Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022).

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Preface and Chapter 1: Spontaneity and Inertia.

Harry Frankfurt: “It is far from easy to explicate the difference between being active and being passive, and in fact philosophers have for some time generally neglected the task.” (“Identification and Externality,” in The Importance of What We Care About.) But Pinkard is taking it on with the help not only of Sartre but also that of Marx, Hegel, and Heidegger, whose thought Pinkard argues is essential to the concept of practical action presented in the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

Sartre’s motive in writing the Critique has typically been regarded as political, but Pinkard is interested in the more purely philosophical problems that Sartre felt the need to confront. Unsurprisingly, Hegel and Marx loomed large, but so did the later Heidegger, and they all led Sartre to “rethink … the positions he had staked out early in his career … on meaning and practice” (xi.) More specifically, he was led to move from the standpoint of individual self-conscious subjectivity to that of “a kind of mutual self-relation of agents,” corresponding to Hegel’s transition in the Phenomenology from self-consciousness to spirit, i.e. “the I that is a We, and the We that is an I” (xiv-xv.) This required Sartre to overcome the “dualism between the active and the passive” so as to conceive action otherwise than in terms of “which part produced the other part, or where the ‘meaning’ came from” (xv).

Sartre’s aim in Critique of Dialectical Reason was not only to articulate and overcome the difference between being active (“spontaneity”) and being passive (“inertia”) but also, and relatedly, to establish the concept of a reflexive agent with the ability to take the initiative and innovate – a being in possession of what Hannah Arendt called the faculty of “natality.” Such an agent is understood to be “self-moving” (as opposed to the “inert,” or nature),  “attuned” to a background context, and “embodied,” hence subject to needs for natural or external goods. Continue reading

On John Cage’s 4’33”

We naturally ask what was Cage’s intention, and a plausible answer is that he is drawing our attention to music – its nature and value – by denying us music. We are led to listen to the non-musical sounds in the environment with the kind of attention we normally reserve for music and to reflect on what we’re missing. The work is an opportunity to consider what we want from music.

One thing we want, typically, is to hear sounds that a composer has determined will reward our attention. Perhaps we imagine a kind of contract between us and the composer: we give the composer our time (and money), and she gives us enjoyment. In return for complete control over what we hear for the duration, we receive a meaningful expression. 4′33″ defeats these expectations – neither Cage nor the performer has any control over what we hear – and in that way makes them available for inspection. Is this “contract” the best way to imagine the relationship between composer and listener? Cage certainly didn’t think so.

According to Cage himself, 4′33″ dramatizes the distinction between traditional and modern music. He says that modern music “accepts” sounds that, when heard during the performance of traditional music, “interrupt” it. Because it consists only of such sounds, 4′33″ affords an opportunity to reflect on how our perceptions are shaped by our expectations. When we are listening to a Beethoven piano sonata, a cough is perceived as noise. When we are listening to what Cage regards as a modern performance, and certainly when we are listening to 4′33″, it is perceived as sound.

For Cage’s comments on traditional and modern music, see Conversing with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz.

Assessing Nietzsche

Nietzsche staked his reputation on the future. He believed that a great cultural upheaval was imminent and that his thought provided the resources required to make the best of it.

In some ways Nietzsche’s expectations for the future of Western civilization were borne out by the twentieth century. He said that Christian belief would decline; it did. He predicted newly destructive wars driven by ideological conflict; they came to pass. He hoped for creative geniuses who would free themselves from Christian morality and other forms of the “ascetic ideal” and create great works of art that would celebrate “this world” rather than the metaphysical “other worlds.” Here too, in my opinion, the last century did not disappoint. It would be silly to try to list the artistic accomplishments of the last 120 years. But in literature, names such as T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, and Wallace Stevens come to mind. In music, it’s difficult to imagine a more Dionysian composition than Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), not to mention composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. With the exception of Eliot, their works were not notably shaped by Christian morality; in fact many were inspired or influenced by Nietzsche himself. An assessment would also have to take into account the achievements of film, an art form that didn’t even exist in Nietzsche’s time.

In moral theory virtually no one working in the field relies on religious assumptions; academic moral philosophy, at least, is emphatically post-theological. It is true that most contemporary philosophers uphold the universality and objectivity of our moral obligations to one another, and Nietzsche wouldn’t approve of that. On the other hand, during the last decades of the twentieth century many philosophers (e.g. Bernard Williams and Susan Wolf) argued for a more “relaxed” understanding of the place of morality in human life, as one among other legitimate goods. Again, the influence of Nietzsche himself is at work here. In the wider moral culture, the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s was just one expression of the emergence of a more tolerant and pluralistic atmosphere than the Victorian morality that Nietzsche found so destructive. Continue reading

On the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971).

At the end of the film, Alex has agreed to publicly support the ruling party in exchange for a cushy job. Listening to Beethoven and reflecting on his good fortune, he thinks: “I was cured all right.”

The Ludovico Technique had cured Alex’s love of violence, but from his point of view the cure was worse than the disease: he thought it would get him released from prison and that he would resume his old way of life, but it left him powerless and suicidal. During the period of unconsciousness after his suicide attempt, however, brain surgeons “deconditioned” him so that hearing Beethoven’s Ninth no longer caused him to be violently ill.

That’s part of the irony of Alex’s final statement: he has been cured of the cure. But the irony is more complex, because we also see what Alex is imagining as he makes that statement. Continue reading

Michael Oakeshott on Conversation

The word “conversation” combines the Latin con- or com- meaning “with, together” with versare or vertere meaning “to turn, bend” to form conversation, meaning literally “to turn together” or cooperate and more specifically “to live, dwell with, keep company with,” and from the 14th century “general course of actions or habits, way of conducting oneself in the world.” In the mid-16th century, the English conversation is used to mean “informal exchange of thoughts and sentiments by spoken words,” but Cicero already used conversatio to indicate private conversation among friends as opposed to public oratory. Oratory was formal and rule-governed whereas conversation obeyed conventions of politeness but not strict rules. Conversation was important in ancient Athens and Rome and was revived by Renaissance humanism because the ability to speak well with anyone was a mark of worldliness and sophistication. Politely exploring differences such that the conversation itself was more important than any of its participants was a model for moderate political life as the alternative to revolution and anarchy. This idea was central to civic humanism and civic republicanism.

Michael Oakeshott’s view of conversation is in line with this tradition. (See his “The Place of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”) Conversation, he says, is what “distinguishes the civilized man from the barbarian.” The barbarian promotes his point of view and only his point of view, which is narrowly practical and concerned with survival and power. The civilized person is interested in the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival and other purely practical matters. He or she also understands that the search for good things shouldn’t depend on radically changing our conditions of existence. Carried too far, that would force one to live exclusively for the future and make it impossible to enjoy the present. A civilized person, Oakeshott says, “[a]ccepts the unavoidable conditions of life and makes the best of them.” One way of making the best of them is learning from one another about the good things life has to offer beyond mere survival. Conversation is the form this takes.

The qualities of conversation and the virtues of the conversationalist flow from its purpose. You mustn’t be exclusively or overly concerned with practical matters, and in particular you mustn’t insist that your personal practical concerns dominate the conversation (these are sure signs of barbarism). A conversation is personal: the words spoken are those of a speaker who takes personal responsibility for them and what they imply. The partners to a conversation must trust and respect one another (or at least act as if they do). They approach a theme in a variety of ways, informally trying out illustrations and hypotheses. They have no expectation that they will fully express themselves and come to a complete understanding of the topic or of one another, much less agree with one another. They don’t expect others to endorse their views and are prepared to fail to persuade, but they must also be willing to change their minds when it is reasonable to do so. Continue reading

How does Marx’s analysis of alienation respond to Hegel’s account of self consciousness?

Imagine a community that is characterized by what I’ll call “at-home-ness.” For people who are at home in their community, there are ways of doing things that are appropriate, fitting, and right. There are things one doesn’t do under certain circumstances, and things one does.

There’s usually no need to formulate these attitudes as explicit rules because one picks them up as one learns one’s way around the world in passing from childhood to adulthood. So in doing what’s done, one doesn’t see oneself as being constrained, exactly. One identifies with the way things are meant to be done so thoroughly that in doing them one is merely being oneself. In a world of this kind, one has no sense that something is good because it is regarded as good; rather, we regard some things as good because they are good and therefore deserve and require our regard.

When I moved to Paris in the 1980s, I was surprised to be told that there was only one way to slice a zucchini (namely, using the Julienne cut). I mean this literally. It wasn’t that there was my understanding of how to slice a zucchini and another, French understanding; there was simply the way it is to be done, which one either understood or did not.

That is at-home-ness. (If you consider that another way to characterize it might be “provinciality,” you can begin to get an idea of the limits of being at home in the world and the attractions of alienation.)

In a community of people who are at home in their world, the individual identifies with the way of life of the community – its practices, its attitudes, its values. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in such a community is enthusiastically in step with everyone else at all times. An individual’s willingness to do what’s fitting and proper may rise and fall dramatically. But the extent to which you personally want to do what’s proper for you to do has no authority for you; it’s no part of who you really are.

The community I’ve described is a non-alienated community. It’s characterized, in Hegel’s terms, as sittlich – an “ethical” community or, to put it another way, a community unified by an ethos. It’s the way the ancients lived, on his account, at least for a while. Continue reading

What is the banality of evil?

Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the banality of evil is widely misunderstood. I’m not sure I fully grasp it, but here’s my take.

It isn’t that what Eichmann did wasn’t evil; it was. But it was a new form of evil that didn’t quite fit our traditional moral and legal concepts.

And it isn’t that Eichmann wasn’t driven by ideology; he was. He was deeply invested in the Nazi movement, from which he derived the very meaning of his life. Contributing to the movement, carrying out his assigned tasks, playing an important role in something larger than himself, something that demanded great personal sacrifice – all of that was the basis of Eichmann’s identity. He was as fanatical as they come. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 5.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Ethics in Politics: Rules, Groups, and Functionalist Ethics.

A fully formed or fused group is a “statutory” group, formally deduced to articulated ends and binding its members to statuses that are functional for the group in terms of its ends. The ethics of such a group are expressed as the norms required to ensure its continued functioning, and the norms are expressed in the practices followed by the members of the group. The practices, however, “require the actors to do more than merely follow the rules” (58). The actors must fulfill the function assigned by the practice, but he or she has leeway as to how the function is fulfilled. The “feints, passes, and such [of a football player] are themselves not part of the rules, nor is the decision to take the shot rather than passing the ball to a teammate something that follows from the rules” (58). In Sartre’s words, “The action is irreducible: one cannot comprehend it unless one knows the rules of the game, but it can never be reduced to these rules” (58).

A perhaps more striking model is that of a “great actor” who brings his or her unique personal style to traditional roles, making them the actor’s own. The phenomenon suggests Richard Wollheim’s distinction between generic style and individual style. A generic style is like the style of New York City as opposed to Los Angeles, or Victorian as opposed to Modern architecture. An individual style is a pattern of features possessed by a unique personality, such that they are exhibited in all the different contexts and roles the individual occupies. A certain kind of actor – Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Seymour Philip Hoffmann – is immediately identifiable no matter what role he or she is playing. Although one cannot comprehend a great actor’s performance unless one knows the conventions of dramatic performance, the performance is not reducible to those conventions. The same can be said for the roles assigned by social practices, at least to the extent that the agent frees itself from the practico-inert. Social agents exhibit “in their individual ways the practice that shows itself through them, and they are in turn transforming, however slightly, the practice itself” (59). Continue reading

What would Hegel think about hyperrealism as an art form?

The short answer is that Hegel would find hyperrealism too conceptual, too ironic, and too grotesque to convey the truth about the wholeness and unity of human life. A longer answer follows.

There are various ways to unify and reconcile what seems contrary, contradictory, or out of place. Unification takes place in philosophy, which understands the process as an act of thought. It takes place in religion, where unification is accomplished by the universal love of God. And it takes place as art, which exhibits unity in the form of sensuous objects produced by creative activity. The ideal work exhibits beauty, and its ultimate expression is the individual human being in his or her integrity, agency, and self-confidence.

This is best seen in classical art.

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Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 4.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Actualized Freedom’s Fragility in the Myths of Self-Authorization.

Freedom, more specifically “fully actualized freedom,” is spontaneity – acting on new reasons – that has been “unhooked from exigency,” i.e. recurrent and habitual patterns of action. This happens when subjects are directly related to one another, so that what it makes sense to do or what one has reason to do is not shaped by their relations with “inert objects” (39). Subjects directly related to one another can, as a group, authorize their own actions because each recognizes all others and each is recognized by all.

Once such a group has formed it has a reason for maintaining itself, namely to maintain the freedom of self-authorization (and equality) as an “indeterminate good” (48). Self-authorization is “fragile,” however, because, being paradoxical and to that extent logically impossible, it is something of a myth (45, 47). Pinkard refers to the “paradox of democracy” (or autonomy):

the idea that a people authorizing itself, for example, to write a constitution cannot actually describe itself as an authoritative people capable of such an act until after “they” have written the constitution that creates and authorizes them as a people to do just that. (The United States Constitution, with its famous preamble beginning “We, the people …” is one of the paradigm cases.) (49.)

As an aside, I don’t see how the U.S. Constitution is paradoxical in this sense, for the people of the United States certainly existed, and were lawfully represented, when the Constitution of 1789 was being written, debated, and ratified. The United States of America was created in 1777 by the Articles of Confederation, which was an agreement among colonies or states that regarded themselves as sovereign to enter into a “Confederation and perpetual Union” of that name. Subsequently, it made sense to speak of the people of the United States, but strictly speaking the United States created by the Articles was not and did not claim to be the act of the people of the United States. The Articles do refer to “America” and could be said to allude to the American people, as the Declaration of Independence speaks for “one people” as opposed to another, but that’s not the same thing. Continue reading

Reading Terry Pinkard’s “Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre’s Appropriation of Hegel and Marx” (2022), part 3.

What follows is less than a book review and more than a book report – I hope. My plan is to convey a first impression, chapter-by-chapter, every week or so.

Practical Identities, Singular and General: Differing Conceptions of “We.”

Spontaneous action, individual or common, has a tragic dimension. Sophocles’ Oedipus is the archetype: although he did not intend to kill his father, marry his mother, and bring the plague upon Thebes, that that is what he turned out to be is as horrifying to him as to anyone, and he accepts blame for the pollution he has caused. As Pinkard observes, “[i]t is not merely the thought that things turn out differently than we might have thought, but the realization that this different outcome turned out to be included in our ends after all and that we ourselves were responsible for these unanticipated results” (33). Although the case of Oedipus is singular, Sartre ascribes the consciousness of “who we turned out to be” to collective action as well.

Collective action may take one of several forms. One is a kind of “togetherness,” which characterizes a group of individuals who share an aim, who understand one another as sharing an aim, but are somehow not engaged with one another in sharing that aim (they are “without any real sharing of the aim” [my emphasis]” (35). A real aim, I take it, would be a reason for action that reaches beyond the “inert” purpose that in fact unites them. Sartre’s term for this is “seriality.” Being one of a series seems to mean being aware that one counts as a member of a set – and no more than that. Thus, the individuals on the corner of 34th and Vine count as members of the set of people waiting for a certain bus, but they perceive no reasons for action, no potential for spontaneity, beyond what they have done often in the past and expect to do often in the future. Given their equivalence as mere members of a set, counting as such owing to a single easily-acquired property, no individual is necessary to the group and each is dispensable or “superfluous.”

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