Click the above link to Imperfect Cognitions for the full post.
Getting clear about the nature of epistemic virtue is an important first step not only for empirical investigations, but for philosophical investigations as well. Is there some more-than- merely-instrumental relationship between epistemic virtue and well-being, or between epistemic virtue and some contributor to well-being, that can be uncovered through philosophical, rather than empirical, investigation?
This is one of the questions I seek to answer in my work. What I have found is that epistemic virtue–on at least one plausible interpretation–is importantly implicated in the realization of some of the goods that are widely believed to be instrumental to, or even constitutive of, well-being: goods such friendship, autonomy, and aesthetic experience. There is (what I call) a constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and many such goods.
Take, for example, aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience, understood as a general type of good, is realized in token instances – for example, in viewing Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It is not a passive experience that just ‘washes over one’; it consists in a certain kind of active engagement. It consists in charitably interpreting the work; transcending one’s familiar or default cognitive standpoint to open-mindedly engage with it (Baehr 2011: 103); honestly assessing it; confronting the darker parts of human nature; not being overly influenced by others’ opinions about the work. What one is doing, in part, in the active experience that is aesthetic experience, is exercising epistemic virtue – for example, intellectual charity, open-mindedness, intellectual honesty, intellectual courage, and intellectual autonomy. In this sense there is constitutive overlap between epistemic virtue and aesthetic experience.
What exactly the upshot of this is for well-being depends on one’s account of well-being. But finding extensive overlap between epistemic virtue and goods like aesthetic experience supports the view that that epistemic virtue is an integral part of the kind of personality that is well-suited to realize the most important goods in one’s life. And this, in turn, goes a long way towards showing that–despite the anecdotal and empirical evidence cited at the beginning of this entry–epistemic virtue’s net contribution to a person’s well-being is a positive one. Epistemic virtue makes us better off.
Anne Baril is a Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis. She has research interests in ethics, epistemology, social and political philosophy, and their intersection. In her current central research project, she argues that epistemic virtue is both integral to the development of moral character and a constitutive contributor to well-being.
Is there anything we can learn from the NFL protests?
Those who believe players should kneel during the national anthem want to publicly acknowledge racism and white supremacy. Those who believe players should stand want them to show honor and respect for our country. We know this – for the past several weeks the news media has narrated these opposing soundbites.
Roger Goodell wrote to NFL teams that the anthem controversy makes it hard to have “honest conversations” and tackle “underlying issues.” Some have criticized Donald Trump for demanding that players stand, when he should be focusing on public policy.
The narrative is not unlike the controversy of the removal of the Confederate statues. Those who want to obliterate the statues want to obliterate history. Those who want to keep the statues want to remember history. The news media crafts these soundbites, without room for deep thinking.
At the University of Chicago, Dr. Jonathan Lear, a renowned professor, philosopher, and psychoanalyst, diagnosed the cause of the racial riots and protests implemented from the top-down across the South, from Charlottesville, Va. to Memphis, Tn. In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, the deceased Union soldiers were given a proper burial on a hill while the Confederate soldiers were left to rot on the field. Lincoln called buried Union soldiers “these honored dead” and the Confederate soldiers “enemies” and “rebellious traitors.”
Let me be clear: Dr. Lear admires Lincoln. He knows that the cause the Confederate soldiers – slavery – is despicable. Where Dr. Lear differs is the “us versus them” and “North versus South” black-and-white mentality that still exists today, starting with the Union excluding Confederate soldiers upon burial. The deceased Union soldiers – the “selected harvest” picked from the fields – were memorialized and remembered, while the Confederate soldiers, who were also Americans, were not. We don’t have cemeteries for them – we have statues. Southerners glorify the statues and idealize the possibility of an antebellum South – that’s why Gone With The Wind was written. Northerners extricate themselves from racism by calling supporters “ignorant and bigoted,” he said.
Neither side of this argument is right, said Dr. Lear. Americans should “make sense of the individual [Confederate soldiers] who got it wrong, and preserve thememory – not honor or glorify it.”
By extension, then, it seems logical that while the American flag to some may signify inequality and injustice – deceased slaves, police brutality, and other forms of racism – to others, it signifies the soldiers who sacrificed and risked their lives to protect us, even if the motive or result was not right or ideal all the time. Think of any war you disagree with.
If you are on the protestor end of the supporter-protestor national anthem spectrum, it’s worth remembering Dr. Lear’s advice: preserve and respect the memorywithout honoring or glorifying it. This piece of advice applies to the Civil War. And it applies to people we may disagree with politically. After Dr. Lear’s speech, one attendee said to me he wondered why people voted for Trump, and then came to the conclusion, “Even if our enemies have a different perspective that isn’t right, we respect each other’s common humanity.”
Melanie Wilcox is an MSJ Candidate at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Tonight at sunset, the three-day Celtic New Year begins with the festival of Samhain, an old harvest ritual marking the end of summer. When you give out candy on Halloween to the children who come to your door, or take kids disguised as superheroes and fictional protagonists out to hit up the neighbors for candy, you are participating in a ritual that is more than a thousand years old. Trick or Treating in disguise is only a modern version of mumming and guising, where alms were distributed to those who came knocking at harvest time and yuletide. The result of the rare occurrence of plentiful food and alcohol marking the end of the reaping and gathering season, Samhain was a magical time where people shared food and visited each other to celebrate the cycles of fertility and death foretold by the coming of winter.
Halloween may owe some of its dual nature–a mix of fascination with the supernatural with charity towards others and a reverence for the dead–to Catholicism. In an attempt to replace Samhain with Christian holidays similarly focused on the care of souls, Pope Gregory III in the eighth century moved the feast of the martyrs to the beginning of November as All Saints Day; two hundred years later, All Souls’ Day was added as the day after All Saints’ Day. Lisa Morton notes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween that by 1493, partying on Halloween was an established custom in Britain, though both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tried in vain to stop the practice of ringing church bells all night long on Allhallow Day for souls in purgatory. While the Church may have once hoped to transform Samhain into a Christian holiday, the convergence of “Halowen Daye,” All Saints Day, and All Souls Day had the opposite result, lodging Samhain securely within the religious calendar, and with it, preserving the old Irish and Scottish celebrations marked by feasting and drunken revelry.
Halloween also owes something to Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Bonfires celebrating the failure of the conspirators to kindle their 36 barrels of explosives beneath the House of Lords have been lit regularly in England since November 5, 1605. Morton tells us that even when the Puritans banned all holidays in 1647, they preserved Guy Fawkes Day, and Halloween in Britain merged with that holiday, which remains its most popular autumn celebration. Elsewhere, in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, Halloween survived, and was brought to the New World by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Día de los Muertos, the Day(s) of the Dead, is another holiday with similarly ancient roots celebrated in Mexico and many parts of the U.S. (and elsewhere) on November 1 and 2. It is thought that the Spanish who invaded Mexico encountered Aztec and Mayan autumn rituals honoring the dead and the cycle of life and rebirth and attempted to replace them with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. The result has been a Christian holiday that–like Halloween–retains many older practices of feasting and honoring the dead. Large Mexican American populations in the U.S. have spread the customs and popularity of Día de los Muertos, and some Americans have come to see it as another layer of Halloween. While some blending of the two holidays is probably inevitable, particular stress on the unique nature of the Day of the Dead has emerged this year in the media, emphasizing the specificity of this holiday to Mexican culture as a reverential celebration where relatives and neighbors who have died are remembered with altars of flowers and lit candles, and those who survive them also give thanks for their own blessed lives upon the earth.
Both Samhain and Día de los Muertos —and to a certain extent, old All Hallow’s Eve– recognize these festival days as a time when the barriers between the living and the dead are more fluid. This gives the holiday a supernatural air of mystery and magic. Old fortunetelling customs such as scrying, or looking into a mirror to see one’s future spouse, were practiced on Halloween even into the 20th century, and contemporary games such as bobbing for apples have their roots in older practices of divination associated with the holiday. The act of dressing up in costumes recognizes this old sense of fluid identity and even incorporation, as celebrants invite spirits from the other world to visit, communicate, and join in the festivities.
Today Halloween is mostly celebrated by children dressing in costumes and Trick or Treating for candy, but even this act of knocking on doors hearkens back to old communal customs. At this time of year, when night comes early, the fields are bare, and the wind blows cold, asking for alms, sharing food, and opening up one’s house to strangers are all ways of recognizing the deep bonds between rich and poor, prosperous and needy, fortunate and unlucky that link communities together. Pundits and politicians often like to talk about the need to share the giving spirit of Christmas during other months, but we might do even better adopting the virtues of old Halloween and Día de los Muertos–reverence for the dead, gratitude for one’s health and good fortune, and generosity towards others—all the year through.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
In 2013, Chicago artist Susan Aurinko visited a 12th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley that was once the temporary home of Joan of Arc. Aurinko returned again and again to photograph the actual places where Joan of Arc once lived or visited, using these layered images to explore Joan’s passion, from her inspired childhood to her military victories, brief political triumph, capture, suffering, and martyrdom. The photographic exhibit of Aurinko’s work at the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, “Searching for Jehanne: The Joan of Arc Project,” suggests the ways Joan lives on as a cultural and religious icon, preserved in sculpture, film, and popular memory. Many of the photographs in the exhibit are images of statues of Joan praying or striding triumphantly with her banner, superimposed on dark, churchlike interiors. Other photographs show wistful little girls with faraway eyes standing in the woods or next to rural outbuildings. Some images show teenaged young women in chainmail looking devout and vulnerable. These images float towards viewers with varying levels of immediacy, yet because all are housed in thick, dark, ornate frames, we are reminded of Joan’s distance and separation from us by time and constructed memory. Joan’s words, taken from her trial transcripts, accompany each photograph as a kind of narration or inner monologue.
These various photographic images of Joan—some as hard and remote as a marble statue, some as immediate and moving as a little child peering out through her own windblown hair—remind us that Joan is made and remade for us by religion, the state, and the media, but that we also make Joan what we need her to be. Here Joan is emotional, vulnerable, naïve, and devout, swept up inexorably by forces beyond her control that she cannot fully understand. Joan is also unswerving, courageous, and inspired, a person of frankness, conviction, and great integrity who survived not only the medieval battlefield but months of imprisonment, including physical hardship and deprivation, psychological torture, and probable sexual assault at the hands of military captors and religious tormentors.
Looking at these images inspired by Joan, their subject suspended so near, yet fixed at a distance by dark frames of culture and history, I am reminded of Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, a biography written in the 1930s by one of England’s most prominent women writers, an admirer and self-confessed nonbeliever who eventually admits to new-found respect for miracles and the supernatural as a result of her research into Joan’s life. Like Aurinko’s photographs bringing us close to Joan yet insisting on our inability to really know her, Sackville-West’s biography alternates between feminizing Joan and marveling at the alien nature of her saintly masculinity. Sackville-West attributes Joan’s shrewdness to “feminine intuition,” and downplays the physical vigor that allowed Joan to spend nearly a week in armor without taking it off even to sleep. She dwells on Joan’s frequent tears: “She was, in fact, emotional, and wept copiously at every possible opportunity—as queer a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes as ever relentlessly assaulted the enemy and then must cry on seeing him hurt.” She notes that witnesses described Joan’s impatience as that of “a woman great with child,” and in her biography she sometimes calls Joan “a girl dressed up.” Such strategies are perhaps designed to bring Joan nearer to people who want their saints to be more “normal,” more intelligible as properly-gendered, tender-hearted beings.
At the same time, Sackville-West acknowledges the things about Joan that distance her from the ways many people still think young girls should feel and act. She finds it to be incontrovertible that Joan possessed the gift of prophecy; she also marvels, with nearly religious wonder, that Joan leapt 60 or 70 feet from a tower trying to escape her captors, yet emerged unharmed. She guesses that the Dauphin Charles must have found Joan an “alarming savior,” and imagines that because Joan “was not really a soldier at all; she was not even a man,” she must have had an “astonishing effect” on the troops.
Sackville-West is most impressed by Joan’s courage in leaving her childhood and her village to move beyond the familiar, and seems pleased that unlike many saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” Sackville-West writes:
She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . . She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.
I laughed when I first read this passage, in part because it is funny, but also because this sentiment about Joan is a common one. Joan remains a strange saint for many people. Despite the extraordinary record we possess of her actual words at her trial, she can seem oddly unknowable. Is this because she leaves her girlhood behind? Is her tender girlhood the thing we cling to as familiar and knowable, because her warrior’s ruthlessness seems too harsh? Sackville-West’s characterization of Joan’s heroically virtuous nature as a “mistake” is a humorous jab at conventional notions that it is more important for a woman to be loved than it is for her to do great things. As these words suggest, it is this ability to be loved that is so reassuring; a woman who does great things without being especially lovable is terrifying. When Sackville-West finally allows herself to imagine Joan as a warrior, she calls her “The Maid,” the title given her by the common people signifying Joan’s status as the figure of myth destined to deliver France from English occupation: “no soft saintly girl, but a stern and angry young captain with very definite ideas of her own,” and “that inexplicable character, the girl-boy captain—La Pucelle.”
Contemplating Joan’s martyrdom allows tenderness and pity to soften Sackville-West’s sense of Joan’s strangeness. Deeply moved by Joan’s death, Sackville-West notes that “many wept,” and notes the care for others Joan demonstrated in warning the priest holding a crucifix for her to get down off her burning pyre. As her biography nears its close, Sackville-West recounts the miracles surrounding Joan’s death without a trace of skepticism—the name of Jesus writ large in the flames, the English soldier who saw a white dove fly out of the fire and wing its way towards France, the executioner traumatically frightened by the refusal of Joan’s heart to burn.
Similarly, Susan Aurinko’s pictures at LUMA also suggest a figure we never quite know, yet who fascinates and moves us. The mystery of Joan’s nature, of virtuous courage at the intersection of human and divine, is the essence of Joan’s appeal, and this sense of mystery pervades these photographs and this installation.
The show runs through October 21, 2017 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free through November 11, 2017.
Alberto Arruda was a participant in our 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence” and is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Lisbon.
During the various sessions of our seminar, the notion of dependence was often mentioned in one way or another. I have decided to write a brief note on this notion in the hope that it might spark a discussion amongst philosophers, theologians and psychologists alike. This note assumes the form of a reflection on a text; and author, that is, I think, a very unlikely candidate in the context of our sessions: Descartes. Perhaps for this reason, and given our prevalent Aristotelianism, I thought this exercise would be interesting, since it challenges some of our dearest assumptions.
A brief note on dependence
“I am not an animal!” protested Spartacus, the very same thought that famously puzzled Descartes in his Meditations. And even though both men were protesting in a similar way, they were not protesting about the same thing at all. While Descartes was complaining about the fact that he couldn’t possibly be reduced to the animal begotten by his parents, the slave was complaining about the fact that he could not be reduced to an animal just because someone had decided to treat him like one. But where the slave might have pointed to the fact that, much like his owner, he also had parents, and perhaps even siblings, who worried about him, Descartes would have maintained that the dependence exhibited by his animal nature did nothing more than conceal his real dependence on God. Now, this is a genuine difference. Although both complain about being reduced to something they know they are not, the nature of Descartes’ complaint is about concealment, while the slave’s is about what is, for him, painfully manifest.
If Descartes had lived to encounter, say, Beethoven’s death mask, perhaps he would have maintained, much like Aristotle, that the mask was not the likeness of Beethoven at all. But, where for Aristotle the now dead Beethoven was no longer Beethoven, I mean, that particular depiction was merely the depiction of a Beethoven now missing a part, Descartes would have maintained that the mask of the dead Beethoven was certainly not the likeness of the real Beethoven, but then again, no mask could ever have been – dead or alive.
So, an alive and well Beethoven, that is, an intact Beethoven as Aristotle would say, really never was ab initio Beethoven. And now, I can’t quiet imagine what privation meant for Descartes, nor what a status quo ante could have meant for Descartes in relation to both the deterioration and the many privations our bodies do suffer. But I do understand one, I suppose, fundamental aspect of his argument – namely, that the real Beethoven may very well still be somewhere (that is, if he, or it, is still somehow able to think). And this is not exactly the same as saying that the real Beethoven has only now genuinely come to be, I mean, now after the death of his animal part. For if we were really thinking about Beethoven’s soul, we would have to be thinking about the Beethoven who sinned, the one who sinned through that body, the body now depicted in that death mask. So this Beethoven, the dead Beethoven, was, even for Aristotle, who certainly did not puzzle about the salvation of his soul, not necessarily the Beethoven who used to sin and repent, but certainly the one who did all of those actions and composed all that music, the music that somehow many of us grow up with. But still, what about the question: who was the real Beethoven for Descartes? He was not the body depicted in his death mask – and we do have this intuition, especially when we miss someone who has died – so who was he?
And now we know that the reply is challenging and difficult, for he never was that body, nor his thoughts, and certainly not his actions. And so he was not part of the history we inherited. He was always, genuinely, his thinking, but not the falsity he sometimes thought about. Beethoven was, like I am, and so are you, his thinking when it was true. So the evil genius could have robbed him of a world, he could have robbed him of his acting, and I suppose of his sins and redemption, but he could not have robbed him of the faculty that God created, the faculty of proper thinking. And so, Descartes argued he was his thinking; he argued that he was his dependence on God, and now I say dependence, because he could not have created truth, for he was far from perfect, and also, because he could not exist without truth. So Descartes, and Beethoven, and you, and I are our dependence on God; we are, if you want, the faculty we exercise but have not begotten, and so we are all equal before God. Therefore, when any of us takes drugs, we are, for Descartes, so it seems to me, giving the biggest offence we can. We are polluting the very gift we received from God, destroying our election, and really, genuinely, destroying ourselves.
Another thought: Descartes somehow had the intuition that he was somewhere in his body, but not like a pilot is in a vessel. This takes away any hope we might have of putting matters in a way that is as clean and simple as talk about separable glassy essences, ghosts in machines and otherwise. And I think there is a lot in this that can be used to somehow detach his theory from an official doctrine of Cartesianism, although I do not dare to dispute that there is a great deal of merit in what has been achieved under this rubric.
But still, what about the thought concerning pilots and vessels? The Descartes of the Meditations never thought about something like occupying more than one body. I suppose such a thought experiment did not seem necessary to him, as it does to a lot of us nowadays. The uniqueness of occupying only one body seemed, perhaps, trivial to him. He did not argue much for it, and so he did not argue much against it. Given his hyperbole, he could have never conclusively known that he had occupied only one body; and I think that there would not be much advantage to doing so, since truly knowing what one is would not be improved by a putative change of body. So Descartes’ argument mentioned uniqueness of body, but not, as we would be tempted to think, in the service of some kind of uniqueness of experience. And now, I have to admit, that at least I do believe in such uniqueness of experience. And as I hinted at before, I do not find this uniqueness entirely void of theological significance either.
However, if we think about it, his metaphor is near perfect for his purpose. Any pilot is far more dependent on his or her vessel than Descartes thought he was on his body (at least this is what he wished to establish with his argument). No pilot is yet a pilot if he or she has never had a vessel, or at least the chance to pilot one. And the pilot who now lacks a vessel is certainly not half a pilot, although he or she is in danger of, perhaps, never again doing what a pilot does. And now we see that for Descartes what I truly am, my thinking, would still be possible even if I did not have a body, as long as God, who I truly depend on for my conservation, would grant me some true thoughts. And so, it seems, I am less dependent on my body for being me than a pilot is on a vessel for being a pilot, even though we are both equally dependent on God for existing at all.
Aristotle emphasized the relation of particular social roles, or vocations, to particular virtues. For instance, soldiers should have the virtue of courage. Similarly, justice is central to involvement in politics. What about science? Are there virtues particular to being a good scientist? Is there something distinctive about a vocation to be a scientist? Contemporary virtue ethics offers at least two views of the relevance of virtue in science: facilitation of a flourishing society and following one’s individual dispositions.
First, pursuing science may be a meaningful way for an individual to contribute to the flourishing of society. Generally speaking, this is an uncontroversial response–don’t all professions have this aim? So this is insufficient to justify science as an alternative to other practices. The second view offers a solution here: an individual may be more suited–in light of one’s circumstances, dispositions, and skills–to achieve such flourishing through science than through other means. Not everyone is called to be a politician or social worker. Some are more suited to the vocation of science.
Taking up the second view in more detail, what kinds of dispositions are important to being a virtuous scientist? Dispositions and skills undoubtedly play an important role in the development of a scientist. Some of these dispositions may be deeply seated in an individual’s psychology, such as one’s ability to focus on the details relevant to a given goal. Bryan Brown and James Gee also emphasize the importance of language skills as a means to engage in practices like science. Further, science is a practice particularly suited to pursuing epistemic ends, aligning it most closely with personality traits like intellect and openness to experience, which are tendencies to pursue intellectual goals. These traits can enable a strong motivation to enter science, which could then serve to develop one’s scientific potential. However, even such motivation is meaningless, in itself, if a budding scientist lacks the capacity to do good scientific work. If one is frequently dishonest, lacks the discipline to collect and analyze data systematically, and is too easily frustrated by the inevitable disappointments that arise in scientific work, one is unlikely to do good work let alone become a virtuous scientist. While this doesn’t mean that we should expect anyone to be a perfect scientist at the outset, some people may just not be well suited to scientific pursuits.
Context also matters given the importance of culture to the development of dispositions. If one lacks meaningful opportunities to learn to be a scientist, one will likely take the opportunities to learn that exist in one’s developmental context in another domain. Despite this, some individuals growing up with limited exposure to the science and mathematics make extraordinary contributions to it (for example Srinivasa Ramanujan, a leading mathematician of the early 20th century), so circumstance alone is clearly not enough for a full determination. At the other extreme, some fields may be inundated with qualified candidates due to their status and prestige (see Good Work on contemporary genetics). If one’s field is pursued by too many, then pursuing other opportunities may be more effective in supporting human flourishing and thus more virtuous. This is both because competition for resources can lead to careerism and undermine the field and because there are likely other areas where an individual’s effort may be productive.
What kind of account then would mark a virtuous calling to do science? First, it should fit one’s dispositions, as discussed above, with the proper motives and capacities. Second, an aspiring scientist should pursue science that has a worthwhile possibility of contributing to human flourishing. Thus, a virtuous vocation to science could arise when science is an appropriate pursuit for this individual amidst other available pursuits. This is not to say that other pursuits don’t have a place in the life of a scientist. It may well be the case that pursuing scientific work serves a higher calling, as in practicing science to support environmental causes or to provide for one’s family. It could still be appropriate to think of science as a calling in such cases, but science need not be one’s ultimate or highest calling.
Timothy Reillyis a Postdoctoral Fellow in theDeveloping Virtues in the Practice of Science Project. He is a developmental psychologist whose work draws from a variety of approaches, including positive psychology, moral development, sociocultural theory, and action theories of development. He was one of the participants in our 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, and Self-Transcendence.
I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”
In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?
Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.
Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?
The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”
Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.” I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.
Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.
Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.
Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.” While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.
It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.
Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.
Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.
However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.
In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.” He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”
This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.
It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.
It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?