Saturday, April 22, 2023

The Jena Set 2

I have now finished reading Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics by Andrea Wulf. The second part was focused, to a considerable degree, on the wayward personal relationships of the first generation of German Romantic thinkers.

I wrote in my last post:

...if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The early Romantic thinkers seem to have acted along these lines, or something similar, in their love lives. August Schlegel, for instance, married a much older single mother, Caroline Böhmer, but happily allowed her to live in his house with her lover, the much younger philosopher Friedrich Schelling, while he himself (Schlegel) pursued the heavily pregnant, married sister of the poet Ludwig Tieck. Freely bestowed emotions overrode considerations of age and fertility, of marital status, of fidelity, of honour and of self-respect. Passion über alles. It makes for gruesome reading.

August Wilhelm Schlegel

As I wrote in my previous review of the book, there were some positive aspects of the German Romantics. They reacted against the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment, insisting on a more poetic experience of life. They upheld the transcendent value of beauty and promoted the idea of nature as a living organism. They were open to the culture and religion of the medieval world. We can thank the Romantics, at least in part, for beautiful neo-Gothic churches, for the nature poetry and painting of the nineteenth century, and for the music of Beethoven and Schubert.

But there were problems. It is said that much of philosophy is based on establishing the triadic relationship between God, man and nature. During the Enlightenment, there was an emphasis on man existing outside of nature. Man was an observer, measuring and classifying and seeking to master nature. I am going to call this a process of "exteriorisation" in the sense that man is no longer an active participant within nature, but places himself outside of it.

The Romantics reacted against this. In part, this meant acknowledging the sense of connection between man and nature, including the responses of awe and wonder to nature. However, philosophers like Fichte also created problems in establishing the relationship between man and nature. He was in the tradition of Descartes, in the sense of looking into the operation of self-consciousness to discover truths about human existence. It led him to a belief that we establish our freedom of will, as opposed to being conditioned by the material world, by recognising that it is the "ich" (the "I") that creates the limiting conditions on the self and that these therefore can be dispelled by the "ich". As Andrea Wulf describes it:

As Fichte stood at the podium in Jena, he imbued the self with the new power of self-determination. The Ich posits itself and it is therefore free. It is the agent of everything. Anything that might constrain or limit its freedom - anything in the non-Ich - is in fact brought into existence by the Ich.

This philosophy did not readily harmonise the relationship between man and nature. Fichte himself wrote:

My will alone...shall float audaciously and coldly over the wreckage of the universe.

We could call this trend in Western thought "interiorisation" in the sense that it is a turn away from the idea that we are influenced or conditioned by an external nature, or even a given nature, but that we subjectively "posit" our own self and in so doing reject the "limitations" imposed by what is outside of our own volition. Some of the critics of the Jena set complained at the time that this was a "metaphysical egotism" (p.350) and Ralph Waldo Emerson described the new age in 1837 as an "age of Introversion" (p.351). Friedrich Schlegel, the brother of August and at one time a follower of Fichte, later turned against his ideas, writing that Fichte was "idolising the Ich and the self" and that he had confused the self with the divine.

(Schelling, another influential Romantic philosopher, tried to connect man and nature, apparently by arguing that both were identical in some sense, i.e. that the "ich" was identical with nature.)

I've focused on this distinction between exteriorisation and interiorisation because it seems to me that both have been bequeathed to the modern world, even though they are not entirely consistent with each other. They are simply two of the accretions that the modern world runs with.

Man the observer, standing outside of rather than participating from within, is found in the modern liberal personality. It is evident in those moderns who enjoy observing and experiencing other cultures, as something like tourists (outsiders), but who renounce a culture of their own (or who are simply oblivious to it). Similarly, exteriorisation is also evident in those moderns who praise Aborigines for having a rich relationship to nature but who are strangely unaware of the importance of the relationship to nature expressed within their own culture.

They have inherited the exteriorised mindset in which they are onlookers, standing on the outside of both nature and culture, rather than participants from within. This explains, in part, why they are so little touched by questions of loyalty or duty - you have to stand within something, as an active participant, for either loyalty or duty to have a claim on you.

The influence of interiorisation in our own time is even greater (and more obvious). What we self-identify as is asserted to be what we really are. The "self-positing ich" is extending its reach far beyond anything envisaged by Fichte and his contemporaries. 

Instead of coming to a better understanding of the triad of God, man and nature, we have just left things as history left them, to our own considerable detriment.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Romance & reason 2

In my last post I discussed the ideas of Eva Illouz, a Moroccan born sociologist who writes on the topic of relationships. I noted that she agrees with a point that I have long made, namely that there is a tension between a belief in individual autonomy and a commitment to stable relationships. This is because autonomy requires us to be free to choose in any direction at any time and we cannot do this if, for instance, we take seriously our marriage vows. Eva Illouz puts it this way:

This idea makes sense only in the context of a view of the self in which promises are viewed as posing limits on one’s freedom: that is, the freedom to feel differently tomorrow from the way I feel today. Given that a limit on one’s freedom is viewed as illegitimate, requesting commitment is interpreted as an alienation of one’s own freedom. This freedom in turn is connected to the definition of relationships in purely emotional terms: if a relationship is the result of one’s freely felt and freely bestowed emotions, it cannot emanate from the moral structure of commitment. Because emotions are constructed as being independent of reason, and even of volition, because they are viewed as changing, but, more fundamentally, because they are seen as emanating from one’s unique subjectivity and free will, demanding that one commits one’s emotions to the future becomes illegitimate, because it is perceived to be threatening to the freedom that is intrinsic to pure emotionality.

A reader ("Guest Ghast") drew out something important from this:

It’s something I’ve been made more aware of recently through a number of personal incidents, but there’s a real unexamined driving ideology here that emotions equate automatically to action. Eva doesn’t even question her assumption that how we behave is determined by how we feel and that people’s feelings are what we ought to be concerned about, even though she’s clearly thought about it. I can’t claim an exhaustive examination of this, but once you notice it it’s clear it’s everywhere. The so-called transgender movement is practically founded on the notion that how you feel ought to determine reality, but that’s somewhat adjacent to the, I think, larger phenomenon of action being assumed to derive almost purely from emotion. I would suspect this is a development from the ideals of the Romantic movement that lionized feeling and passion, but I haven’t investigated to find out.

I think that Eva herself does question the loss of a "moral structure of commitment", but even so the main point here stands: that modernity has slipped into the idea that how we feel justifies how we act. Instead of our feelings being ordered to a notion of the good, it is the other way around: what we feel becomes the good we are to pursue. 

This led to a discussion of why liberal modernity has slipped into this habit. Both Guest Ghast and I agreed that it could have something to do with the influence of Romanticism, with its emphasis on feeling and passion and its focus on individual, subjective experience. I also offered this:

I wonder (this is just a thought experiment) if it has something to do with the logic of modernism itself. If what matters is maximum preference satisfaction, and preferences are equally valid, then there is perhaps less "rational" justification for any act. It just comes down to subjective preference, i.e. what we want to do and this itself may be perceived to be based on what we feel like doing or having.

In other words, liberal modernity sees the good in a freedom to choose as we will, rather than in our choosing rationally and prudently what is objectively good for us and for the communities we belong to. As James Kalb used to emphasise, our preferences are seen as equally valid (as long as they do not limit what others might prefer to be or to do). But if they are equally valid they do not have to be justified by an act of reason. They are valid because they are my own subjective preferences. If preference alone is a sufficient justification, then it comes down to what I want, or feel like, or think will create a pleasurable experience, or simply to what moves me - which is often my emotional responses.

Guest Ghast replied with another significant argument:

I posted a comment here some time which I worked through my own logic to show that liberalism requires only meaningless choices. In short, since choices that have consequences would influence one to make a decision in one direction or the other, freedom is maximized when consequences are done away with, but this reduces all choices to meaningless preferences. Now that you’ve suggested a connection, it occurs to me that said meaningless preferences by necessity must operate only by feeling since there’s no logical way to choose one option over another. Since we seem to hold that we are defined as individuals by having individual preferences no one else has, this would seem to elevate feeling to the dominant position we observe it in (since feelings would be the truest expression of one’s individuality). Worse, reason in fact cannot have anything to do with decision making rather than being merely subordinate to feeling.

It also occurs to me that to reason necessarily means to discriminate, which liberals have reliably connected with oppression. cf. a previous post you wrote wherein it was said (not in so few words) that treating people differently for their choices was unacceptable and cf. the ubiquitous modern attitude that treating people differently for their unchosen aspects is also unacceptable. Basically treating people in any rational way is unacceptable. Mere feelings and preference can’t be in essence accused of discrimination, at least when you’re sufficiently reeducated and your choices are indistinguishable from random ones.

There are two points being made here. The first is that if we think of choices as having consequences, serious enough to sway one's decision permanently in one direction only, then a limitation is being placed on our freedom to choose in any direction. Therefore, it is better if choice is conceived of as not having these serious consequences (or if these consequences are seen as being there artificially, as a power ploy of some sort, i.e. of one person or group wanting to manipulate others, so that they can be dismissed as an oppressive imposition that can be overridden). Another way of putting this is that the absolute ideal under the terms of liberal modernity is to be "empowered" in the sense of being able to choose in any direction, without negative consequence or negative judgement. In this case, the older emphasis on wisdom or prudence is superseded, as the vision is of a society in which it is possible to choose any self-determined path that we have a mind to travel.

The second point is that when we reason we necessarily discriminate. We make judgements as to the good, as to the worthiness of particular acts, and to the likely consequences of beliefs and behaviours. But making these judgements is not licit under the terms of liberalism, and in some cases will be condemned as inherently hateful or bigoted. Therefore it is difficult to "treat people in any rational way". In contrast, a feeling or a preference is simply a subjective state that in itself does not involve a process of discrimination (though it might still be considered illicit if it is not in line with the larger principle of non-discrimination). Perhaps this helps to explain why the liberal classes so often emphasise "right feeling" as the basis of being a good person, or why they seek these feeling states rather than grappling with the longer term repercussions of what they advocate.

Why discuss all this? We need to go back to the where the discussion began. Relationships cannot be defined in purely emotional terms, independent of reason and volition. First, because emotions change and therefore relationships grounded only on emotion will be unstable. Second, if we start from the point of pure subjectivity, conditioned only by our own feelings and passions, then relationships will be thought more pure and elevated the less they are based on pragmatic rational considerations and the more freely bestowed they are, without any "limiting" claims being made on the feelings or passions of the other person.

The very first generation of Romantic thinkers in Germany seem to have already accepted the logic of all this. Their relationships were marked by this emphasis on pure, unconditioned subjectivity. I will go into details in the next post.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Romance & reason 1

Eva Illouz is a Moroccan born sociologist who writes intelligently on the topic of relationships. In her book Why Love Hurts (2012) she makes an argument that I made as far back as 2003 (here), namely that the modern value of autonomy conflicts with stable, committed forms of love.

Why? She explains in this quote (p.136):

The cultural motif that defines and constitutes worth here is autonomy, which in turn explains why requesting promises is conceived as exerting “pressure”...This idea makes sense only in the context of a view of the self in which promises are viewed as posing limits on one’s freedom: that is, the freedom to feel differently tomorrow from the way I feel today. Given that a limit on one’s freedom is viewed as illegitimate, requesting commitment is interpreted as an alienation of one’s own freedom. This freedom in turn is connected to the definition of relationships in purely emotional terms: if a relationship is the result of one’s freely felt and freely bestowed emotions, it cannot emanate from the moral structure of commitment. Because emotions are constructed as being independent of reason, and even of volition, because they are viewed as changing, but, more fundamentally, because they are seen as emanating from one’s unique subjectivity and free will, demanding that one commits one’s emotions to the future becomes illegitimate, because it is perceived to be threatening to the freedom that is intrinsic to pure emotionality. In commitment, there is thus the risk of forcing the hand of someone to make a choice that is not based on pure emotions and emotionality, in turn alienating one’s freedom.

The basic point is that if I wish to be autonomous, I must have a freedom to self-determine my own life. I cannot do this if I make a serious commitment to another person as this would curtail what I might choose to do at some later time. 

Eva Illouz adds depth to the argument by noting that the problem is made more pronounced when relationships are defined in purely emotional terms, i.e. as "the result of one's freely felt and freely bestowed emotions". If this is how relationships are defined, as they mostly are in modern life, then what happens in the relationship won't be swayed by reason or prudence, nor is it possible to think of commitment as being settled in the will. 

Eva Illouz

She repeats this argument, i.e. that there is a contradiction between the aims of autonomy and love, with a quote from Judith Butler (p.131):

In fact, I would even claim that it is precisely the development of individuality and autonomy that makes modern erotic desire fraught with aporias. As Judith Butler claims: “Desire thus founders on contradiction, and becomes a passion divided against itself. Striving to become coextensive with the world, an autonomous being that finds itself everywhere reflected in the world, self-consciousness discovers that implicit in its own identity as a desiring being is the necessity of being claimed by another.” Such a claim by another person is beset with contradictions, because “we have to choose between ecstatic and self-determining existence.”

Eva Illouz goes on to make an argument I only partly agree with:

I would suggest that, to the extent that in modernity men have internalized and most forcefully practiced the discourse of autonomy, autonomy has the effect of exerting a form of symbolic violence that is all the more naturalized and difficult to perceive. Consequently, autonomy is (and must remain) at the center of the project of women’s emancipation. (p.136)
Clearly, men dominate the rules of recognition and commitment. Male domination takes the form of an ideal of autonomy to which women, through the mediation of the struggle for equality in the public sphere, have themselves subscribed. But when transposed to the private sphere, autonomy stifles women’s need for recognition. For, it is indeed a characteristic of symbolic violence that one cannot oppose a definition of reality that is to one’s own detriment. (p.137)

Her argument is that men can get what they want from relationships as autonomous beings (sex), but that what women want is recognition (commitment), which is what the focus on autonomy makes difficult to achieve.

She is right that it is usually men who are the gatekeepers of commitment. However, it was feminist women who did most to impose autonomy as a value on relationships between men and women. It has been women who have changed the terms of engagement; men have played more of a reactive role (though there are exceptions to this, such as the playboy ethos promoted by the likes of Hugh Hefner).

The other difficult aspect of Eva Illouz's views is that she is committed to the values she identifies as damaging relationships. She frankly acknowledges the problem that modernity has damaged relationships, describing her book as being:

the product of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conversations with close friends and strangers that left me perplexed and puzzled by the chaos that pervades contemporary romantic and sexual relationships

To some extent, she poses the issue as an imbalance in autonomy:

On the contrary: I would contend that men can follow the imperative for autonomy more consistently and for a longer part of their lives and, as a result, they can exert emotional domination over women’s desire for attachment, compelling them to mute their longing for attachment and to imitate men’s detachment and drive for autonomy. It follows that women who are not interested in heterosexual domesticity, children, and a man’s commitment will find themselves more likely to be the emotional equals of men.

Although this sounds reasonable, I don't think it captures what is happening. Most women have been persuaded that they should defer serious commitments and play the field whilst young; it is only when it comes time to settle down that they face the issue of commitment from men being described here, and mostly from a certain class of men. And then in later years it is women who initiate most of the breaking of commitment via divorce.

Again, she argues in the following quote that the problem is the distribution of autonomy:

I argue that such false consciousness – feeling responsible for being left – is explained by the ways in which several features of our moral universe intertwine with the power of men, i.e. the structure of recognition in romantic relationships (and probably in modernity in general); by the fact that the ideal of autonomy interferes with recognition and operates within a fundamentally unequal structure of the distribution of autonomy

This, once more, is only partly true. It is predicted that 45% of American women aged 25 to 44 will be single by the year 2030 - so the issue of "recognition" does exist for women in this age group. However, this is not because of an unequal distribution of autonomy as part of the structure of society. Society has gone to considerable efforts to make women autonomous in their personal lives. For instance, when women are in their "player" phase then the expectation is that society will enable this via abortion on demand, access to contraception, the absence of slut shaming etc. Similarly, when women are in the motherhood phase, they are enabled to achieve this independently of men via subsidised child care, access to IVF, single mother welfare payments etc. And if women wish to be independent through divorce, then this too is enabled via alimony, child support payments and decisions regarding child custody.

So what is her conclusion? She is not one of those moderns who believes that love should be sacrificed to autonomy. She defends love as a meaningful bond. Her solution is to restore an ethics to relationships, as to devise new strategies to cope with emotional inequalities and meet women’s larger social and ethical goals...What should be discussed, then, is the question of how sexuality should be made a domain of conduct regulated both by freedom and by ethics...this book suggests that the project of self-expression through sexuality cannot be divorced from the question of our duties to others and to their emotions...For when detached from ethical conduct, sexuality as we have known it for the last thirty years has become an arena of raw struggle that has left many men and especially women bitter and exhausted. (pp.246-47)

It's a good quote (even if it is framed in terms of women's goals rather than a common good), but it is followed by this:

This book is thus a sobered endorsement of modernity through love. It recognizes the necessity of values of freedom, reason, equality, and autonomy, yet is also forced to take stock of the immense difficulties generated by the core cultural matrix of modernity. 

She is walking an intellectual tightrope here. She wants to be part of the modern gang, whilst at the same time recognising the significant harm being done. Even so, her book is thought provoking and insightful - I intend to post again on some of the issues she raises.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

A local flyer

I saw a flyer in my local area advertising meetings for "vulva-bodied beings". It turns out that the meetings are for local women to learn how to "serve their inner queen". The facilitator explains how she was motivated to organise these meetings as follows:

It took giving my body to yet another man, in the hopes of finding love, only to be thrown out like a dirty dish cloth for me to open my eyes and see it. I am not choosing love for myself. I am not protecting my heart.

I found this interesting because I have been reading the work of a sociologist, Eva Illouz, who believes that women are not being well-served by liberal modernity because the focus on autonomy means that women do not really get what they need from relationships with men.

However, the local workshops do not in any way resist liberal modernity, but double down on it. The facilitator goes on to write:

I went to the hairdressers that very morning, dyed my hair red, and then got a Self Love tattoo.

She tells women that she can,

open you to claiming the Queen within you, who knows she can have whatever they desire - right now.

So, she believes that women really can win the autonomy game and get to do and be and have whatever they wish. This is exactly what Eva Illouz questions in her writing, because in order to sustain a freedom to have whatever you desire you must forego any expectation of genuine commitment either from yourself or from others - hence women feeling like they are being "thrown out like a dirty dish cloth".

And what is it that women might desire? What she claims women want and need is "radical self-love," empowerment and pleasure. But if you read what she writes, it is the deprivation of genuine love that most affects her. 

Here she describes her moment of transfiguration:

It was 2am in a drunken Lisbon club, when I finally realised how deeply I was suffering. I was out with friends when the latest man I had decided to desperately convince to love me, came up to me and said he wanted to go home with the woman I'd anxiously watched him talking to. I ran out of the club into the cobbled streets of Lisbon and started to wail.

Of the man she writes:

I knew it wasn't him. He was the cherry on top of an enormous cake of self-abandonment, unworthiness, desperation and despair that I had been baking myself for years. With no skills to manage my ocean of emotions I was a princess without direction, with no one to guide me.

Now, I don't think we should be too sympathetic to any of this. She lived her life chasing hot guys in clubs and, predictably, was chosen only for one night stands, which did not give her what Eva Illouz calls "recognition". 

What I do think significant, though, is her admission that she was an "ocean of emotions" which she could not easily self-direct. I've heard women describe their inner state this way before, that it is like a sea of emotion that ebbs one way and another.

The real lesson here, I think, is that women aren't necessarily easily able to direct themselves to their true ends or purposes, at least not without the support of the surrounding culture. To give another example, she describes taking a vow not to have any more one night stands or to sleep with a partnered man - but then she met a hot Brazilian guy and, despite him having a girlfriend, had a one night stand with him. Her response to breaking her vow?:

I was reminded not to be so certain of who I am. Sometimes I don't do one night stands. Sometimes I do. I am ever evolving, ever changing.

She just doesn't have what it takes to follow a moral path, nor to act in a way that might deliver what she clearly wants, which is a committed relationship with a man. As she herself states earlier, she suffers from a lack of guidance, there being precious little of it within modern liberal culture.

I don't think it would be easy to make things different for her. She has little sense that some things in her nature need to be constrained in order for her to achieve the higher good of a committed, stable love. It would have helped her, no doubt, had her father been present in her life (she has written a short essay on the impact on her of paternal abandonment). But the larger problem is that she is living in a culture which says that you can choose to act in any way you like, as long as you don't interfere with others doing the same. As long as there is consent, then everything is moral.

And so she just acts on her impulse to chase the hot guy, and so she is used and rejected over and over. And she does not have it within her to really understand what is needed - if anything, she intensifies the liberal messaging to women by claiming that women can be queens who deserve to have whatever they desire and to have it immediately.

The social norms that once existed in society were there for a reason. So too was the emphasis on cultivating particular virtues and upholding within the culture a definite concept of the human good. Without any of this, many people will be unable to find their way forward.

I will follow up this post with a longer one outlining the ideas of Eva Illouz, who, despite professing to hold to modernist ideas, nonetheless recognises that they have had some seriously negative consequences when it comes to relationships.