Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller

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We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.

 


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

May 10: Jennifer A. Frey “Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth” at Lumen Christi, UChicago

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We’re thrilled to share this upcoming program featuring our co-Principal Investigator JenniferA. Frey, speaking at a program sponsored by one of partners, the Lumen Christi Institute.

May 10 | University of Chicago

Free and open to the public. For more information and to register, visit: REGISTER HERE

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the most important and influential analytic philosophers of the twentieth century. One of the last lectures she delivered was titled, “Doing the Truth.” In it, she sets out to identify and clarify a specifically practical mode of truth as the proper goal of a specifically practical mode of reasoning and knowledge.  This talk will explore how Anscombe understands practical truth by relating it to her influential theory of the intentionality of action; its ultimate suggestion is that “doing the truth” just is living a good human life–i.e., knowingly performing actions in accordance with true judgments of right practical reasoning.  The person who achieves this truth is virtuous, someone who can stand as an exemplar (or rule and measure) for those who seek the truth but have not yet realized it in their lives.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. She was previously a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department. Prof. Frey holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and a B.A. from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the co-Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life.” Her further research interests include the history of ethics, especially medieval and early modern.

Frey Lecture Poster

LISTEN: Community Matters – Candace Vogler: Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Candace Vogler recently spoke with Nick Hernandez on “Community Matters” for KZUM 89.3 FM; hear their conversation on SoundCloud.

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Host Nick Hernandez

“Community Matters is a radio show about wellbeing and community building. Exploring topics that can enhance community wellbeing like friendship, playfulness, curiosity, creativity, leisure, work, etc. and then approach each of those topics from several angles: the philosophy of ___, the history of ____, the art of ___, the science of____, the technological implications of ____.”

 

_dsc3851Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism. She is the co-Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

Podcast: “Fantasy, Romance, and Self-destruction in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary” | Sacred & Profane Love

In Episode 4 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey speaks with philosopher, poet, and literary critic, Troy Jollimore, about how romantic ideologies and illusions can destroy our ability to experience real and meaningful love–the sort of love that is a central part of a happy and meaningful life. We ground our conversation in a wide ranging discussion of Gustave Flaubert’s incredibly influential nineteenth century novel, Madame Bovary. 
Troy Jollimore holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton and currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He is the author of three books of philosophy, including Love’s Vision and On Loyalty.  He is also the author of three collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and Syllabus of Errors.  He has received fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

NEXT Episode: Talbot Brewer

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Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

 

New course for Autumn 2018 @UChicago: Character and Commerce: Practical Wisdom in Economic Life

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On the schedule for Autumn 2018 at the University of Chicago is a new course for undergraduate and graduate students by our co-Principal Investigator Candace Vogler.

Annette Pierdziwol and Tim Smartt, two doctoral students who work with the Institute for Ethics and Society from Notre Dame University Australia, will join Vogler to observe the course with an eye toward implementing it in the new Business School at Notre Dame Australia.

 

PHIL24098/34098. Character and Commerce: Practical Wisdom in Economic Life. The operations of the global economy set the terms that most people live with every day of their lives.  In the face of the vastness, movement, and variety of economic life, it can be hard to see how moral philosophy can intersect meaningfully with economic concerns.  It is one thing to be worried about economic growth and development, sustainability, regulation, taxation, and the like—concerns with large-scale policy matters.  It is quite another to reflect on individual conduct.  In this course, we will look at one small aspect of the place of individual conduct in an economic landscape frequently dominated by large firms.  As anyone who has spent time reading work by Immanuel Kant, say, or Thomas Aquinas, or a newspaper will know, human beings can act against their own better judgment.  My better judgment can be better in any of the following senses: it can track what will be more advantageous for me, it can target more effective and efficient solutions to problems that I am charged with solving or helping to solve, or it can direct my actions and responses ethically.  The ‘or’ is inclusive. Practical judgment brings a host of general considerations to bear on my circumstances.  Practical wisdom is excellence in practical judgement.  In this course, we will read empirical work on the systematic ways in which people fail to live up to their own ideals alongside philosophical work on practical wisdom, with an eye toward exploring ways of cultivating practical wisdom.  Our cases and examples will be drawn from studies of corporate life and economic decision-making.  But the lessons we will hope to learn are more generally applicable.

Podcast: “Walt Whitman on hope and national character” | Sacred & Profane Love

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In Episode 3 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with fellow philosopher Nancy Snow, about why she thinks we should be reading the poetry of Walt Whitman in our current political moment.  We discuss Whitman’s, “Song of Myself” and “Democratic Vistas,” and how each of these works touches on the theme of hope as a democratic civic virtue.  We also explore Whitman’s conviction that poetry can help build hope and help to shape the national character more generally.
Works under discussion in Episode 3:
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas
Nancy Snow is Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at University of Oklahoma and was a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

NEXT Episode: Troy Jollimore discusses Madame Bovary

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

 

Congratulations, Joseph Stern!

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Talbot Brewer and Josef Stern at our Scholars’ 2017 December Meeting.

Our Scholar Josef Stern (William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Chicago) has been awarded a fellowship from the European Union Research Institutes of Advanced Studies at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies.

 

The European Institutes for Advanced Study (EURIAS) Fellowship Programme is an international researcher mobility programme offering 10-month residencies in one of the 19 participating Institutes: Aarhus, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bologna, Budapest, Cambridge, Delmenhorst, Edinburgh, Freiburg, Helsinki, Jerusalem, Lyon, Madrid, Marseille, Paris, Uppsala, Vienna, Warsaw, Zürich. The Institutes for Advanced Study support the focused, self-directed work of outstanding researchers. The fellows benefit from the finest intellectual and research conditions and from the stimulating environment of a multi-disciplinary and international community of first-rate scholars.

 

EURIAS Fellowships are mainly offered in the fields of the humanities and social sciences but may also be granted to scholars in life and exact sciences, provided that their proposed research project does not require laboratory facilities and that it interfaces with humanities and social sciences. The diversity of the 19 participating IAS offers a wide range of possible research contexts in Europe for worldwide scholars. Applicants may select up to three IAS outside their country of nationality or residence as possible host institutions.

 

Josef Stern’s research topic for the EURIAS is “The Unbinding of Isaac: Maimonides’ Philosophical Interpretation of the Aqedah (Genesis 22)”.