Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Few Words on The Last Word

In The Last Word (Oxford, 1997) Thomas Nagel defends the objective principles of reason against the idea that "the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." This question touches upon issues raised by Matt concerning foundationalism. I don’t think it’s possible to say, as he does, that "Modern foundationalism is the same as ancient foundationalism," for the reason that ancient philosophy was grounded in solid realism and modern philosophy has ever since Descartes begun with the idealist premise, namely that the real is what is in our minds. The whole tenor or climate of thought is different, although philosophers may have in both cases wanted to ward off skepticism and relativism.

I am not going to spend time recapitulating Nagel’s argument in any detail, for I am already inclined to a certain kind of rationalist tenet, in the sense in which Chesterton defined the realism of Thomas Aquinas: if we do not affirm that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real, we may as well give up, for there can be nothing more to say. He says, "… the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is truly a marriage, because it is fruitful… [and] produced practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact."

We all know that this bracing realism did not survive the succeeding centuries intact, to the extent that some four centuries later it came about that Descartes sought to receive assurance of his own being from his thought. Well, we are placed another four centuries distant from Descartes, and what do we have to show for it? In our time it is thought itself that seems to be tottering about in the ruins of cultural relativism, subjectivism, skepticism, and numerous other ills. Thomas Nagel, in summarizing this landscape of philosophical ruins, basically returns us to the lap of Descartes. He says that there is this about fundamental reason: we cannot get outside of it. Thus he returns to the first, primordial, mysterious and irreducible interiority of our thought. That a modern philosopher recognizes interiority as a principle surely is a sign that serious thought has gotten sick of philosophical promiscuity. For thinking is promiscuous if it does not take account of itself, and it cannot take account of itself unless it accepts itself. I count this as a solid gain.

Yet I am of two minds. The first and most important thing to say is that Nagel’s contention is a grand advance, a true progress, a landmark. But the second, and less important thing to say, is that we should have known that this interiority of thought was already the true significance of Descartes. It was not his geometry, his res cogitans and res extensa, his beneficient God, the support of his being, the tool of science, the subject-object division. None of those things was as important as the sheer act of asserting what he did about the act of thinking. But it took us four hundred years, and now Thomas Nagel, just to point this out. So we made a wide circle with many detours and dead ends only to return to the cogito at last. To have suffered so much and to be dragged along by the tail of so many false hopes only to regain what we should have already realized – this seems to me a sad comment about our real state of affairs. One can only call it a persistent stagnation of modern thought. There is something in Nagel’s return to Descartes that hints of resignation rather than of creative renewal.

It was Descartes’ misfortune – and ours – that the assurance he received from the interiority of his thought did not extend in equal measure to the rest of the world. There was this problem of how disembodied thought connected to embodied reality, as one of his more astute critics, the Princess of Bohemia, put it. So we embarked on a long train of subject-object problems such as Pirsig has written of. The latest edition of this problem concerns how a being, such as ourselves, a product of natural history, can possess capacity for objective thought which penetrates to the true nature of the world. Evolution, in other words, does not explain reason, and it is refreshing of Thomas Nagel to admit as much. For obviously, we must employ reason in discussing evolution (or anything else). With a certain timid hesitation Nagel offers the thought that, despite the fact that we seem to be here as the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, nevertheless, "the basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind." Like a creature emerging from a cave, blinking in the light, Nagel proffers this startling idea - which is actually quite important if not overwhelming! But he soon scurries back into the darkness because this thought, if taken seriously, might lead to the Land of Anathema… the land at whose borders loom Intelligent Design.

So I would say that Thomas Nagel wants reason without taking account of the fundamental faith of man, which is, that our reason is capable of understanding things about the world because intelligence is embedded in the world. This fundamental faith is greeted by the bien-pensants of modernism with something approaching violent horror, as if those who espoused it were afflicted with a leprous contagion. Nagel is at pains to clarify that he is not that sort of person. He is indeed a very nice kind of non-believer. He says, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

I have thought quite a bit about those last two words, "like that," which arouse all sort of associations all the more sinister for not being explicitly tabulated. Descartes’ "beneficient God" has been turned on his ear after all!

Or perhaps not – for Descartes "beneficient God" was an abstract beneficence just as Nagel’s "like that" is vague, an abstractly malignant presence. The result is that the problem with Nagel’s rationalism is the same problem that Descartes had with his rationalism. Both of them want interiority without intimacy. And when I use the term "intimacy" I do not mean merely physical or emotional closeness. I mean by this term a sense of intellectual coherence, of a destiny that wears an outward face in things and an inward dimension in thought, and that our human thinking, when sufficiently developed, can penetrate to this level of … "Quality."

Let me attempt to spell out what I am saying. First of all, "intimacy" in the sense in which I use it means that there can be Quality. For there can be no Quality in a world haphazardly arranged, whose objects and bodies, and thoughts corresponding to these entities, are mere aggregates of bodies at a simpler level of organization. If haphazard aggregation did characterize the essential nature of things, then pragmatic considerations of mere utility or Matt’s "ad hoc" arrangements would be entirely appropriate.

It is for this reason that I do not see Pirsig’s Quality metaphysics as pragmatist in any sense. Or rather, the only pragmatist element I see in the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s desire and intention to get to real life – to get to "the stuffy, hot-ground floor of life as soon as possible" as Matt poetically puts it. But the actual tool of thought which the concept of Quality provides is miles away from pragmatism. The problem Pirsig had was there was no rationalist framework in which his magisterial tool could make sense and unfold. For, if you say that Quality presupposes an intelligence in the world in which human reason can share and participate, because this intelligence partakes of a deep structure common to both the world and to human minds, where’s the dynamic element in reason itself? It is at this point that Owen Barfield’s insights bring considerable assistance, for Barfield speaks of an evolution of reason, or rather of an evolution of consciousness. This concept is the missing key, for it enables us to attach the concepts of Static and Dynamic Quality to reason itself.

I urge Matt to read Barfield’s Saving the Appearances for further elucidation of this point – and I will be particularly interested in whatever responses to it he cares to make.

Finally, let me note that the Cartesian cogito was a sort of new Genesis for modernity. The last time something like that (to use Nagel’s phrase!) occurred was in the Garden of Eden. Recall, dear Reader, that it was Woman, Eve, who was hidden in Adam’s "within-ness" – and that the making explicit of what was inward and interior began the world we know today . . . for good or for ill – for history. But what is hidden in the within-ness or interiority of reason today?

Thomas Nagel doesn’t want to go there. It’s an odd modern twist on the fear of God – not the fear of God but the fear that there might be a God. Nagel has shown a rare candor in stating it. It’s the deepest place of all rationalism, the foundational point of irreducible intimacy of intellect and world. And at that threshold a man chooses fear… or love.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Response to M. Kundert - Round II

Response to Matt Kundert's "Philosophical Antiauthoritarianism: A Reply to Johnston" Posted Thursday, December 27, 2007, on his website.

Thanks to Matt for his thoughtful reply to my response which, as he is probably right, left a lot to be explicated. It is very challenging to discuss these things in detail and try to articulate just where one’s differences, and agreements, lie. Philosophy at its best is a conversation, I think – a good or a best that somehow got pulled into something we call rational argumentation or dialectic. Or as Matt might say, a professionalization of the conversation. This is the way things are ; nothing I or anyone can do can change this fact. But perhaps just by engaging in it we can remind the professionals of their purpose, which is not to lose sight of the conversation in the argument – that is, conversation affords us the possibility of knowing one another as subjects, and secondly, of getting out of our own heads and maybe even of learning something.

I would agree with Matt that Pirsig is not free of subject-object metaphysics. Nor do I think that Pirsig claimed to be altogether free of it. What is significant in Pirsig is that he provides indications for a route to take outside of the particular cul-de-sac which SOM has led to in post-Enlightenment philosophy. And that particular cul-de-sac is not so much the subject-object distinction in itself (which is an ancient distinction going back to the earliest beginnings of human thought and which may indeed be an inescapable feature of any form of thought) as it is the particular twist it has taken through Cartesian and modern philosophy. For alongside the fundamental "thoughts and things" dualism of the world there arose through Cartesianism a sort of bifurcation. Wolfgang Smith describes it thus:

"One generally perceives this Cartesian dichotomy as nothing more than the mind/body duality, forgetting that Descartes has not only distinguished between matter and mind, but has, at the same time, imposed a very peculiar and indeed problematic conception of the former element. He supposes, namely, that a res extensa is bereft of all sensible qualities, which obviously implies that it is imperceptible. The red apple which we do perceive must consequently be relegated to res cogitans; it has become a private phantasm, a mental as distinguishable from a real entity. This postulate, moreover, demands another: one is now forced – on pain of radical subjectivism – to assume that the red apple, which is unreal, is causally related to a real apple, which however is not perceptible. What from a pre-Cartesian point of view was one object has now become two; as Whitehead puts it: ‘One is the conjecture, and the other is the dream.’" [1]

Now the important thing to remember is that both pragmatism and traditional philosophy or metaphysics (sophia perennis) deny this bifurcationism. The Metaphysics of Quality also denies it by asserting the primacy and reality of the immediate participated experience with the object. To that extent, pragmatism, the Metaphysics of Quality, and traditional metaphysics as represented, say, by St. Thomas Aquinas, all agree.

The paths begin to diverge only after this initial meeting at the road of thought with its object or content. These differences begin to appear in the notions about truth, authority, and the good which characterize the respective philosophies. St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes a sphere of revelation which is protected from the corrosive powers of reason, safeguards the good and makes possible therefore the exercise of legitimate authority. Pragmatism does not recognize such a sphere and instead identifies the good with expediency, offering the criterion of usefulness or utility as test of the true. The particular problem that arises with this viewpoint is that it seems not to be able to make distinctions of value between differing claims of expediency. Even though "expediency" may for James represent a wide range of options, from religious faith to empirical verification, it nevertheless lacks within itself an inner or principled position whereby one may make judgements of value.

James’ biographer notes that James had a certain dislike of principles, which he tended to see as a part of the classical or ossified metaphysics that he was opposing. Yet he recounts several occasions in which James did make a principled objection. James objected to the war in the Phillippines as an instance of imperialism and he objected to the way Americans treated the English-born labor organizer, William McQueen. The biographer notes – "Writing with unusual emphasis in an uncharacteristic defense of general principles, James [wrote] ‘Exactly that callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature… of our U.S. civilization."

Beyond noting that philosophy has a whiplash and that James apparently didn’t like these demonstration of practical pragmatism, one has to say that there seems to be little in James’s actual philosophy beyond personal liking and disliking that would lead to such condemnations. The historian John Lukacs once commented that it is a perennial American weakness to mistake habits for principles. I think pragmatism, despite its many congenial aspects, was a major engine that got this tendency set and going. Pragmatism has not been able to arrest America’s deadly march into imperialism and insouciant disregard for the structures of international law. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind may indeed involve a philosophy that takes account of principles more than pragmatism has been able to do. The criterion of action or utility is simply inadequate as a philosophy of society.

It is for these reasons that I argue that Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – though it professes a certain bond with pragmatism in its congenial aspects – nevertheless represents a sharp move out of what we could call this "American dilemma," which could be called an innate distaste for the concept of authority or sphere of principles.

The Metaphysics of Quality enables discernment according to differing levels of value. That is, it enables the enunciation of standards. It is not a complete philosophy. It is only the beginning of one, and I think it is much needed as an indispensable tool to work our way out of the collapse of standards so apparent today in every field. For we Americans have unfortunately confused the collapse of standards with freedom. But such a confusion only leads to – re-barbarization... which is the end of all philosophy.

[1] From his essay, "Sophia Perennis and Modern Science, in The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology, Foundation for Traditional Studies, 2003, p. 22.
[2] The rest of the quote: "Instead of expressing outrage at illegal or unconstitutional behavior by the authorities, the ordinary citizen, James says bitterly, ‘begins to pooh-pooh and minimize and tone down the thing, and breed excuses from his general fund of optimism and respect for expediency.’ Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, p. 483.
[3] Principles: that which refers to the beginning, in principio, or origins; as ‘authority’ refers to the author or point of origination of something.
[4] Ortega y Gasset thought very highly of William James. Yet compare his "Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made," from The Revolt of the Masses.