In this installment of the series on Plato's Forms, we'll have a brief look at the major conceptions of the theory, some of the key differences, and dig deep into the one formulation Plato seems to have favored the most. For those of you looking for a thorough discussion of Parmenides' refutations, you'll have to wait until the last installment. In keeping with the principle of the first post, the idea here is to just try to understand the theory itself, and the problem it was trying to solve, before we make any move to object to it.
Over the next three posts, I will be outlining the theory of Forms, beginning today with why Plato might have concocted the theory in the first place, moving next to what exactly the theory is and how it works, and finishing up with an analysis of the criticisms of the Forms offered by Parmenides (primarily), and a few others since.
I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.
Day One: The End In The Beginning
The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.
The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.
Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:
“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”
Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.
This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.
Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism
The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.
As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.
Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.
Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.
Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.
Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.
It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.
The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.
Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.
But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.
The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.
John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.
Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.
Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.
As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ ~Isaiah 46:10
In The Republic, Socrates repeatedly insists that truth will be the highest value of his utopian society. To accomplish this, he argues that the myths of Homer and Hesiod should be hewn down to only those stories that are in accordance with what we know to be true, by proper philosophic study and dialectic argumentation. He further describes how the golden souls — those destined to be the philosopher king rulers of this utopia — having been weened and nurtured on these stories of truth, and having eventually come to know the truth for themselves in adulthood, will happily choose to submit themselves to the proper order of a truly just society.
And yet, he goes on to deny these “guardians” their own property, wives, or children, on the grounds that they will be overcome by their natural impulse to self-interest and find themselves in conflict with the good of the society as a whole. To mitigate the contradiction, in other words, Plato decides to institute a form of primitive communism. In order to institute the communization of guardian life, Plato has Socrates declare the necessity for the founders of this society to instill a falsehood in the first generation of guardians. This is to be a new myth, in which their childhoods were but a mere dream implanted in their memories by their ‘true’ mother, the soil of Hellas which birthed them whole, and to which they now owe their undying allegiance.
Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, expresses an explicitly self-conscious pang of guilt to Glaucon at the utterance of this “noble lie”, as well he should. This is because this step in Socrates’ argument (if it is Socrates’ argument) is the complete undoing of his entire utopian vision. To put the point bluntly, one cannot base an entire society on the absolute value of truth (and beauty) as ultimate ends, while simultaneously infecting it with an obvious and egregious lie at its core — even if that lie is encapsulated in a rapturous myth. Eventually, the love of truth will expose the myth for the lie that it is, and the entire civilization will dissolve into nihilism and hedonism.
This should be ringing some bells for wary modern ears. Another great philosopher once identified exactly the same flaw in our own society. If you’ve ever read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spake Zarathustra, you know what I’m alluding to. In these works, Nietzsche describes a western society that is dedicated to truth as an ultimate value, but simultaneously committed to a mythology that elevates self-sacrifice as a means of redemption from sin against the creator god himself. Because this mythology has an ultimate value in competition with truth — namely, self-justification through redemption versus self-justification through the pursuit of truth – and because truth is a natural acid to mythology, the mythology is ultimately doomed to fail, and the value hierarchy along with it. In other words, the death of God will spell the death of our civilization. Nietzsche thought this was because truth alone could not stand as sufficiently meaningful to stave off the onset of nihilism, but I think the dissolution of this myth has rendered us incapable of imbibing truth through myth anymore; and even more deadly, has left us certain that redemption is no longer necessary, let alone possible.
In any case, Nietzsche tried in vain to rescue us from our fate, but his work on the revaluation of all values is as horrifying as it is tragic. In it, you can hear the strong echoes of voices like Callicles from the Gorgias, whispers of Protagoras, and of course, whole refrains of Thrasymachus from The Republic. Socrates does a masterful job of dispatching Callicles and Protagoras, but there are niggling missteps in the argument of The Republic around the problem of self-interest and the common good that he is never quite able to put to bed. That should give one pause, and I do find these realizations immensely disturbing. It means that recent critics of the Enlightenment are very likely on to something, even if they may be wrong in the particulars. It means that, after all these centuries, not only have we not solved the problem of value, we still don’t have a clear answer to the much more primitive problem of the relationship of the individual to his society. This last realization came itself on the heels of another recent realization: Plato’s model of moral psychology is far more sophisticated than our own, and men like Hume and Mill have done an enormous amount of damage to the study of the nature of the human soul (as Plato would have put it), by trying to reduce it to mere sensual satisfactions (i.e., pleasure-seeking). In the process, they’ve made it more difficult than ever before, to solve the two problems I’ve enumerated here.
Modern-day acolytes of Hume (see my review of Jonathan Haidt’s book), recognizing the primitive nature of Hume’s work, have attempted to layer on modern explanations for his rudimentary theories of moral psychology, but this is doomed to failure, because it reflexively dismisses Plato as archaic, merely because he came before Hume (Haidt even tragically references The Republic in his unfortunate book). This is a mistake I’ll have much more to say about in future, but for now, suffice to say that we are living in dangerously perilous times. A world which both Plato and Aristotle would have found horrifying. A world in which we are being encouraged from birth to indulge our appetitive nature, and to believe there is no such thing as a spirited conscience, or a free will with which to act upon it. In spite of the shiny appearance of “progress” our science and technology has glossed the world in, it seems to me that this modern evacuation of such concepts as conscience and will can only lead to disaster. In our zest for truth, we’ve abandoned the false myths of religion, but have tossed out the true myths of moral psychology along with it, and now we can’t seem to find our way back.
Moral maxims are rules governing actions, or commands to act in certain ways considered morally correct. Some of the most well known maxims are those that come to us by way of religious tradition. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” are paradigm examples. Kant insists that his Categorical Imperative is the best means by which to test the maxims, for whether they correctly guide us to right action and away from wrong action. In this essay, I will argue that while the Categorical Imperative might seem plausible as a test of moral maxims because of it’s rigid logical form, it actually fails the plausibility test for one of the same reasons Parmenides rejected Socrates’ conception of the Forms.
In brief, the Categorical Imperative test is a thought experiment in which one attempts to universalize the maxim in question in order to discover a logical impossibility, or at least, an absurdity embedded in the consequences. Here’s how he states it:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
But there is a second, very closely related formulation, that looks like this:
“Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
The difference between these two might seem insignificant on the surface, but they represent a fundamental Platonic tension in Kant’s metaphysics of morals, which I’ll explain more fully, after outlining the distinction between these two a bit better. In the first conception, Kant is describing a feature of his moral law. In the second, he is making explicit reference to the natural law, in the Newtonian sense. He wants to link them because of their fundamental universality, but this linkage is only an analogy; the two universalities are fundamentally different in kind. In the case of natural law, scientists subsequent to Newton were attempting to infer the presence of a structure of rational intelligibility from the regularities and consistencies they observed, and in some cases could predict, in the behavior of objects in the mechanical universe given to us by Newton.
Kant rightly recognized the lack of ultimate necessity in these laws, and goes on about it at length in the Groundwork. He does this, because he needs his moral law to be something that is ultimately good, and that could not have been otherwise. In order to arrive at this, Kant has to borrow the notion of a telos for man from Aristotle. As with Aristotle, Kant chooses reason as the basis for that telos. But unlike Aristotle, Kant insists that the reason he has in mind is not the reason Aristotle wants us to accept. Aristotle’s reason would have us pursuing material ends that satisfy the conditions of living. For Kant, this is unacceptable. He makes a distinction between the rational mind of contingency, and the faculty of pure reason capable of discerning the absolutes of moral law, in the same way that Socrates would have us contemplating the Forms, in Republic or Phaedrus. The former is the basis for what Kant regards as “hypothetical imperatives”. These sorts of imperatives, he argues, can be of only relative or instrumental value, because they arise out of the contingency of circumstances and the temporal calculations of cost and benefit. For Kant, such imperatives could not constitute moral imperatives because they lack the constancy and objectivity of a mathematical equation or a geometric expression; in other words, the kind of truth that is true everywhere, at all times, and applicable to all rational beings – a_universal_ truth, of the kind envisioned in Plato’s description of the Form of The Good.
Intuitively, the ascendence into Platonic idealism may seem like a good idea. After all, why would we call a rule that only applied circumstantially a “moral rule”? Wouldn’t that simply be a convention, or a preference? Indeed, for Kant, the universal law of the Categorical Imperative is not derived from natural law, in the way that Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are derived by inferring them from the behavior of matter. Rather, the Categorical Imperative is derived from the moral law which is accessible only by means of the faculty of “pure reason”, as an entirely contemplative exercise. Kant goes so far with this concept as to suggest that there may be no acceptable method for justifying the Categorical Imperative itself by any exemplary application of the self-same principle:
“…how could laws of the determination of the will be regarded as laws of the determination of the will of rational beings generally… if they were merely empirical and did not take their origin wholly a priori from pure but practical reason? Nor could anything be more fatal to morality than that we should wish to derive it from examples. For every example of it that is set before me must be first itself tested by principles of morality, whether it is worthy to serve as an original example… but by no means can it authoritatively furnish the conception of morality… imitation finds no place at all in morality, and examples serve only for encouragement… they can never authorize us to set aside the true original which lies only in reason…”
Kant is invoking the ghost of Socrates here by complaining that examples are not enough, and that what he seeks is a universal definition for right action that can be contemplated in the realm of the intelligible, like the Form of the Good or the Form of Beauty. But Kant is also invoking the ghost of Parmenides here, by reminding us that the ideal good will, and the actual good will, do not seem to have any relation or connection to each other. As put by G. M. A. Grube:
If the [Forms] are not of our world, they are totally separate and there can be no connexion between the two. The [Forms] cannot then be objects of knowledge… If anyone has knowledge of them, a god has, but this knowledge of the Forms is beyond us human beings. We cannot know the god and the god cannot know us.
Kant even attempts to remedy this in his own metaphysics by positing a nearly identical Nuemenal Realm for his moral law as Socrates posits for Parmenides for his Forms (from Parmenides):
Could not, Parmenides, each of these Forms be a noema which cannot properly exist elsewhere than in souls? For then each of them would be one and what you said just now would not apply to it…
This could be the reason why Kant gives us these two different formulations of the Categorical Imperative — a difference that should appear much more stark now than at the beginning of this essay. Kant is trying to provide towers on either side of the chasm he’s attempting to bridge, with his “good will”. What’s more, Plato’s Forms are attempting to conceptualize an ideal for static objects of subjective experience, such as beauty or justice, or the shape of a triangle. But Kant is demanding the same standard of perfection for human action, as it manifests itself in the material world. There can be no perfect form of right action, because all of human action is bounded by contingency in the facts of reality. The Categorical Imperative is, therefore, a profoundly confused misapplication of Platonic Idealism.
It is telling, then, that Kant struggles so mightily in attempting to demonstrate the utility of the Categorical Imperative in the various examples he offers (and that earlier he complained could provide no true representation of it, much like Socrates would have complained of the Form of man). The case of the false promise, for example, does not expose a logical contradiction any more than Hume’s teapot refusing to boil does. Instead, all Kant is able to show, is how a world of nothing but false promises would seem a whimsically ridiculous place to us. The recognition of the absurdity in consequence is not the same thing as contemplating the injustice of the violation of a universal moral law. Even worse, the recognition of that absurdity exposes the fact that we’re implicitly dealing with a hypothetical imperative here: If you want to be able to rely on promises, then you need to honor them and expect others will do the same. Imagining this as some species of a Categorical Imperative residing in an intelligible realm of moral law renders you no less vulnerable to the unscrupulous man. But, more to the point, it leaves you with no clear reason to condemn him as having acted immorally. At best, you could complain about the inconvenience or the harm, at which point, you’d be applying a consequentialist standard, and our unscrupulous man could simply retort that its up to you to indemnify yourself against such a contingency in the real world.
For anyone who already prizes the beauty or the utility of the universal applicability of mathematics, or who is already wedded to the universal divinity of the human soul, Kant’s Categorical imperative is going to be powerfully seductive, as a moral system. If we all lived in a rational paradise in fact, then maybe we’d all be like that and Kant would just be another in a long pantheon of Philosopher Kings, ruling us rationally from the pulpit of the Form of Right Action, or the Form of The Good. For the rest of us in the real world, however, where life is lived in pursuit of contingent and temporal goals, the Categorical Imperative is at best a useful heuristic, and at worst, an oppressive ideal that renders us all moral failures at the outset.
Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” is an admixture of continental philosophy, eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, Christian theology, clinical psychotherapy insights, personal biography, and folk wisdom. At 368 pages, it’s just large enough to keep a thoughtful layman engaged without the more intimidating academic burden of his first book, “Maps of Meaning”. Dr. Peterson is obviously well read and quite thoughtful. In addition to some of his own occasional profundities, the book is absolutely littered with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. If you’re a curious reader, following these up will take you weeks.
A Jungian at heart, Peterson loves to cast his arguments into metaphorical and mytho-poetic form, which can be remarkably frustrating for a more hard-nosed analytical thinker like myself (he does this much less so, in Maps of Meaning). But Peterson is still very careful to cite modern sources for most of his empirical assertions throughout the book (with one significant exception, which I’ll get to later).
It took reading nearly the entire book to figure out how each of the 12 rules were related to each other as a whole, and the effort was well worth it. Chapters 6 (“Set your house in perfect order…”), 7 (“Pursue what is meaningful…”), and 8 (“Tell the truth…”), constitute the heart of the book in my view, with chapters 10 (“Be precise in your speech…”), and 11 (“Do not bother skateboarders…”) serving to really drive home the overall message of the book. What is that message? First, that contra Descartes, the fundamental unshakeable truth of human existence is the experience of suffering – a pre-rational essential phenomena that is, as Descartes might have put it, the primary “clear and distinct” knowledge we have of ourselves and of our “Being” (Peterson’s term. It seems to mean something like the state of existing and experiencing existence). Moreover, that suffering is a result of our having awakened to the fact of our own Being, that this was in some sense a choice, and most importantly, that now leaves us facing the perpetual choice of either accepting or rejecting the burden of this knowledge. The implication of all this, for Peterson, is that this is the fundamental moral choice. Our burden of this conscious choice – and the selection itself – is the acting out of our fundamental value. The ultimate consequence is the wholehearted embrace or rejection of the whole of creation. Not simply, as Nietzsche or Camus might say, the choice of suicide, but the choice of becoming judge, jury, and executioner of all Being including your own. The moral man, then, chooses life, and makes that his ultimate value in the process.
These chapters are, by far, the most philosophical of the book. They are essentially Peterson’s response to Nietzsche’s famous critique of value found in Zarathustra and the Genealogy of Morals. His formulation and answer to this problem is clearly influenced by Kirkegaard (whom he quotes twice), but the far stronger influence it seems to me is the Judeo-Christian Bible. Peterson casts the opening books of the bible into Jungian archetypes, and uses them to make his case. The Priestly Genesis is the origin of all Being: The Word is self-conscious Truth spoken as a means of deriving order from the chaos of the deep. Eve chooses to invite chaos into the walled garden of Eden and Adam follows her lead. In their offspring – Cain and Abel – we are confronted with the choice of life stated above, only in archetypal form: Cain condemns the world, its creator, and himself, out of resentment for the suffering he encounters; and not just for the suffering, but for the apparently unequal distribution of that suffering between himself and his brother Abel. Abel, on the other hand, chooses to properly honor himself and his creator with honest sacrifice. Peterson draws upon this metaphor again later, in a masterful parallel between this and the parable of Christ’s temptation in the desert.
So, for those who do their philosophy metaphorically, this book is a feast. It is an homage to hope, and a powerful argument against the nihilistic despair that seems to permeate our present modern culture. Still, I think this book is only likely to find fertile ground with seekers still open to the intuitive and allegorical approach to philosophical investigation. More to the point, those jaundiced by academic cynicism or jaded by ideological or intellectual biases, will generally find nothing more than a twenty-first century Joseph Campbell.
To be sure, there are some problems with the book. Rule 5, for example, lacks much of the intellectual rigor and careful citations of the rest of the book. Peterson makes numerous appeals to the work of B. F. Skinner in this chapter, which is only obliquely relevant anymore, since decades of work has been done on the developmental psychology of children since then (none of which he notes). Worse, he also makes appeal to several trite and easily refutable arguments in support of his position (for example, what I like to call the “hot stove defense”), and fails to acknowledge that much of what he put in this chapter is very often used as post hoc justification by many very poor parents. I think Peterson could have left this chapter out, and it would have been a better book.
Also, it is possible to charitably dispute Peterson’s allegorical approach to the question of meaning. The Joseph Campbell complaint, while somewhat of a straw man, is not entirely without merit. Sam Harris makes an excellent illustration of this, in his book “The End of Faith”, in which he satirically describes the spiritual significance of a Hawaiian snapper recipe. Though it is hyperbole, it does raise the question of how one would anchor the claims drawn from allegory in something more empirical, in order to make them properly defeasible. Peterson has yet to address this objection fully, as far as I know.
Despite these problems, I think the book is still well worth the effort to read, for any lay-philosopher looking for an interesting angle of approach to the problem of value and meaning, and its application in a very real-world way. The parallel psychoanalytic threads running through this book, also make it an excellent tool for meditation and self-reflection. It might be tempting to think that the work is mere “self-help”, because of this and because of the title. Don’t be fooled. Peterson explicitly rejects “giving advice”, in the book. What’s more, he’s secretly not even giving you “rules” to follow. What he’s offering, through the mnemonic device of easy-to-remember “rules”, is a glimpse into a unique psycho-philosophical framework for making sense of our phenomenal experience of the world. Or, to put it as Peterson might, a means of forging some order out of the chaos of your own suffering existence. The principles that make up the framework will sound surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s read any Greek philosophy:
- It is better to choose life, than death
- Aim for the ideal of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, but work on earth with what you have
- The responsibility for these choices is yours, and yours alone.
In a nutshell, he implores us all to be philosophical before (but not to the exclusion of) theological, and he thinks that if we would be, we would make the world better, even if only a little. Who can argue with that?
So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only...
Kant’s critique of Aristotle is fascinating to me. He uses Aristotle’s own standard against him: to say that virtue consists in achieving excellence in the unique purpose of a human life, and that this unique purpose can be identified by isolating the unique features of the organism as opposed to other organisms, you then have the problem of explaining how it is that the unique feature of reason could be better suited to helping humans achieve excellence at attaining ‘material ends’ (aka ‘happiness’), than the much more efficient and much less costly instinct, which all other animals have as well.
This is enough for Kant to argue that reason must then have some other purpose — which for him, is accessing ‘universal absolutes’ and functioning as the standard of ‘value’ he ascribes to the “good” will. But in making this move, Kant is also implicitly conceding Aristotle’s notion of a teleological end for which man has been “formed”. He’s simply arguing that Aristotle was muddled about the particulars, and that he has managed to sort it all out for us.
But, in order to make his criticism of Aristotle, Kant needs to reduce the greek notion of eudaemonia to (apparently) nothing more than the continuous satisfaction of contingent desires. Since these desires are ‘merely subjective’, dependent on circumstance, and are governed exclusively by the ‘laws of nature’, the satisfaction of them can have no ‘moral worth’ because moral worth consists in the ‘good will’ acting on the recognition of necessary duties found in the ‘moral law’ by way of pure reason, which is independent of contingent circumstances. Thus, hypothetical imperatives cannot “be moral”.
What’s ironic about all of this, is that Kant seems to be arguing with Aristotle, from the point of view of Plato. Kant wants there to be an absolute truth about moral rules, in a mathematical sense (he even makes an analogy to geometry at one point). He is frequently making reference to the difference between the sensible and the intelligible world and with it he makes a distinction between absolute value and relative value. All of these notions are constantly present in Plato’s dialogues. Even the distinction between ‘material’ ends, and ‘ultimate’ ends is something of a dispute between Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) and Plato (The Timeaus, The Republic).
It seems to me, that the debate around free will and morality seems to always resolve itself to the same dichotomies: objective-subjective, ‘intelligible’-‘sensible’, necessary-contingent, absolute-relative, and of course descriptive-normative. Has Kant added anything new to this dispute beyond Plato and Aristotle? I’m not so sure about that. The appeal to absolutes is a seductive one. Intuitively, it seems like a moral ‘rule’ could not be valid, if it were not absolute. Because, anything less than “true for everyone, everywhere, at all times”, is simply a preference by definition. However, Kant’s hypothetical examples of the Categorical Imperative in the Groundwork are notoriously confused and in at least one case (false promises), seem to argue against the categorical itself. If Kant himself could not imagine at least one unequivocal practical example of his imperative, it’s hardly fair to expect anyone else to be able to. Kant, I suppose, would have argued that in spite of the fact that ‘normal’ folk aren’t philosophers, they still “get it, deep down”. Maybe that’s what I was doing when I mentioned the intuitive appeal of absolutes. Still, it seems a bit like “cheating”, for Kant to make appeals to common-sense, when all throughout this book, he’s arguing that a properly philosophical understanding of morality must be grounded in rigorous logical universals. I’ll have more to say about this, later…
…When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment; nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation.In short, a passion must be accompanyed with some false judgment in order to its being unreasonable; and even then it is not the passion, properly speaking, which is unreasonable, but the judgment.
The consequences are evident. Since a passion can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, [except] when founded on a false supposition or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falsehood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falsehood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me…. [Book II, Part ii, Section iii]
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature: Bestsellers and famous Books (pp. 388-389). anboco. Kindle Edition.
According to Hume, reason is but a slave to the passions. We are moved to act by a process of primary impressions (e.g., pleasure and pain, or grief and joy, or attraction and aversion), giving rise to relations of ideas (memories and reflections), which then give rise to secondary impressions (pride and shame, or love and hate, etc).
Hume was probably hyperbolizing for the sake of highlighting the point (later on in life Hume apparently lamented stating it so forcefully). But the point was not simply that passions are neither ‘reasonable’ nor ‘unreasonable’, it was primarily that reason is inert; That no calculation of circumstances or train of logic is capable of moving a man, all on its own. He reasoned that there must be some process by which ‘relations of impressions and ideas’ are converted into passions (the things that actually provide us with the impulse to act). Hume often depicts reason as lying somewhere between initial impressions, and final passions, acting merely as a conduit or proximal cause (though I suppose he would have balked at the word ’cause’ here).
His explication of that process and how it works is woefully naive and speculative (in addition to being incorrect in most respects). However, I think he was on the right track, and simply lacked a sophisticated enough science of human biology and psychology to render his theory into something that made better sense to a modern mind. For the most part, in the 18th century, the only tool available to him was introspection and a smattering of knowledge of human and animal anatomy. So, frankly, not only should he be excused, he ought to be lauded as a genius for (nearly) single-handedly inventing the science of psychology and the philosophical notion of moral psychology.
Still, I find myself disagreeing with Hume for the following reasons:
First, “reason” and “passion” are not separate ‘faculties’ of the mind, placed into a hierarchy with each other. Even Hume seemed to understand this (at least in part). They are functional capacities that express themselves in varying degrees in concert, under various circumstances. Reason is no more the slave of the passions, than the strings and woodwinds are the ‘slaves’ of the french horns and trumpets in an orchestra.
Second, Later on in the Treatise, he’ll introduce yet a third relation: that of moral judgment. At which point, all he’s really doing is describing Plato’s tripartite soul, in a much more complex way (Plato, of course, placed reason in the charioteer’s seat). Why philosophers traditionally have insisted on conceptions of consciousness as simple hierarchies is something I don’t quite understand, but in truth, the mind is more like an evolving ecosystem, not a top-down political structure.
Third, Hume reifies the phenomena in his model. He says that passions are derived from relations of impressions and ideas. He also says that the “self” is itself nothing more than an idea that arises from a relation of other impressions and ideas. But, he then says that pride and shame are passions, and that pride and shame have as “their object”, the self. And, for this to happen, there must be a “we” (i.e. the “self”) that receives an impression of something beautiful that “we” own. But this is to assign intentionality to mere phenomena. Hume never explains how this is possible. You can’t on the one hand, say that all the phenomena of the brain are merely the effects of causal inter-relations between impressions and ideas, and then on the other, somehow make the impressions and ideas capable of choosing objects at which to direct themselves.
The consequence of this, is that the most Hume could have reasonably said, was that he didn’t really know whether passions ‘ruled’ or reason ‘ruled’. At most, our cognitive and emotional capacities are cohabitants, and if you look at the modern scientific literature (admittedly, I am but a layman), there is little in the brain itself to distinguish them apart. Some would say the difference between the limbic system and the frontal lobes is enough to show this, but despite being separate physical structures, the actual neural activity isn’t so distinct. The limbic system, for example, in addition to being responsible for most of our emotions, is also responsible for several functions related to memory(something Hume would have counted as part of his ‘relations of ideas’ rather than as a sensation). The point is, rather than being master and slave to each other, they’re more like ‘dance partners’.
In fact, it seems to me, the core question here is exactly what role do each of the cognitive and emotive capacities of the brain play, in decision-making? Unfortunately, I’m no psychologist, and only have a layman’s familiarity with a smattering of the scientific literature on the question (which might help answer the question). But, I suppose one criticism you could levy at Hume, is that his overall theory (as its proposed here) is unfalsifiable: no matter what you decide, it’s always evidence of the passions at work. But then, it’s not like Hume had access to a rigorous methodology.
The genius of Plato was both in recognizing the reality of these competing features of the human psyche, and in realizing that ultimately it is the rational portion that must stand apart from the horses and act as the ‘guardian’ of the entire self, rather than the hopelessly inadequate servant to the fractious elements, competing for its efforts. The genius of Orwell, whether he quite knew it or not, was in recognizing that modern man had surrendered responsibility for the charioteer by embracing men like Skinner and Freud, and that nothing good would ever come of it.