Friday, May 11, 2018

Relations in Nature

I am half inclined to start by just gesturing toward Merleau-Ponty and various articles which have made similar points. There is more I want to say than they say, however.

First, the external conception of nature is the notion of nature as a bunch of particles combining in various ways, governed by various laws. This is all well and good. The notion goes on to view everything as reducible to the particles which each have a nature of its own, independent of other particles. Some people hold this kind of view in some domains but not others, but my concern here is with the trajectory of this sort of view.

First off, we are part of nature. We are thus equally subject to these laws of nature. This gives rise to psychological experimentation on motivation and grit, which, again, I am not against. The problem in this realm arises when we start treating ourselves as things. That is, when we start treating our problems as engineering problems, where we expect a five step troubleshooting plan to solve our issues. Most self-help falls into this category, as do many blog posts. Life becomes skill, rather than wisdom.

Next, nature becomes something to control. It is resource, problem, or solution. By viewing its parts as external to each other, we fail to recognize the dynamic systems which occur in nature, and imagine instead that we can simply engineer our way to a world built for ourselves.

By now it should be clear how nature is not related externally to itself. Nature is full of systems, from atoms to electrical circuits to the weather to the solar system, there are an immense variety of interlocking facets, where each part reacts to a change in every other part. By disrupting these systems beyond their capacity to accommodate change, we discover that nature is not infinitely resilient, but is constructed to resist us should we play god too far.

At this point it may be good to try to articulate a little more of what we might call gestalt metaphysics. A gestalt is a form. However, particularly in Merleau-Ponty's usage, a gestalt is a dynamic form. A system which holds together, accommodates changes, and maintains itself to some degree. Merleau-Ponty's definition holds that a gestalt occurs where each part depends for its properties on every other part (if I remember correctly). What I have been trying to sketch in these posts is the view that much of what we think of as independent of its surroundings actually exists in a gestalt and contributes the form of that gestalt. Our social institutions form a system which holds together and accommodates changes to some extent, sometimes reacting against threats whether we notice or not. Social groups collect in a way such that they can sustain themselves without much effort from participants. Even with means/end relations, the meaning of an action depends on the situation which provides the background against which the action appears as any particular action, and thus the action depends on its situation to be the action it is.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Society as Organism

The following is essentially a restatement of Hegel's views on society modulated through my own metaphysical views (which are, themselves, heavily influenced by Hegel).

The relation of people to society or each other can likewise often be thought of as an external relation. Each individual is thought of as a unit, in principle independent of others, free to define him or herself however he or she chooses. This lies behind our notion of how democracy should operate, the capitalist notion of freedom of exchange, and much of our obsession with personal freedoms.

Let me try to trace the ligaments of this a little more. On this model, each person is ontologically independent of others. One is who one is solely because of one's own decisions. Perhaps, of course, one's environment has shaped one, one's particular body has given one certain skills or impediments, but none of this is supposed to come into who one is. One is supposed to be externally related to all of these factors. You are supposed to be an individual, independent of your past. In principle, then, who you are cannot be essentially related to your community or any other obviously contingent facts about one's concrete existence. You must be free, then, to create yourself--and, indeed, reality--however you like.

But your creation is your own creation. It is therefore distinct from that of others, even unique. No one can understand the real you because you are not accessible through the cultural medium you express yourself in. Any mode of expression must be felt as inadequate because it expresses one as in a particular culture in a particular time, not as a free and independent individual. One thus inevitably becomes lonely, since one cannot express oneself in a manner which will feel adequate to one's self conception, and thus one cannot feel known in one's expression.

There are two attitudes one may take to these individuals. They may be basically good or basically bad. In the former case, restrictions on expression must be bad, and must therefore be done away with. In the latter case, the individuals must be restrained from hurting themselves. Generally, the view will be mixed, but this only means that the individuals will be treated as alternately a source of good potential to be harnessed and a danger to be restrained. The relation of government to people will thus be felt as that of regulation. There will be only either the imposition of restraints, whether for our own good or not, and the removal of such restraints, either for our good or to our harm.

Once we are independent individuals, we lose the communal ties which bound us together and provided a rich web of connections such that we could discuss issues civilly with other whom we respected independently of the particular issues. Overlapping communities provided ways of expressing ourselves which others in those communities could understand, but depended on the assumption that culturally situated modes of expression could adequately express us. As individuals, we seem to have lost that belief. We experience ourselves as beyond our cultures.

Still, however we may act, we are related to each other internally. I mentioned some about how men and women are internally related, although I cannot flesh that out thoroughly. We are also internally related to society in that our ways of experiencing the world are picked up from others. We understand ourselves in relation to others or not at all. We cannot find ourselves without recognizing ourselves in the world. This is way going out into the world to find oneself is such a strange idea. You are far more likely to discover who you are by examining how you came to views you hold, by tracing the threads which make up your life, and by acknowledging your socially situated perspective. This need not make one less confident of one's views, although it should make one a little more circumspect about rejecting others' views out of hand, but should rather give one a greater ability to articulate what draws one to one's views, what fallacies one might be making, and thus make one more confident that one has thought through one's views well.

Because we are internally related to others in society we are stuck with group affiliations, however much we may deny them. These groups metastasize into factions and oppose each other because each claims to be independent. Each faction wants to be seen as made up simply of free independent people who think rightly. Neither faction, therefore, can stand the other. This results in something like war, where neither side can recognize the other as right thinking, but winds up dehumanizing the other.

I have already said something about how thinking of ourselves as internally related to society and to each other may work itself out, but let me develop it a bit more. First off, we should think of society on the model of an organism, rather than on the model of a contract of people. This is a rather biblical notion of society, in that the Bible expresses often that the Church is a body made of many members who perform different functions. In society, too, there are many sorts of people, and not all have the same talents and skills. Not all have the same cultural background. If we want genuine diversity, we will need to find some way to allow for cultural situatedness to have a substantial role in society, to be validated. Hegel works this out be arguing for a form of government where different kinds of workers have different relations to government. I doubt that would be quite right. What I find intriguing, however, is his idea that each group, rather than geographical locale, should be represented. The details of how this might work today are, however, obscure.

The notion of society as an organism should help us discuss issues which disproportionately affect one class or one kind of worker. By articulating how our nation holds together organically, we can start to picture why all of the nation should care about parts of the nation, and thereby help move us to a place where we all care what other groups think, rather than hiding away in our own groups which we deny are groups.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Means/End Relation

In this post I will likely be drawing more than I know from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. I will also be drawing from others, however. The aim is to show how we think of the means/end relation as external, how that works out in practice, how it is an inaccurate way of thinking of the relation, and how we should think instead.

First, what does it mean for the means/end relation to be external? It would mean that any action we might do is only externally, contingently related to its effects. Such a conception can work out in one of two main ways. Either it is only the thought that counts, and what happens from there is inconsequential, or the actions are evaluated solely in terms of their effects. There are also middle grounds, where the intentions are weighed against the consequences.

This lies behind a particular kind of reasoning, called calculative reasoning, where I act for the sake of some goal in such a way that I select my aims simply to achieve the goal. The means do not matter so long as they achieve the maximum of the specified goal, whatever that goal might be. It also lies behind a particular kind of justification or excuse, where one apologizes only for the effects, refusing to accept that one may have done something really wrong because one "didn't mean it."

If I understand contemporary critiques of capitalism, they tend to rely on a critique of calculative reasoning, whereby this kind of external relation of goals to means whereby we seek to achieve them results in a flattening of the moral imagination and of the kinds of goods we can be sensitive to. Money becomes the symbol of commensurable values, and thus money gain is to be maximized at any cost. This results in the loss of non-monetizable goods, such as community and virtue. My point in bringing this up is that it won't be enough to shift away from seeing money as the medium of exchange of all values, thereby excluding non-monetizable goods, but the underlying problem is calculative reasoning about goods.

What, then, would it look like to think of the means/end relation as an internal relation? MacIntyre talks about goods internal to practices, where the good one is after is inseparable from the practice. The fun one has playing chess is inseparable from actually playing chess, as his famous example goes. This can be extended, however. The Hegelian way of articulating this is to talk of the means as the end in motion, or the end as the means at rest. In this way of thinking, the means have to fit the end, they have to be fulfilled by the end. The kind of action which the means is has to be the sort of thing which can come to rest in the end, the kind of behavior which will not tend to extend itself beyond the intended consequences. Similarly, the intent has to become embodied in action which aptly expresses it and brings it to fulfillment. One cannot sacrifice one's goal in pursuit of one's goal, in other words. One cannot oppress others for the sake of freedom or vote for a vicious person in order to preserve virtue.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Relations Internal and External

In this post I want to try to explain the concepts of internally related and externally related things and how they differ.

When two things are internally related, understanding one requires understanding the other. If two concepts are internally related, then one simply cannot really understand one of the concepts without understanding the other. Black and white, male and female, up and down, are all cases of internally related concepts, in this case, related via opposition. Some things are internally related in other ways, however. A tree and the seed from which it sprouted or the seed it spawned are internally related in that one does not really understand a tree without understanding the life cycle of a tree. Male and female are internally related not only by contrasting, but by being formed in such a way that their organs go together in a natural manner. One cannot understand manhood apart from womanhood not only because manhood excludes womanhood but because manhood presupposes womanhood for its subsistence.

When two things are externally related, they exist simply alongside each other. They may be related, as when an apple rests on a desk, but they are so only contingently. It is extraneous to what they are that they are related. A finger and the hammer which hits it are externally related. I do not need to understand anything about a hammer to understand a finger, nor a finger to understand a hammer. A world without hammers could have fingers in just the same way as ours does (granted, not having fingers might alter how we constructed hammers, but I think the point is clear).

There are a variety of phenomena which are internally related but which we have been trained to think of as externally related. The means/end relation is one, the relation of people to society is another, and the relations of various parts of nature is a third. I will spend a post analyzing how thinking of these as external relations works itself out, why they are actually internally related and what that means in each case, and at least a gesture in the direction of how thinking about them correctly might work out.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Forms of Cultural Critique

There are three main ways of critiquing a culture. The most obvious way is to critique the actual institutions which operate in the culture. The next way of critiquing a culture is to critique how people talk about and argue for positions in the culture. Finally, one may critique how the way people talk about and argue for positions impacts how and what institutions are formed and operate.

If we critique a culture solely by critiquing the institutions which operate in it, we run into the problem that we must presuppose that some institutions are good and others bad. Perhaps democracy is good or private property is bad, but in either case the critique is performed in terms alien to the culture under critique. This is the form of critique at work when we object to institutions in terms of their results. It is a valid form of critique, but only where the presupposed good is a generally shared good.

The next way of critiquing culture is to focus on what are called discourses of legitimation, that is, the language in which claims are accepted as valid or invalid. This is the way of talking about and arguing for claims which is dominant and which all arguments must fit in order to be taken seriously. In this manner of critique, it is possible to uncover tensions in the discourse itself, ways in which its terms presuppose conflicting claims. This will not always be the case, however. A form of discourse can be bad without being inconsistent. Incidentally, this is a claim not taken seriously enough by presuppositionalist apologists.

The problem with this second mode of discourse is that it does not engage social reality. It stops at the level of terms, and fails to make the case for why the terms we use matter. It is, after all, at least possible that two different discourses might lead one to the same results, and so long as nothing too bad happens, it seems, no harm no foul.

The final mode of cultural critique manages to connect the previous two. In this mode, we articulate how the discourse gives rise to the institutions, and then how the institutions and their results fail to measure up by the lights of the language of legitimation used. We can also do a reverse form of this mode of critique, often referred to as genealogy, where we articulate how the discourse of legitimation arose from concrete institutions, in order to come to terms with the inadequacies of a previous language of legitimation and the institutions it gave rise to. Each discourse of legitimation, then, gives rise to a new set of insufficient institutions which then sets it to change into a new discourse of legitimation designed to rectify its old failings. This is one way of appropriating the Hegelian dialectic in our day.

Critique in this final mode attempts to expose people to how the way they are talking about their problems is giving rise to new problems or failing to rectify their situation. To be successful, it cannot simply show how policies give rise to the problem, but must show how our way of talking gives rise to policies which it either cannot accept or which can be clearly seen to give rise to problems which the discourse of legitimation is designed to solve. The critique needs to do this in such a way that the answer cannot simply be to claim that the discourse would work with better knowledge or better understanding, that is, the critique must show that these failures are not contingent but part of how the discourse works.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Emotional Levels

The best analogy for how levels of emotions work is to the figure/ground distinction. This is the distinction between what is the focus of attention (figure) and what forms the background against which the figure stands out. The background is experienced as relatively undifferentiated and static, while the figure is experienced as relatively differentiated and dynamic.

On my account of the emotions, when we experience emotions, it is because we are interpreting something, a focus of attention, as relevant to our concerns in some way. The spread of potential foci of attention form the background against which any particular focus stands out. Thus, we can conceive of a background of emotions corresponding to the background of foci. Both of these backgrounds are experienced as relatively homogeneous, although there is space for being aware of things hovering on the periphery, eliciting one's attention.

The relative homogeneity of the background and the relative richness of the figure account for a general separation into two levels of emotional emotional experience. In other words, we are always experiencing some kind of emotion in response to a figure and having an (background) emotional reaction to the background. This background emotion provides a baseline against which other emotions are measured, and sets the standard of reasonable variation.

A background of joy, then, does two things: it heightens the default emotion, and it makes mourning more acute. The inverse applies to a background of sadness. The background can also color the focal emotion in other ways, perhaps contaminating it, perhaps contrasting with it, perhaps supplementing it. It is important to note that not all emotions occupy the spectrum of happy/sad. Anger, I think, does not fall directly on this spectrum. A background of anger contaminates happiness and sadness both into particular forms of happiness and sadness. Likewise, joy can modify how we experience other emotions, providing resilience and a baseline of expectation that there is joy to be had.

The analogy of figure/ground also fits with how little we are usually aware of secondary emotions. Occasionally, we feel a swirling mass of emotions, but usually we feel one emotion at a time, or even feel like we are feeling no emotions. A background is ordinarily overlooked, and only the figure is noticed. The figure, in turn, is only noticed in its differentiation from the background. Thus, when the figure and ground match, nothing seems to be felt. On the other hand, when we are feeling something, it is usually only the focal emotion. The background only becomes noticeable when it is abnormal, that is, when it stands out against the background over time of our emotional lives, or when it starts having a noticeable impact on the shape of our emotions by constricting them. In the ordinary case, then, we can only tell what our background emotion is by either asking others or noticing how we tend to feel in general, when we attend to a variety of phenomena.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


There are two dominant concepts of happiness in the west, and perhaps elsewhere. One is the concept which I associate with Aristotle and Augustine, the other I associate with early modern philosophers. We will start with the latter, move to the former, and then try to articulate a synthesis, as we did with the notion of fulfillment. Both concepts are utilized to make the claim that we all always seek to be happy, but because the concepts are different, the claims are different.

The early modern notion of happiness conceives of it as something one essentially feels. One can thus know whether or not one is happy. Happiness is an occurrent mental state: there is something it feels like to be happy. Further, all it is to be happy is to feel happy.

The older notion of happiness ties happiness to doing well. Thus, on this account, one cannot be happy, however one feels, if one is being vicious. One can "feel happy" and yet fail to be genuinely happy, and thus one will remain restless and unsatisfied no matter how many endorphins are soaking your brain. Further, on this account, it is at least questionable whether or not someone has to feel happy to be happy. It would be consistent with this theory to claim that some people who are doing well are happy yet feel unhappy.

What kind of synthesis can be made of this? Let me start by suggesting that the older notion is the more basic, and that the more recent notion is parasitic on it. Feeling happy is evidence of being happy, but does not entail it. Feeling happy--like other feelings--involves a construal. It involves construing oneself as living well, as being happy. Thus, we are generally warranted in moving from "I feel happy," to "I am happy," but not incorrigibly. There are two consequences to this. First, the source of our felt happiness should be what we take the source of our well being to be. Second, if we are unhappy, there are two routes to becoming happy: we can seek what we think we need to feel happy, or we can reorient what we take to be involved in living well.

This first point is the source of Jon Piper's claim that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. If God is the source of our well being, then he should be the source of our happiness. We should be happy primarily in God and only derivatively in other things if we take our well being to be dependent primarily on God and only derivatively on other things.

The second point should not be taken as the claim that we should simply alter our notion of what living well consists in whenever we are unhappy, nor that we should obtain a notion of living well which will be invulnerable. It is simply the point that we can move in either direction. We can seek what we think will contribute to a good life or we can redirect our efforts to a different conception of the good life. It is not always the case, however, that we should do what will most quickly make us happy. I take the goal to be, rather, to have a happy life. Not a life full of happy feelings, but a life which one would rightly feel happy about at the end.

I want to end by articulating a multi-leveled account of happiness. I have noted that we should feel happy because of God who secures our well being eternally. This should not be taken as meaning that we should be perpetually giddy which feelings of happiness. Rather, I take it that we feel at multiple levels. We can have an abiding sense of our own well being while feeling terribly morose. We can recognize our total well being in Christ while also mourning our sin. We can rest in God's sovereignty while striving hard to pursue sanctification. Perhaps I will say more about this later.