Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

From Philosophy for Business Issue 72

Knowing What is Good for You:
A Theory of Prudential Value and Well-Being

Tim E. Taylor
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
ISBN 9780230285118 (hbk.)

Dr Tim Taylor is visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds, UK. He is a very analytical, very careful writer, and enters the analysis of the nature of value in great depth. An irony of the book is that, as Taylor says, you will not read an analytical philosophy book unless you already value thought provoking, detailed analytical literature. But then, Taylor argues, we can believe something to be of no interest or value and yet, with hindsight, find that we were wrong.

So there is a reason to read this book: It is a chance to challenge your perceived values. However, I recommend it because on the second page of the first chapter Taylor says that he wants a theory of prudential value and well-being that accords with our common sense and our pre-theoretical thoughts about what is good for us. Common sense tells us that we can reflect on our lives and think about how to improve them to increase our sense of well-being and this is by increasing the amount of things that we value in our lives and getting rid of those things that we don’t value.

Basing his analysis on intuitive common sense, Taylor doesn’t leap on any current in-theory bandwagon. For instance he doesn’t believe our well-being is determined by what is good for us in evolutionary terms, as this would give ‘a very impoverished picture of what is good for humans’ (p.51).

Though based on common sense, the book is quite technical. Taylor considers in depth both subjectivist and objectivist approaches to prudential value and well-being and is firmly on the subjectivist side, given that a value requires that we evaluate as subjects and satisfaction of value gives rise to a positive psychological attitude.

Many questions are raised, but the main questions are: How do we know that something contributes to our personal well-being and why we can be wrong about this? What is it about some things that makes them good for us? What brings together different evaluations into a class of ‘prudential value’? We know if something contributes to our well-being if it brings about a positive state of mind, but our attitudes can be distorted. We know what is good for us by reference to our subjective states of mind. What brings together prudential values is that they contribute to our well-being.

Prudential values are not the only values. There are moral and aesthetic values, for instance. These differ from prudential values in that you may lead a highly moral life or achieve a high level of aesthetic appreciative understanding, but that is not a guarantee that these things are good for you or that such commitments contribute to your well-being. They might lead to restrictions on other areas of activity that would have led to greater well-being. It is not even obvious that prudential values do lead to well-being unless they satisfy desires and, through hindsight, we can find we were wrong to hold something of value.

Taylor holds that prudential value determines well-being since the more things that we value are present in our lives, the greater our well-being. Given that values are subjective and personal, it needs to be explained why states of affairs, such as the health of the economy, have prudential value and so contribute to our well-being. Taylor argues that such states of affairs have prudential value for us because a healthy economy fulfils a psychological desire which we want to be satisfied, which will contribute to our well-being.

Taylor’s subjectivist position is that value depends on psychological attitudes of individuals. The opposing position comes from the objectivist. The objectivist — according to Taylor’s definition — holds that this not entirely so. So at the end of the spectrum between subjectivism and objectivism, there is a rather strange ‘objectivist list approach’ of what is of prudential value. A list of what is valuable doesn’t answer the question about what makes these things valuable though. Further, the list cannot be all encompassing because people, Taylor says, are ‘capricious’ in what they hold to be of value. There is no universal or independent determination of what can be of value. The capriciousness of people is also a problem for the subjectivist, as seen in the two questions above. However the subjectivist can more readily acknowledge relativity or personal variation in prudential evaluations on what will determine well-being for an individual. Indeed, the ‘reasons why people value things can vary from case to case, and there is no requirement that we must always value things for a reason’ (p.81). It seems, further that in giving reasons why you value something, you run out of reasons, and end up saying ‘I just do’ think so.

A theory of well-being as ‘what is good for you’ is quite closely allied to hedonism, such as utilitarianism, where it is claimed that what is good for you is what is pleasurable for you. Jeremy Bentham, who espoused the first form of hedonistic utilitarianism held that a ‘game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and the sciences of music and poetry’ in providing pleasure’ (p.23). Taylor, as well as nearly everyone else, finds this doesn’t accord with our common sense values. We just do think watching documentaries is more valuable than watching East Enders, even if we like to watch East Enders. Although our values are subjective evaluations, we sometimes attribute ‘real’ value to things. That is, we have a tendency to objectify value as if it was a truth was out in the world, that watching documentaries is more valuable than watching East Enders.

Bentham’s utilitarianism is the most basic form of hedonism and, of course, Taylor rejects this as not in line with common sense. What matters to Taylor is that pleasurable should be valuable if it is to be prudential. Is watching East Enders in any way valuable for your future or a prolonged sense of well-being? On looking in the dictionary I find that prudence includes concepts of caution and wisdom, so it cannot simply be about the pleasure and pain of the moment.

A closer subjectivist theory of well-being to that of Taylor is ‘life-satisfaction’. This is a theory laid out by Wayne Sumner. As opposed to hedonism, this has some relevance to business ethics. Sumner argues that we don’t simply want to be happy, but we want it to be authentic. We don’t want to be deceived. We don’t want to be happily married only to find out that our husband has been having a string of affairs. So if we are to have life satisfaction, we should at least be well informed. Sumner argued that on top of being well-informed, we need autonomy. We shouldn’t be indoctrinated, programmed, brain-washed or role scripted.

Sumner would probably say that that leadership should be well-informed about it’s workforce. If a leader has satisfaction in his job — as a leader — and he is not informed that his workers have no satisfaction, then his own satisfaction rests on false beliefs and he does not have an authentic sense of well-being. Furthermore, any worker who is in the least bit indoctrinated, programmed or role scripted does not have autonomy. Role playing and indoctrination, such as being expected to commit to a product or service, means the CEOs, management and the workers only questionably possess well-being, at least in the work place, as well as the time spent building up to go the workplace and winding down from it.

Prudential value is what is good for you and there should be the potential to know that it is good for you. You may not have realised that you were indoctrinated or bullied in the workplace, but you should become able to come to see. Lack of information and distorted perceptions answer the question about how we can be wrong about what is of prudential value. Taylor is in agreement with Sumner on this, but the life-satisfaction theory in general is too vague. Taylor stresses prudential values first and argues that the more positive values over negative which occur in our lives, the greater the well-being. Hence we have some measurement of well being. Albeit, not perhaps a useable one.

Taylor is persuasive about prudential value. If he is right, what does this suggest for business ethics? Taylor seems to suggest that an organisation can have well-being but not prudential value. Well-being here is well-being of the company. Prudential value refers to the individual subject and a psychological state. The prudential values of the individual are likely to be at odds with the well-being of the company. The well-being of the company will rest upon it’s reputation and how it satisfies it’s customers. It has been reported that shop-workers who are told to tell customers to ‘have a nice day’ are actually a particularly angry part of the workforce. It might be noted that the customers find this irritating too. There is a lack of prudential value for individuals where policy is concerned and policy is essential to businesses or people don’t know what the boundaries are and nor do they know the norms of behaviour for a particular company. The consequence of Taylor’s argument is again common sense. Those of us who shy away from the workplace know that it is not conducive to well-being.

This is an analytical philosophy book. The continental philosopher would argue for the role of culture in determining values. There is no incompatibility here though. Cultural values can be internalised and become your own. The basis of the book, it’s consequences for business and it compatibility with a different style of philosophy make it a recommendable read, as stating something true.

© Rachel Browne 2012

E-mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

From Philosophy for Business Issue 71

Carl Freedman
The Age of Nixon: A study in cultural power
Zero Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 1846949432, ISBN-13: 978-1846949432, 295 pages

Carl Freedman is Professor of English at Louisiana State University and has written on Marxist critical thinking, film and US electoral politics.

Given this, the book is wide ranging in its references and use of theory. It gives detailed information on key figures and events in politics and economics and there is a substantial section on how the American Republican President, Richard Nixon, has been represented by novelists, film-makers and other artists.

The book should appeal to both academics and all those with a liking for dead President-bashing. Freedman, writing from the left, has a very low opinion of Nixon, but at the same time finds him intensely interesting and is impressed by his leadership skills in a time of crisis.

Many of us are too young to recall the late 1960s: The assassinations of both John Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the backdrop of the Vietnam war which split Western society into those prepared to back a bloody war against communism and those who were not; Americans building bomb shelters in their gardens to counter a perceived threat of nuclear attack, and race riots.

We could google ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Richard Nixon’ but will not, from this, realise the very strong feelings aroused by communism, the racism of the time and the nature of American sentiments of the age. As a literature professor, Freedman can get this across. Freedman was very aware of the age of Nixon and it has spurred him to research the age thoroughly, especially Nixon, and the result is a highly detailed historical book, evocative of the era.

Freedman claims his book is not primarily about Nixon, but about the nature of American culture and that much can be illuminated about this by looking at the period of power held by the Richard Nixon, in the late 1960s and 1970s. Here, I shall concentrate on the complex character of Nixon.

Freedman describes Nixon as ‘cold, penetrating, analytical’ and his ‘success based on sheer studiousness… intrinsic intelligence’ (p.119).

Nixon rose to power against the odds. He was not a very good speaker and had no warmth about him. Although he is generally held not to have been a good speaker, his early speech, the ‘Checkers speech’ in 1952, is an exception and is held to one of the all time great political speeches. It brought recognition. Freedman argues that it doesn’t reflect well on the US culture that Americans loved it and that it drew deep sympathy and support for Nixon as a politician. Freedman analyses the speech in terms of Nietzschean ‘ressentiment’. This is morality based on self-sacrifice and self-denial which is ‘slave morality’ and is the epitome of unfreedom, as opposed to the freedom Nietzsche urged us to understand as being that of the superman, who rises above the social belief system and creates his own values. Nietzsche is said to have held that Christian morality, along with the humility that goes with it, is hatred of all that is free and noble, and Freedman shows that the Checkers speech was a ‘masterpiece of ressentiment’ (p.85). The speech was sentimental and an example of self-abasement. In this most famous political speech, Nixon referred to his dog (named Checkers, hence the name of the speech) and the fact that his wife didn’t own a fur coat. He proudly played up a poverty stricken background, thus displaying, according to Freedman, what Nietzsche would have taken to be Christian moralistic arrogance. Sympathy for Nixon peeked after the Checkers speech. Nixon had tapped in to the sentimentality of the American people.

In chapter 3, the book turns to further psychological aspects of Nixon and Americans, when Freedman looks at Nixon’s character in relation to American society. To further illuminate Nixon’s character, Freedman draws on the Marxian idea of the petit bourgeoisie, again Nietzschean ressentiment (as above), and Freud’s concept of the anal-erotic character. Freedman acknowledges that Nixonites might find the latter analysis highly offensive, but it is justified by his fitting interpretation. To Freedman, middle America was also petit bourgeois and anally erotic during the Nixon period. This seems harsh, but there are tones of humour in the book.

Nixon was ambitious, hard-working and is shown to have pursued his own ends even if this meant betraying friends (Freedman wonders if Nixon actually HAD friends) and associates. Although he seemed to possess no obvious personal appeal, such was the force of support behind him that in 1968 it was found that people voted for Nixon himself rather than the policies of the Republican party. This seems inexplicable without cultural interpretation. The core population of America was supposedly united in ressentiment.

Freedman suggests that America is unlikely to give rise to the morally free superman because of the conservative nature of Americans themselves, as well as the generally conservative nature of culture itself.

Culture is conservative because it is embedded socially and is difficult to change. In this sense, culture is contrasted with politics, economics, science and the military. We can more readily change the political atmosphere by voting for another party, we can change economic policies easily in the light of knowledge, and science has a certain autonomy given that it is driven by bodies of researchers and is propelled by new techniques.

Culture can’t rapidly change and Nixon’s attitudes appealed to those who feared change in a time of great change within small elements of American culture: This was racial equality, suspicion of anti-communist sentiments of American politicians, the rise of the hippie culture and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. In his 1968 campaign Nixon was so against this sort of cultural change that he seems to have won on what Freedman calls an ‘anti-nigger’ policy. For me, today, this is staggering. Freedman claims that there is still racism in parts of America, but it is not overt. It is rather hypocritical, but this is an advance.

What is amazing is that these small cultural changes came at a time when Nixon was in power as a conservative Republican. For Freedman, though, racial equality, the acceptance of homosexuality, etc , are mere elements of culture and American culture was, and remains, fundamentally conservative. It was not rebellion against the conservative Republican, because the small cultural changes were calls for freedom. Nixon didn’t facilitate this, and many found his character abhorrent.

Nixon’s background was classical Marxian petit bourgeoisie. His parents were shop keepers, and were fairly successful. Nixon claimed throughout his political career that he had personally experienced poverty and Freedman claims that this was a lie — like so many of his public statements. Freedman goes on to say that it was the sort of lie that showed ‘gross ingratitude’ to his parents, who worked hard to ‘shield their sons from poverty’ (p.72). Given that Nixon was a teenager during the depression, and Freedman claims that tramps turned up on Nixon’s doorstep because his mother was a soft touch, it wouldn’t really seem to be a lie that Nixon had personally experienced poverty; it was just the poverty of others. It must have impacted on him.

Nonetheless, he was extremely intelligent. He won a full scholarship to Harvard, but this was at a time when the family had huge medical bills to care for Nixon’s sick brother, so Nixon went to a local college. Nixon later claimed that he didn’t really care about this, and commentators have claimed that this is a lie too. ‘How could any smart, hard-working, ambitious young man not care?’ (p.73).

As Nixon was petit-bourgeoisie he apparently disliked the poor as well as the rich, and may not have been telling another lie here. Nixon’s class fell between the rich and poor. Freedman says that Nixon felt ‘intense hatred’ for the poor and this was publicly expressed, although not in the Checkers speech. Falling between two classes, the petit bourgeoisie felt they were classless and so possessed a universal moral attitude. This would explain the power of the Checkers speech. Nixon tapped into the ordinariness of the middle man. The consequences of being petit bourgeois would seem to go hand in hand with an attitude of ressentiment. Yet Nixon was the President.

The traits of the Freudian anal erotic are orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy. These are traits are arguably to be found in profusion in the petit bourgeoisie and middle America. Parsimony came out in Nixon’s private life as he accumulated wealth without spending it. Obstinacy is to be expected in a politician because we expect a steadiness in views and policy. Orderliness is seen in his studious analytical personality.

Whilst the anal erotic charge seems highly derogatory, Freedman is also fair to Nixon at times. In applying Freudian theory he admits that analysis is a therapeutic practice and sometimes the analyst won’t attain full understanding of a patient, so to glean information from books, newspapers and television seems to him ‘imprudent’ (p.95). So he looks at our ordinary understanding of this Freudian concept and what was publicly known about Nixon in the light of American culture and his discussion is highly persuasive as well as outrageous, especially in these times when Freud is held to be wrong about the influence of sexuality in human development.

Nixon was anti-communist, against negroes human rights, hippies and homosexuality and was anti-Catholic. Privately it seems he was he was anti-semitic, although publicly he had some valued Jewish advisers.

Although culturally conservative, and morally a bigot, as a politician Nixon has been described as a liberal; Nixon’s politics were quite at odds with what we hear of his views and personality. He was the only President to seriously enforce desegregation in schools. He also ‘lavishly’ funded a program called ‘war on cancer’ and introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970. He was the first President to visit China. He ended the Vietnam war. He earned respect of non-Republicans. Freedman says that during Nixon’s term, more was spent on domestic social programs than on the military. Nixon often referred to himself to as a liberal and commentators have held him to be so. But this yet again denigrates him according to Freedman’s thought.

‘For liberalism, of its very nature abhors all dogma, all fixed convictions, all first principles, all absolutes… liberalism demands that everything must be questioned but that no definite conclusions can be drawn’ (p.151). There is a search for truth but it leads nowhere. The liberal policy is argued to be empty and to lead to nowhere, responding to cultural change with no fixed policy. Nixon is characterised to act upon these lines personally.

As a person Nixon seemed to have fixed convictions but as a politician he was culturally involved. When Nixon delivered the Checkers speech, he bent to the nature of the American people, he went on to hear the voice of cultural change and his own bigotry didn’t affect his policies. He was both corrupt and great. He put an end to the Vietnam war and was the first US President to reach out to China. He was both bigot and visionary.

The psychological study in this book is fascinating. What we see in Nixon is a person able to rise above personal bigotry when it comes to leadership, though indulging in it when it seemed politically necessary. Perhaps as a liberal he was ’empty’, but perhaps he was going with the flow. What we seem to find is that there is no formula for great leadership. It can emanate from a personality who is not ‘great’ but rather despicable.

The book is so richly informed by theory and history that a book review cannot do it justice.

It is a thoroughly American book. Throughout, Freedman assumes we are already familiar with quite a lot of American history as he makes reference to events without fully explicating what these events were. In the first chapter he mentions Watergate, but doesn’t detail it. Even I know this led to his forced resignation in the 1970s, but many young non-Americans won’t possess the background knowledge. This won’t actually detract from the interest of the book. As a Professor of Literature, Freedman knows how to make an interesting character even more gripping.

© Rachel Browne 2012

E-mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

Read Full Post »

From Philosophy for Business Issue 68

Samuel S Franklin
The Psychology of Happiness, A Good Human Life
Cambridge University Press, 2010
ISBN: 0521138671, 192 pages.

Samuel Franklin is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. The book engages with Aristotle’s virtue ethics as a means to achieve happiness, by reference to the Nicomachean Ethics.

With Aristotle, Franklin believes that happiness is about the fulfilment of potential, where this is guided by rationality, which can moderate emotion and desire. We possess potentials, which are needs, and only if met, can we flourish and achieve happiness. Happiness is essentially related to personal development. Aristotle held there are two aspects to happiness; the hedonic (pleasure) and eudaimonia (the well-lived achieving life), but Franklin doesn’t give much credence to pleasure as worthy, despite the fact that current neuroscience holds that the pleasure and happiness/ thriving areas of the brain are very closely related. Franklin stands in direct contrast to the utilitarian theory of happiness. Jeremy Bentham gave an hedonistic account, arguing that it is morally correct to minimise pain and maximise pleasure, where happiness was equated with pleasure. The Benthamite view is that watching television is on a par with reading educational literature when it comes to what will lead to happiness, but he has virtually no takers on the thesis. Aristotle has many.

Aristotle is difficult to fault, which is why he is still such a central figure in philosophy. He held that ‘real goods,’ such as money and clothing, are needed as an aid for us to fulfil our potential. There are also ‘apparent goods’ which are not things we need, but that we simply want, and they do nothing to aid the fulfilment of our potential. As Franklin puts it, we might need a car to get to work, but we don’t need a Rolls Royce.

Aristotle argued for temperance. Too much food (or too little) will not lead us to thrive and achieve fulfilment. This is not to say that extremes are not acceptable in certain circumstances. Circumstances are essential to judging what is reasonable and through personal development we learn to recognise what is appropriate in a particular situation.

Philosophers will be familiar with these ideas, but the book is a useful reminder and clear exposition of Aristotelian ethics and places it alongside claims made by Darwin and Freud. The philosophical practitioner is likely to be interested in how Aristotelian ideas still abound today in the thoughts of non-philosophers, the best known being those of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, two more recent humanistic psychologist/ ‘actualisation’ theorists.

Unfortunately, as a humanistic psychologist, Franklin does not provide much data. Yet data is available. Bruce Heady’s team at the University of Melbourne, for instance, found happiness to be largely genetically determined (Heady, B., 2010).

Franklin does provide a brief account of the physiology of happiness, but doesn’t touch upon genetics or engage with recent neuroscientific research. The section on the physiology of happiness is small and the most up to date research he mentions is from 1997. In the last five years developments in brain research involving neurotransmitters that read the brain for conditions of happiness have developed quickly. It seems empirically likely that happiness is more closely linked to pleasure than to actualising potential. A body of research can be found in the Journal of Social Research (Summer 2010).

Apart from Freud, there is very little space given to psychoanalytic theory. Freud held that ‘to be civilised or to be tamed by the community causes unhappiness in the individual’ (1985) whereas Aristotle thought that the temperate person striving for a good life is at one with the state and creates the good city. Contra Aristotle/ Franklin, R.D. Laing has pushed Freud’s view further, claiming that adjustment to social norms result in repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjections and other forms of destructive action (1967). Franklin doesn’t mention Laing.

So since Aristotle we have advanced greatly in our understanding of human psychology. Rationality is de-emphasised. Human weaknesses rather than strengths have become an important area of study. This is also seen culturally with the rise of self-help books, which assume that human beings aren’t able to develop personally.

Franklin doesn’t seem to want to investigate this opposition to Aristotelian thought. Fortunately, the Aristotelian view of happiness lends support to mainstream business ethics, as well as the branch of business ethics called EQ (emotional intelligence).

As far as ordinary business ethics goes, the support comes from the idea of virtue. To fulfil potentials we need to develop skills of virtue. ‘The virtue of justice is about the welfare of others; it is about fairness to other’ (p. 80). Also the virtue of equality means looking beyond oneself. ‘We have to be concerned not only with ourselves but also with the welfare of others, not just family and friends’ (p. 82).

It is part of being virtuous that we take ourselves to be part of a community where we can undertake public discourse. A business is a community in which we can learn and discuss moral issues, such as whistle-blowing. Codes of conduct are empty unless employees are able to develop personal integrity. The modern idea of the business arena as a ‘community of enquiry’ where a ‘facilitator’ prompts discussion is directly in line with developing potentialities rather than following rules (Geschwindt, S., 2008).

Franklin doesn’t mention mainstream business ethics but only EQ, which was developed in the 1990s and which Franklin claims follows from Aristotelian thinking. Work in this area is still developing but from looking at an EQ web site I find there is a stress on emotion over rationality (http://www.6seconds.org). This suggests we need to look again at Aristotle and keep him in mind, remembering the very important role of reason in our personal development. It is encouraging that Aristotle can be of help within the commercial world.

References

Freud, S (1985). ‘Civilization and its discontents.’ Civilization, Society and Religion. Penguin Books

Geschwindt, S. (2008) Am I right? Or am I right: an introduction of ethical decision making. DW Publications

Heady, B. (2010). ‘Long-running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes, matter for happiness’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 10-08612, Oct 4, 2010. On-line early edition

Laing, R D. (1967). The Politics of Experience. Harmondsworth: Penguin

© Philosophical Practice 2011
Journal of the American Philosophical
Practitioners Association
http://www.appa.edu

E-Mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

Read Full Post »

From Philosophy Pathways Issue 165

The Work of Enchantment
By Matthew Del Nevo
Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 2011

Matthew Del Nevo is a philosopher at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. The book falls within social theory but is mainly an example of philosophical reading of literature. It laments the soullessness of the world; it’s increasing banality and the increasing influence of the culture industries and commodification of ever more areas of our lives, including education. The ‘work’ of enchantment is identified as reading, listening and gazing. These seem unimportant in today’s culture, but this soulful activity, which Del Nevo calls ‘enchantment’ is counter-cultural. He attacks modern day culture while examining some works by Proust, Rilke and Goethe, and sets this literary investigation against the background of Adorno’s philosophy.

Enchantment is written to be accessible to those outside philosophy (dependant on whether they are able to read, I suppose). Del Nevo states that he is aware of sounding elitist, but says that he doesn’t mean to be so. You can’t help but believe him and he is actually addressing cultural problems in as honest a way as possible. The book is also a defence of the humanities over technological and vocational education, which abounds in these materialistic times. Del Nevo takes the strong view that enchantment has actually been lost from the humanities. He doesn’t make quite clear why this is, but his choice of writers to look at in this book suggests that these writers are deeper than contemporary literature, film and art, which is studied.

The philosophy here is a philosophy of life, not a systematic philosophy. For instance, Del Nevo shows, through looking at a work by Marcel Proust that ‘within an enchanted life death loses its sting.’ (p.35). It is wisdom literature.

Del Nevo’s analysis of Proust makes me feel I should have paid more attention when I read him years ago. He describes Swann becoming infatuated with Odette in Remembrance of Things Past. The nature of the metaphysical experience of falling in love in this case is described as ‘aesthetic’, in that Swann comes to see Odette in a new light as he falls in love with her and comes to regard her as beautiful. Proust might not have been aware of engaging in aesthetics when he describes this.

But it is also shown that the novel embodies a philosophy of language. It is found that in Proust there is an understanding that we don’t just ‘use’ language and that it is not a mere tool. Words are not neutral. Swann receives an anonymous letter telling him that Odette has been engaged in licentious sexual behaviour, and this too changes him. He became soulful when he fell in love, but when he received the letter, it was soul destroying. The words in the letter had the power to change Swann. I suppose it is to be assumed that a writer would be aware of the power of words, but I wonder if Proust had explicit knowledge that he held a theory of language?

But Del Nevo doesn’t ignore theory. According to Adorno, philosophy from Plato on to Hegel was concerned with conceptuality, ideas and generality (Of course this was how philosophy was before Plato too), but this was turned on it’s head by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who were more concerned with psychology, sociology and detail. It seems that Proust, Rilke and Goethe also rejected Hegelianism by concentrating on the trivial and the particular. It is by this means of the grip of recognising the psychology presenting and meanings that trivia have for us that we are entering another ‘world’, which is denied to us by grand systems.

Time is an undercurrent of the book. The aesthetic theory that a work of art is that which passes the Test of Time, as posited by Anthony Savile and others, is an aesthetic theory that Del Nevo seems to subscribe to. He says that an ‘artwork can speak diachronically, across time, to a time of its own’ and that the ‘optimum example is those writings regarded by our culture such as Scriptures’.

It seems that Goethe’s Faust is MORE relevant now than when Goethe wrote it. It has more than passed the test of time. It seems prophetic. Parallels are drawn between Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles and modernity, which is out of control and subject to external forces. Mephistopheles had hold over Faust, but eventually Faust comes to see that pleasure-seeking and worldliness are disenchanting. We can only hope this is prophetic if we find modernity spiralling out of control.

Just a warning to atheists! This is a philosopher who teaches in a theological institute, who is theologically informed and so uses metaphorical language of the soul, heaven and angels. This should not put you off. I’m an atheist and it didn’t put me off. This is not a religious book and actually notes that the soul is not to be confused with the spirit, which is the religious concept. This distinction can be found in Rilke. The soul is about humanity, recognition of depth, being able to appreciate art, and finding resonance in things. Things, or objects, are held to be important in this book. The poets discussed are particularly interested in how some things resonate with us — real things, names of real things that have the ability to arouse feeling in us — not brand names.

I take it that properly this book is about the inner life; of our ability to be captivated by things; about being enchanted in contrast to the modern obsession with economics and technological communication. It doesn’t fit neatly into the modern world of mobile phones and twittering and at times the author seems to apologise for what he is writing about. Such apology has been made before, by the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who is quoted as having said ‘The inner life: One is almost ashamed to pronounce this pathetic expression in the face of so many realisms and objectivisms’ (p22).

I write this review shortly after the riots in England, which occurred in London, Birmingham and several other cities and towns. This is also shortly after English pop singer Amy Winehouse was discovered dead. Although unfashionable to write about enchantment, this book is relevant to the modern world. Of technology, Del Nevo suggests that ‘we become the unwitting tools of our own tools’. Del Nevo believes that capitalism often provides ‘delusory substitutes for enchantment’ (p.13), such as glamour, and that even violence can be taken to be glamorous. This certainly seems to have been the case in the recent riots. Those involved were unable to see the reality of destruction and harm to others. Furthermore they were seeking glamour by looting for designer goods in many cases. Del Nevo also claims that celebrities ‘lead glamorous lives which, very often, are totally disenchanted’ (p.13). The sad case of Amy Winehouse immediately comes to mind. There are truths to be found in this book which many would not like to voice for fear of sounding superior.

Since enchantment, listening and gazing are about absorption — in art, philosophy, and religion (some forms of science are not excluded) — this book won’t appeal to those who twitter and text and probably would bring remorse to the friends of Amy Winehouse. But really it is these people to whom the book should be addressed. An interesting question is whether the book would have rapport with such people. Del Nevo defines the soul as that which refers to ‘the unity… of our inner sensibilities and sensitivities’ (p.23). Soulfulness and enchantment are about our inner life. Everyone has an inner life in this sense, unless seriously ill, so enchantment is about the quality of that inner life.

Enchantment, or being captivated, and having ‘metaphysical experience’ (Adorno’s term, which Del Nevo uses) is of physical, not just social, importance. We need to take note of the warnings that this book brings to us.

© Rachel Browne 2011

E-mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

Read Full Post »

From Philosophy Pathways Issue 155

An American Agenda: Leo Strauss, Nietzsche and Neoconservatism
By Darryl Naraji
Just World Publications, 2008

There is a specter haunting the West. The specter of Nietzsche.

Not only are large areas of the academic curriculum — such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, business management, government administration — basically courses in Nietzschean philosophy. But the popular understanding of politics along with the way many if not most people in Western societies go about their moral ‘reasoning’ (please note the inverted commas) and discussion is very Nietzschean.

When we adopt the language of the reification of ethics into discrete ‘values’ we are talking Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s core idea that such values are chosen by the individual and indeed by whole cultures — in sociological terms that values are ‘constructed’ — is in contemporary Western culture taken for granted.

But Naranjit’s book An American Agenda focuses on an aspect of the Nietzschean presence in the contemporary world that is very little understood. These may be termed the ‘right Nietzscheans’. This school of thought revolves around the enigmatic figure of Leo Strauss. Furthermore Naranjit suggests that this obscure philosopher has been dominating American politics including global policy with the rise of the Neoconservatives.

Now saying this is to stir up a hornets’ nest of controversy, a controversy that Naranjit himself traces in his book. He discusses at length the different interpretations of Strauss and his link to Nietzsche. Many of Strauss’s disciples deny such a link. But to me at any rate one thing seems clear. That even in the kindest interpretation of Strauss there is set up a dissonance between the ethics of the city — which is to say the general society — and the ethics of the philosopher which is to say of those who really know. One can here note two key things. First a skepticism as to whether there is such a thing as ethical truth. Second, the fact that such knowledge of the deadly truth is the preserve of an elite group. To me the case is simply made. The combining of skepticism and elitism points to Nietzsche.

But of course I cannot do justice to Naranjit’s finely weaved argument ranging from a discussion of contemporary American politics to very complex philosophical questions. There is a discussion of different interpretations of Nietzsche as well as the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger (we will get back to him).

We may crudely summarize the history thus:

In the good old days there were two spheres of knowledge, that of the city and that of the philosophers. The former is that of ethical orthodoxy in the West more recently represented by Christianity (which Nietzsche saw as Platonism for the masses). The latter are the true Gnostics who know the deadly truth… that there isn’t any. If philosophers attempt to convey this to the city they may run into trouble, note what happened to Socrates, moreover knowledge of the deadly truth will destroy the city. So philosophers engage in the ‘noble delusion’: they support the Platonic-Christian orthodoxy of the masses. This protects the city from self-destruction and allows philosophers to engage in their dangerous pursuit of reason in peace.

The modern Enlightenment comes along and ruins all this. Although the real culprit may very well be Christianity itself which — unlike Judaism and Islam — is ‘a Faith not a Law’ and therefore seeks to reconcile revelation and reason, religion and philosophy. The Enlightenment Project attempted to bring together the two spheres by establishing a rational basis for the ethics of the city. When this failed and the absence of ethical foundation was laid bare the door was open for nihilism, the destruction of the city. Naranjit (p. 69) quotes Strauss as saying, ‘The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism.’

And so we come to Nietzsche.

He proposes that with the collapse of ancient ethics and in the absence of rational morality that we choose our values by an act of will-to-power. Indeed this is how it has always been except now we are being open and honest about it. But with this explicit realization we now come to a fork in the road. The two Nietzsches.

One Nietzschean position is for whoever who may, to will whatever values they choose unfettered by any rational concerns — ‘decisionism’, the absolute freedom of the moment. Strauss attributes this (in my own view clearly incorrectly) to Heidegger. This leads to Nazism. To nihilism the deadly visitor at the door. More recently it was evident in America in the 1960s in the counter-culture. Strauss’s disciple Alan Bloom critiques such American nihilism in his very influential popular book The Closing of the American Mind.

The other Nietzschean option and the only alternative to nihilism is to return to the noble lie. In a surprising, remarkable and utterly revolutionary interpretation Strauss attributes this position to Plato. In an esoteric reading of Plato Strauss sees him as advocating his pivotal idea of the Platonic ‘Good’ as a needed deception for the masses. This good, as the true philosopher knows, cannot be determined. In a single brilliant stroke Strauss can publicly disown Nietzsche while advocating a Nietzschean Plato.

Hence it is the elite who will both their own values and the sustaining of the mask of orthodoxy for the masses. Hence for instance the pseudo-philosophical discipline of political science.

The scene is now set for what Naranjit describes as the confrontation between Heidegger and Strauss in America. However while the counter-culture as Naranjit points out is Heideggerian it is not ultimately nihilistic (although there are definite nihilistic elements) but a legitimate quest for ‘authenticity’. This was overtaken at least for now by the conservatism of Middle America. But unlike the old conservatism that possessed a genuine concern for tradition and values Middle America has been increasingly taken over by the Neo-Con disciples of Strauss who put forward ‘orthodoxy’, the old time religion of Christian fundamentalism, as a balm and a justification for the masses, the noble delusion, in the name of which the knowing elite can will and perpetuate their necessary imperial atrocities at home and abroad.

This is Nietzsche’s planetary rule:


… train men for the heights, not for comfort and mediocrity, a morality with the intention of training a ruling caste — the future masters of the earth — must, if it is to be taught, appear in society with the prevailing moral laws, in the guise of their terms and forms. That for this, however, many transitional means of deception must be devised. (Quoted in Naranjit pg 198.)

What more can I say in review? I rarely enjoy reading a book this much. The argument is engrossing and compelling. And it deals with deadly serious contemporary issues. For me the core of the argument is the first section of chapter four on Strauss’s Nietzsche. Here it is established by Nietzschean logic that deception is the highest truth carried out by philosophers who embody the highest most spiritual form of the will-to-power. Hence philosophy is not about describing reality but prescribing to nature ‘how it ought to be’.

Finally let me say that it is vital that we come to terms with this in our parts of the world as it is the colonies (that means us) who are at the receiving end of this history. We will also watch with interest how the Straussian agenda will play itself out in this time of economic crisis and in the wake of the recent regime change in the Empire itself. Thus we await the next chapter of the American Agenda.

(c) Burton Sankeralli 2009

E-mail: bsankeralli@yahoo.com

Read Full Post »

From Philosophy Pathways issue 146

S.C. Meyer Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design
Harper One 2009

This is a well-written text, for the most part clearly argued in an engaging, relaxed style. What there is to the Intelligent Design (ID) hypothesis seems to me to be well presented in this book.

We must accept that there is currently no known spontaneous physico-chemical process that could explain the origin of the genetic apparatus in living systems. This — the ‘DNA enigma’ — might be said to be an outstanding challenge to science.

That is, if we consider that origins of anything are genuine scientific questions. Science typically works with existents — with the world as it is now, or as the world was, given that it was earlier much as it is now. Change, including evolutionary change, can be accepted as a bona fide scientific problem, but I think origins inherently resist systematic investigation.

Much of this book is devoted to examining various attempts that have been made to understand the origin of life within the current physico-chemical framework, and the book is valuable for this critical exposition alone. A chapter on the popular ‘RNA World’ hypothesis is especially useful. Meyer shows that physico-chemical suggestions on the origin of life using chance or necessity, alone or together, have so far been unable to construct a convincing scenario for this supposed originary event.

Yet, even so, some scientists continue to wish to produce a plausible explanation using nothing more than known physico-chemical principles, abetted by chance. The latter involves historicism — here it would be, a concatenation of physico-chemical events influenced by multiple contingencies (combining chance with law). Such a sequence of contingencies may be where the Intelligent Design program ought to be pitched. Since the origin would presumably be unrepeatable and so untestable as such, it might be useful to point to other unexplained sequences of events that would have been originary in a similar way. Meyer briefly mentions the ‘anthropic principle’ of cosmology. If one could find several more such enigmas, the collection together might seem to have more explanatory power than just one or two examples.

Meyer claims that the only agency known by us today to produce ‘specified information’ is the human (it should be ‘Western technological’) imagination, which he calls ‘intelligent’.

He suggests that, since physico-chemical attempts at understanding a spontaneous origin of the specified information associated with life have so far failed, then the only remaining possibility would be an intelligent agency (left unspecified).

Meyer has little discussion of how this intelligent construction would have been carried out beyond suggesting supposed parallels with the creation of informational structures in computers. This seems a bit too glib. He does not attempt to give us a picture of the intelligence-mediated origin in anything like the detail presented in discussing various physico-chemical attempts (where he delights in pointing out how the intelligence of researchers intruded here and there as adjustments in the experiments). As Meyer says in another context, ‘sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’!

This leads one to suspect that in fact there is no imagined scenario for the intelligence-directed creation of life. Would it have been too ineffable to describe? It seems possible (likely?) that any clear description of that process would be as easily criticized as he shows the physico-chemical attempts to be. If the implication is that we do not have sufficient intelligence to imagine the originary process, then one suspects that there might be a deity ‘waiting in the wings’ (note that his Chapter 16 is entitled ‘Another Road to Rome!).

In any case, pitting a non-testable one-sentence claim (e.g., ‘Life was designed by an intelligent agent that existed before the advent of humans’) about the origin against forty or more years of failed conceptual, laboratory and computational efforts seems a bit unbalanced.

Meyer’s approach also begs the question of whether in fact the information embodied in, and carried by, the genetic apparatus is in fact ‘specified’ information — that is, information meaningful to the cell. Or, more to the point, that it was ‘specified’ at its origin (to do or inform what? — he does not tell us). Presumably early metabolism would have been simpler and vaguer than what we find in the cell today. Meyer is well aware of, and describes, the elaborate manipulations carried out by the cell in the process of using the information in DNA. In hardly any case is a DNA sequence used ‘as is’. The specifications useful to the cell are generated de novo in an elaborate process of cutting, stitching, and chemical modification. In what sense, then, can the information DNA holds be said to be ‘specified’?

Meyer insists upon the logical structure of the genetic apparatus without considering that it is we, Western scientists, who in our models work hard to try to impute logical organization to that inordinately complicated system.

Science is founded upon a simple logical foundation, and its models are all based in logic. But we have no assurance that the world is based in or informed by logic, allowing it to be intelligible. Scientists implicitly take that ‘on faith’, and so does Meyer. In this sense he conflates the ‘map’ with the ‘territory’. In science this conflation has proven fruitful as a support for the construction of technology. That is, science ‘works’ in the short run as a basis for limited pragmatic activities. But questions of origins go far beyond the pragmatic.

Meyer handily knocks down various ‘demarcation arguments’ that were made by philosophers of science in order to show that ID is not a bona fide scientific enterprise. He spends a good many words on the historical sciences (his own is historical geology), and how they choose between various theories using abductive reasoning, on the basis of which one tries to choose the ‘best’ explanation of some current phenomenon. It is here that he claims that ID comes out best because the various physico-chemical proposals have not been able to explain the origin. But, unless I missed something, I did not see in these pages a proposed layout of the ID process of origination. ID seems at present to be just words.

Meyer attempts, with varying success, to show nevertheless that ID — as a scientific theory should — has inspired some testable models. But, insofar as ID remains at base an opinion or intuition about logical structure (‘specified information’), it remains itself untestable, as such, and, perhaps, self-evident grammatically. Is the ID hypothesis for the origin of biological information a substantive hypothesis or merely a vacuous faut de mieux attending the deconstruction of some physico-chemical attempts that used chance and/ or lawfulness to understand the origin of life?

It might be worth pointing out here that there is no logical way to distinguish between a chance event and an arbitrary (creative) action — that is, an act not assimilable to one or another of our theoretical expectations. Since physico-chemical approaches mediated by chance have failed to deliver a convincing story of the origin of ‘specified information’, that, it seems to me, impugns the design hypothesis as well. That is, if it were found that specified information could be mediated by chance, then that would be a good argument in favor of design!

So design is not ‘beyond the reach of chance’ — for outside observers design could look like chance. An intelligent procedure which we view ignorantly from outside would look random to us upon doing a statistical analysis. External statistical analyses will show that ensembles of creative acts conform to various probability density functions. Creativity is an internalist mood, not accessible as such to external investigation. We might note that externalism and internalism require different grammatical constructions — respectively, First Person, present progressive tense versus Third Person, universal present tense. These can never directly mix together. In Meyer’s book the erstwhile physico-chemical attempts are in the Third Person, while ID, lacking definite description, is implicitly in First Person.

At one point Meyer raises the possibility of self-organization. But he does so in a very mechanistic, bottom-up manner that would better be labeled ‘self-assembly’, following various natural laws. At other points he refers to the evident hierarchical structure of the world. In that perspective, self-assembly takes place amid various constraints imposed top-down from higher, including larger scale, levels. That scenario would increase the degrees of freedom for self-assembly, given that this would depend locally upon, e.g., temperature, pH, density of various molecular species, and so on. The increased degrees of freedom in this context might suggest to some that self-assembly could get incorporated into a more flexible self-organization. But, to others it might suggest the possibility of a deity manipulating boundary conditions (given that this agent would be of larger scale or level of organization).

The hierarchy connection leads me to think about information as detected in scales much higher than the cellular. In particular, one might note that the widespread occurrence of convergent evolution has no neo-Darwinian interpretation, as it conflicts with their ‘descent with modification’ conceptual program. Evolutionary convergence is hardly mentioned by anyone any more. It has no doubt become unfashionable and old-fashioned, and that leads me to guess that there is conceptual gold to be mined there.

In truth, the opposition of most scientists to ID is at base ideological. They will have none of it simply because it doesn’t play by their rules, which in the context of the origin of life would be to present an explicit scenario suggesting how it was done.

We may note that scientists have been trying to construct the cell, just as any other investigated system, as a machine. This metaphor, not surprisingly, invites the notion of design and thus implies designers. I think that scientists ought to take note that it is their own philosophical mechanicism that has conjured up the possibility of design. But what if the cell is not a machine? Then scientists would have no basis for fully apprehending it with logical methods, and — to boot — ID would no longer have even a fingerhold (as in this book) on the problem of its origin either. All scientists — IDers or not — implicitly credit the aphorism ‘In the beginning was the word.’

It seems clear that Meyer is yearning for a re-enchantment of the world, something that has largely been destroyed by the hegemony of logic and science as deployed by various ‘interests’ in our culture. A quote on Page 450 from Bertrand Russell describes well our current spiritual malaise. But the likelihood of co-option of Meyer’s proposed route to a renewed enchantment by ancient religious traditions is a major impediment to serious minds.

(c) Stanley Salthe 2009

Email: ssalthe@binghamton.edu

Read Full Post »

The Divine Inspiration of Porn and the Beginning of Sexual Metaphysics

by Nick Acocella

Available for review from ISFP Publishing http://www.isfp.co.uk/publishing/

-=-

This book shows more understanding of sex than any other book on philosophy of sex I have read.

It approaches sex and pornography from a unique angle in which I see no influence from other philosophy of sex and porn books.

The first section is on the “Practical Grounds of Sexual Significance” which includes:

– A Brief Anatomy of Inference

– A Brief Anatomy of Immorality

– A Brief Anatomy of Stimulation

– The Legend of Gender

– The Nature of Enjoyment

– The Crisis of Beauty

The second section on “Sexual Significant in Its Basic Dimensions includes:

– The Sexual Significance of Beauty

– The Sexual Significance of Teleology

– The Sexual Significance of Morality

Then comes the final section on “Theological Implications” with the single awesome chapter on “The Perfection of Porn”.

This book should be made available to a wider audience than those interested in philosophy. It will not just be of interest to academics (though much interest has been shown in that quarter) but is likely to draw general readership and become a cult book. It will appeal to those who are interested in sex (and who is not?) as well as those with a love of language and words.

It is poetic, beautiful and very well conceived. It is outrageous but strangely convincing.

It is a very timely book. Novels based on the theme of sex are becoming quite prolific so this is a philosophy book which is tapping into contemporary literary interests.

It is a difficult book to publish. Academics are showing interest and the book is worthy of an academic publisher, but it has readability that also makes it literature. A pro-pornography book is always slightly pornographic in itself, but this author goes out of his way to make it so, though in a beautiful and sensitive, and, of course, literary way.

The basic argument is outrageous. We would have no idea of sinfulness without God; without sinfulness we could not appreciate porn which is essentially sinful. The appreciation of porn is dirty, normal sex is good. The book quotes Anselm and St Augustine but also describes why men like nipples. This juxtaposition is previously unheard of.

Although Acocella quotes theologians, this is not a theological book. It is philosophy. Although he rejects the idea that sex can be explained in evolutionary terms, he does not seem to be a member of the religious camp although most of his quotes seem to be theological. He seems to be stirring things up.

So he rejects evolutionary explanation and largely ignores the religion/evolution debate, and plumps for the significance of meaning and thought and how these guide us in sexual acts. There is a thread of the irreducibility of meaning, but the book manages to be extremely sensitive to the sexual act. An approach through meaning and thought is a gentler, more human, and more realistic approach than starting with God or evolution. Acocella says, for instance, that sex can be fragile. Interest can dwindle and the mind can wander but something can get us back into the act. We focus on the meaning of what we are doing, the teleology of the act, the aim of orgasm. This is philosophy of mind as well as meaning.

It has been suggested to me that analytical philosophers use pain as an example of a sensation because they are “simply used to unrelenting mental pain and afraid of orgasms” (private e-mail). Properly accused, perhaps, Wittgenstein. Sex is interesting and pain isn’t. As a woman I don’t find pornography interesting but Acocella makes it so. Sex is good, he says, but porn is profane and it has to be. This makes porn interesting. Further, there is the ethical aspect to pornography. Acocella asks “What sort of morality is needed to be pornographically realised” (p. 199). He seems to know about looking at porn and takes it to involve an awareness of sinfulness and the profane but can also bring feelings of shame and so he urges us to take porn “where it must go” (p.121). He argues that since porn is profane (it seems open whether it is perverse) we must contrast the profane with the sacred and “no morality is sacred without God” (p.121).

The argument is radical. He doesn’t start from God, but rather from a self-confessed interest in porn. But he gets to God through profanity. This is philosophy but it is also a work of art. I have had no sense from communicating with the author that he is actually religious.

Many like myself, who are not particularly interested in pornography will be brought to think about it due to this book. Why should we not? It is a phenomenon which is strange. This book might make people more sympathetic to those who look at pornography. It may be a sin, or at least involve feelings of sinfulness, but feelings of sinfulness can be regarded as moral feelings.

This isn’t a moralising book. It is acute on sex and subtle on meaning. Acocella elucidates the attraction of nipples and the penis, in rather a psychoanalytical way drawing on childishness and he captures the sex act to perfection. He is very funny on masturbation, asking what it is we enjoy. Our resourcefulness? Of course his answer is the significance, the thought and the fantasy.

The book is brilliant and deserves to be published. A problem is that Acocella is not an academic and I suspect that academic publishers don’t publish books by non-academics. However, the book itself IS academic philosophy. Requests for review copies have been made by PhD students and professors.

My vision for this book is that it will be published by an academic publishers, while we at the International Society for Philosophers will continue to make it known outside the world of universities.

(c) Rachel Browne 2010

ISFP Fellow and Board Member

E-mail: RachelEBrowne@aol.com

Read Full Post »