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.

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.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Jena set

I've begun reading Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf. It is about a group of German intellectuals (Fichte, Schiller, Schelling, Schlegel, Novalis) who gathered in the small university town of Jena in the very late 1700s and who subsequently had a major influence on the West. 

Andrea Wulf is herself a supporter of liberal modernity and so sees the influence of these men in very positive terms. Obviously I disagree, but nonetheless the book is useful in identifying the larger trends within philosophy at the time.

The book begins with the arrival in Jena of Fichte, who in his first lecture as a professor at the university declared that "A person should be self-determined, never letting himself be defined by anything external". This idea is very familiar to us today, being a core feature of the ruling state ideology of liberalism. How did Fichte get to this idea?

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

I think it's important to go back to an earlier wave of modernity - the one that took place from about the mid-1600s. Europe had been ravaged by wars for over a century by this time, so philosophy was focused to a considerable degree on peace and security. Philosophy had, by this time, also disenchanted the external world - the new cosmology was a mechanistic one. By 1686 the following exchange was recorded (by Fontenelle):

"I perceive", said the Countess, "Philosophy is now become very Mechanical." "So mechanical", said I, "that I fear we shall quickly be asham'd of it; they will have the World to be in great, what a watch is in little...But pray tell me, Madam, had you not formerly a more sublime idea of the Universe?"

Well, this was still the situation when the Jena set were starting out. The poet Novalis complained that,

Nature has been reduced to a monotonous machine, the eternally creative music of the universe into the monotonous clatter of a gigantic millwheel. (p.13)

And so the focus of the Jena set makes sense within the historical context. They reacted against the previous emphasis on shoring up political authority by agitating instead for political freedoms. And this focus on freedom extended into their cosmology. They did not like the mechanistic view which suggested that everything is causally determined.  

And so we come to Fichte's philosophy. This is how Andrea Wulf puts 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 does open up a sphere of freedom from causal necessity but at a considerable cost. There is a rejection here of the idea that human reason can perceive the given nature of things, the "thing in itself" and that there exists, at some level, a divine order to the cosmos in which humans are embedded. Instead, it is now the task of the Absolute I to assert itself against the non-I. Ficthe wrote:

My system is the first system of freedom: just as the French nation is tearing man free from his external chains, so my system tears him free from the chains of things-in-themselves, the chains of external influences. 

One consequence of believing this is the idea of the individual will tearing down external reality as an act of freedom:

My will alone...shall float audaciously and coldly over the wreckage of the universe. (p.46)

It should be said, though, that Fichte did not envisage this as destroying moral foundations. Again, context matters here. There were British philosophers who thought that people were driven by sensations and by desires such as fear and greed, rather than by moral principles. For Kant and Fichte, the existence of a rational will meant that the individual was not merely reacting to external stimuli in his actions but could choose freely to act morally. In this way, Fichte was able to link freedom and morality. Again, in Andrea Wulf's words:

The ultimate purpose of each individual was 'the moral ennobling of mankind', and it was the task of the philosopher and scholar to be the teacher of the human race - and to be that he had to be 'morally the best person of his era'.

So Fichte did not discard the long held Western moral understanding which distinguished the noble from the base. This understanding, though, had its roots in a very different cosmology, one in which there was a hierarchically ordered chain of being. It is difficult to see how Fichte's cosmology, of the self-positing I, could adequately support the older understanding. If the point is to be free within my own subjective sense of self-awareness, and not conditioned by anything that is not-I, then how do distinctions between the quality of acts or thoughts come about? On what grounds are some ordered as more noble or more base?

The second reaction of the Jena set to the inherited mechanical view of the cosmos was to emphasise the need to rebalance reason with feeling. There was an emphasis on the imaginative faculty (drawn from Kant) and of a poetic sensibility. The poet Schiller complained of utility being "the great idol of our time" and wanted aesthetics (an appreciation of beauty) to be a bulwark against greed and immorality.

It's interesting to note how all of this came together in Beethoven, who is known to have been influenced by figures like Fichte. His music expresses not only the commitment to political freedom of the Jena set, but also the poetic sensibility and the expression of the noble and the beautiful. 

The assertion of feeling against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment is one of the more positive outcomes of the romantic movement. However, set against this is the shift into a radical subjectivism and an extraordinary emphasis on the individual will. Later on, Fichte's philosophy encouraged both nihilism and the demonic. The Dutch philosopher Paul van Tongeren explains the nihilism this way:

...the affirmation of the “I” takes place through the negation of a separate reality. But this negation of all independent reality leads to the enthronement of the “I” in a world of complete emptiness. It has no other, no reality to face, no communion in which to engage. There is naught but the nothingness and loneliness in which and from which the “I” creates its own world. The “I” becomes an endless egotist in a world that is eerily empty. (p.21)

And the demonic as follows:

...this terrifying vision reflects back onto its creator: within the world it has created, the “I” discerns its own—apparently destructive—representations and desires! The emotions of the empirical “I” (such as boredom, or terror) are not in response to an outside—there is no outside, after all—but an experience of the self-positing or self-confirming activity of the (absolute) “I”. It becomes clear that the creator isn’t the bright light of reason, but a dark force. The absolute “I” becomes a demonic power that the empirical “I” is at the mercy of 

The romantic movement did not descend to this in its entirety. The emphasis on beauty and subjective experience did allow some artists, for instance, to experience a communion with nature or to be inspired by feminine beauty. But you can see the negative side there as well, from early on. 

So what can we conclude from the Jena set? Perhaps I will have more to add when I finish reading the book. For now, I would point out the importance of metaphysics in the shaping of society. We are still Fichteans in the sense of connecting freedom to the self-positing individual. It is a dubious project, as it sets the individual against the givens of existence.

A traditionalist metaphysics would, amongst other things, connect the individual more positively to the created reality of which he is a part.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Empowered to be alone?

Chrissie Swan is a 49-year-old Australian TV and radio presenter. Last year she confirmed that she had separated from her partner of 15 years, with whom she has three children. They still live amicably under the same roof.

She recently discussed the reason for the separation. It piqued my interest because it resembles what other middle-aged women have told me about why they left their husbands/partners. saying goodbye to this chapter, she regained herself. When Chrissie was 45-year-old, she noticed – like many other women – she took care of everyone's needs before her own. Four years later, she is happier than ever and is embracing her best single life.

"I was 45 and I thought, I'm not having much fun. To be honest, I was doing exactly what most women do and I was putting everyone first," she told 7News.

Despite the pressure for women to find 'the one' in their 20s and 30s, Chrissie feels that she has rather gained a better appreciation for life and everything on offer. "I think society tells us that we don't need to be by ourselves as women," she said. "We are the mothers, the friends and the wives... we're supposed to get our life blood from being of service to people, and that wasn't true for me at all."
What Chrissie Swan is describing, in talking about service to others, is the altruistic love that was once thought to characterise the feminine personality. For instance, in 1958 Marie Robinson wrote that,
Related to this feeling in her, to her sense of security, seeming almost to spring from it, indeed, is a profound delight in giving to those she loves. Psychiatrists, who consider this characteristic the hallmark, the sine qua non, of the truly feminine character, have a name for it: they call it “essential feminine altruism.” The finest flower of this altruism blossoms in her joy in giving the very best of herself to her husband and to her children. She never resents this need in herself to give; she never interprets its manifestations as a burden to her, an imposition on her.
So here is the unusual thing. Chrissie Swan is rejecting altruistic love, even though it is how past generations of women expressed a core aspect of themselves, and even though she was not making that many sacrifices in terms of her own individual ambitions and lifestyle. After all, she was pursuing a busy, high status, successful and well paid career during this time, and she had the wealth to outsource much of the domestic work. 

In other words, her service to her family did not prevent her from pursuing other aims in life; nor need it have been burdensome in terms of workload. So why then choose to go solo?

A possible reason is that the world picture that women like Chrissie Swan receive from the culture includes the idea that the aim of life for women is empowerment. This is defined as having the power to freely do whatever you have a mind to do without negative consequence or judgement. As evidence that this mindset has influenced Chrissie Swan there is the following social media post:

She is justifying her decision to leave her partner on the basis that "I am the Captain of my own life. And I can do whatever I like". She is asserting here her "empowerment" as an individual and her commitment to solo development.

What this is leading to is a phenomenon in which some middle-class Western women are now seeing the family stage of life as a temporary aberration. They have a single girl period in their teens and twenties, then find a decent family-oriented guy to have children with in their 30s to mid-40s, before reasserting a full commitment to the empowerment model in later middle-age.

Chrissie Swan

The empowerment model is incompatible with marriage and family life. It is sold to women as representing the good of their sex, but this is highly questionable. Here is how Chrissie Swan describes her new lifestyle:
I have been spending a fair bit of time utterly alone...It’s a weird kind of exhilaration and joy from knowing all I need is myself....Last Friday I even went apple picking alone - and I highly recommend it. I’ve spent some time in my vege patch (I have no idea what I’m doing). I’ve also been buying myself flowers and taking myself out on walking dates, coffee dates, lunch dates and to the movies. Best company ever!
Yes, having quiet time to decompress is important for people with high pressure working lives. I cannot believe, though, that she could not have negotiated this with her partner. And I simply do not accept the idea that a woman buying herself flowers and taking herself out on dates is the higher good for the female sex. It is, rather, a deprivation of one of the higher goods in life, namely spousal union.

There is a conflict in our culture between the goods of empowerment and spousal union. The good of empowerment I think is not only a lower good, but mostly a false one. To date yourself and then later to spend old age alone does not fit the design for human life, at least not for the ordinary person. It takes a great deal of energy for someone to convince themselves otherwise and to make their peace with it.

The good of spousal union, like all higher goods, is not easily achieved. It does not just happen naturally, but requires an uncommon level of commitment for a couple to work their way through difficult times. It also has a logic of its own. For instance, it makes sense for those oriented to spousal union to try to maintain a sexual polarity, so that we bring something to the union that we cannot provide ourselves - hence, no pride in being entirely self-sufficient. In the past, marital unions were conceived in terms of spouses gifting something to each other, which is difficult to do if there is a complete flattening of distinctions between men and women. 

It is also the case that a spousal union asks of us that we be worthy of being joined together with our spouse. We are challenged to show a better aspect of who we are. The emphasis is not just on feeling, or for that matter, on receiving. There is instead a challenge of being - of what we are called to be in relationship with our spouse.

Monday, February 20, 2023

The original "What is a woman?"

The American political commentator Matt Walsh released a documentary recently titled "What is a woman?" It showed the difficulty many moderns have in answering an apparently simple question.

The question was posed, however, much earlier by the woman credited with kickstarting second wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, back in 1949 in her book The Second Sex. Her discussion of the question is interesting because it deals with the metaphysical origins of modernity. 

She opens her argument with this:
But first we must ask: what is a woman? 
She acknowledges that some people would answer that there is a feminine quality that women embody and express, an "essence", that is part of the definition of womanhood. However, she rejects the existence of such a quality of femininity:
It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. Is this attribute something secreted by the ovaries? Or is it a Platonic essence, a product of the philosophic imagination? Is a rustling petticoat enough to bring it down to earth? Although some women try zealously to incarnate this essence, it is hardly patentable. It is frequently described in vague and dazzling terms that seem to have been borrowed from the vocabulary of the seers, and indeed in the times of St Thomas it was considered an essence as certainly defined as the somniferous virtue of the poppy

But conceptualism has lost ground. The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman...Science regards any characteristic as a reaction dependent in part upon a situation. If today femininity no longer exists, then it never existed. 

She claims that there are no innate qualities, and notes that in her time the sciences held character to depend on the social environment. But if there is no such thing as femininity, and we are simply products of our environment, then what does it mean to be a woman?:

But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman. Many American women particularly are prepared to think that there is no longer any place for woman as such; if a backward individual still takes herself for a woman, her friends advise her to be psychoanalysed and thus get rid of this obsession. In regard to a work, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which in other respects has its irritating features, Dorothy Parker has written: ‘I cannot be just to books which treat of woman as woman ... My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.’
This is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows that at the end of the long first wave of feminism, the same result occurred that we are seeing today. The term "woman" lost all meaning. Today, if you ask a progressive what the term means, they will simply say "whatever a woman wants it to mean". If you follow up by asking "can it mean anything then?" they will answer "yes". In 1949, the category was also thought to lack any signifying substance - it was held by progressives to be an arbitrary category that should be jettisoned.

Simone de Beauvoir

Second, Simone de Beauvoir is aware that this attitude has its origins in certain philosophical positions, including that of nominalism. Nominalism is the belief that there are only individual instances of things and that universals have no real existence but are only names. In this view, the feminine is not a really existing quality or essence that gives a distinct nature to women.

Simone de Beauvoir's position on nominalism is complex. On the one hand, she thinks it inadequate because she believes the categories of man and woman to be real - unlike certain later feminists she rejects the idea that there is liberation in escaping the category of woman. However, she also rejects the idea of the masculine and the feminine as being innate qualities that men and women embody and express:
But nominalism is a rather inadequate doctrine, and the antifeminists have had no trouble in showing that women simply are not men. Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual. To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today – this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality. 
Her defence of the distinction between men and women is not exactly encouraging:
In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.
Which leads her back to the question her book is intended to answer:
If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through ‘the eternal feminine’, and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question “what is a woman”?
I have not read all of the remainder of her book. Part of her answer is that women have been defined only in relation to men, as "the Other". She wants, in line with modernity, for women to be autonomous. She has the following negative take on traditional womanhood:
Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not an autonomous being
Her solution is the familiar feminist one of claiming that the differences that have existed between men and women are not the product of an innate masculinity or femininity but are due to socialisation:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female acquires in society; it is civilization as a whole that develops this product, intermediate between female and eunuch, which one calls feminine.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not really sure what her answer is to the question "What is a woman?". She seems to focus on the idea that women are not by nature feminine (which she takes to be a negative thing) and should be autonomous in the sense of living for themselves. She writes of her dislike for marriage, motherhood and family and promotes free love, abortion and careers.

She lived to see her preferences realised in Western society. But we do not live in a culture that can answer the question she raised back in 1949. Our culture still does not know what a woman is.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

A false footing

In 1892 an Australian Christian socialist by the name of William Guthrie Spence gave a speech on the topic of "The Ethics of New Unionism".

He began by noting that the old unionists had rejected the individualism of the past to organise together to improve their wages and conditions. They did not, however, seek reforms outside of their own workplaces.

William Guthrie Spence

Spence wanted the new unionism to go further and to transform the world. In explaining this, Spence revealed himself to be a kind of transitional modernist, in that he mixed together certain more traditional concepts with others that we would recognise today as being modernist.

Like so many other leftists before (and after) him, Spence believed in the perfectibility of human nature:

I take it that the human family is inherently good. I go against that old idea of always crediting our human frailties to original sin. I say that humanity is inherently good if we only let it have a chance to exercise its goodness.

This is an optimistic account, but it leads him into dangerous territory. It allows him to believe that a change of the system in which men live, from a competitive to a cooperative one, will so perfect the nature of man that it will overcome all social ills and usher in a utopia. He does not hold back in expressing this belief:

If I understand anything of the teachings of the founder of Christianity it is that He came to bring heaven upon earth — to set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. I fully believe that we can make this heaven.

...Heaven is an ideal state where we escape from all the ills and sorrows that we experience here. In our present state we see many, very many cases of suffering and of trouble. We can trace its cause and see a way of removing it, and shall we sit idly by and allow the misery to go on? No, a thousand times no. Christ taught men that they could and should bring the kingdom of heaven upon earth. New unionism aims at giving practical effect to that, knowing full well that the inherent good in humanity, if it has an opportunity to expand, will rise, will become practical, and bind the people together.
This is the clearest example I have ever come across of "immanentizing the eschaton" which is defined as an attempt "to bring about utopian conditions in the world, and to effectively create heaven on earth."

This already suggests that Spence's Christianity has been modified by modernist ideas. It is not that Spence is entirely wrong in believing that the conditions people live under affect their behaviour. Nor is he wrong in thinking that Christians might attempt to ameliorate those conditions. But what matters now for Spence is a natural process (evolution) through which humanity acts of itself to create a heaven on earth. It is not far removed from a secular humanism.

When people start to see "humanity" as the significant centre of faith and vehicle of progress, they are likely to prefer a shift toward "higher unities" bringing people to believe in humanity as one larger whole, rather than smaller and localised forms of community. Spence says, for instance,

What is your life or my life worth, unless it has been exercised in doing something to add to the sum of happiness of the human family? Those who are conservative enough to let things run as they are of what use are they to the human family? They retard progress. There are now certain well-defined paths with which you can see the thoughts and actions of reformers are trending. Human energy has hitherto been exercised in a wrong direction. Shall we remove the obstacles and put it in the right direction.

There is no defence here of traditional institutions or ways of life, which now represent the "wrong direction" and are obstacles to be overcome by reformers. The worth of a life is no longer measured by a relationship to God, or service to family or nation, but by adding to the happiness of the entire human family.

His orientation to a single humanity is also expressed when he declares,

We are aiming now at securing an improvement by social and political reforms — and by that means alone a revolution will undoubtedly be effected in time. When I use the word revolution — do not misunderstand me — I mean a quiet one. It will be a change from one condition to the other, which almost deserves the name of “revolution.” I feel certain it will come about steadily and surely and rapidly if we take the proper stand, the only stand — that of common humanity.

He says here that the only stand is that of common humanity. He is consistent, then, when he insists that there should be no distinction of sex:

Women workers will also be included, for the spirit of “new unionism” makes no distinction of sex.
Spence likewise sounds very modern when talking about equality: instead of competition is one of the aims of the New Unionism; giving equality of rights, equality of opportunity, and equality of justice to all men.

I find it particularly interesting that Spence is already, as far back as 1892, expressing something of a technocratic mindset. He argues, for instance, that "In the future things must be done in the mass.'' As we shall see, he also argues for the principle of "efficiency". He is not yet, however, arguing for rule by experts; instead, he wants a landed aristocracy replaced by men of "character, genius and intellect".

In what ways does Spence sound more traditional? Well, his world picture is not yet entirely flat. There is still some sort of vertical hierarchy, of things more noble and more base. He states, for instance, that,
Humanity must, of course, be regarded as part of Nature, and are also influenced by the spirit of evolution. We have been placed at the very apex of the pyramid of created things.
He speaks also of his hopes that if people remove impediments to progress that there will be "an expansion of the good, of the noble, of the best. All these are qualities to be admired in man, and mark the distinction between the higher and lower in humanity." Similarly he later exclaims "The principles underlying this movement are those founded on eternal truth. They aim at giving exercise to the highest and very best qualities of human life and nature."

Spence's version of modernism has managed to withstand a naturalistic logic in which there is no order to creation and no means of distinguishing the high from the low. What Spence does share with the modernists, though, is a rejection of the good within the current order. If evolution is pushing toward heaven on earth, then it is important that reformers remove impediments to progress, which makes it wrong to conserve as a matter of principle. You can see here how politics then develops: there are "progressives" who will push for change in the belief that this will usher in a more perfect world and "conservatives/traditionalists" who are alarmed that the good that exists as part of an inherited tradition will be sacrificed and lost.

There is one final point to be made. In spite of his commitment to humanity as a whole, Spence was still very firmly an ethno-nationalist. As a founder of the Australian Labor Party he wrote:
The party stands for racial purity and racial efficiency — industrially, mentally, morally, and intellectually. It asks the people to set up a high ideal of national character, and hence it stands strongly against any admixture with the white race. True patriotism should be racial.

There is a hint here of the proto-technocratic mindset I wrote about earlier when he uses the phrase "racial efficiency". Spence was not alone among progressives of the time in supporting ethno-nationalism - so too did figures like Alfred Deakin and William Lane. The point I would make is that his overall worldview was unlikely, in the longer run, to support the continuation of an ethno-nationalism.

If you set up as an idea that there is a natural evolution of humanity toward a kingdom of heaven on earth; that conserving tradition impedes this progress; that the meaning of life is to serve the human family; that distinctions, such as those of sex, should not be admitted; and that there should be equality of rights and of opportunity for all men - then it will be difficult in the longer run to defend more particular and parochial inherited identities. 

I noted this already in a post on Alfred Deakin, a future Prime Minister. His biographer, Judith Brett, wrote that,

To him the larger, more unified view was always superior, higher and more evolved, less selfish and closer to the divine purpose than the narrow and parochial...
This is similar to Spence's idea that evolution will bring us ultimately to serve one human family. So how did Deakin justify his ethno-nationalism? Judith Brett believes it was simply left as a contradiction:
Liberal nationalism has an inherent contradiction. It speaks of the universal values of liberty and brotherhood, but it applies them to particular populations. Deakin was well aware of the contradiction: his prayer would be "wide as thy would embrace all living things", "were not this to render it pointless and featureless", and so he narrowed his focus "to my kind, to my race, to my nation, to my blood, and to myself, last and least". A couple of years later he prayed for blessings "for my wife and children, family, country, nation, race and universe".
Future Labor politicians would, predictably, begin to extend the focus. Arthur Calwell in the 1930s, for instance, argued in favour of a greater diversity in the Australian population as a matter of equal opportunity and social justice and this led to the expansion of the migration programme after WWII. Calwell's focus did not extend beyond European migration, but by the late 1960s/early 1970s both Labor and Liberal politicians went full focus and adopted a policy of multiculturalism.

You cannot expect something to survive forever when it exists as an unprincipled exception to the larger worldview that you have adopted. If you want a traditional nation to continue, then your worldview needs to accept that there are things embedded within traditions that represent the good and that are worthy of conserving - and that the project of conserving is not just some reactionary offense against progress to an unlikely utopia.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Vacating the field

Matt Wallaert has drunk deeply of the liberal kool-aid. Here is his take on the issue of prostitution:

What he is arguing is that if his wife chose to prostitute herself, she would not need to justify her decision to him as her husband as it would be entirely her own decision.

He is arguing this to be consistent with his liberal beliefs. Liberals generally believe in maximising individual autonomy. When applied to women, this means believing that a woman is only free when she is empowered to choose in any direction, without negative consequence or judgement. Matt Wallaert takes this idea to its absolute logical conclusion by claiming that he has no right to judge the (hypothetical) decision of his own wife to prostitute herself with other men.

It is one example of how the liberal formula can be degrading rather than liberating. Note as well just how incompatible the belief is with the idea of a spousal union and with the pursuit of a common good within family life. In this case, the wife can choose anything at all, no matter how damaging to the marriage, and the husband has no right to challenge or query the decision.

I would also point out that such a belief also undermines the possibility of effective male leadership. If you think the important thing is to be able to choose in any direction without negative judgement or consequence, then how can you put yourself forward to guide or to lead? If your best response is "it's up to her" no matter what she has chosen, how are you leading? Are you not vacating the field?

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Revisiting Juliet

Almost a dozen years ago I posted a story about a New York woman named Juliet Jeske. She was 38-years-old at the time and felt cheated of the chance to become a mother by her divorce (her ex-husband had come out as homosexual). 

She herself noted the discrepancy between her left-liberal politics and her more traditional attitude to family:

My politics are liberal, but my personal life is extremely conservative...Which is sort of why the divorce has been so difficult. My marriage gave me support, stability, a companion that I loved very deeply and most importantly a sense of calm.

My one comment on her situation was that it was a pity that her politics did not match what she considered to be important goods in her own personal life:

I've watched a few videos of Juliet Jeske doing stand up comedy. She adopts the mocking tone of the radical leftist and she poses as a sexual radical. She wants to shock and to tear down and to dissolve standards and yet at the same time she wants the very traditional goods of a stable marriage, a hard working husband who will provide material security and motherhood.

Unusually for this website, she popped up in the comments thread and complained that "making personal attacks on me is just pathetic." I replied,

I'm not sure if it's the real Juliet Jeske posting comments here.

If it is I'd encourage her to engage with the main argument. Is it really right to complain about sexual mores if you belong to a political movement which has brought about those mores?

Out of curiosity I recently looked her up to see how she was going. Unfortunately, she never did manage to marry and have children. She now describes herself as a cat lady and says that she spends 15 to 30 hours a week monitoring Fox News. 

Juliet Jeske

She had previously written a series of articles on the difficulty of dating in New York. These articles are honest and insightful and worth reading. For instance, she wrote one about the difficulties of dating in your late 30s:

When I was in my twenties, dating seemed so much easier. Men and women didn’t have such exact standards, long-term compatibility issues weren’t discussed and everyone seemed so much charmed by each other. I see it now in my friends who are about 10 years younger than me. There is a look of hope and optimism in their eyes that is rare in most of us pushing 40. Even if they have had major heartache, a younger person is less likely to have had the soul crushing experience of a divorce. And very few 25 year olds have had long-term relationships, most are simply too young to have had dated anyone for 10 years or more. People in their twenties are generally more innocent and less jaded, so they are willing to take more risks and have greater hope in another person...When I go out with age appropriate men I find that for some of them, everything becomes a deal breaker.

By her mid 40s things had gotten worse. She wrote a post describing her dating life which included the following topics:

1. If your date actually shows up you are halfway there – It’s next to impossible to get a man to actually agree to a date. Expect nothing.

5. Learn to love spontaneity – Like planning more than a day in advance? Have an unusual schedule that can be difficult to plan around? Well then you’re never dating anyone. If you won’t jump up at a moment’s notice and meet some guy you barely know in a dive bar in the Lower East Side, you’re never getting laid again. Get used to meeting up with men when they’re already half drunk.

8. Find the right slut balance – The Madonna/Whore complex runs deep in the urban male. Men will expect and hope that you will have sex with them minutes after you meet them. If you decide to take the plunge too early you’ll be branded a worthless slut and discarded accordingly. If you try to hold out for a second or third date you might be considered a sexless puritanical old maid.

But the post I want to focus on is her original one complaining about hook up culture:

But the most distressing behavior that I really can’t justify or figure out in New York is the casual sex hook up mating habits that I frankly have no desire to engage in. Yes, I know I get on stage and joke and tell a blue streak of obscenities and adult themed humor, but in my personal life I am a committed relationship type of gal. I make no illusions to being anything but this, and I do not judge others for their behavior. If a polyamorous life of multiple lovers works for a person, then I say go for it. Or if a string of emotionally detached one-night stands with perfect strangers is what makes a person happy then great.

...It is just sort of expected by many that you start the physical part of the relationship first, and then see if either partner wants to continue after you have had sex...Or what I like to call how to be treated like something in between a booty call and a girlfriend. And as a person who doesn’t like being treated poorly, these setups are not usually to my liking. The guy will call or text when he wants to hookup but that is about it.
  • You are supposed to be on call to wait for the opportunity and then run to see him
  • Don’t reveal too much about yourself, but listen to him complain about his trials and tribulations
  • Don’t expect commitment, or exclusivity
  • Don’t expect any emotional bonding
  • Don’t expect much effort on his part to impress you, or make you feel like you are important in his life.
Not exactly what I call fun, but again everyone is different and for some people this situation is ideal.

I know there a plenty of men and women who are frustrated like myself out there. I hear it all the time from my friends, sometimes they think the fast life of hookups and one-night working for them. But they soon grow tired of it and want something steady with one person. But what are we supposed to do when everyone around us seems to be whoring it up? If a guy can so easily get no-strings attached sex, and then never see the woman again if he chooses, then why would they try for anything else? And when a man is tired of the hook-ups himself, how does he then make the transition to getting to know a woman when he has been hooking-up for years?

In theory liberalism is about maximising individual choice. We are supposed to be able to choose in any direction, as long as we don't discriminate against or negatively judge the choices of others. Juliet Jeske clearly wants to be seen to be following this principle, as she nearly always follows up a statement of her own preference with a disclaimer that she is fine if other people choose differently.

But it didn't work for her. She did not get her preference, not even something as basic as being courted, getting married and having children. And there is a reason she did not get her preference: the liberal model does not take into account that many of our deepest aims require other people to act in certain ways. In other words, our own good depends on what other people choose to do.

Juliet Jeske describes the dilemma well. People come to realise that a lifestyle based on casual sex is unfulfilling. However, it is difficult for one person to stand alone against a culture that is already set in place and to defy expectations. She understands that if all women were to be more modest that it would change the culture, but the woman who does this alone is likely to be passed over. And so she feels pressure to be someone she is not and to engage in a dating culture that she knows won't make her happy. There is no "maximum preference satisfaction" for her.

Nor does she help things by running down traditional sexual mores in her comedy routines and by emphasising the idea that goods are merely subjective. 

The traditional approach was to recognise that there is a common good to be upheld. This does not mean sacrificing your own good for that of the collective. It means that your own good is only realised in common with others. The good has to be upheld together within a community. You cannot, after all, marry yourself. And your chances of a good marriage increase or decrease according to the cultural supports, or lack of them, for marriage and family formation that exist within your society.