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Tuesday, October 13, 2015


The first part of my screed on analytic philosophy, journal articles, and books appeared five days ago.  Herewith the second half, originally promised for the very next day.  First, some words of clarification.  I shall be talking about moral and political philosophy, not about epistemology and metaphysics, or the philosophy of language, and most certainly not about logic.  I simply do not know enough about those fields to have opinions on which I would put any reliance.

Second, my thesis today really has very little to do with the difference between short and long pieces of philosophical writing.  My central concern is with the notion that moral and political philosophy are scientific [or wissenschaftlich, more accurately, in the German sense], that they are bodies of objective knowledge that accumulate incrementally through the work of generations of philosophers, some perhaps working even as teams, in somewhat the way that scientific knowledge progresses.  Once I have explained what I understand moral and political philosophy to be, it will be clear why I am inclined to expect that it is more likely to find expression in longer, even book-length, productions, rather than in essays appropriate for the standard professional journal, but that is a secondary matter.

One final note before I begin.  I shall here be summarizing ideas on which I have written and published for many years.  I shall try to make reference to some of those publications for anyone interested in pursuing the subject, but to keep this within manageable limits, I shall take a good deal as already explained.

I begin, as I so often do, with The Good Book.  The universe is called into existence by the Word of God:  "And God said, Let there be light, And there was light."  [Genesis, chapter 1, verse 3.]  Or, as John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  [John, Chapter 1, verse 1.]  Or finally, as C. S. Lewis tells us in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Aslan roared the world into existence.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the universe is a story told by God, and, as literary critics teach us, the world of a story exists from a narrative point of view.  Although Judaism and Christianity are myths, they contain deep philosophical truths, for although the natural world is not a story told by a Creator God, society is indeed, in a manner of speaking, a story.  But it is a story told by all mankind, to itself, rather than a story told by a narrator to an audience.  [See my essay, "Narrative Time:  On the Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Social World."]

Although literary analysis has much to teach us about the nature of fictions, in at least one structurally fundamental way, society differs from a narrative:  each of us lives within the collective story we are telling as we live out our days.  Each of us is both teller of and listener to the story of society, and it therefore requires an effort of great complexity and subtlety to arrive at a perspective, or standpoint, from which we can talk about this story.

It might be supposed that there is a privileged standpoint outside society from which a philosopher, sufficiently gifted, might achieve objectivity in the telling of the story of society, rather like the point high on a hill overlooking a battle on the plain below that Lucretius imagines as the philosophical perspective in De Rerum Natura.  Or, to cite a much less exalted example, like the "Original Position under the veil of ignorance" of John Rawls.  But there is no such place.  That was Rousseau's error in Emile, who imagined that if one could clear away the corruptions and distortions of society in the rearing of a child, what would emerge was natural man.

The source of Rousseau's error was his failure to realize that human beings are radically underdetermined [the work of Erik Erikson, in Childhood and Society, is instructive here.]  Each of us grows to healthy normal maturity through the internalization of norms, roles, expectations, regulations of instinctual energies and bodily functions, in the course of which process we become identifiably members not of society tout court but of a particular society at a particular time.  Hence Erikson says, in a hauntingly beautiful passage, that "an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."  [See my mahy-part blog post, "How to Study Society."

A great philosopher reflecting on his or her society struggles to achieve sufficient narrative distance to achieve some understanding of the society while never forgetting that he or she is both embedded in and is a product of it.  This effort requires such literary resources as irony, which allows for multiple voices in complex relation to one another.

A novelist learns from earlier novelists, but does not write sequels to their works, instead creating original works of his or her own.  The voice of the novelist is an essential component of the novel.  That is why the sequels to Pride and Prejudice, which apparently number in the hundreds, are utterly distinct from the original, which lives in Jane Austen's authorial voice.  

Great works of moral or political philosophy have more in common with great novels than with great pieces of scientific research.  They are powerful and provocative efforts by their authors to achieve a voice in which to speak about their societies and times in history.  The greatest of them, like Das Kapital or Leviathan, or The Republic, remain forever  as exempla of successful struggles with the task of achieving both distance from and engagement with society.  That is why we continue to read them -- in the original, if we can, in the best translation we can find otherwise.

It is easy now to see why no great moral or political philosophy is co-authored, in the manner familiar from scientific publications, by a group of researchers.  A fiction written by a committee is not a novel, it is a SitCom or a soap opera.

We can see, too, why journeyman moral or political philosophy has little or no value at all, whereas journeyman Biology or Chemistry or Entomology may have genuine value indeed.  Mediocre novels are amusing ways to make a long plane trip pass, but they offer no genuine ironic insight into the human condition.  And though Mill's Utilitarianism can help us to understand mid-nineteenth century upper middle-class English society, yet one more journal article on act- versus rule-utilitarianism tells us nothing at all of value.

To return to the question with which I began, five days ago, it may now be easy to understand why genuinely great moral or political philosophy is more likely to be written in book-length bites.  Achieving ironic distance from one's society, and then reflecting deeply on it, will probably require a little breathing space -- not four hundred densely packed pages, perhaps [or eight hundred, in the case of  volume one of Capital], but only rarely twenty pages.  It may also be clear why great moral or political philosophy does not really need many footnotes.

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