Sunday, May 28, 2023

Descartes: commitment & community

I found a passage written by the philosopher Descartes which I thought interesting (it is from his letter to Elisabeth of Bohemia, 1645). Descartes is recognised as a progenitor of modern thought, but he clearly did not support the radical individualism which has come to characterise liberal modernity. 

He writes:

After acknowledging the goodness of God, the immortality of our souls and the immensity of the universe, there is yet another truth that is, in my opinion, most useful to know. That is, that though each of us is a person distinct from others, whose interests are accordingly in some way different from those of the rest of the world, we ought still to think that none of us could subsist alone and that each one of us is really one of the many parts of the universe, and more particularly a part of the earth, the state, the society and the family to which we belong by our domicile, our oath of allegiance and our birth. 

What I believe he gets right here is not only the idea that we are social creatures, but that we are a part of (i.e. we belong to as an aspect of our being) certain communities. Descartes clearly accepts that our membership of some of these communities is predetermined - that we are born into them. Unlike liberal moderns, he does not push the logic of individual autonomy to the point of rejecting unchosen forms of community.

René Descartes

The next part is more questionable:
And the interests of the whole, of which each of us is a part, must always be preferred to those of our own particular person —with measure, of course, and discretion, because it would be wrong to expose ourselves to a great evil in order to procure only a slight benefit to our kinsfolk or our country. (Indeed if someone were worth more, by himself, than all his fellow citizens, he would have no reason to destroy himself to save his city.) 
Understood a certain way, this makes sense. If I could make money in a way that betrayed my country, then I should certainly set aside my own financial self-interest in favour of preserving the national community I belong to. Even so, the introduction of a kind of moral calculus here rings false. It is also unhelpful, I think, to focus on the idea that there are occasions when it is morally right to destroy ourselves to preserve the community. More typically, in acting to uphold the good of the community we belong to, we are also preserving our own good, as our own good can only be fully realised in common with others.

Descartes continues:
But if someone saw everything in relation to himself, he would not hesitate to injure others greatly when he thought he could draw some slight advantage; and he would have no true friendship, no fidelity, no virtue at all. On the other hand, if someone considers himself a part of the community, he delights in doing good to everyone, and does not hesitate even to risk his life in the service of others when the occasion demands. If he could, he would even be willing to lose his soul to save others. So this consideration is the source and origin of all the most heroic actions done by men. 

Descartes is arguing against the idea that a society can be formed solely on the basis of individual self-interest. If I act solely from selfish motives, then there is no ground for important virtues like loyalty. If, though, I see myself as being part of a community, in the sense that it is an aspect of identity and belonging, this is likely to inspire my social commitments. Descartes' views have been supported by the research of Professor Robert Putnam, who found that when there is less ethnic solidarity, that people tend to "withdraw from collective life" and to "to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often". Descartes' basic argument here is also one I have often made myself, as for instance in defending the continuing existence of historic nations:

From this larger body we derive parts of our identity, our loves and attachments, our participation in a larger, transcendent tradition, our sense of pride and achievement, our social commitments, our attachments to place, whether to nature, landscape or urban environment, our connection to a particular cultural tradition, our commitments to maintaining moral and cultural standards, our sense of connectedness to both the history of our own people - to generations past - as well as our commitment to future generations.
I should pause, though, to question one part of Descartes' argument. He says that we should be willing to lose our souls to save others. Perhaps he wrote this for effect, but taken literally I think he is wrong.

Descartes writes in a similar vein:
A person seems to me more pitiful than admirable if he risks death from vanity, in the hope of praise, or through stupidity, because he does not apprehend the danger. But when a person risks death because he believes it to be his duty, or when he suffers some other evil to bring good to others, then he acts in virtue of the consideration that he owes more to the community of which he is a part than to himself as an individual, though this thought may be only confusedly in his mind without his reflecting upon it.

He connects this to a religious piety - to preferring to follow God's will rather than hedonic pleasures:

Once someone knows and loves God as he should, he has a natural impulse to think in this way; for then, abandoning himself altogether to God's will, he strips himself of his own interests, and has no other passion than to do what he thinks pleasing to God. Thus he acquires a mental satisfaction and contentment incomparably more valuable than all the passing joys which depend upon the senses.

In addition to these truths which concern all our actions in general, many others must be known which concern more particularly each individual action. The chief of these, in my view, are those I mentioned in my last letter: namely that all our passions represent to us the goods to whose pursuit they impel us as being much greater than they really are; and that the pleasures of the body are never as lasting as those of the soul, or as great in possession as they appear in anticipation. 
Descartes clearly considers our commitments to family and nation to be higher spiritual goods, through which we follow God's will for us, and are contrasted with a selfish pursuit of hedonic pleasure.

Although I do not subscribe to Descartes' larger philosophy, his views on this topic are preferable to those that were to develop later on, in which the individual was expected to pursue self-interest in the market (as Economic Man), and to develop solo as an individual outside of natural forms of community, with many intellectuals ultimately becoming not only disembedded from their own historic communities but actively hostile to them.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Why the incoherence?

One of the most obviously incoherent aspects of modern thought is the presence, at the same time, of both voluntarism and materialism/naturalism/scientism. These things would not seem to go together well at all. The voluntarism suggests that it is our own wills which define reality. If I say I am a woman, even if I am a man, then that is what I am and I should be treated as such by society. This conflicts with the materialism/naturalism/scientism which sees reality in terms of material processes. According to this outlook it would be genetics, chromosomes and hormones and such like that would determine my sex.

Many moderns hold to both voluntarism and scientism with equal force, despite the apparent incompatibility. How can we explain this? I don't personally have a modern type mind, so cannot answer with confidence, but I can suggest three possible explanations.

a) Accretions 

It can be the case that certain philosophies influence a culture over the course of that culture's history. Instead of these philosophies being harmonised, they simply "enter the mix". If this is the explanation, then the voluntarism might come from a variety of sources, e.g. from the theological voluntarism of the Middle Ages, or from German idealist philosophy of the nineteenth century, or more generally from the emphasis on autonomy as the goal of a liberal politics. The scientism/materialism/naturalism is derived from the rejection of scholastic philosophy in the Early Modern period and perhaps from empiricist schools of philosophy.

b) Science as a servant of human desires

My understanding is that modern science was launched, in part, with the idea that by understanding natural processes, humans could obtain the resources to satisfy unlimited wants. In other words, if the larger aim is not to live within the natural order, but to pursue our individual wants and desires to the furthest extent possible, then science could be employed to create the conditions in which those wants and desires could be fulfilled.

If this is so, then you can understand why moderns cleave to both scientism and voluntarism. The voluntarism represents the unfettered pursuit of whatever we will for ourselves. The scientism the means by which to obtain these wants and desires. 

c) The loss of value in nature

If nature is seen only from a scientistic/naturalistic viewpoint, then it will seem merely mechanical. It will no longer be a bearer of value in the way it once was when it was appealed to morally (i.e. when saying "it is natural/unnatural to do x, y or z" as a way of endorsing or condemning certain acts). 

I think it can be difficult for those raised within a Christian tradition to understand this. Christians are used to the idea of a purposeful act of creation, so that our relationship to the natural world is invested with meaning (even when we apprehend a certain mystery in the created world). But there are moderns for whom nature is just a mechanical process coldly indifferent to human life. There is nothing for them to relate to in the natural world.

So values, for such moderns, must then come from ourselves: they must come from our own subjective wills. We do not discover objective values inhering in the created world; instead, we assert the power to create values through an act of will (which perhaps represents a deification of ourselves in the image of a voluntarist concept of God).

You can see, then, why the scientism/naturalism/materialism goes together with a voluntarism. The scientism disenchants and de-values; the voluntarism is then necessary to reassert value. You get both, despite an apparent incompatibility between the two.

I'm not sure which of the three explanations is the more likely reason for the coexistence of both voluntarism and scientism. Perhaps all have had an influence, or there might be some other reason I have not considered.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Romance & reason 3

This will be my final post on Eva Illouz's work Why Love Hurts (see here and here for the first two). There is a passage about equality in the book that I think is worth commenting on. The issue being discussed is whether the modern understanding of equality undermines attraction between men and women by eroding differences. Illouz draws on the work of Louis Dumont, a French anthropologist:

As he puts it: “[I]t is easy to find the key to our values. Our two cardinal ideals are called equality and liberty.” And these values, Dumont suggests, flatten out the perception of social relations:
The first feature to emphasize is that the concept of the equality of men entails that of their similarity. [. . .] [I]f equality is conceived as rooted in man’s very nature and denied only by an evil society, then, as there are no longer any rightful differences in condition or estate, or different sorts of men, they are all alike and even identical, as well as equal.
Recalling de Tocqueville, Dumont adds: “[W]here inequality reigns, there are as many distinct humanities as there are social categories.” 

Here Dumont is recognising an apparently strange thing, namely that liberal moderns understand equality to mean something like "sameness". In theory, someone could support equality in the sense of seeing different types of beings as having equal value or worth. But moderns tend to want to erase distinctions in the name of equality. Percy Bysshe Shelley, as far back as 1811, in reference to the differences between men and women wrote:

...these detestable distinctions will surely be abolished in a future state of being

Similarly, in 1837 the American feminist Sarah Grimke opined,

permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is...derogatory to man and woman...We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes...the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female...Nothing, I believe, has tended more to destroy the true dignity of woman, than the fact that she is approached by man in the character of a female.

... Until our intercourse is purified by the forgetfulness of sex...we never can derive that benefit from each other's society...

So, from early on equality was conceived as the abolition of distinctions between men and women, i.e. as a shift toward sameness. Why? I think it went something like this. There was once the idea of a great chain of being, which was on the one hand a hierarchy of being, with those at the top having a qualitatively higher nature; however, each creature in the chain was necessary to the function of the whole, so each had a secure dignity for this reason. 

This idea of a chain of being meant, potentially at least, that those higher up the social scale might be thought to be more noble than those who were common. This meant that the noble class had to distinguish themselves not just through money or power but also through nobility of manner, character and behaviour. It meant, too, that most people would look "upwards" for social and cultural leadership to this noble class.

With the demise of this idea of a chain of being, a reaction took place, in which the emphasis was on "all men are created equal". Understood in historic context, this meant not only "equal in value" or "equal in the sight of God" but equal in the sense of there being no qualitative distinction in being: there was no class that due to birth or breeding stood higher in nobility.

I suspect that some moderns hoped that what would result from this loss of distinctions would be a net gain, in the sense that everyone would now stand equally in a condition of nobility. But clearly this is not what happened. Instead, we got what Dumont recognises as a "flattening" not only in social relationships but in the way that moderns think about "ontology" - i.e. about categories of being. We have increasingly lost the ability our ancestors had in discerning what is noble and what is base within the nature of things - leading to a cultural drift downward.

With the insistence on ontological sameness we have also lost a sense of "thick differences":

Dumont is an advocate of the kind of thick differences that are played out between different social and cultural groups in India, for example. In his view, the right and the left hand are not simply polar and symmetrical opposites; rather, they are different in themselves because they have a different relation to the body. What Dumont suggests, then, is that equality entails a loss of qualitative differences. He uses the analogy of the right and left hand because both are necessary to the body, but each is radically different from each other. In the nonmodern, non-egalitarian view, the value of each hand – left and right – is rooted in its relation to the body, which has a higher status. 

This shunning of subordination, or, to call it by its true name, of transcendence, substitutes a flat view for a view in depth, and at the same time it is the root of the “atomization” so often complained about by romantic or nostalgic critics of modernity. [. . .] [I]n modern ideology, the previous hierarchical universe has fanned out into a collection of flat views of this kind.

The regime of meaning to which Dumont points is one in which transcendence is produced by the capacity to live in an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe. Eroticism – as it was developed in Western patriarchal culture – is predicated on a similar “right-hand/left-hand” dichotomy between men and women, each being radically different and each enacting their thick identities. It is this thick difference which has traditionally eroticized men’s and women’s relationships, at least since these identities became strongly essentialized.  (pp.186-87)

So our difficulty runs as follows. We have inherited an understanding of equality, whose origins we are no longer self-consciously aware of, but which pushes toward making men and women the same (i.e. a flattening of the social relationships and a "thin" rather than a "thick" expression of sexual difference). This then contributes to a failure in the culture of sexual relationships between men and women.

The solution? It's important not to over-correct. There will always be both a horizontal axis of society as well as a vertical one. Even so, there does need to be a reassertion of "an ordered, holistic and hierarchized moral and social universe". It is one aspect of what constitutes the core of the West - the capacity to rise toward transcendent goods - which cannot even be attempted whilst we still, as a culture, believe ourselves to be inhabiting a flat cosmos.