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Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Well, I seem to have lit a brush fire on this blog with my off-hand remarks about Alan Wood.  Let me repeat:  I have not read Wood on Marx, and I am sorry for having mouthed off as I did.  But a larger question has been raised, namely how we are to understand Marx’s judgments about capitalism, and beyond that, what relation conventional ethical theory bears to his way of talking about society.  I have some well thought out and strongly held opinions on those questions, and perhaps this is a good time to try to spell them out.  I am quite sure Alan Wood can defend himself, if he is even aware of this kerfuffle, so I shall say no more about him, at least not until and unless I actually read what he has written.

This will take a while, so settle down.  Oh, and by the way, not to worry about the poll just released showing Trump and Clinton in a dead heat in three battleground states.  The polling organization that released those figures has an awful record of accuracy, and it selected a sample somewhat whiter than the states being polled.  Be patient.  It is early days.

Speaking very broadly, two quite different approaches to ethical theory have dominated the Western philosophical tradition.  The first is to seek some objective, trans-historical standpoint from which to articulate normative principles grounded in reason alone.  Plato’s appeal to a rational intuition of the Form of the Good is usefully understood in this way, as is Kant’s search for a Fundamental Moral Principle whose validity can be established by an argument that would be accepted by all rational agents as such.  The early twentieth century school of British moral philosophers known as intuitionists – Moore, Ross, Pritchard et al. – adopted a variant of this approach.  The second approach is to seek to ground our moral judgments in some way or other on common understandings or our “moral intuitions” about specific choices.  In an earlier time, this was referred to as an appeal to the consensus gentium, or agreement of the people.  The vast preponderance of contemporary ethical writing by philosophers in the Anglo-American world is of this sort, it is my informal impression.  John Rawls interestingly embraces both of these approaches in his writings.  He began with the claim that his Two Principles were the solution to a problem in Bargaining Theory, and despite the fact that the theorem he claimed to be able to prove is in fact invalid, he clung to that claim in A Theory of Justice.  But as his work developed, he transitioned to a version of the consensus gentium which he called “Reflective Equilibrium.”

Both of these approaches, I believe, rest on a simple, not to say simplistic, understanding of the nature of human personality, and on a correspondingly simple conception of the language appropriate for expressing our moral beliefs.  And Marx, I am quite convinced, rejects both this conception of human nature and this style of language.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

If I think that the mind is essentially accessible to itself, that what I think and feel and experience is apprehensible to me through reflection or introspection, that my self is, as it were, one-dimensional [to use a term made popular half a century ago by my old friend Herbert Marcuse,] then I will likely conclude that a clear, spare uninflected language is adequate to voice my beliefs, my moral intuitions, the premises and conclusions of the arguments I consider compelling.  Believing that, I will strive for a transparent prose, and though I may employ literary tropes, they will be decorations, enhancements meant to give pleasure, rather than essential elements of a successful articulation of my thoughts.  Hence, I will write like Plato or like Kant, if I am truly gifted, or like Rawls, if I am somewhat less gifted.

But suppose I think that the mind is complex, and that its several layers or aspects or dimensions are only imperfectly accessible to one another.  Suppose that, with Freud [and many others before him, of course], I think there are shadows and recesses of the mind, repressed contents, unconscious thoughts, and a contest among these several parts of the mind for supremacy.  Suppose I believe that self-understanding is not the beginning of thought but a prize hard-won, the achievement of which requires a difficult struggle that leaves scars and evidences of the battles fought.  Suppose I believe [with Marx] that the society into which I am born, and more particularly the system of social relations of production of that society, so powerfully shape my deepest self-understandings that even after I have fought my way to some measure of self-awareness, I still remain in the grip of the ruling normative presuppositions of my era.

If all of that is how I understand my situation in the world, then two things will follow:  First, simple reflection or introspection – a consideration of rational premises or settled moral beliefs – will be utterly inadequate as the basis for an understanding of my world and my moral relationship to it.  Rather, I shall need to engage in a detailed study both of my society and its mystifications and of the echo of those mystifications in my complex many-layered self; and Second, in voicing the conclusions to which I have come in my study, I shall need to find a language whose syntactic and other linguistic resources are complex enough to capture the objective complexity of my world and my relationship to it.

This, I believe, is what Marx did in Capital and many of his other writings, and it is why I resist viewing him as a moralist in either of the two traditions – of a priori reasoning or consensus gentium – sketched above.  Indeed, my forty year-long engagement with thought of Marx has as one of its central purposes to demonstrate the truth of this claim about Marx.

Is Marx a moralist?  Not if by that you mean someone doing what Plato or Kant did.  Is Marx a moralist?  Not if by that you mean someone doing what Rawls attempted, or what any number of less distinguished contemporary ethical theorists do.  Is Marx a moralist?  Say rather that he is an Old Testament prophet.  Say rather, as Edmund Wilson did, that he is one of the great ironists of the Western tradition, seeking [as Wilson did not grasp] to find a voice in which he could anatomize in a rigorously mathematical way the structure of capitalist exploitation while also and in the very same phrases capture his complex psychodynamic relationship, and ours, to the religion, philosophy, and economic theory that seeks to conceal and rationalize that exploitation.

Well, sufficient unto the day.


Tom Cathcart said...

Bob, I found your comparison of Marx to an OT prophet very interesting, as it's the prophetic piece that has always been the major stumbling-block for me. One can look at the OT prophets in two ways: eschatologically (i. e., their prophecies are true in some ultimate sense having to do with the goal and end of history) or temporally (i.e., Yahweh will cause Judah to fall to the Babylonians.) I get Marx on the eschatological level. I'm really skeptical about the temporal level.
For me, the principal opponent of Marxism isn’t capitalism; it’s Calvinism. Calvinism is, among other things, the belief that human beings are capable of finding a way to exploit anything, no matter how pure and noble. The Calvinist looks at Marxism and says:
“Capitalism certainly exploits workers. It’s unfair and it’s execrable. But somehow, some way, someone will figure out how to exploit someone else under a Marxist system too. The history of Marxism so far is not inspiring in this regard. Some would argue that Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-Il, etc., etc., are exceptions, and of course they are, as all individuals are exceptions, and their brand of socialism isn’t what Marx envisioned, and of course it isn’t. But that’s the point: there will always be exceptions, and any real-world implementation of Marxism will always be an exception. People will always find a way to screw up the system. In Calvin’s terms, look at the trajectory from the gospel to . . . the church! We human beings can screw up anything.”
There was a time in my youth when I and many others felt that if we could only turn the world on with LSD and magic mushrooms, we would all see the dharma and live happily ever after. That dream lasted about a nanosecond, when we discovered that not everyone who took LSD was interested in seeing the dharma. Some were interested in exploiting the experience, and others were interested in exploiting other people by means of it.
My point, if I have one, is that to be a Marxist takes a leap of faith. Maybe it’s a faith I can someday adopt, but I’m not there yet. In the meantime, I can support the eschatological vision and support small moves in that direction from an ethical point of view, but, like Calvin and the Kingdom of God, I don’t have faith that we can really get there in history.

formerly a wage slave said...

"normative principles grounded in reason alone".
Principles? Principles? What's striking about Plato's dialogues is the absence of principles! Abstract singular terms like "justice" (or its Greek equivalent) are not principles in the sense moral philosophers want. You can push Plato in that direction, but it is a mistake. It leaves out too many differences.

formerly a wage slave said...

My goodness.(I write as I read more.....) It's getting worse. I cannot go on. Now you are attributing to Plato a belief in incorrigible conceptual states--my mind transparent to me. You can find that in the Phaedo, but it is gone by the time you get to the Theaetetus. And, I don't think it's clearly present in the Republic because e v e r y o n e's apprehension of The Good is so shaky and dim...

s. wallerstein said...

Tom Cathcart,

Although I'm Jewish, I'm a bit Calvinist myself or at least more Hobbesian than Rousseauian.

The reasons that you mention indicate that first of all, socialism should be willed (probably through the vote) by the majority of the population, not just by a vanguard leninist party and that to keep things from getting weird you need checks and balance, a free press, fair elections, etc.

I don't see why socialism has any more potential for getting screwed up than capitalism does, as long as the checks and balances, free press, fair elections, etc., are functioning.

Tom Cathcart said...

s wallerstein, I agree. It's the expectation that things will ipso facto be better that seems romantic to me. Maybe I've just become an old grump. Didn't William James say the primary determinant of our philosophy is temperament? : )

formerly a wage slave said...

If I believe that goodness is abstract, independent of human thought and language, and grasped in thought, nothing follows about my ability to “compel” someone to assent.

Nor do I accept the temptation to speak of “pure reason”, thereby hastening an assimilation to Kant.

One can grasp a thing in thought imperfectly, partially. The vision of the The Good need not be complete and free from vagueness. On the contrary, even in the Republic it is said to be less than perfect.

You seem to me needlessly to impose a particular epistemology upon Plato's metaphysics. That epistemology probably fits other philosophers more than Plato. The point of the Forms is to make thought and speech (and knowledge) possible. That involves no thesis about the nature of our grasp of the Forms, or about our ability to “compel” others via argument.

Recently I enjoyed listening to a lecture by Anwar Shaikh. In a digression (which he called a “rant”) he discussed the religious or non-scientific status of mainstream economics. He discussed how some people just change their official views to suit the desires of power. But Shaikh rather modestly remarked that he did what he did because it was true.

In that Shaikh seemed to me to be very Platonic, as Platonic as Hardy. I felt no discomfort at the thought that Shaikh seemed unable to convince the mainstream. The point is the independence of what's true, and, yes, its abstractness. But there's nothing there about that abstract thing being known completely rather than partially known, even if what's true really is most kin to our minds.

s. wallerstein said...

Tom Cathcart,

I don't know anything about William James besides that he was Henry's brother, but here's Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 6:

"Gradually, it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir."

Tom Cathcart said...

s wallerstein, Great quote from a great book.

formerly a wage slave said...

I very much regret my earliest remarks. And it is equally true that the broadest question that Prof. Wolff was addressing is one that I myself have had to think about--partially as a result of the fact that he, among others, has stirred in me an interest in Marx. And I am not yet willing to admit either that Plato is fairly and non-misleadingly put in the same box as Kant. I especially don't like the fact that Plato has gotten made a believer in the transparency of the mental--a rather easy error for the trained Philosopher who's read more of Kant and Hume than Plato. For me, it is nothing more than pure anachronism--forgivable, but the product of a one-sided diet. (And,yes we do all suffer from that, in some form or other.)

I have myself been nagged with the thought that Plato does not help me understand the difficulties I face at work, or my despair at the way the world at large is proceeding. And, that's a large concession to Professor Wolff. Yet, even if that thought (which I have from time to time)is correct, I cannot accept the characterization of Plato's epistemology as anything more than a caricature. And just now I should have already stopped typing, to return to the task of earning my daily bread.

I simply don't have time to completely correct my error just now, but I shall be reading the original entry more carefully. These days I spend too much time bouncing up and down on buses on country roads, or sleeping in trains as I travel around Central Europe selling my native speaker's knowledge of English. This is not conducive to calm or careful thinking. That is my explanation and apology. I assure you that it gives me no pleasure to appear a hot-headed fool in public......