Thursday, April 8, 2010

Oops, I transcended myself.

My friend Noah, with whom I banter and then post on this here blog, wrote an excellent article on the new Terry Eagleton book about evil, here: http://www.splicetoday.com/writing/small-triumphs

We discussed his article, and evil, in a meandering, unfocused, and roundabout fashion, because evil has no boundaries. Slayer said so.

Well, no, actually it was pretty much all about Kant. Here:

Bert:

I think you nailed it. The ending is extra sharp. I especially appreciate sounding smart-- that's a fine point I don't remember making.

That Kantian notion of the moral law is something I fret about. It makes morality/spirituality materialist (and thus ethical-humanist), essentially suggesting a neuro-anatomical DNA connection to moral truth. It's the mirror-inverse of Whitehead's positing of perfection as an end toward which striving is justified-- "strive, automaton, strive!" So the highly unsatisfying absolute truth (evil is a force)- personal motivation (evil is a viewpoint) split ends up being reflected in Eagleton's wickedness-evil split. Karl Barth sees evil as absolute absence. The empty space around goodness, truth, growth, life, and peace. For Bataille, it's the anguish that drives drama, and the conundrum of finitude.

But I think you got it right-- evil is in people, and is seen in the acts of people.

Noah:

I don't think Kant's moral law is materialist. Kant thinks the moral law is transcendent, like God; people have a connection to it because there's something in people that is transcendent (the soul.) It's not about DNA, which is why C.S. Lewis is able to put it in talking animals or aliens or what have you.

I'm not sure I follow the Whitehead comparison exactly. Maybe you could explain.

Bert:

Hegel's biggest contribution may have been reconciling idealism and materialism, science and theology into one thing, which I call materialism. A certain institutional understanding of science and theology, that is-- science and religion are bigger than philosophical reduction, but I buy the fusing of idealism and materialism. "The Spirit is a bone." What difference does it make if I say the Moral Law is a law of science or a law of nature or a law of the spirit? It precedes existence-- just like the multiplication tables. That's not God, that's anchoring everything you don't know in something you know. God is apprehended, not known.

The pragmatist view is that your Law, your God, whatever you like, it's great if it gets you whatever you're going for (beatitude, happiness, ambition, etc.). But ultimately it's about actions rather than words. There is no fixed outcome, but a proper method for assessing and describing experience. This is the other side of science-- the experimental method-- and religion-- the sense of trying to understand the incomprehensible.

Noah:

Have you read any Kant? It's been a long time for me and maybe I'm misremembering, but your take on the moral law is nothing like my recollection of it.

The moral law does precede us, but it's way more like the superego, or like God, than it is like the multiplication tales. The moral law isn't this thing out there in the world; it's inscribed on our hearts. Or, really, it is our hearts; for Kant it's the transcendent part of us, the part that's outside time and connected to God. It is the soul, in a lot of ways; the conscience, not a list of rules. It's absolutely not a bone. Hegel's fusing of materialism and idealism happened later; for Kant, transcendence is a really big deal.

Bert:

I've read some middling portion of the Critique of Pure Reason, yes. I don't want to make it sound like I have some huge beef with Kant, because I don't. If anyone made it possible to resuscitate faith within the post-Enlightenment logosphere, it's him. I think there's something to the categorical imperative. But it's not what the philosophers call "sufficient."

What it lacks is what it explicitly rejects, the notion of contingency. "Whatever number of motives nature may present to my will, whatever sensuous impulses, the moral 'ought' is beyond their power to produce." It's absoluteness, its static-ness, its materiality *as an idea* denies a motivation other than some abstract "duty." There is no love. Rather, "(r)eason..., with perfect spontaneity, rearranges (the order of things) according to ideas, with which it compels empirical conditions to agree."

The will and the soul are unknowable, bracketed out of existence, so hope, freedom. and faith have no philosophical value. Jacobi phrased his objections to Kant as confusing conditions of conceptualization with conditions of existence. Individual, specific, subjective experience is merely phenomenal to Kantian Platonism. Which is why, it can be a bone or it can be multiplication tables, either way it's what everyone can affirm when flesh is turned to dust.

Noah:

The duty is something that speaks inside you, with God's voice, though. I think there's love there, or at least a way to get to love.

Kant has a notion of freedom too, though it's more a freedom from (sensuality, sin) than a freedom to (do whatever you want.)

I don't know. I think there's an idea of Kant as moral automaton which is not entirely false, but not entirely true either. Maybe it's because I read the Critique of Practical Reason instead of the Critique of Pure Reason or something, but I always felt like there was more of a sense of Chrisitian spirituality, including love, in his work than people sometimes give him credit for.

Bert:

Do you think Kant deals with evil outside of intentionality? As you point out, organized genocides have proceeded apace under a shared misconception of duty (sustained by violent pleasure). In fact, you might remember me mentioning Zizek mentioning Lacan mentioning Sade and Kant as sharing a similar conflation of desire and duty. People are ends in themselves, true, but what if the people in question are considered subhuman? The subject disappears in the face of a Law impossible to satisfy-- like Paul saying that "With the Law, sin revived, and I died." The threat of punishment provokes evil. And the absent Father who issues the Law is a merciless torturer, and mocks us in our weakness. It actually seems like everything you dislike about the Old Testament God.

Noah:

You're right that I'm being inconsistent with Kant — more evidence that I contain multitudes!

The thing about Kant's God that's different from the God in Job is really that it's an internal dialogue. That is, it's not God speaking from on high and telling you you suck; rather it's your own true self speaking form your heart and telling you you suck. I guess you could say it's a distinction without a difference...but it seems to me that there's something important happening when Kant locates transcendence and God not in a voice from the clouds, but in the self. It's really not an impersonal law; it's a personal conscience — or it's both, and the connection Kant makes between the two kind of scrambles Paul's distinctions. You can certainly argue that scrambling them like that is nonsense or (with Nietzsche) that it only makes the tyranny of the law more tyrannous to see it as an individual, internal truth rather than an external command. But...I don't know. I think Kant gets at something that rings true to me, at least, about the moral experience — something which I think C.S. Lewis takes from him, at least to some extent.

Bert:

According to Zizek, the sublime thing in Kant's Law is that it makes the individual responsible for her own decisions, since the Law does not give specific instructions-- which addresses your idea of the Law being in one's heart. But paradoxically (surprise!), that's what takes the responsibility out of the person's hands, since they're acting in the name of this nameless, faceless injunction, in which all desire and pleasure is pathological, and pleasure comes from and desire reaches toward humiliation (punishment).

The nature of morality as existing in Reason, in (specialized) Knowledge is my entire problem with modernity. Foucault and Nietzsche are right to distrust the rampant hypocrisy of technical-spiritual power-disguised-as-objective-truth. Which doesn't mean that I want to get rid of consciences or human rights or anything of the sort-- cynicism is the ultimate capitulation to modernity. But pragmatism and materialism as a pair are an empty excuse for philosophical choices, and that's the legacy I'm frustrated by.

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