03 September 2006

Metaphysics, Action, and Ethics

Some time ago I used to have a quote by William James posted on my wall that went something like, "there is no difference that does not make a difference, no difference in concepts that somehow, in some way, does not make a difference in practice." When I first began studying philosophy in highschool my initial thesis was that we could not properly answer ethical and political questions without answering metaphysical questions. As a result, I took it that all ethical and political questions are also metaphysical questions. By metaphysics I didn't intend anything overly precise or profound, but rather simply intended our conception of reality and our inventory of the types of things that exist. How we conceive reality, I reasoned, was bound to have a profound influence on both the aims of our action and how we act. I was thus interested to encounter a similar thesis about the relationship between ethics and metaphysics over at The Accursed Share, entitled "Metaphysics in the Public Sphere". What caught my attention in particular was a comment by one Benjamin Nelson, who remarked that,
Metaphysics is compelling for some, not compelling for others. It depends on where the person derives a sense of identity, and what their ethos is. So yeah, in politics, there aren't any limits on what topics you can discuss, so long as your audience is willing to listen.

But I would be a liar if I said that personal religion means nothing to me. I would probably never vote for a Scientologist, Mormon, or Baptist. Those are the kinds of outlook which will socialize insanity into a person.

As far as I'm concerned, ethics and good sense are more important than metaphysics. One should take Philo's tack, and understand religion as good for telling ethically important stories.

Whatever one does, it's probably best that they make sure they don't mention Book of Job. (my italics)
A bit later Nelson goes on to ask, "Anyway, the question is, are my recitations of Parmenidean-style metaphysics to be welcomed in political discourse? Are they useful to anyone, or do they just agitate pointless pontification?" The reason I find this remark so interesting is that I'm at a loss as to how one can separate "ethics and good sense" so cleanly from metaphysics. What this assertion assumes is that ethical aims are independent of metaphysical conceptions, but does the history of ethics bear this out?

Nelson clearly intends his reference to Parmenides to point to the absurdity of worrying over the role of metaphysics in the public sphere. After all, Parmenides argued that being is one and that as one it cannot include not-being. Thus, insofar as being does not include not-being and all differences include negation (under Parmenides' account) it follows that all appearances or individual things are illusions and all being is really the same. The question to ask here is whether such a conception of being makes a concrete difference at the level of action. Would I act any differently if I had this particular belief? And perhaps, contra Nelson, I would. After all, if truth is the ground of my action and appearances are untruth, why would I trouble myself with appearances rather than seeking insight into the One? Or again, if all is the same, I might think twice about killing a fellow as I'd be killing myself.

The issue comes out more clearly in the case of Plato. Why did Plato get all worked up about the theory of the forms and what constitutes knowledge? It is clear that Plato's concerns are ethical through and through. According to Plato, the reason we seek knowledge isn't to have greater mastery over the world around us (that world is all just appearances, after all), but because through knowledge, I purify my soul and separate it from my body, thereby rendering it possible to escape the endless cycle of reincarnation and return to the world of the forms (at least according to the Meno and Phaedo). Clearly a group of people who have this particular conception of reality are going to act in a very different way towards concrete matters pertaining to the worldly and embodied. Chances are they will argue, like Saint Augustine later did, that we need to avoid everything bodily and thereby not concern ourselves too deeply with worldly affairs. The person inclined to reject "metaphysics" might claim that this is irrational, but in point of fact, if Plato is right then it would be irrational not to focus on the Ideas over the body, insofar as my soul is immortal and my body is subject to death and decay. In short, you would first have to convince the Platonist that there is no soul or world of forms before you could convince them that true rationality consisted in attending to "what is useful" in the world. For that Platonist, attending to the "useful" would be the height of irrationality.

The film The Exorcism of Emily Rose gives an excellent example of how metaphysics pervades our action through and through. When presented with the symptoms of the young Emily the doctor concludes that they signify epilepsy, and that the aim of her treatment should be a return to health. This diagnosis is based on a metaphysics in which 1) all bodily conditions have either somatic or psychological causes, and 2) in which the aim of treatment should be a return to a state defined as normalcy (which presupposes that normal functioning or culturally independent biological essentialism that can be defined in such systems pace Canguilhem and Foucault). When presented with one and the same set of symptoms, Emily's priest concludes that she's possessed and recommends various spiritual techniques to save her soul. Based on her affiliation with her priest's and family's metaphysics, Emily sides with the priest, concluding that even if she dies her soul is more important than her body. Once again, we see a profound difference in how one acts and what one values depending on their "ontological inventory" or beliefs about what types of things that there are. And indeed, given Emily's convictions, it would be irrational for her to follow her doctor's prescriptions even if refusing to do so leads to death, rather than those of her priest as her soul is with her for eternity whereas her body is only a fleeting episode in her existence. Similarly, if I believe that the apocalypse will happen ten years from now, it would be irrational for me to 1) not live a holy and upright life, 2) invest in life insurance and a retirement plan, and 3) worry about global warming. The key point is that observation of the phenomena themselves, of the symptoms, do not answer these questions one way or another. Rather, we perpetually bring our metaphysics with us in judging and responding to the world about us.

Epicurus provides a nice example of this point. Why is it that Epicurus gets so worked up about whether the Gods exist and are concerned with our existence, and the study of nature? It will be observed that Emily Rose and the Dominionist also assumes that Gods and demons are concerned with the existence of human beings, for why else would they take the trouble to possess us or to destroy the world and "punish all the sinners"? Consequently, if it can be demonstrated that the Gods do not care a wit about humans (why would they care any more than we care about ants, given that they are perfect), then it can also be demonstrated that we ought to devote our actions to producing collective happiness and health, rather than preparing for the afterlife. Similarly, in studying nature, contends Epicurus, we set our troubled souls at ease by coming to see that the comet shooting across the sky or the solar eclipse are not dark omens from the Gods (an early form of naturalistic ideology critique, not unlike Plato's ideology critique in the allegory of the cave), but perfectly ordinary natural events that, while perhaps rare in terms of human experience, are nonetheless entirely natural. Judging by a disturbingly common tendency to explain hurricane Katrina in terms of God's wrath, we have not collectively passed all that far beyond the times in which Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza found themselves with regard to superstition.

Returning to the original Greek concept of philosophy as a love (philia) of wisdom (sophia), this entails that philosophy is the pursuit of that form of knowledge (not all knowledge is wisdom) that would enable us to make sound judgments or judgments productive of flourishing. But from this it inevitably follows that we're going to encounter certain questions early on. We will necessarily encounter questions of epistemology because we cannot avoid the question of how to distinguish between opinion (ideology, superstition) and knowledge if we are produce flourishing and rescue ourselves from being troubled by myth, superstition, and ideology. Similarly, we will quickly encounter questions of metaphysics because our action is premised on how we conceive reality or what we believe to be real, such that we must know the nature of being to act well. Similarly, in raising questions of ethics, I will need to know something of ethical subjects (the nature of desire, the passions, life, whether we have souls, interpersonal relations, etc), which entails that I cannot properly answer questions pertaining to the good and flourishing without also raising questions about psychology, biology, sociology, politics, and economy. It is thus clear that the question of flourishing is a question that differentiates itself into a variety of other questions that are all interdepent and that we cannot divorce questions of metaphysics from the field of politics and ethics. Indeed, the idea that we can already assumes, in an unreflective fashion, that these questions of metaphysics have been decided and that different answers to these questions do not continue to fissure the social space.

While it is certainly true that "metaphysics is compelling for some and not compelling for others", it ought to be compelling for all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Levi,

Thanks again for your intellectual productivity which we as readers enjoy so much. Thanks also for your well-chosen pictures. They really add to your words.

The way I read your latest essay it is really asking (no, make that demanding) us to look at philosophy as an ethical (no, make that moral) enterprise.

As you write at the end:

While it is certainly true that "metaphysics is compelling for some and not compelling for others", it OUGHT to be compelling for all.

I agree.

But isn't there a disconnect with your (recently REwritten) self-portrait on your blog?

the dream of philosophy since its inception with Thales is immanence, or the idea that we need not refer beyond the world or to special authorities to explain what is...

Isn't this a vitalistic anti-metaphysical dream that rejects the Platonic idea of philosophy as a means to achieve a virtuous life?

Instinctively I share you view that metaphysics, psychology, etc. (damn it!) SHOULD concern everybody. But look around; the human species is a pragmatic survival machine (still) passively hypnotized by superstition.

And isn't it time to agree with Nietzsche that a philosopher is always a half-hidden priest?


Orla Schantz

September 04, 2006 3:33 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Orla,

Thanks for noticing the REwritten self-portrait. I'm currently striving to become more anonymous or invisible so as to just be voice or writing, and not an attachment to particular academic titles (which I see functioning rhetorically to establish a legitimacy in what is said beyond what is there in what is said, thereby reintroducing illicit heirarchy into discourse).

Your question is challenging. I certainly am not proposing any sort of universal morality or system of virtue, quite the contrary. While I do believe that philosophy aims at flourishing of some sort, this can take a variety of different forms. If I were a genuine Platonist, then I might, for example, believe that I must come to a knowledge of the universal Good, Just, and Beautiful-- this would be premised on advocating an ontology where forms exist and where the soul exists.

By contrast, I take it that the question here would be that of how one's praxis changes when one adopts 1) a purely relational ontology (that "things" are nothing but loci of relations), 2) the standpoint of immanence where there are no transcendent unchanging terms, and 3) when one adopts some version of vitalism (I detest this word, and would instead refer to it as a post-darwinistic stance)? If I see all beings (including myself and you) as solutions to a problem, as differentiations within being, how does this change how I relate to myself and to other beings (if at all)? I suspect we get a position closer to the pragmatics you allude to on the basis of such an ontology. Rather than formulating abstract standards and rules for how things ought to be evaluated, we might look more closely at the problems actualizations respond to and determine whether these problems are well posed and whether or not there are other possibilities of actualization. Such a stance would require thinking in terms of the Gaussian/Riemannian spaces I proposed a few months ago, where we examine the immanent organization of a space, rather than embedding it in a relational space outside itself.

My use of the term "moral" is extremely broad here. For instance, Nietzsche suggests that we should live life as a work of art and understand ourselves as an artistic creation. I would understand this as a sort of ethical outlook. I should probably be more precise.

September 04, 2006 4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thought, Levi.

In your self-presentation you write:

I enjoy philosophy, psychoanalysis, and political theory, particularly of the continental variety.

Let me be a true Derrida-follower and read you in the margins: ENJOY! That's the key word.

I'll mix it up even further since I'm (re)reading my countryman Søren Kierkegaard.

It seems to me you are poised between the aesthetic stage and the ethical ditto.

But you are closer to the "Or" in
Either/Or (original Danish title: Enten-Eller, 1843).

And what's more: You seem to have skipped the ironist stage between the two.

So, Levi: Are you basically a moralist?

Ethically yours,

Orla Schantz

September 04, 2006 4:28 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...


Maybe you could say a bit more by what it would mean to be a "moralist". I've never gotten very worked up by ethical questions, though I think a good deal about politics. I do think that our ontologies make a difference in how we relate to the world and am not interested in ontology purely because I find these questions fascinating (though I do). And certainly I think philosophy should make a difference in life and seek to promote joy (after the fashion of Spinoza).

September 04, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Nelson said...

Hi Levi. Thanks for your comments. Sorry it took me a year to reply, I'm not very sophisticated when it comes to blogging and did not know that you had replied until just now.

You certainly do raise some challenges for the soft secularist view that I endorse. But first I want to clarify that my point had to do with relative priorities in political discourse, under certain conditions. Namely, those conditions under where theistic matters are claimed to be unknown (or irrelevant), and the relevance of mere belief is in question. My view is that, when it comes to one's religious beliefs, very little needs to be stated in the political sphere beyond bland self-assertion. And when it comes to the relative priorities that we should have in our discussions, it is deeply disturbing to engage in that sort of self-assertion, so long as there are actual pressing knowns that will have an impact on human wellbeing.

My opinions up to this point have not argued for the irrelevance of knowledge-claims about first-cause metaphysics, unfortunately. But I did suggest reasons later in the discussion. What I wish to convey, at bottom, which is meant to support my wariness toward those knowledge-claims, is the importance of cooperative conversation. If a man's ontology causes him to be so out of joint that it is impossible to even speak to him on a human level, and if this is a recurring theme across persons who share this ontology, and it does not carry to those who fail to have an ontology in-kind, then it seems perfectly sensible to attribute the failure to the ethos, not the man. And one must react accordingly: not to shun the man, but to deprive the ethos of the import that it craves.

October 25, 2007 6:47 PM  

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