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

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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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

What Did Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Disagree About?

I had an opportunity a while back, in the course of answering a Quora question, to revisit the legendary Foucault-Chomsky debate.

Their fundamental disagreement stemmed from the fact that at the time of the debate Foucault was something between a moral relativist and a nihilist, whereas Chomsky was (and is) a moral realist. The question is: What motivated Foucault to adopt such an extreme and untenable position? I don’t believe he would have expressed such nihilistic views in the last several years leading up to his death.

I’ll have something to say about motivation towards the end of the post.

Much of what Foucault says in the debate could be taken as a defense of moral relativism, which of course is a perfectly respectable position. The moral relativist believes that moral principles are relative to some group, such as a society or a class. In some past societies,  apparently, it was true and right that a widow should be burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, but in other societies it was true and right that this should not be done. There are no universal or objective moral principles such that it could be true to say of everyone, everywhere that widows shouldn’t (or should) be burned.

As a corollary to the thesis that morality is relative to a group, the moral relativist denies that there are moral facts. There are only social expectations, values, practices, and facts about them. So it would not be true to say of Betty, who promised Sue that she would meet her for lunch today, that she is obligated to do so in the sense that she should keep her promise because that is the right thing to do. Betty’s belief that she should keep her promise is a fact about her and her society, not about morality.

I doubt Foucault ever entertained such thoughts about moral relativism in this form, but some of what he says in the conversation sounds as if he did. For example, Foucault argues that the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” each has its own distinctive morality and that what is true and right for one isn’t necessarily true and right for the other. Continue reading

Are we living in Deleuze’s society of control?

Many years ago, on a drive from Berlin to Paris, I found myself talking with an official at the French border. I don’t recall precisely what we had to discuss, but after a brief conversation he tried to express himself in English to inform me that I could enter the country. “I will control you,” he said.

He meant both that he would examine my passport, and see to it that I got across the border. This double sense of contrôle is relevant to Deleuze’s picture of a “post-disciplinary” society.

It’s a world that depends on a constant flow of people, information, commodities, and capital from one part of the planet to another. Controls of various kinds – institutional, electronic, pharmaceutical, and educational – are designed to facilitate the flow, not to inhibit it. The infrastructure invites and encourage individuals – or dividuals, as Deleuze christens them – to divide and distribute their time, skills, and attention among the many different corporate and state enterprises that float freely over the streams, vectors, platforms, channels, and interfaces.

The flow never stops, and there is nowhere that flows do not penetrate. Everything in society bears down on you at once, all the time, and everywhere, although you are apparently bringing this on yourself.

Deleuze was a brilliant philosopher, and that’s putting it too mildly. But his political and social thinking was not of the same caliber as his metaphysics.

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Why did Nietzsche call Kant a “theologian in disguise”?

Nietzsche meant that Kant established the validity of Christian morality by making philosophical arguments that didn’t rely on Christian beliefs.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for the scholars and not for the people. [§193.]

Kant held that all rational persons have an a priori understanding of the basic principles of morality. These consist of duties, both to oneself and to others, and above all the duty to respect rational agents. Most persons, however, do not understand that morality is a priori, and their moral commitments are therefore vulnerable to corrosive skeptical criticism. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant formulates the ultimate standard for moral judgment, namely universalizability, and establishes the rational necessity of morality.

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What do Horkheimer and Adorno mean when they say: “myth is already enlightenment”?

Myth is “already” enlightenment because myth and enlightenment have something in common: the desire to control nature, rooted in a fear of nature and aggression.

In myth and religion, human beings tried to control nature (at least to the extent of sustaining the right amounts sun, rain, and fertility) by propitiating the gods, offering them sacrifices and other signs of devotion. Myth and religion understood nature in personal terms, seeing in forces such as sun, rain, and wind the recognizably human qualities of purpose and desire. Knowledge of reality was acquired by means of inspired mystical experiences, and passed down through the generations as authorized by tradition.

The central principle of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, was the sovereignty of reason. Reason is the highest source of intellectual authority, and its findings trump religion and tradition. Reason establishes the value of religion and tradition, but neither religion nor tradition can evaluate reason. As Immanuel Kant put it in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781):

Our age is, to a preeminent degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and the state through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But then they arouse just suspicion against themselves, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason gives only to that which sustains the test of free and open examination. (Critique of Pure Reason A.xii.)

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What did Nietzsche mean by “decadence”? Has the culture become decadent?

The short answer is that decadence, for Nietzsche, is being drawn to what is bad for you.

Acting effectively requires self-confidence, great passion to achieve one’s aim, and unity of purpose. To be very successful, and certainly to achieve anything truly great, all of one’s abilities and all aspects of one’s personality must be devoted to achieving one’s aim.

This requires self-mastery, by which Nietzsche means the ability to cultivate one’s drives, desires, and abilities in ways that maximize their contribution to one’s project. Self-mastery is not achieved by conscious deliberation alone; it is an “instinctive” ability to do what is good for you. Faced with a choice, one with self-mastery will identify the best course of action without needing to deliberate.

He guesses what remedies avail against what is harmful; he exploits bad accidents to his advantage; what does not kill him makes him stronger. He collects instinctively from everything he sees, hears, lives through, his sum: he is a principle of selection, he leaves much behind. He is always in his own company, whether he associates with books, human beings, or landscapes: he honors by choosing, by admitting, by trusting. (Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Wise” §2.)

The decadent, on the other hand, chooses what is bad for him, again in a largely non-deliberative way. A decadent or “corrupt” person instinctively seeks out that which harms him.

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What did Wittgenstein mean when he said that if a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him?

This is a much-discussed aphorism (Philosophical Investigations II 190), and even now Wittgenstein scholars differ over how it should be interpreted. But everyone can agree that its meaning depends crucially on what Wittgenstein means by understanding (verstehen).

Here’s what he says about that in Philosophical Investigations §§531–532:

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)

In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions.

Then has “understanding” two different meanings here? – I would rather say that these kinds of use of “understanding” make up its meaning, make up my concept of understanding.

For I want to apply the word “understanding” to all this.

At one level, understanding means grasping the general meaning of an expression. At this level, “I’m going to walk the dog” and “I’m going to take the dog for a walk” mean the same thing. If you heard someone (call her Alice) use either expression under the right circumstances, you’d be justified in forming the expectation that she would soon walk the dog. You’ll have understood her well enough to predict her behavior.

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