual”), or human.

In brief, Kant argues that the proper standard for evaluating the moral merit of an action is twofold. First, the act must conform to a maxim of pure reason that is universally binding on all rational agents in all times and in all places (a “categorical imperative”). Such an imperative follows from pure reason, which can only deal with the form of argument, and not with particulars, which are by definition derived from empirical experience. Second, the act must be undertaken only and exactly because it is judged by a rational agent to follow from pure reason, not from any kind of desire or expectation about the outcome.

Kant’s argument suffers from several extremely serious problems.

First, Kant never establishes why maxims derived from pure reason are eo ipso laudable. It is not at all obvious to me that any action that is good for all people to do always is necessarily better than any action that is good for some people to do sometimes.

In his eagerness to eschew all sentiment and human response to ethical evaluation, he in fact does quite the opposite, and reveals again and again his own profound personal obedience to the idea of reason. That it should not also be equally valued by all never occurs to him.

Second, his theory demands that moral agents freely choose to comply with the directives of pure practical reason, but his theory establishing freewill is extremely weak. Readers of the Critique of Pure Reason may in fact remember that the question of determinism is one of his antimonies of pure reason, and is used in that book as an example of a pseudo-problem that philosophy can never either prove or disprove.

Third, his attempt to dodge that problem by arguing that freedom of the subject is a postulate of pure reason is completely unconvincing, and is a transparent attempt to circumvent the limits he himself persuasively established. He offers a whole series of additional postulates, offered as hypotheses that reason cannot do without, and all of them just happen to conform to the Pietist dogma he subscribes to.

In other words, these are postulates that he cannot do without, for reasons that have nothing to do with logic.

Fourth, he brazenly ignores his own dialectical analysis of virtue and happiness by positing them in this very work as an antimony, and then siding with the theory of virtue nonetheless. “Practical” in actual usage, here and throughout the work, consists primarily in ignoring the limits established by critical reason when they conflict with his deeply-held convictions.

Fifth, his conception of a categorical imperative is underdeveloped. In Critique of Pure Reason he famously derides philosophers who condescend to give examples, but I sure could have used a few here. I genuinely have no idea what he thinks a good example of a categorical imperative would be. “One ought to do the right thing”? “Always tell the truth”? “Never take what is not freely given”? “Be kind to your parents”? No idea.

Sixth, his theory substantially relies on the claim that the theory he describes conforms to what is usually meant by “morality.” That is far from true. Although impartiality and generality are common parts of what people generally mean by the term, they are at best necessary but not sufficient.

In addition to being philosophically problematic, I recoil from the ugly spirit of Kant’s vision, which reminds me of the very worst excesses of Calvin and Luther – the hushed awe before the altar of solemnity, grandeur, majesty, duty, obligation, and obedience, and moral terror at the idea that people somewhere may actually be enjoying themselves.

Kant is not the first great thinker to apply himself to the problem of practical reason. Thomas Aquinas, for example, also distinguished between speculative and practical reason, and elaborated his own theory of how people should act. For Aquinas, this answer is rooted in his concept of synderesis, an inner faculty of what we might today call “moral intuition,” which directly perceives the rightness or wrongness of a thing.

For all of Kant’s fetishization of reason, I actually find Aquinas’ approach more rational, and more honest, for he freely admits that his determinations are based in part on intuition, sentiment, and his belief in the truth of revelation. Kant relies just as much as Aquinas on these factors, but wrote this book to persuade us otherwise.

Update: From Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols (“Skirmishes,” 42): “The philosophers are merely another kind of saint, and their whole craft is such that they admit only certain truths – namely those for the sake of which their craft is according public sanction – in Kantian terms, truths of practical reason. They know what they must prove; in this they are practical. They recognize each other by their agreement about ‘the truths.’ ‘Thou shalt not lie’: in other words, beware, my dear philosopher, of telling the truth.”

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March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

Tsong Khapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path

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tsongkhapaIf I had to choose, the Tibetan polymath Tsong Khapa would probably constitute the single most important figure in shaping my worldview. That isn’t to say I agree with him on everything, or consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be a member of his Gelukpa order, but he does present the basic existential, ethical, and critical-phenomenological framework with which and against which I articulate my views of life. With him and against him I would play other key figures like Nagarjuna and Shantideva, Gendun Choephel and Gorampa, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Kant, and Habermas.

As a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Tsong Khapa believed that the end-goal of contemplation was to liberate oneself from the habitual patterns of thought that externalize and reify the conceptual distinctions and valuations that we make in order to provide a framework for understanding the world and surviving within it. An exaggerated sense of the objective validity of the conceptual schema we use to posit objects and events in the world is ultimately founded in what the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget considered to be the fundamental conceptual schema from which all others derive – our concept of the Self.

The psychologist George Kelly went so far as to say that the personality ultimately consists of nothing more than the habitual patterns of action and interpretation that we use to navigate the world. I think to some degree this accords with the Buddhist conception of samsara, which holds that the problem of suffering in the world results from our being unconsciously driven by our beliefs about ourselves and the world which are merely provisional, but which are instinctually taken as having objective validity.

Tsong Khapa in one short text of considerable interest posits that the Buddhist therapy of alleviating suffering rooted in such misconceptions is based on what he calls the three principal aspects of the path, which he identifies as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, with the latter specifically referring to the wisdom which directly grasps the degree to which the world we inhabit is largely a conceptual construction of our perceptual organs and the mechanisms of our consciousness.

These may be considered three aspects of one path because they are three articulations of the same underlying insight from three different reference points.

Tsong Khapa elsewhere defines renunciation as the definitive intention to emerge [from samsara]. I consider this the best definition of the Buddhist concept of renunciation that I’ve ever heard – it places emphasis on the relinquishment of the attachment to desirable things in the world that keeps us bound to our mental constructions and valuations. In this sense, renunciation is something rather distinct from the mere asceticism it is often confused for – it is not just a change in behavior or attitude, but a recognition of the actual state of affairs. Specifically, desirable things are only desirable because we desire them, not because of any intrinsic virtue that they possess. Likewise, ownership or possession exist solely through the force of convention, and there is no greater underlying reality to the fact of ownership than the degree to which we all act as though one person owns a thing. If we all stop saying it, we stop owning it.

Compassion is an analogous insight articulated with respect to our habitual tendency to value ourselves and our own experiences more than we value other people. In Tsong Khapa’s view, this posture results from the same underlying cognitive error. In his arresting analysis of compassion in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong Khapa writes:

[U]nderstand that self and other are mutually dependent such that when you are aware of self, you are aware of other; and when you are aware of other, you are aware of self. It is like being aware of near mountains and distant mountains, for example.

And:

Moreover, Shantideva’s Compendium of Training states:

By becoming accustomed to the equality of self and other,
The spirit of enlightenment becomes firm.
Self and other are interdependent.
Like this side and the other side of a river, they are false.

The far side and the near side of the river are not false in the sense that they cannot be systematically and meaningfully differentiated, they are false insofar as they are completely contingent on a judgment of the intellect based on its point of view. If you move to the other side of the river, the nature of the shore changes from “other side” to “this side.”

In that sense, the self does not exist inherently or independently, it exists in dependence upon how it is posited by consciousness. This is true of all things, according to Tsong Khapa – the present Dalai Lama has described interdependence as “Buddha’s slogan.”

That this determination of the dependent nature of existence may be extended to all things constitutes the reality of all phenomena is the third principal aspect of the path, or wisdom. In this technical sense, wisdom refers to the non-intrinsic identity of all phenomena, which ultimately depend on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and the way that they are designated by consciousness.

The final point, that phenomena depend on conceptual imputation for their existence, is subtle, and in my view it should not be misconstrued as a statement of idealism, such as George Berkeley would have made in holding that there is no substance or fabric of reality beyond their fact as mere appearances to consciousness. A close reading of Tsong Khapa and his sources reveals a view much closer to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who held not that things are mind-only, but that insofar as we can speak of their existence in anyway whatsoever, we can only speak or analyze them from the standpoint of some consciousness. Their status as things in themselves is unknowable and indeterminate, and attempts to characterize phenomenal appearances as if they exist in themselves ultimately leads to contradiction.

The point of all this is not abstract deliberation, but the existential realization that our own misconstrual of the world and our relationship to things is harmful and deceptive, and leads us to cause suffering for others and for ourselves. I think there are times of life when the radiant nature of things shines through and we can have a direct perception

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February 21, 2018 at 2:46 am

What is inhuman?

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This morning I’m reading Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” and wonder if what I love most about the poem is precisely what Weil loves least – its unflinching recognition and affirmation of the simple truth that much within humanity’s heart is not itself, human. To the moralist and idealist, this is an insufferable torment; to me, it is the beginning of redemption.

Weil evokes lines from the final book of the Iliad:

No one saw Priam enter. He stopped,
Clasped the knees of Achilles, kissed his hands,
Those terrible man-killing hands that slaughtered so many of his sons.

And for a moment at least, re-reading these lines, I think that Homer is even greater than Shakespeare, and I love him for giving us an image of human beings reduced to their essence by the uttermost extremity of conflict, yet neither is evil.

Such a view holds them, and us, in acceptance, and does not require us to purge ourselves of inhumanity, and to become, thereby, inhuman.

Her essay: http://biblio3.url.edu.gt/SinParedes/08/Weil-Poem-LM.pdf

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September 15, 2015 at 6:55 am

Posted in Philosophy

Nietzsche laughs at those who look to the skies and find but themselves, but not without kindliness

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Flipping idly through Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, I came across the following:

Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves or their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, include the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good or me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such presuppositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged – as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became norms according to which ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ were determined – down to the most regions of logic.

Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seemed to be at odds there was never any real fight, but denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who nevertheless posited and clung to the opposites of the natural errors, believed that it was possible to live in accordance with these opposites: they invented the sage as the man who was unchangeable and impersonal, the man of the universality of the intuition who was One and All at the same time, with a special capacity for the inverted knowledge: they had the faith that their knowledge was also the principles of life. But in order to claim all of this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had to attribute to themselves, fictitiously, impersonality and changeless duration; they had to misapprehend the nature of the knower; they had to deny the role of the impulses in knowledge; and quite generally they had to conceive of reason s a completely free and spontaneous activity. They shut their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions through opposition to common sense, or owing to a desire for tranquility, for sole possession, or for dominion. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism eventually made these people, too, impossible; their way of living and judging were seen to be also dependent upon the primeval impulses and basic errors of all sentient existence. (section 110, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

The Gay Science is probably my favorite of Nietzsche’s books – it has a more developed and mature insight than his earlier works, while retaining a lightness of tone and lacking the ponderous quality that increasingly dominates his later works.

Here we find a potent formulation of an insight that is, to my mind, one of his most important contributions to the history of philosophy – namely, that philosophers and sages, too, speak and act from self-interested positions, and very often what we find in their timeless systems is a projection of their own priorities and values onto the fabric of the cosmos itself. There is no impersonal philosophy.

And as one hand writes cherished conclusions in the Book of Nature, the other hand simultaneously erases all memory of having done so. Thus the sage usually discovers in the world what they most value within themselves. As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna memorably put it, “You are like a person who, riding a horse, forgets that very horse.”

Let us be forewarned, and proceed with caution, where the sage claims to have found the great truth, or to have brought themselves into identity or alignment with it, be they philosopher, scientist, doctor, or priest, of the East or of the West. They may have simply found themselves, and forgotten where they had looked.

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May 24, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Philosophy

Truth and Beauty

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"Girl with a Mandolin", Pablo Picasso

“Girl with a Mandolin”, Pablo Picasso

From Thomas Mann’s “On Schopenhauer,” translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter:

“The pleasure we take in a metaphysical system, the gratification purveyed by the intellectual organization of the world into a closely reasoned, complete, and balanced structure of thought, is always of a pre-eminently aesthetic kind. It flows from the same source as the joy, the highest and ever happy satisfaction we get from art, with its power to shape and order its material, to sort out life’s manifold confusions so as to give us a clear and general view.

“Truth and beauty must always be referred the one to the other. Each by itself, without the support given by the other, remains a very fluctuating value. Beauty that has not truth on its side and cannot have reference to it, does not live in it and through it, would be an empty chimera — and ‘What is truth?’ Our conceptions, created out of the phenomenal world, out of a highly conditioned point of view, are, as a critical and discriminating philosophy admits, applicable in an immanent, not in a transcendent sense.”

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February 15, 2015 at 9:26 am

Posted in Philosophy