Towards an Anaesthetic of Fascism

The fascist has not been grasped irrevocably by the sublimity of power and authority, but they have been grasped by it. The nature of this very sublimity, of the fascist aesthetic, is the key to freeing them from their own cage, and ourselves with them. Attempting to persuade the fascist is fruitless. They do not, they cannot be reached by reason. Aesthetic judgement is not willful, nor does it recognise or respect our interests or our moral values. Our political rhetoric must therefore engage with the fascist aesthetic on its own terms. There is no other way to repair our communities, our families, and our institutions.

An aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. There are three main elements to aesthetic judgement: the process of judgement, the experience being judged, and the content of that experience. I examine each in order before moving on to the implications of the fascist aesthetic for political rhetoric.

Aesthetic judgements are neither deliberate, fully rational choices, nor strictly reflexive. They stand in the uneasy in between. They can be refined but they cannot be controlled. They can be justified but they cannot be persuaded. Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens[1] understand aesthetic judgements in this sense to be deeply question-begging: reasons given in support of them become reasons only for those who already assent to the claim being justified.[2] Daniel Whiting argues that aesthetic reasons are question-begging because they are always in need of some supplement without which they can only permit aesthetic judgements but cannot demand them.[3] For Whiting, this supplement is something like taste: those systematic aesthetic judgements observers have already made from past experiences and which subsume that judgement being justified. Aesthetic judgements, that is, are merely elements of a broader aesthetic framework which orients a life.

This framework of aesthetic judgements is life-guiding in two ways. First, it guides an observer’s attention toward aesthetically salient elements of a given experience. It is because of our aesthetic framework, our preferences and our capacities for discernment, that we might attend to the colours or the textures or the melody or the semantic content of an experience. Two people embodying two different aesthetic frameworks simply cannot see or hear or feel the same things in the same way given the same experience. Second, an aesthetic framework translates aesthetic judgement into normative force. An aesthetic framework, that is, demands that an observer act on the basis of an aesthetic judgement. This is because an aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. Once an experience is recognised as intrinsically valuable, thence arises a (defeasible) obligation to promote it; likewise, mutatis mutandis, for an experience recognised as intrinsically disvaluable.[4]

Aesthetic judgement is of experience; on the basis of aesthetic judgement, one is obligated to promote or prohibit experience. Aesthetic judgement alone does not concern the content of aesthetic experience except insofar as manipulating the content of experience can promote or prohibit experience. I do not mean to say here that objects or events cannot be beautiful or ugly. Certainly they can be. I look in the mirror at least once a week—less often if possible—and am fully acquainted with my own aesthetic. But they take on these qualities in light of the kind of experiences they produce in observers. Rather, I mean to say that our aesthetic judgements can be wrong. We can judge something initially as boring or as mediocre or as ugly only to later revise our judgement in light of a novel appreciation. Dammann and Schellekens argue that observers are capable of cultivating more accurate aesthetic judgements, and subsequently frameworks, by reflecting upon their own good in connection with their cultural background and the artistic traditions implicated in it.[5] By these means, they suggest, aesthetic judgements can be bootstrapped into a framework in order that one develop as an observer. They are not, however, describing a change in aesthetic judgements; a beautiful image is not by these means regarded as ugly or vice versa. Aesthetic judgements cannot be reached by reason; they can only be altered by aesthetic judgements themselves. It appears that this is what occurs on their proposal too, unbeknownst to them. By reflecting on the background and traditions of an experience, additional aesthetic judgements are formed concerning its semantic significance. The additional aesthetic judgements may shift the framework just enough to generate a new appreciation of old experiences, but this is a slow and unreliable process directly predicated on one’s existing values. The fascist cannot be repaired in this way.

We rather need to focus on the structure of the aesthetic framework. Only the virtuous among us employ a consistent aesthetic. The fascist aesthetic is not one of these. It is deviant and disordered, marred by inconsistencies and ambiguities. This is how we win: we capitalise on the inconsistencies in the fascist aesthetic, in the aesthetic framework which orients their lives and their politics, and we use it to draw the fascist back to the good. This is not simple, but it is achievable.  It requires only a willingness to engage and to genuinely understand the fascist.

Fortunately, the fascist is a simple creature in an ironic age. Their aesthetic is purposeful and unique. It’s kitschy, tacky, uncoordinated, vulgar, and loud. There is no mistaking the bright red cap, the Southern Cross, or Thin Blue Line. These unambiguously signal an identity. This is a significant evolution on the bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans of years past, which do the job but which are not recognisable at a glance. The fascist takes themselves to be the majority, the Volk, the formerly powerful who have been silenced by the threat of powerful minority interests. Their aesthetic reflects this in its visibility, its detachment from what the powerful minority dictate to be good taste, and its open expression of violence and power. The fascist knows that if they really are the majority, as they seek to demonstrate, then they truly do hold the power in their polity—and it is the aesthetic appreciation of power that truly unites all fascists.[6]  

But what power means to the fascist is bound up with traditional hierarchies, with masculinity, with whiteness, with wealth, and so many others. Masculinity especially is so tightly bound up with the fascist aesthetic that it is inseparable from power. Masculinity is virility and invincibility. The Man need not exercise caution: his masculine will is invulnerable to calamity. A good scheme might be a salient exercise of power, but in all else, sober planning has become a symbol for weakness and cowardice. The fascist is somatic, intuitive, impulsive, and violent. The fascist has no patience. They have no empathy—not at least for the underclass, the minority, who have dispossessed the Volk for so long and who continue to dispossess the fascist. The Man merely exercises his will and dominates only to dominate.

And this too is what makes the fascist aesthetic so pernicious. Even the underclass can appreciate the exercise of power. The lower class fascist may know full well that they are liable to become a victim of fascist excess, but they value too deeply the experience, the experience of domination, the catharsis and the struggle that accompanies it. In joining with the fascist, they feel the power they only wish they could exercise—and when the fascist takes power, they permit themselves every liberty to do so against those even more vulnerable than they.

There is more than mere power to the fascist aesthetic, however. There is also vengeance. To the fascist, they are recovering tradition, the natural order, one which had been interrupted by a clever, sly minority that overcame and dispossessed the powerful majority by appealing to their charity and good will.

This narrative is of course not novel. Philosophers might trace it back to Nietzsche, to his Genealogy and the deconstruction of the Master Morality. But the narrative goes back much further; Nietzsche, indeed, presented a parody of this narrative designed to outrage the budding fascists in his midst. He attacks their tradition, their natural order, their Christian morality, and allies it with the Jews. The old Masters, the highest expression of worldly power, fall to ever farther depths. Their fault was not charity, as the story had gone, but stupidity and impulse. The Jews overcame the Masters not because they were sly or clever but because the Jewish priestly class was genuinely more powerful on account of their cleverness. If Nietzsche has any goal in the Genealogy, it was to drive a wedge between the fascist love of vengeance and their love of power, and all within the realm of aesthetic judgement. He clearly failed. We cannot.

What means are available to us now? In what way might we shake the fascist of their drunken love of power? We cannot appeal to them through reason; we cannot demonstrate the contradictions of their will or their interests or their rhetoric. This does not concern them. We cannot beat the fascist in the ballot box: this will only delay their authority, and they have long considered the electoral process to be rigged against them, the true majority visible in red hats and racist flags. We cannot even do them harm, for at present, the fascists do have the power, the arms, the wealth, and the numbers to withstand any assault. The time for punching Nazis has come to pass. So what can we do? Contrapoints has proposed that we employ cringe, a distinctly somatic, aesthetic experience designed to isolate and malign a target group without putting a target individual in a defensive stance. Cringe in this sense hacks apart an aesthetic framework and provides the means to rebuild it anew. I do not know the final course of action. But we must find one, and we must find it quickly.


[1] Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens, “On the Moral Psychology and Normative Force of Aesthetic Reasons,” Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, LIV/X (1), 2017: 20-39

[2] Philosophers, of course, are no stranger to this kind of justification. It was the dominant form of philosophical reasoning for the better part of a century under the guise of philosophical intuitionism. Intuitions, and the kind of philosophy that grows out of them, are (or are at least isomorphic to) a kind of aesthetic judgement. This is why intuitionists attempt to defend their account of philosophy as a kind of perception or “seeming” and may even appeal to a “faculty” of intuitions even when they use them for the sake of robust philosophical justification. Intuitions too are not perceptions or deliberate judgements, but stand uneasily between them. At their foundations, intuitive justifications can be understood and modified in exactly the same ways as aesthetic judgements about the exercise of power or about works of art. Philosophy presumably should not wish itself to be cemented into something so fluid and arbitrary.

[3] Daniel Whiting, “Aesthetic Reasons and the Demands They (Do Not) Make,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 2020: 5; Whiting’s main argument against the demandingness of aesthetic reasons is that there are so many objects which individually possess aesthetic properties to make demands on observers that this would be excessively demanding on those observers. This is confused in a number of ways. First, aesthetic properties are properties of experiences, not objects. This significantly limits the number of aesthetic properties with which an observer might be faced. Second, aesthetic properties are relational between different elements of an experience, often involving the whole experience, and not just the elements atomically. This further limits the number of aesthetic properties. Altogether, clearing up Whiting’s confusions leaves us with an easily manageable set of aesthetic demands, especially since most of these are satisfied automatically. His first argument is much more compelling, even if insufficient. As a matter of course, I do think that aesthetic properties levy a demand upon people to assent to them.

[4] I suspect that aesthetic judgement in the sense I have presented here serves as the foundation of a fairly general kind of constructivist moral theory, and certainly one that is more psychologically compelling than for example Kant’s. I will not develop this here, but it is worth considering.

[5] Dammann and Schellekens, 37-38

[6] The fascist aesthetic is not exactly wrong about this: power, community, struggle, these are all genuinely valuable experiences. The fascists’ error, however, is what they take to promote these experiences, namely the impulsive and systematic domination of the vulnerable. If only we could reach the fascist in reason, it would be a simple matter to show them how what they take to be an exercise of power ultimately leads to their feebleness, but alas, we cannot.

Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  


[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.

Moral Defeatism

It is not difficult to abstain from sin. It is not difficult to abstain from anger or greed or lust or jealousy. Anyone can do this with even the slightest effort. Sin may well be the natural condition of humankind, but humankind no longer lives in a natural condition. Humanity has not conquered nature, but it has conquered humanity. It has been domesticated, enslaved by a Christ who commands his disciples to be perfect as God in Heaven is perfect. And if God is merely the absence of sin, humanity has—or at least has made it possible to have—achieved equality with Him centuries ago.

That sin persists is a minor mystery, one that despite its banality must still be solved. There are two main explanations for it, one psychological and another normative. The former is uninteresting. In their divine wisdom, the Christians have made freedom from sin into something inaccessible, unachievable, and so in some sense forbidden. To be an honest Christian, one must self-accuse, one must humble oneself, and so find themselves guilty of sin. It is no mystery that of the elect who have thus far escaped sin, not one has been Christian. Even Christ himself would humble himself, allowing temptation and anger to strike him too. And lest His wrath be called upon as witness to the sin of the Lord himself!

Christianity is a slave’s religion, one which exalts liberty to heights beyond human reach. Only grace can break our chains, and all human efforts to abstain from sin are for naught. It does not matter to the Christian that sin as they state it can be abolished by a synergy of the simplest psychological technologies—be they therapeutic or meditative—and the slightest social progress. Any sin that can be avoided is no sin at all. This is why the Christ in His Sermon revises the Jewish law forbidding murder into the much crueler, stricter law forbidding anger. And now as anger has been conquered humanity awaits the second revision of Christ.

But in truth this second revision is very far off. The Christian revels today in their sin, in their anger and their jealousy, their lust and their greed. They love to be punished, to pull at their chains in order that they be whipped back into place. It is the nature of humanity to crave a hierarchy, and the Christian craves their slavery.[1] It is a comforting position for them, to relax as it were and allow the Lord to lift their lives. So many an addict or a criminal have surrendered to this siren song for the dark desire to release them of their sin. They empty their hearts of their lust only to fill it again with the Christ’s… revision.

Moral defeatism is the mortal sin of Christianity which says that perfection is achieved with the Lord but unachievable without. This explains the Christian’s penchant for their lusts and their anger which so frustrate—and yet reinforce—their aims. This explains their incomplete surrender to those ideals that they profess. As enlightenment encroaches upon the soul of the Christian, they retreat in order to preserve the darkness within them. They cherish this darkness. Through it, because of it, they shall find salvation. And what is the cost of a little sin now if it may purchase the Christian eternal torment in Heaven? That their salvation is from this very darkness is immaterial to them. What enlightenment could possibly compare to salvation? Certainly no Christian can compare to the might of the Lord! So why shall they compete with Him? Allow His Grace to enrapture, capture, and enslave. This is the way to Heaven. That so few today are truly Christian amongst even those who profess their faith stands as a testament to the virtue, singular as it may be, that recognises the vulgarity of moral defeatism and the achievability of virtue, of perfection.

No person stands without any virtue. The Christian, for all their vice, possesses the slave’s virtue. Others possess the master’s. The value of a virtue, however, takes form only when the practice it regulates has value. The slave’s virtue makes for a docile and pleasant servant, one who shall slither through life avoiding conflict despite their powerlessness. But a slavish condition is paralysis; it can generate no value but for the Lord, the Master to whom the slave is bound. And because the Christian does not even fully live their slavish life, they cannot generate even this value.

The value in virtue is its contribution to the power of one who wields it. But the master too does not wield virtue: they wield only the whip. Far from living a valued life, the master lives as a brute, precarious and fragile, ever wary of mutiny. Their virtue cannot protect them. It cannot be wielded as a weapon against the resentful and disobedient slave. Only the gods bear true virtue in their masterful condition, for only they are immune from usurpation. Humanity is far too delicate to dine on their ambrosia.

The virtuous life is not without sin; it has no need for servility. Sin is a distraction from the life of virtue and abstinence from it is a perversion of the means to virtue. For as the avoidance of sin requires the discipline to lord as master over oneself, so too does virtue. But in the former condition, self-mastery is marshalled in obedience to another master, to the Christ, to the commune, to the king; in the latter, it is marshalled in service of excellence, of one’s own power and interests. This is not equality, but it is neither domination. Virtue is the differentia from some prior condition of equality. The virtuous are constructed; they become nexuses of agency for and unto themselves, not self-sufficiently, but self-directedly.

The Kantian, who has elevated abstinence from sin to the altar of reason, does not speak this way about virtue. They speak rather of freedom as accord with Reason, with the Will of the Lord; for them the cultivation of agency is the capacity to fulfill their duty. Freedom to the Kantian is servitude. True virtue serves no one: it is neither slave to gods nor masters nor inclination. True virtue rules no one: it is itself neither master nor criterion over human action.

Virtue is not distinct from the human condition, nor is it identical with it. Virtue is constructed in human relations, both to self and to other continuously in their activity. Only so does it become achievable, practicable, embodied in human life. Only so can any person be said to attain virtue—and only so has every person failed. For virtue does not stay put: it is always in view but forever out of reach. It is always achievable but never achieved. This is the Christian’s insight turned back around. They have only forgotten that the Lord has legs.

 

___________________________

Note:

[1] The Christian impulse is endemic elsewhere too, most notably in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology. It arises anywhere in which one is alienated from power; surrender becomes the final resolve of the oppressed. Under the Romans, the Jews surrendered to become Christian; under the increasingly complex empires of Europe, the poor surrendered to the benevolent hand of History, which shall through revolution right all wrongs and grow into international communism.

A tweet-summary of David Hume’s “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding”

After conducting a Twitter poll, I decided to re-read Hume’s Enquiry, one of my favorite works of philosophy. I posted my summaries of each section in a Twitter thread, which I’m reproducing here with some modifications.

Section 1: Of the different Species of Philosophy
In Section 1 Hume tells us he’s basically trying to construct a science of the human mind. He wants to do for the mind what Newton did for external bodies. This means not just describing the different parts of the mind, but actually explaining how the mind works by understanding its fundamental principles and capacities. This will clearly have consequences for the way we think about what kinds of knowledge we’re capable of.

Section 2: Of the Origin of Ideas
In Section 2 Hume draws a distinction between impressions and ideas. Impressions are things like sensations, desires and emotions. Ideas are dull copies of impressions we use when reflecting or thinking about them. The difference is here is the difference between (for example) actually having an experience of a red object, such as when looking at an apple, and later thinking about redness or red objects. Next, Hume says that while the human imagination is powerful, there are important constraints on what imagination is capable of. All complex ideas arise out of us “compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing” simple ideas, which are in turn derived from impressions. Eg: we can think of a golden mountain by bringing together our ideas of “gold” and “mountain” which we were previously independently acquainted with.

Towards the end of the second section, Hume brings up a possible counter-example to this: the famous “missing shade of blue” thought experiment. All simple ideas are supposed to have their origins in corresponding impressions (and colors are supposed to be simple, not complex, ideas). But wait, we can line up various shades of blue progressing from darkest to lightest with a single space somewhere in the middle left blank instead of having a particular shade of blue. Isn’t it plausible that someone looking at this series would be able to imagine that shade of blue even if they haven’t had a direct impression of it? Hume acknowledges that this seems to be a difficulty for his account, but immediately sets it aside by saying that’s such a singular case that we don’t need to alter the general principle outlined here.

Section 3: Of the Association of Ideas
Section 3 is the shortest so far. In Section 3 Hume points out that our ideas seem to enter into various relations with each other, but that all of them can be boiled down to three fundamental ones:

– resemblance
– contiguity in time & space
– cause & effect

He thinks the last one is the most important, as we will soon see.

Section 4: Sceptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding
Hume begins Section 4 by dividing human reasoning into two kinds: reasoning concerning relations of ideas, and reasons concerning matters of fact. Mathematics and logic belong in the former category, all forms of empirical investigation fall into the latter one. When we’re dealing with relations of ideas (math, logic) we can achieve certainty. When we’re dealing with matters of fact, the best we can hope for is probability. Hume then states that for all empirical reasoning that goes beyond immediate observation and memory, is based on cause and effect.

How do we know about cause and effect? They’re not things we can discover a priori. Causes and effects are distinct, so logic along will not get us from one to the other. So we must learn about causes and effects through experience. But there’s a problem. Our reasoning based on cause and effect proceeds like this: we recall that in the past we’ve observed that certain causes produce certain effects. But we go on to think similar causes will produce similar effects in the future. That is, we think the future will resemble the past. But why think this? What is the basis for thinking that because things have happened a certain way in the past, they will happen that way in the future?

It can’t be a logical deduction – “X has always happened in the past” doesn’t entail “X will happen in the future.” Hume points out there’s no contradiction in holding, for instance, that the sun, which up until now has always been observed to rise, will not rise tomorrow. OK, so it’s not something we know a priori. So maybe it’s something we infer based on experience? But hold on, we just said a short while ago that all reasoning concerning matters of fact presupposed the relation of cause and effect. But we also just showed that cause and effect presupposes that the future will resemble the past. So we appear to be reasoning in a circle. Not good!

Similarly, Hume says, you can’t say that because up until now, the future has resembled the past, it will do so in the future as well. That’s presupposing precisely what you set out to demonstrate – that the future will resemble the past. So where does that leave us? Hume’s conclusion in this section – a purely negative one – is that we don’t reason ourselves into believing that the future will resemble the past. He’s just shown that there is no possible route reason can take to do this. So if it’s not based on reason, why do we draw inductive inferences? That will be the subject of Section 5.

Section 5: Sceptical Solution of these Doubts
We were left with the question of what grounds our practice of using induction / inferences based on cause & effect, since it’s been argued that it can’t be reason. Hume is going to give us his answer to this question now. In Part 1 of Section 5, Hume asks to imagine that someone with all the normal faculties of reason is suddenly brought into the world – that is, he has no previous experience. In case like this he would observe regular successions of events but would not arrive at the idea of cause and effect. And so he would not be able to reason about anything beyond the senses and memory. After he’s been around for a while and gained more experience, he will begin to draw inferences: he will infer a certain object/event from the presence of another object/event because over time he’s observed constant conjunctions of objects/events.

And so we have our answer. What makes him – and by extension, us – do this is custom or habit not reason. In Hume’s own words, “All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning.” It’s simply a fact about us that we come to conclusions this way – every bit as unavoidable as feeling love or hatred.

In Part 2 of Section 5 Hume analyzes the nature of belief. He begins by pointing out again that the human imagination can come up with various complex ideas by modifying and compounding simple ideas. What makes these “fictions” of the imagination different from beliefs? Hume thinks that beliefs have a different feeling attached to them. A feeling that “gives them more weight and influence; makes them appear of greater importance; inforces them in the mind; and renders them the governing principle of our actions.”

In other words, beliefs have a different feel to them than things we merely imagine, and this feeling in turn disposes us to act in certain ways. And this disposition is itself brought about by belief + the memories the belief triggers + custom, which is what makes us draw inductive inferences. So we can see that for Hume, custom or habit is of crucial importance, not something to be dismissed because it’s not a form of reason. Custom is “necessary to the subsistence of our species, and the regulation of our conduct, in every circumstance and occurrence of human life.”

Section 6: Of Probability
Section 6 is a short section on probability. Hume says straight away that “chance” is not something in the world. Rather, our ignorance of certain causes makes us form various degrees of belief, which is where probability has a role to play. Again, it’s experience + custom that’s doing all the work here. The more often we observe certain conjunctions of events – the more we see this sort of uniformity – the higher our degree of belief. And Hume takes this to be the essence of probability.

Section 7: Of the idea of necessary Connexion
After a brief introduction, Hume points out that all our ideas deas related to cause and effect, such as “power”, “force” and “necessary connection” are extremely obscure. So he wants to try to figure out what they are and where they come from. Hume reminds us about his theory of simple and complex ideas: simple ideas are copies of impressions, complex ideas arise out of modifying and compounding simple ideas. Do our ideas of power/necessity arise from experience? But we don’t actually perceive powers or necessary connections. We observe, for example, a billiard ball moving after being struck by another billiard ball, or that whenever there’s fire there’s heat. But our senses don’t actually grasp the causal connection between one billiard ball and the next, or between fire and heat. So there’s no external impression that generates the idea of power or necessary connection.

Maybe there’s an internal impression that does? Perhaps it could be argued that whenever we voluntarily move parts of our body, we feel this power, and that’s where the idea comes from. Hume argues that this isn’t actually what’s going on: we will to move a certain part of our body and this is followed by that part of our body moving. We don’t actually encounter any powers or necessary connections here, just a succession of acts: the willing and the moving. Besides, a close study of anatomy reveals there’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens between the willing and the final effect that we have no knowledge of, so it doesn’t make sense to say we’re actually aware of the connection between the willing and the acting. OK, we don’t encounter powers in cases when the mind tries to command the body. Maybe we do when we bring certain ideas into our mind or decide to turn our inner attention to certain ideas? But again, Hume argues, what happens here is similar to what happens in the case of moving parts of our bodies. We experience the desire / will to focus on a certain idea, and then we find ourselves focusing on certain idea. We still don’t encounter the supposed power that connects the first event and the second. So we’re still left with the fact that we only perceive conjunctions between objects/events, not connections.

Hume now points out that some philosophers, as a result of this, have adopted occasionalism. According to occasionalism, the powers are not in objects but in God. God wills all the conjunctions we observe. Hume’s response to this is that it doesn’t really solve the problem. It’s true that we don’t understand the power that determines how bodies operate on each other, but we’re equally ignorant of how a mind – even a supreme one – could operate on bodies. And the power of minds to act on bodies is also not something we have an impression of, as we’ve already shown. Having rejected these explanations we’ve considered so far, Human proposes his own.

We’ve shown that powers/connections are not things we observe – internally, or externally. What we observe are regular successions of events. But we also showed in Section 5 that as a result of custom, we always form certain expectations. Every time we see one billiard ball strike another, we see the second billiard ball move. And so the next time we see it, we expect it to move. That is, the connection between ideas is not something that is impressed on us by the world – it’s something felt by the mind. We project this felt connection on to the world. which is why we think there are necessary connections between objects/events. Hume then offers his own revisionary definitions of cause & effect:

– “An object, followed by another, and where all the objects, similar to the first, are followed by objects similar to the second”

– “An object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other.”

Hume ends the section by worrying whether his chain of reasoning will be understood by the reader, but also says he doesn’t want to spend more time on it, lest he further confuse the reader. I say: Don’t worry, Hume! You did a really good job explaining what exactly the chaining of reasoning is, and I didn’t have much trouble understanding it.

Section 8: Of Liberty and Necessity
In section 8 Hume wades into the free will / determinism debate, or he calls it the question of liberty and necessity. Straight away Hume makes a bold claim: all the ink spilled over the supposed tension between liberty and necessity rests on a semantic mistake rather than some deep metaphysical principle. In his own words, “the whole controversy has hitherto turned merely upon words.” Liberty and necessity can be reconciled.

When Hume talks of necessity he’s referring to what’s often called causal determinism: the idea that events are necessitated by prior causes. But remember, Hume says, we’ve shown that the idea of necessity is suspect – all we have are constant conjunctions we observe and our disposition to form expectations on the basis of our observations. Hume thinks this is important because he thinks what can tempt people to deny the necessity thesis is something like this: they think there are necessary connections in the physical world, but when it comes to their own mind, these necessary connections don’t exist. So we can secure liberty for the mind if we think it’s exempt from the causal necessities that physical objects are governed by. But once we ditch the idea of necessary connections entirely, this analogy doesn’t hold. The whole picture falls apart. There are no necessary connections out in the world or in the mind. What we have is constant conjunctions / uniformity – and this is true of both the mind (desiring, willing, acting) and the world (physical events).

Hume then argues that no one really denies the necessity thesis (or, if we’re being philosophically rigorous, the uniformity thesis) even when it comes to human minds, because we constantly make inferences / predictions about how humans will behave based on past observations. Hume spends a significant amount of Part 1 of this section showing how all our practical activity relies on the presumption of uniformity in human thought and action (even across very different cultures).

OK, so how can this necessity / uniformity be reconciled with liberty, which is what Hume promised us? I will share Hume’s own compatibilist definition of liberty: “By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we chuse to remain at rest, we may; if we chuse to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one, who is not a prisoner and in chains.” In other words, freedom means being able to do what you want.

In Part 2 Hume wants to show that many of our ideas about reward and punishment, or praise and blame, require both necessity and liberty. What’s guiding Hume’s argument here is the thought that reward/punishment or praise/blame for an action only make sense if that action is a reflection of the person’s character. But if we grant this, we also grant that they require uniformity. That is, we hold that certain kinds of behavior regularly follow from certain kinds of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions etc). If people’s actions did not follow from prior internal and external causes – that is, if actions did not follow this pattern of uniformity – then they are not a reflection of their character – they’re not a reflection of who they are – and so reward/punishment or praise/blame would make no sense. Similarly, Hume points out that our practices presuppose liberty, since it wouldn’t make sense to apply them when people acted because they were coerced by external violence, because once again, their actions don’t reflect their character.

Hume then brings up two difficulties for the reconciliation he has proposed between liberty and necessity. First, someone could argue that even though we may be free to act according to the determination of our will, the will itself is determined by a prior series of causes that presumably has its origin in God. If that’s the case, people cannot be held responsible for their wills, and all the responsibility lies with God. Here Hume responds by saying that it’s a mistake to think our moral ideas are born of reason alone – when we praise or blame we are motivated primarily by sentiment. It’s a mistake to focus on the question of ultimate responsibility since our beliefs about this won’t significantly alter the way our sentiments are formed. He doesn’t develop this much further here, and to fully understand where he’s going with this I assume you’d have to be familiar his sentimentalist theory of morality. The second objection is that if God is ultimately responsible for the chain of causes that created people’s wills (which in turned led to people engaging in harmful acts), then God must be imperfect or immoral. Hume doesn’t give us a response to this – he says that tackling this question regarding God is beyond the scope of philosophy.

Section 9: Of the Reason of Animals
Section 9 is a short but super underrated section on animals and their capabilities of reasoning. It’s remarkable how, in a pre-Darwin age, Hume was able to stress the continuity between humans and animals in many things – including the ability to reason. Hume says it’s clear that animals also reason in the sense that they are capable of learning from experiences, and this enables them to avoid things that cause them pain and seek things that they find enjoyable. In this sense they are similar to us – they experience various constant conjunctions, and their minds automatically form expectations on the basis of these experiences. He gives the example of a horse learning how high it can jump, and a dog learning to fear the whip.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean animals get by in the world with highly abstract reasoning or formal argumentation. But neither, Hume points out, do we – most of the time. A quote I really liked from this Section: “Animals, therefore, are not guided in these inferences by reasoning: Neither are children: Neither are the generality of mankind, in their ordinary actions and conclusions: Neither are philosophers themselves, who, in all the active parts of life, are, in the main, the same with the vulgar, and are governed by the same maxims.”

Similarly, Hume says, animals are often guided by instinct rather than by things they’ve learned through observation. But then again, so are we. So Hume once more stresses the continuity between humans and animals. I think this is a natural consequence of his stated aim: constructing an empirical/natural science of the mind.

Section 10: Of Miracles
Hume’s made plenty of bold claims throughout the book, and this section on miracles is no exception. In the very second paragraph of Part 1, Hume says “I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures.” Strong words – let’s see if the argument lives up to them.

Hume begins laying out the argument by recalling that for all matters concerning experience, we rely on constant conjunctions / regularities / uniformities that we have observed. These regularities are confirmed to various degrees, so we’re always dealing with probabilities here. Some regularities are extremely well confirmed in that we’ve never observed anything contrary to them. Whenever we encounter a claim, we must measure its probability based on our experience of these regularities. In Hume’s words, “A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Hume makes a point about testimony here, and it’s crucial to understand it, since it plays an important role in his argument. Why do we believe people’s testimony? As with anything else, says Hume, it’s because of our past experience that there is some sort of connection between testimony and truth. By “connection” of course I don’t mean a “necessary connection.” Rather, I’m referring to the correlation we’ve observed in the past between people saying X and X actually being the case. What Hume says is that we’ve observed in the past that people aren’t always mistaken or trying to mislead us when they report things, which is why we think we can rely on testimony. This is the only reason to think testimony has some value. If not for this experience of a correlation we would have no reason to take testimony seriously.

Hume then goes on to say we’ve also experienced that testimony is not always reliable, and there are many circumstances in which we would doubt someone’s reports. All of this lays the groundwork for the core of the argument. Hume now defines a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature.” It’s worth stressing here that Hume’s conception of laws of nature is entirely epistemic. There’s nothing impossible in principle about violating the laws of nature. Laws of nature are simply our best confirmed regularities – the facts about the world we have the most confidence in. Hume: “It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country.”

The second point to note here, which Hume mentions earlier, is that the reason we’re usually given for believing a miracle is testimony – people report witnessing a miraculous event. Hume says that when this is combined with what he’s said so far, the conclusion that follows is “That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish[.]”

Part 1 ends here. In Part 2 of Section 10 Hume sets out to show why exactly testimony for a miracle doesn’t rise to the level of being more miraculous than the miracle it’s supposed to establish. Remember that at this stage we’re weighing two different probabilities. One the one hand, there’s the claim that a certain law of nature was not violated. Remember, a claim like this is one we have the highest amount of confidence in, given our experience of regularities. We’ve never seen an exception to something like “Dead men stay dead” ever. When it comes to matters of fact, probabilities don’t get much higher.

On the other hand, there’s the testimony from witnesses that the law was violated. Hume wants to show that we will have no reason to assign this testimony a higher probability than the alternative that the law of nature was violated. Some people have portrayed Hume as giving some sort of a priori argument against miracles here, but this is not borne out by the text, and goes completely against the spirit of Hume’s empiricism. The reasons against assigning the testimony in favor of miracles a higher probability are straightforwardly empirical, and Hume lists them:

1) Testimony is strongest when it comes from people who are well educated and have good reputations that they would not wish to tarnish. All the testimonies we have for miracles fail to meet these conditions.

2) It’s a fact about human psychology that we have a propensity to believe miraculous things, especially in matters concerning religion, because of a combination of fear and wishful thinking, among other things.

3) Most reports of miracles come from people who are “ignorant and barbarous.” That is, people who don’t know much about how the world works, and are especially prone to attributing effects to supernatural causes. Hume points out that people sometimes wonder why miracles and supernatural intervention seemed to be so abundant in ancient times but seem so scarce now. The answer is simple: people were more easily fooled into believing such things in the past than they are now.

Finally, there are various miracle claims across history purporting to be evidence for various religions, all of which are in contradiction with each other. Even the religious person, therefore, has to believe that the vast majority of miracle claims are false. But the kind of testimony that exists for different religions is of the same nature and quality, so there’s no reason to think that the miracles described in any specific religion are more likely to have occurred.

On the basis of all this, Hume says, none of the testimony we have for miracles so far is good enough to overturn our belief that a law of nature was not suspended, and it’s unlikely that there will be any such testimony in the future. But again, this doesn’t mean that such testimony will be in principle impossible to find, and Hume himself provides an example of something that could work as sufficient testimony for believing something extraordinary: If everyone in every country agreed that there was darkness for eight days starting on January 1, 1600, and there was absolutely no variation in the accounts about this among people of different nations, then it seems reasonable to believe this did really happen, on the basis of testimony.

Hume immediately contrasts this with a different example: On January 1, 1600 Queen Elizabeth died. A month later she came back to life and resumed her rule, as confirmed by many witnesses of the time in England. Hume thinks that in this case we shouldn’t believe that it actually happened, for precisely the kinds of reasons outlined above.

One final point Hume makes is that someone could respond by saying we can say that the probability of a miracle isn’t actually low because God can suspend the regularities we observe anytime he wants. Hume’s objection to this is that the only basis we have for learning about the nature of God’s actions is experience, and all our experience shows us that he doesn’t like to suspend regularities. We’ve observed mistaken testimony and fraudulent miracles far more often than we’ve observed God violating a law of nature, so even if you’re a theist, you should bet against the miracle actually having occurred.

It’s interesting how everything Hume’s said so far can be seen as a direct attack on Christianity, and indeed that was how it was received in his time. I’m sure Hume didn’t make things easier for himself with the way he ended this section: “So that, upon the whole, we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” Oof.

Section 11: Of a particular Providence and of a future State
In Section 11 Hume tackles philosophy of religion, although his treatment of the subject is pretty short here. But you can see the germs of the criticisms that would be more fully developed in his later work, the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Amusingly, Hume places most of the criticisms of theistic arguments in the voice of a friend, who’s also playing the part of an Epicurean arguing against the Athenian gods rather than the Christian one. It seems pretty clear Hume wanted to distance himself from being seen as an outright atheist.

Hume’s main target here is the argument from design. It can be stated in a lot of ways, but the general idea is that given the extraordinary order and structure of the universe, we infer that its cause be some powerful intelligence(s) behind it. We’re reasoning by analogy here: if we came across some complex artifact we would infer that it was designed by an intelligence. The same applies to the universe. Hume’s main criticism here is that from any effect you can only infer proportionate causes – that is, you can only infer causes that have the particular capabilities that the effect requires. Anything more is just a shot in the dark. So if we want to infer that the universe has a designer, all we can say is that the designer has the ability to create the universe. We don’t have any grounds for inferring that the designer has attributes like omnipotence or benevolence or anything approaching perfection. This is especially true given all the imperfections we see in the world.

Hume goes on to say that if there’s no reason to think the gods are just, there’s no reason to think there will be a proper distribution of justice in the world either – that is, that good deeds will be rewarded and bad deeds will be punished. At this stage Hume considers an objection. Suppose we see a half-finished building with various tools and materials around. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume from this, not just that there was a designer, but that the designer had not yet completed the project? Why can we not reason in an analogous fashion, on observing the universe, that while rewards and punishments may have not yet been meted out in a just matter, they will in the end, as events run their final course? Hume points out the relevant disanalogy here: in the case of the half-finished building we’re justified in drawing that kind of inference because we’ve observed humans and how they behave in the past. The same is not true of the gods – we have no experience of them that tells us what their behavior is like or what their intentions are.

A final point Hume makes about inferring causes from effects is that we can only infer like causes from like effects. If we’re dealing with a singular effect that has no parallel in our experience, there’s not much we can say about its cause. This is what Hume thinks about inferring things about the cause of the universe as a whole. When we’re looking at specific objects within the universe, we can infer their causes based on constant conjunctions we’ve seen before with similar objects. But the universe as a whole is something singular; there’s no similar kind of object we’ve observed in the past to come to conclusions about its cause.

Section 12: Of the academical or sceptical Philosophy
In Section 12, the final section, Hume goes over the different varieties of skepticism. First there’s Cartesian skepticism, which begins by universally doubting the veracity of all our faculties, and seeks to arrive certain foundations from which knowledge can be built up. Hume thinks this is hopeless: once you entertain Cartesian doubt, you’re never going to reason your way into knowledge. It can’t be beaten. Another form of skepticism is more modest and more specific: We have reason to doubt our senses because we know they can be deceived (hallucinations, illusions). Then there’s skepticism about the external world. Each of us is naturally inclined to believe that there exists a world out there, independent of our minds. But we know that all the mind has access to is impressions. How do we know these impressions are caused by, and resemble, objects in the world? To do this we’d have to compare the impressions to the objects. But there’s no way to do this – there’s no way to get outside the impressions and at the objects themselves, independent of our impressions, because all the mind has access to is impressions. If all we have are impressions, there’s no proof that they were caused by or resemble objects in the world.

After this Hume brings up another variety of skepticism, which has its origin in the distinction Locke drew between primary and secondary qualities. According to this view, which Hume takes as being universally acknowledged by philosophers, the “sensible qualities of objects” such as color or hardness don’t exist in the objects themselves – they exist as impressions in the mind, produced by objects. The primary qualities of objects are things like solidity and extension. Now, rationalist philosophers like Descartes thought these things could be grasped as intrinsic qualities of the objects by the mind (as opposed to the senses). As an empiricist, Hume obviously doesn’t think this is true. Hume things ideas like extension are also acquired through sensible qualities perceived by the senses.

Hume also says this “grasping by the mind” doesn’t make sense because the process of abstraction involved in it doesn’t really make sense – we can’t conceive of an extended object that is devoid of sensible qualities. Hume challenges to conceive of “a tangible or visible extension, which is neither hard nor soft, black nor white” and concludes that it’s impossible. In my opinion the argument here is not sufficiently developed. Hume is far too brief here, and it’s hard to evaluate what exactly the chain of reasoning is, although I’m sure you could reconstruct a sympathetic version of the argument if you tried. Anyway, Hume’s conclusion is that primary qualities are every bit “in the mind” as secondary qualities, and once we accept that, there’s really nothing we can say about the nature of the external world: “Bereave matter of all its intelligible qualities, both primary and secondary, you in a manner annihilate it, and leave only a certain unknown, inexplicable something, as the cause of our perceptions; a notion so imperfect, that no sceptic will think it worth while to contend against it.”

Moving on, Hume hints at some paradoxes related to space & time which can also lead to skepticism, before eventually distinguishing between two kinds of skepticism: Pyrrhonian skepticism, and mitigated or academic skepticism. Pyrrhonian skepticism is an “excessive” form of skepticism about all our faculties and abilities to reason. If we were capable of taking Pyrrhonian skepticism seriously, we would be paralyzed and unable to act. Hume rejects this form of skepticism. The point of mitigated skepticism is to restrict our areas of inquiry to fields where we may actually arrive at answers. What are these fields? The same fields Hume listed in Section 4: relations of ideas and matters of fact. The former includes mathematics and logic, the latter includes everyday empirical investigations. What Hume wants to rule out is reasoning about deep metaphysical questions that are beyond the purview of empirical investigation.

Further, Hume insists a priori reasoning (which can grant us certainty) is only applicable to relations of ideas (that is, mathematics and logic), it cannot demonstrate metaphysical conclusions. And for empirical reasoning, we must work with the cautious, modest, systematic application of custom, which can lead us to probable conclusions. This is what we’re left with once we adopt mitigated skepticism. And so we come to the dramatic conclusion of the Enquiry, which Hume ends by declaring: “When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Final thoughts:
I’m more convinced than ever that Hume is rightly considered one of the greatest early modern philosophers, and the Enquiry is rightly considered one of the greatest early modern works of philosophy. It isn’t perfect – there are reasonable objections you could raise at various stages, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fantastic piece of philosophy. Also, Hume is a great writer. He manages to be clear and profound. I honestly think someone with next to no background in philosophy could pick up the Enquiry, read it, and grasp most (if not all) of it.

My favorite sections: Section 4 (induction), Section 7 (causation / necessary connections), Section 8 (free will & determinism), Section 10 (miracles).

The Problem of Political Authority and Rape

I have been slowly reading the Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer during my lunch breaks and so far I’ve had minor criticisms here and there, but it wasn’t until recently I came across something that made me feel like ranting in a blog post. To be fair, I have yet to finish the book so it’s possible I could be missing something.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it primarily argues in favor of anarchy, specifically of the variety of anarcho-capitalism. When it comes to criminal acts, Huemer favors monetary restitution to victims, except in the most severe circumstances in which being sentenced to life in a workcamp or the death penalty may be more desirable. And again, to be fair, this may not be something Huemer endorses himself, but could possibly be an attempt to give any kind of example that would potentially be more favorable towards justice than how our current society operates. I however still disagree with the example, and in some ways it would create more injustice. I will use the crime of rape to explain how this could be, although I’m sure it’s not the only type of crime that could be used to show how his example could be a problem.

In instances of rape, I’m sure there are bound to be disagreements on whether victims deserve monetary restitution only or if perpetrators should be treated more severely. In either case, I have issues with how they should be treated under Huemer’s example.

In cases in which victims only receive monetary restitution, it will lead to people believing that anyone is basically for sale, at least for anyone wealthy enough to be able to afford it. It won’t be seen as a fine, or restitution to a person for a harm that has been committed, but rather the cost for engaging in a certain behavior, and for some that cost would be worth it. This is especially horrifying when thinking in terms of sexual assault and rape, and is an affront to victims of sexual violence.

One could then move towards isolating perpetrators by placing them in workcamps, but then they would still be a risk to others. Criminals should not be sexually violated, and if they were, how would they get justice under this proposed plan? There would be the option of the death penalty, but that has problems of its own, which I will not get into as I don’t have the time, but with the exception of hardcore advocates of the death penalty I’m sure most people will already know and understand what those are.

All this is not to say I agree with the current set up either, which has a multitude of problems in dealing with rape, but this is in no way better. I would even lean towards saying that it’s much worse.

Writing and Being, Or: A Short Review of Irad Kimhi’s *Thinking and Being*

The first sentence of any essay is its most important. The first sentence is a doorman who invites the reader into the world that will unfold within what succeeds it. It is what sets the tone for the piece. The reader expects something quite different to follow from the pale butler with a posh, monotone accent than the dashing server who greets with a smooth voice and a smile. It would be quite obscene to follow the latter and not the former with a dingy mansion and rows of coffins. And yet…

The first sentence of an essay begins and therefore embodies a dialogue. Great writers therefore are not merely great theorists. They don’t merely have the best arguments. They don’t merely speak truly. They understand that all of these activities are intelligible only in dialogue, in discourse, in relation to what the reader brings to an essay. And so to understand how to write a great essay, one must understand how a great essay is read.

This dialogical element is essential. For an essay is an attempt, and attempt to not only establish some thesis, but convince its reader that it is true. An essay is nothing without a reader. But this is not to say that an essay may be cast out to the multitudes indiscriminately. The first thing that an essay must accomplish is to select a reader. This is the duty of the doorman, who must of course be mindful that the reader does not appear out of the aether. Every reader has a history, has hopes and habits. Every reader has reasons that bring them to an essay. The first sentence of an essay interrogates these reasons. It gets to know them over tea to play with them, to tease them, to judge them. It selects only those who might sacrifice themselves to the purpose of an essay, who might be deeply affected and emerge from the depths of an essay a different person with a new history, with new hopes and habits.

We learn from Socrates that the written word is a vulnerable thing, that it may be abducted and used for purposes alien to its own. This threat must be always opposed by the writer. An essay serves a higher calling than to satisfy a reader. But Socrates’ insight is important too: the essay has no power of its own. It cannot fight back against the determined reader. It cannot run. It cannot call for help. If an essay is to avoid Oreithuia’s fate, the writer must be cunning and use the reader’s energy against them. And as readers ourselves, all writers know precisely how easy this can be, for we too have been taken in by essays. We too have been destroyed and rebuilt by them. And we too have been told that this is what we have done to ourselves, that we have entrapped ourselves in our effort to abduct an essay. The question that remains is then how we may accomplish this feat for ourselves.

We all understand quite freely from satire and irony that blots of ink may hide an essay, or two or three, between and beyond them. It is the task of the doorman to choose which reader may be allowed to acquaint themself with which essay. The great writer might of course hide his crimes from the snooping detective while displaying them openly to any sympathetic ghoul or gangster. The masterful writer might even reveal a different essay to every reader who might happen across it and withhold the rest.

But an essay must nevertheless remain accessible. The reader who has hidden every element of an essay has not written an essay; we must always remember that an essay is a dialogue. Its first sentence cannot deny entry to everyone who happens to rap upon its door. We should rather say that a great writer proportions their selection to the readership they wish to address. And this depends upon the properties of that readership. A writer must know them intimately. They must live amongst them. They must laugh with them. They must cry with them. They must know everything that a reader desires and believes and identifies with. To fail this, to write in a way that does not reward or entice a reader, that does not address their concerns, and in which they cannot themselves see, risks soliloquy. And soliloquy is not writing.[1] It is a prison.

The first sentence of an essay dives into the soul of a reader in order to open them to an essay. It preys on their desires, on their spirit, on their judgements. It is deceptive, promising the world only to capture and captivate them, transforming them into a new person. In this, the dual duty of the first sentence of an essay becomes clear. It not only selects a reader: it also prepares them for what an essay will do to them—or rather what they will do to themselves while under the influence of an essay.

To prepare a reader is to crack them open, to loosen up their soul. As the reader labours to put themselves back together, they use the resources an essay gives them, and an essay takes this opportunity to smuggle a seed deep within.

It is not difficult to open up a reader. One need only present them with the promise of intelligible novelty. This is in essence to play upon those reasons that a reader first comes to an essay, to give them a taste but to hold back on the delivery. Easy as this might be, this is where writers most often fall into error. They so often forget that they are writing in dialogue that they fail to write at all. They instead forgo the norms of a discourse and craft what appear to be words but which have lost their meaning, or they place recognisable words in unrecognisable sentences and call those objections.

This is of course not how writing is done. It belies the central failure of the writer to know their reader and to select them accordingly. For many times a writer selects instead the wrong reader, one who cannot possibly be changed by the marks on the page. For this reader finds only the simplest of errors in these marks and remains therefore closed to the essay. And if this is so, how might an essay change them? How might an essay revolutionise a discourse? How might an essay teach a lesson? How might it even introduce a problem? Can an essay which fails at all of this even be called an essay? Just think of how many trees have been felled, how many forests cleared, how many birds and squirrels mulched in the chaos, and how many bears driven to starvation—all for what does not even amount to an essay; all for writers to not even write, but babble incoherently.

So what then shall the writer do? If the writer wishes to write, if the writer wishes to fulfill their destiny, they must first read. They must first live amongst readers and learn their languages and customs. Without this they are lost. They cannot despite their arrogance erect a whole discourse ex nihilo. But where they embrace their humility and accept their humanity, there they might finally write even a single sentence. For this is all that an essay is.

When the first sentence of an essay strikes a reader and tears open their soul, the reader immediately repairs the damage. They now have a new history, new hopes, new desires, new beliefs. And so in striking the reader, the first sentence of an essay changes them, draws them forward into the unknown. Each subsequent sentence now is, now is not, the same essay. The essay ceases, but continues. It embodies a new but old dialogue which now stands in relation to a distinct but indistinct reader. The great writer can make of plurality one and of one plurality. And if a writer cannot do this, gone are the hope that they may write at all. The sun has set on their writing. It is night.[2]

 

_______________________

Notes

[1] The writer may write for the reader who shares their body. It would be a mistake to suggest that all thinking is manifest in self-consciousness. The thinking being is not singular but a shifting sea of interrelated modules. Very often the best way for these modules to communicate, because they share a physiology, is to recreate themselves in signs without and convey a message indirectly. Writing is amongst the best means of accomplishing this. But the expression for expression’s sake, display for display’s sake, this is not writing, this is not thought. All writing, all speech, all thought is dialogical. The central task of philosophical logic depends upon this fact.

[2] Or maybe not.

Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.

 

________________________________

Notes:

[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

Post-Classical Anarchism: A Reading List

I have often noticed online that when people ask for reading recommendations to understand anarchism, most of the suggestions they receive involve works by the early anarchists: Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Rocker and so on. While I consider these anarchists absolutely essential reading, I do think that reading lists that consist solely of their names can give the unfortunate impression that anarchist thought has not progressed much beyond the early 20th century. As a partial corrective to this, I have compiled a reading list featuring texts that were written from the second half of the 20th century up to the present. I hope this gives the anarcho-curious reader a taste of the various ways in which anarchism has developed over the last seven decades.

This reading list is not intended to be comprehensive, and it is certainly not representative of the full range of recent/contemporary anarchist theory. However, I did do my best to not be overly restrictive: I have included works from a variety of anarchist traditions in the hopes of capturing – however imperfectly – some of the diversity of anarchist thought. I should add that I only included texts that I have personally read myself in this list. If you notice a number of omissions that strike you as egregious, it is most likely because I haven’t read those works, and not because I don’t think they are worth reading. Finally, I don’t necessarily agree with all or even most of the content of the works on this list – the fact that they’re included only means I found them interesting and worth engaging.

This list is organized into six broad sections:

  • Overviews: General introductions to anarchist theory and practice
  • Philosophy: Texts that focus on philosophical issues central to anarchism
  • Anthropology: Studies in anthropology with a focus on social stratification, state formation and resistance to domination
  • Analysis: Anarchist and anarchist-friendly analyses of the state, class, culture, technology and ecology
  • Tactics: Studies of strategy and tactics developed over the years that characterize anarchist practice
  • History: Histories of various anarchist movements and revolutionary movements more broadly, and the lessons we can draw from them

A few of the texts on this list were not written by anarchists or fellow travelers of anarchism, but have been included all the same because I think they contain insights anarchists will find valuable. Authors who do not claim the anarchist tradition in any form have an asterisk (*) next to their name. Among these non-anarchist authors, I have deliberately tried to exclude Marxists as far as possible, since I plan to make a separate Marxism Reading List in the near future. However, given the overlap between various anarchist and Marxist currents, minimal inclusion of Marxist theory was inevitable.

The texts here are of varying lengths – they include articles, essays, academic papers and books. The shorter reads can be anywhere from a page or two to ~50 pages, and are in Italics for the convenience of readers who may want to start small. This reading list is a work in progress, and I will likely make periodic additions to it. If you have any suggestions for improvement, criticisms, or general feedback, please feel free to drop a comment below this post.

Happy reading!

***

 Overviews

Philosophy

Anthropology

 Analysis

Tactics

History

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.

Silence.

There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

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