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

Stop Making Sense: The Tedium of Morality

In Beyond Good and Evil §228 Nietzsche says: “I hope to be forgiven for discovering that all moral philosophy hitherto has been tedious.” What’s so boring about moral philosophy?

For Nietzsche, the fundamental assumption underlying the moral tradition (and the Western philosophical tradition as a whole) is the idea that things ought to make sense. Nietzsche denies this premise. For Nietzsche, the deep truth about the human condition is that, at bottom, it’s senseless and without meaning. This is something, he thinks, we learn not from philosophy but rather from art – above all from ancient Greek tragedy, precisely what Plato, the father of philosophy, abhorred.

Any philosophical doctrine that fails to face up to the deep senselessness of the human condition, Nietzsche thinks, is doomed to superficiality. The moral philosopher is convinced that there are universal principles that ought to guide human conduct, that we can rely on our ability to reason impartially to work out what these are, that we can choose to act in accordance with them, that if everyone does so things should go well for us, and that, as reasonable beings, we should all want things to go well.

This, Nietzsche believes, is a banal view of the human condition, and it’s the moral philosopher’s banality that makes him or her boring. Stories about impartial do-gooders who see one another as equals and treat everyone fairly are sleep-inducing. Far more interesting are stories about people as they are – conflicted, partial, egoistic, ambivalent, given to misunderstandings, and, so far as morality is concerned, as Kenneth Burke put it, “rotten with perfection.”

Why do you think Jordan Peterson is wrong about postmodernism and what’s your alternative perspective?

The link below is to an article that represents the sum total of my knowledge of Jordan Peterson’s view of postmodernism. Everything I have to say about his criticisms of postmodernism is a response to these comments.

Postmodernism: definition and critique (with a few comments on its relationship with Marxism)

Jordan Peterson isn’t exactly wrong about postmodernism, but his account of it is oversimplified and exaggerated.

The version of postmodernism that Peterson has in his sights is what’s sometimes called “social constructivism.” As he presents it, the postmodern thesis is that there is an infinite number of ways the world can be perceived and interpreted, and all of them are equally valid (or invalid).

The idea, although Peterson doesn’t put it this way, is that when it comes to knowledge of what the world is like there is no fact of the matter. Instead, what counts as a fact is determined as such by an interpretation of the world. An implication is that something can be a fact for persons who share one interpretation of the world, and the opposite can be a fact for persons who share a different interpretation of the world.

For example, in the middle ages it was true that witches floated when thrown into the water. Nowadays, it’s true there is no such thing as witchcraft. For postmodernism, there’s no question of fact; these are merely two different interpretations.

According to Peterson’s version of postmodernism, when people argue that one interpretation is better than another, they are engaged in a struggle for power. Different interpretations benefit different groups because what count as facts relative to them will give an advantage to one group over another.

Peterson’s main criticism seems to be that, contrary to postmodernism, interpretations are not all equally valid. However, he doesn’t argue that some interpretations account for the facts better than others – at least not explicitly. Invoking Peirce and James, he says that a valid interpretation is one that achieves a “desired outcome.”

This is where he begins to go wrong. Continue reading

Søren Kierkegaard and Hubert Dreyfus on Social Media

Back in 1997, UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus offered a diagnosis of the World Wide Web that, in retrospect, predicted with virtually 100 percent accuracy our socially networked democracy’s current predicament. Remarkably, he did this by applying to the Web as it was then an analysis of “the Press” and “the Public” worked out by Søren Kierkegaard in 1846. (See Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.)

Like so many of his colleagues and friends, I was interested in what Bert had to say about anything, and heard him present these views at the time. They eventually appeared in 2001 his On the Internet, which was revised and expanded in 2007 – still too early to understand the impact of social media. Although the book was well-reviewed, it didn’t (so far as I knew) elicit a sustained response, and as the years went by Bert’s reworking of Kierkegaard’s analysis slipped my mind. Recently, though, almost by accident, I ran into the transcript of a lecture he gave on the topic.

Kierkegaard, Bert began, was skeptical of what political philosophers and theorists of democracy call the public sphere. The public “took an interest in everything but were not committed to anything. [Kierkegaard] attributed this growing cultivation of curiosity and the consequent failure to distinguish the important from the trivial to the Press. Its new massive distribution of desituated information, he held, was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing an anonymous, detached spectator.” Continue reading

Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading

Patriotism and Creedal America

Sharing a national creed is supposed to enable Americans to avoid the European nation-state model of national identity. In that model, a state is the state of a people, and peoples are defined by a shared territory, religion, language, and ethnicity. A creed, on the other hand, is potentially universal. If what’s required for citizenship is endorsing a creed, then one can belong to any nation or no nation and still be a good citizen.

But if creed is criterial for belonging, it would seem to follow that those who don’t endorse the creed don’t belong.

On the European model, the idea that your nationality would depend on your beliefs is out of place. I don’t believe it has ever occurred to my English wife to worry about the “Englishness” of her beliefs or those of others. In creedal America, things are different. If the creed includes respect for property, does that mean American socialists are somehow un-American? If the creed is egalitarian, are libertarians less than full citizens?

The situation is complicated by the fact that a substantial number of Americans do not regard the country as a creedal polity. One aspect of current partisan hate has to do with changes in what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican. It’s no longer just a matter of left versus right. Now, each party represents a different concept of American national identity. Roughly speaking, these two are in play:

Creedal nationalism, or the cosmopolitan, civic state: American citizenship is based on endorsing a family of principles expressed in the founding documents.

Ethno-nationalism, or the nation-state: Americans are a people based on territorial, religious, racial, linguistic, and cultural commonalities.

What to do? Continue reading

Why do Americans on the left and right hate each other so much?

It’s largely because people increasingly derive their personal identity from their membership in a group, and that makes it much easier to fear and hate members of other groups. There’s more to it, of course, but political identity – whether one is a Democrat or Republican – has become a far more important aspect of personal identity than it once was. And when people see one another as members of groups rather than as individual moral agents, there’s going to be trouble.

If your identity is derived from group membership, and especially if you have no other identity, it is much easier to hate members of other groups than if you regard yourself and others first and foremost as individual moral agents.

If you see others as nothing but representatives of groups, moral considerations based on individual worth are easy to ignore. Members of a group will be held responsible for the injustices you attribute to their group, and the respect you’re required to show members of your group can be denied to members of other groups.

Relatedly, you can hate people, not because they personally are hurting you or your group, but because they belong to a group that is hurting you or your group. Continue reading

The Futures of Political Philosophy

An undergraduate lecture.

What is the status of the tradition of political philosophy? How do we stand in relation to it? What authority does it have for us? Is it a living tradition, or only an object of scholarly inquiry? What can it offer us as we try to make sense of the challenges we face today?

In a narrow sense a tradition is a literature: a canon of texts that have passed the test of time. In a wider sense, a tradition is a network of broadly shared beliefs, values, and dispositions – a common language by means of which we communicate to one another our individual perspectives on the events taking place in the world we share.

In the narrow sense, the tradition includes Locke’s argument in the Second Treatise of Government that there’s no unambiguous biological feature that confers a right to rule on those who possess it and denies that right to those who don’t. In the wider sense, the tradition is what makes it possible for someone who expresses an opinion premised on Locke’s argument to expect a hearing, because Locke’s premise is widely regarded as material to political debate. For example, the argument that the mere fact of being female doesn’t justify preventing women from practicing certain professions can’t be dismissed out of hand, because everyone understands the form of the argument, namely its reliance on the premise that no arbitrary biological feature can be the basis for the distribution of rights.

A tradition is selective, emphasizing continuity and de-emphasizing discontinuity by presenting innovations as extensions, reinterpretations, or criticisms of its core themes and commitments. A tradition is evaluative, singling out what is important to remember and passing over what is not exemplary or illustrative. A tradition is relevant and useful, implicitly claiming that the knowledge it preserves and transmits is essential to understanding issues and events in the contemporary world. A tradition includes interpretations of itself, narratives that articulate the meaning, structure, development, and application of the tradition. Finally, a tradition is, or can be, authoritative. Continue reading

Distancing Masking Sheltering by Martin Heidegger

In what follows we shall try to think about quarantine and Covid-19. This thinking does not presume to offer medical advice, still less to pronounce on the strife between freedom and social distancing. This venture in thought does not view the quarantine as a mere means to slow the spread of the virus; rather it seeks to understand the unconcealing of quarantining from out of the virusing of the Virus. We ask:

What is it to quarantine?

How does Covid-19 belong to quarantining? Continue reading

What are the pros and cons of John Locke’s political philosophy?

Pro: The principle of consent provides a universal standard for evaluating the legitimacy of political regimes.

Contra: The theory of property doesn’t make much sense.

The idea that government should be based on the consent of the governed stems from the idea that human beings are free. Because freedom is foundational, freely given consent is the only thing that could legitimize political rule. That we are free, and have rights, are natural facts about human beings, not statuses conferred by governments or societies. Even governments that do not acknowledge human rights, therefore, can be criticized for their refusal to do so.

The principle of consent says that someone may do something to you only if they have your permission to do so. Express consent is freely, knowingly, openly, and explicitly given. But most people have not expressly consented to their government, from which it would appear to follow that no government is legitimate. Locke’s solution to this problem is his doctrine of tacit consent: merely by living in a society, he says, people are implicitly or tacitly consenting to its laws.

This might be taken to imply that “consent” means something like “not unwilling.” Is that robust enough for something as important as political legitimacy? If I visit Cuba, I am presumably not unwilling to obey its laws. Does that mean I regard Communism as a legitimate form of government? Continue reading