Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some Starting Points for Kant Study

   I hope to just detail a few interesting areas to consider more closely in Kant. I have done some considerable work in these, but struggle to write at length about them without continually breaking out into new inquiry, so I hope that detailing some generalities and formulating some questions here can be of assistance to my own work and as a suggestion of some things to consider for others.
   The way in which I may deliver some of these could come as shocking and abrupt, and I hope that there are questions probing into what I mean.

   Kant's Practical Philosophy is usually discussed beginning from what we ought to do. This makes sense, because the Moral Law is central in Kant's thought on the order of freedom; however, there are other ways to begin an inquiry into the order of freedom that reveal the moral law from different angles; one such beginning is a discussion of self-worth, and such a starting point may be important for Kant pedagogy(especially if it is not accompanied by, or prefaced with, a study of Theoretical Philosophy, which is required for the significance of laws of freedom in contrast to laws of nature).
   Note the following passage, which is one of a few examples:
   "But it strikes down self-conceit altogether, since all claims to esteem for oneself that precede accord with the moral law are null and quite unwarranted because certainty of a disposition in accord with this law is the first condition of any worth of a person (we shall soon make this more distinct), and any presumption prior to this is false and opposed to the law." (Critique of Practical Reason, 5:73)

   If there is nothing that we ought to do - categorically - then there is no measure for our own worthiness. This also is important for understanding what Kant means when he says that the moral law renders us worthy of happiness, since it is only on the basis of this standard that we truly become worthy of something, that is, have a claim to it. By looking at Practical Philosophy from self-worth first gives us the perspective of the moral law as a means for understanding how we feel worthy, and have self-respect; this is crucial in seeing how the moral law is not a judgment of others from on high, but rather a basis of feeling their worth.
   (It is important to note that worth is here is something that you can claim, and so it not our own value in itself. Kant mentions in relation to this that we have a value in that it is possible for us to have a good will. I will not say any more on this here.)

Moral Disagreement and Moral Discourse:
   In the second Critique, Doctrine of Method, Kant discusses moral pedagogy. He just as well could have discussed supposed moral disagreements and how to approach their resolution. A moral disagreement is a dispute about what ought to be done. It is assumed that both parties involved acknowledge a duty, yet find that they have different appraisals of the situation. Understanding the anatomy of this situation has a great deal of importance in understanding Practical Philosophy generally. There is no rationalizing a duty, but their categorical status can be misleading in terms of how they apply.
   Two parties have duties that conflict with each other. How is this possible? One thing to say is that 'factual' information may be missing for one of the parties. Consider a play rehearsal with the director watching. The scene being performed involves one character murdering another. Someone not involved with the performance witnesses the actions taking place, and understands the situation as an actual murder in progress, and feels compelled to help prevent it from occurring. It is not confusing to us why the director did not feel a duty to help defend the actor, and why the onlooker found himself compelled to help what he saw saw as a victim. It is also 'intuitive' to us to understand that the director had a 'better' understanding of the situation, but the principled basis of this 'better' understanding is still mostly hidden from our view.
   The understanding of a situation is crucial for coming to terms in morals with other people when there is a supposed disagreement. We should expect in any moral disagreement that there is a different understanding of the situation - sometimes radically different - but there is an important question here: what is an understanding of a situation? It certainly is not simply a matter of knowing certain facts, but also the meaning that underlies the facts which really characterizes how we fit them together - the overall heuristic of the interpretation of the situation.

The Ideal of Reason and the unity of the Theoretical and Practical:
   In the first Critique, Kant discusses the idea of God as a regulative principle of the ground of the unity of concepts for theoretical reason. In the second Critique Kant discusses the idea of God as the condition of the Highest Good - an end which unifies Morality. The unity of these two notions of God is implied in the first Critique as the ultimate goal of Metaphysics through the unity of the theoretical and practical themselves:
   "The legislation of human reason (philosophy) has two objects, nature and freedom, and therefore contains not only the law of nature, but also the moral law, presenting them at first in two distinct systems, but ultimately in one single philosophical system. The philosophy of nature deals with all that is, the philosophy of morals with that which ought to be. ...
   The philosophy of pure reason is either a propaedeutic (preparation), which investigates the faculty of reason in respect of all its pure #a priori# knowledge, and is entitled criticism, or secondly, it is the system of pure reason, that is the science which exhibits in systematic connection the whole body (true as well as illusory) of philosophical knowledge arising out of pure reason, and which is entitled metaphysics." (Critique of Pure Reason, A840-1, B868-9)

   The project of bringing together the theoretical and practical is Philosophy. What sort of advance is it that we make when we are engaged in Philosophy? For this I refer back to my earlier discussion of moral disagreement and the understanding of the meaning of a situation. My suggestion is that Philosophy advanced in the interpretation of the situations we find ourselves in, pushing further to get a better and better understanding of what is the most suitable way to understand these situations. How are we to advance in this project? For this, we are guided back to the instincts of Plato and Socrates that still live in Kant - Know thyself. Also, consideration of the value of the moral proof of God in the third Critique, and its relationship to teleology and human purpose, shows a strong attempt at trying to get a framework for how to understand our situation. We cannot overlook, as well, the nature of the aesthetic judgment in laying the foundation for logic - something that is also discussed in the third Critique.

   I know there is something in all three of these for me to continue to consider, and study; I hope that there is something in here for someone else as well.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Understanding Authenticity and Inauthenticity in 'Being and Time'

   In the interest of trying to make things simple before they are complicated I want to suggest a way of guiding ones reading of Being and Time through a simple statement of the ultimate relevance of the authentic/inauthentic distinction. There is a lot to draw out of a distinction such as the authentic/inauthentic, but we should strive to situate ourselves with the term in such a way that it informs a larger scope of our interpretation before we begin to suggest elements that are not so obvious (yet which may be quite important nonetheless).
   'Authentic' and 'inauthentic' can become distracting because they have an air of moralizing about them. Does Heidegger mean to see that people who are inauthentic, or who spend more time being inauthentic than authentic, are somehow bad? Even though Heidegger denies this flat out in the text, there is still a tendency to read him as doing so with a wink. But my questions for such readers are: how is such a reading helpful in clarifying the core issue of the text? Would we choose to distract ourselves from what the main issue is while at the same time needing to contradict what is said in the text about authentic and inauthentic? Does moralizing seem to offer any benefit to the main objectives of the text? Does Heidegger ever suggest in other works that such moralizing is beneficial for understanding his work?
   Heidegger himself does not necessarily do a good job of clarifying what role the terms are to serve in his work explicitly (and with good reason, since he works through exposition), but if we are allowed to assume that he did not develop these terms blindly, or on a tangent, then we should be able to see why these centrally featured terms are relevant for the main theme of Being and Time.
   The main problem of Being and Time is simple to put: how do we formulate the question of the meaning of Being (read as: to be). Clearly, we can say, "What is the meaning of Being?", so what is outstanding in the formulation? In short, the meaning of the question! We need to make sure that we actually ask about Being (to be), but how are we to know what to do? It's not clear how to understand the way Heidegger wants to ask the question at first. In fact, we can understand how he could by no means provide an answer to the meaning of this question of the meaning of Being prior to working the question itself out. The very formulation of the question is a puzzle that occupies the whole of Being and Time, and it is examining this puzzle that gets us farther into an understanding of the text.
   In some way we must make a theme of 'Being' such that we can inquire into it, but we must do so in such a way that we can first figure out what is being discussed at all. Heidegger may as well ask "what is the meaning of 'puffinstuff'?", since he can't come out and tell us, and may not himself understand precisely what he is asking about. But he does know what he is asking into (at least through a vague fore-understanding, something average), and he can provide a great deal of hints that hook us into the tradition of talking about 'Being' and 'beings'; these clues are negative, and he employs them in circling around trying to get ever closer to what he wants to discuss. Now, how does authenticity get us closer in our circling to an understanding of Being?
   A rough definition of 'authentic' may help: ones encounter is 'authentic' whenever the Being (to be) of what is encountered becomes a concern. So, to use an example, if I am using a hammer and it 'breaks' or 'fails', then I may not take this in stride. I may stop and look at the thing which has become conspicuous. When the equipment fails, we can make a theme of its Being (the manner in which it is). Now, the Being of Dasein is a question for Fundamental Ontology, and Dasein is not ready or present-at-hand like a hammer, and so Dasein does not simply break or fall apart. However, the equipment which we may engage with is not itself authentic or inauthentic - it is our concern with it that is. Do we "encounter ourselves" authentically or inauthentically? This is a possibility of our Being, and just as an authentic encounter with the hammer makes a theme of its Being possible for us, an "authentic encounter" with Dasein would make the Being of Dasein a possible theme.
   (Along with Heidegger, we should be wary of treating Dasein as something ready or present-at-hand. This is why I put 'encountering ourselves' above in scare quotes above: we clearly do not encounter ourselves in some manner akin to a hammer. This should be evident in that authentic and inauthentic encounters with objects ready or present-at-hand are possibly ways for Dasein to be.)
   Now, Being-towards-death, resoluteness, &c are all important in how we are to understand Dasein's being authentic. I will not develop the interpretation of these further here since my intentions are simply to indicate the relevance of the authentic/inauthentic distinction and provide an indication of some direction from there.
   Now, does 'inauthentic' serve us in any way in terms of how it is possible to make something the theme of some discourse? We can note right away that it at least forms a different possibility for the Being of Dasein from authentic so we can narrow down further what the authentic is. A more interesting thing to note about the inauthentic is that, in being closely aligned with 'averageness' and 'everydayness' it is closely aligned with the starting point of the inquiry - we cannot define 'Being' and then inquire into it, we begin with a more or less average understanding of Being, an understanding that for many is influenced by the tradition of philosophy in such a way that asking into its meaning is daft. The tradition coaxes us into inauthenticity.
   The problem with the question of the meaning of Being is that we do take it inauthentically (not concerning our Being) at first, or not at all. The work serves as an exposition to the question, and this exposition of the question is itself the answer, in a sense, as far as philosophy has to offer it. What does the exposition consist in? Does it consists in going from an inauthentic encounter with Being to an authentic encounter with Being? (I note that Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Doctrine of Method, says that Philosophy cannot properly define anything, but can rather only operate on expositions of its concepts. Heidegger seems to obey this, and reveal something very important about this remark by Kant - even if by accident.) What of 'Phenomenology' as a discourse? Can such a discourse on Being be possible in any other way than one which forces the reader into authenticity?
   Perhaps these sorts of reflections can be crucial for understanding Being and Time, perhaps not, but these occur to me as powerful suggestions of the importance and relation of 'authentic' and 'inauthentic' to the overarching goals of the text.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Threat to the History of Philosophy

   I wish to submit an account of how Philosophy, from very early times, has become embroiled in dispute, and how this dispute has become the core of what is recognized as Philosophy, rather than the love of Wisdom. I mean to do this through considering the use that Philosophy makes of the "History of Philosophy".
   It is fair ask: what is the History of Philosophy? I can give a few rough answers to this question. One definition that occurs to me is that it is a history of some great thinkers and their 'philosophical theories' or 'schools' that have such theories. These 'schools' of thought are sometimes different branches of a single older 'school'. They may agree in some ways, but they also disagree in other ways.
   Often a contemporary student of philosophy will learn the History of Philosophy (at least in part), and choose a side, or develop their own theory. The choice of a 'school' or the development of the theory is not to be guided by anything but the search for 'Truth' (in some sense), and generally this is very sincerely maintained. The 'philosopher' will defend the 'Truth' of their 'school' against competing 'schools' that also claim the 'Truth'. This, once again, is how things often seem to occur, and how things have gone for a long time.
   It is a very old tradition of philosophy that engages with its history in such a way. Some sort of engagement with history is always required, however, there is another competing understanding of Philosophy that many philosophers pay tribute to before entering into their disputes - that Philosophy is the love of Wisdom. This understanding of the word, as most know, is in the very etymology of the word 'Philosophy'. Now, the question I ask is this: in what way does the manner in which we engage with the History of Philosophy resemble something like a love of Wisdom or provide materials for such a love?
   Our engagement with, and assigning ourselves to, the tradition by defending the rightness of a theory from the history does not take itself to be in pursuit of Wisdom, but actually to have attained to it already. Defending a theory of ones own design is also seemingly the result of already having attained Wisdom (this is not referring to the Preface of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit). Perhaps, if Wisdom must be considered as still outstanding, then is it to be understood as everyone joining the same 'school' or agreeing on a theory? In my humble estimation, Wisdom is not loved or pursued in our 'discipline' of Philosophy that engages with the History of Philosophy in this manner described above. Rather, we continually forget that in seeking Wisdom we are seeking a better life, something that the defense of a theory is insufficient for.
   By no means do I wish to lament the tradition of brilliant philosophers that have been handed down to us in the canon, nor do I want to reject what the tradition offers - something that has been referred to as theories. I do want to suggest that the love of Wisdom has a tendency to reorganized itself around its own history, rather than to love Wisdom. Once more, I do not want to suggest that there is no wisdom in the tradition, but rather that the actual pursuit of Wisdom is often supplanted with a pursuit of conflict among the 'schools'; this conflict may contribute to the unfolding of Wisdom as a secondary matter, but I have difficulty seeing the pursuit of a better life as its primary aim. (Note: In the remainder of this post I will treat Philosophy and love of Wisdom as distinct.)
   I have a speculation concerning how the organization of Philosophy around a tradition leads to a different mode of Philosophy that involves and increases mutual opposition rather than a pursuit of Wisdom that an individual may undertake. This speculation does not see the disputes we find in Philosophy as anything unnatural, but as rather being the most natural sort of thing, and partly an indication of why the pursuit of Wisdom is so difficult. I hope to focus on particularly a threat of distraction that the History of Philosophy holds for the pursuit of Wisdom, and to show how this threat may also clarify for us the difficulties of the pursuit.
   Now I have a question for those engaged in the pursuit of Wisdom: what part of the pursuit of Wisdom is properly concerned with accepting or rejecting something, and what does the acceptance or rejection of something contribute to the pursuit? I will try to sort this out in a rough manner.
   When we accept or reject a standpoint, we take a stand, and from taking a stand we open up certain possibilities. By a 'standpoint' I clearly do not mean some physical location - it is assumed that many people can share the same standpoint. From where we stand we are able to 'continue on' until the standpoint becomes insufficient. In order to accept something new (or anew) we must already have a standpoint to move from. The transition to a new standpoint will be considered an advance as long as we don't fall back to the old standpoint. Generally, the value of accepting or rejecting for the pursuit of Wisdom is to be found in either stopping when one accepts or continuing when we reject.
   From here I can make some general observations concerning a few trends in the engagement of the History of Philosophy in relation to accepting and rejecting and standpoints.
   Some philosophers in the tradition are concerned with justifying their standpoint (or a historical one), and to convince others of its sufficiency; others argue that no standpoint is itself sufficient, and that we must always be in the habit of moving from one to another. There is a third group who are not so much considered with making the theme of their discussion a particular standpoint, or the impossibility of holding to a single standpoint; rather, they recognize the necessity of at least having a standpoint at any time. This last group asks about what it means to have a standpoint. Each of these groups of philosophers offer a different sort of engagement with the History of Philosophy.
   The first group, which Kant called Dogmatists, engage the History of Philosophy by defending particular standpoints (or adding their own to the history). In this way, Dogmatists will only be able to engage with a philosopher by finding a particular standpoint. The second group, which Kant called Skeptics, also depends on finding particular standpoints, but with the addition of revealing insufficiencies in them such that they cannot be maintained alone. I note again, that the engagement with the History of Philosophy by Dogmatists and Skeptics require that particular standpoints are found in the History of Philosophy. (I also must note that Dogmatism and Skepticism are not to be considered here as insulting titles.  I have a post on what Kant means by Dogmatism here.)
   The third group, which Kant fancied he initiated, are Critical Philosophers. Critical Philosophers do not seek particular standpoints in order to defend them, but rather to clarify what a standpoint is.  The engagement with the History of Philosophy by a Critical Philosopher does not stop at finding particular standpoint to accept or reject, but considers how a particular standpoint builds itself on a standpoint considered generally.  Of course, to articulate what a standpoint in general is assumes a particular standpoint, but the purpose is not to remain standing on the same particular point or to leave it, but to continually clarify what any standpoint is - something one can do no matter where one is in fact standing.  (Note: Critical is not meant to suggest being antagonistic to any position.)
   With some variation on Kant's emphasis, I will add that Critical Philosophers can only absolutely reject a standpoint that contradicts standpoints in general, that is, Critical Philosophers reject non-standpoints. Incidentally, such rejections do not take place very often. Because of this the Critical Philosopher does not require an interest in accepting or rejecting standpoints, as long as they are standpoints that one may have. A Critical Philosopher will come to understand how a standpoint is 'standable'. A Critical Philosopher cannot borrow the evaluation of standpoints in general from the tradition, but must work themselves and consider their own standpoint apart from any other, and use the 'essence' of how it is that they stand in examining other standpoints. In this way, the Critical Philosopher is always in a process of self-discovery, and not merely historical consideration. Dogmatists and Skeptics always assume in maintaining a standpoint some understanding or other of what a standpoint is and can be, but without Critical Philosophy, Dogmatists and Skepticists never understand what a standpoint generally is and entails.
   From the perspective of Dogmatism and Skepticism, only one 'school' or parts of 'schools' will have value, and the others are to be despised and deprecated. For the Critical Philosopher, every 'school' has value precisely in how it can contribute to the understanding of a standpoint generally. Dogmatism, Skepticism, and Critical Philosophy all participate in each other, and even towards the overall ends of the pursuit of Wisdom. These are all specializations, however, and no one of them can constitute a proper engagement with the History of Philosophy or the love of Wisdom.
   The tendency towards Dogmatism and Skepticism often overlooks the possibility and need of Critical Philosophy in the requirements of maintaining a standpoint. And in the fervor of defending and attacking standpoints, Critical Philosophy is interpreted as having to defend a particular standpoint, instead of offering suggestions at understanding standpoints. As a result of treating Critical Philosophy as something that either accepts or rejects standpoints, a critical resource is missing in the overall balance of the study of Philosophy.
   The general ignorance of Critical Philosophy, and even more, the interpreting of Critical Philosophy as either Dogmatic or Skeptical, is, to me, what contributes to the complete domination of debate in Philosophy as a field. The domination of debate is a continual sign of forgetting the commonality of standpoints. The ongoing abstract debates ultimately lead Philosophy to fail as a whole in engaging with anything more than abstract theories, and this will continually hinder engaging once again with Philosophy contributing to living a good life directly, and for fulling making use of the History of Philosophy as something that continually informs at all points our ability to live a good life.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Does Kant have a Prescriptive Ethics?

"But who would even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it? Just as if, before him, the world had been ignorant of what duty is or in thoroughgoing error about it." (Critique of Practical Reason, Preface)

"Do you really require that a mode of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding, and should only be revealed to you by philosophers?" (Critique of Pure Reason, A831 B859)

   Prescriptive (or Normative) Ethics are often understood as 1) deciding what is right or wrong on a case by case basis according to some procedure, and 2) developing general theories of such a procedure. Kant is often read as having a Prescriptive Ethics with a unique decision procedure that competes with decision procedures of other Prescriptive theories, such as Utilitarianism in its various flavors. I maintain that this understanding of Kant is completely wrongheaded: there is no decision procedure created by Kant; Kant does not use a procedure to determine what things are right or wrong. Because of this I often call Kant a Descriptivist, but this overcorrection is not technically correct, since his pure moral philosophy is not just an empirical investigation into what people generally have said is right or wrong in history (this empirical study Kant calls 'moral anthropology' in the Preface to the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals). Even saying that Kant does a sort of Meta-Ethics, which traditionally deals with what counts as morality or what 'morality' means, does not properly describe what his project is.
   Construing all three of these terms (Prescriptive, Descriptive and Meta-Ethical) in a new way may help us to to get a sense of what Kant is doing. (I am not proposing redefining these terms generally, but only in the scope of this paper to highlight a certain understanding of Kant.)
   Kant's Ethics are Prescriptive in the sense that they recognize that we experience categorical judgments pertaining to morality. What this refers to is that the starting point of morality for Kant is 'duty', or what it's like to know what you ought to do. Prescription in this sense is not determined by any particular person, but rather is something experienced.
   Kant's Ethics are Descriptive in the sense that they try to give a formulation of the general form of 'duty' (what it's like to know what you ought to do). Just as the first critique looks at how experience of objects is possible, the second critique looks at how the experience of 'duty' is possible.
   Kant's Ethics are Meta-Ethics in the sense that they are interested in determining something formal. We begin with 'duty' and then abstract anything experience contributes. If we want to see ethics in action, however, we must look at a specific case. When we ad the specific case, we are also contributing a number of empirical interpretations, which may lead to disagreements - however, not disagreements as to the form of law, but to its particular judgments. The important thing here is that the form is constant, and so deliberation is possible between agents.
   Kant intends his Practical Philosophy to be a formal representation of common reason, and so we should have an interpretation that stays close to that guiding principle. This, however, is only one small step in clarifying Kant's Practical Philosophy.