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Thursday, May 12, 2016


OK.  I am going to try this one more time, and then I am going to just quit and go back to snarking at Trump and cheering for Bernie.


But in my view, he considers the issuing of moral judgments to be an expression of weakness, not of strength.  Saying “That is bad.  You should not do that.” is what men do when they are incapable of changing the world, when, as he would say [but not I], they are like women.  Instead, he anatomizes capitalism.  He exposes the exploitation that underlies its self-congratulatory moral justifications.  He thunders against it like an Old Testament Prophet.  He confidently prophesies its doom.  He mocks the apologists for capitalism while exposing the inner incoherence of their rationalizations.  He issues a call to workingmen [and women] to unite, telling them, in his famous phrase, that they have nothing to lose but their chains, they have a world to gain. 

If you wish to classify that as the making of moral judgments, so be it, but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what shows up these days in the writings of professional philosophers who, in their vitae, list their AOS as Ethics and their AOC as political philosophy.  I think it trivializes Marx’s work and diminishes his importance to squeeze him into the categories of contemporary academic philosophy.

That is what I have been trying to say.  I thought I made it pretty obvious, but apparently I failed.

Now, about the latest polls …


s. wallerstein said...

Marx is a genius and like all geniuses, he is hard to fit into categories for us "normal people". I can't imagine Marx with a curriculum vitae because he didn't live his life in terms of conventional career advancement or success.

However, when you look at what Marx wrote, there are moral judgements and that's all that most of us in this discussion are trying to point out.

The fact that you can spend your whole life studying Marx and others can spend their whole lives studying Marx and not be in agreement about exactly what Marx means indicates how complex his thought is in contrast to normal philosophers whose thought generally can be summed up in a curriculum.

Matt said...

"When you meet someone who is proud because he can understand and expound Chrysippus, tell yourself, 'If Chrysippus had written clearly, this man would have nothing to be proud of'." - Epictitus. (From memory, so probably a bit wrong.)

Sadly, very few of the great philosophers are such that there is extensive agreement on what they meant. This is surely even more the case for someone whose work extended over a very long period of time (like Marx) and who gained lots of new information in the course of doing his work. It would be quite surprising if he was doing the same thing over the course of his career, even if he thought he was. In that, he's a lot like other great thinkers.

Jordan said...

It seems to me that the disputants on this issue are usually talking past one another. Of course (as Prof. Wolff says) Marx had some evaluative commitments; of course he believed that capitalism was a bad or impoverished or exploitative or whatever form of social life. The point is that he doesn't believe that merely saying those words will work to bring about the destruction of that bad thing, as if they were some magical incantation. Not only that, but he doesn't believe that making the meaning of those words absolutely clear, and providing a clear and compelling argument for them ("exploitation is objectively bad, because..."), will work as a magical incantation either.

Many things, presumably, must happen to bring about the change that is desired. What distinguishes the philosophical/scientific contribution, for Marx, is not ethical theory, but a careful yet ironic description of the mechanisms of capitalism; careful because it's important to get things right, and ironic because the whole thing really is a farce and a scandal, and ridiculing it in a snide way just so happens to be more rhetorically effective for getting someone to see that than merely saying "this is farcical, because..."

One of the interesting things about Marx (and Nietzsche and Foucault share this in their own domains, I think) is that he doesn't think it's nearly as important to be careful and precise about the normative/evaluative/moral judgments motivating the analysis of capitalism as it is to be careful and precise about the mechanisms of capitalism itself. The care taken in the latter is crucial, because without it we won't understand what's happening to us. It's easy (especially for philosophers!) to fall into thinking that the care taken in the former is crucial too, since we want to be motivated to do what we do for good, well-formulated reasons. My guess is that Marx would think that that kind of care might be a nice luxury for someone whose life is not intolerable (because alienated or exploited or whatever), and that maybe it's something worth doing in the long run. But in a capitalist society, there are far more pressing concerns, and ethical theory (i.e., carefully formulating and dialectically defending moral judgments) just isn't necessary to address those concerns.

Jerry Fresia said...

Would you say, then, that Marx wrote Capital disinterestedly, perhaps in the same way that we could say Einstein developed the general theory of relativity disinterestedly? And aesthetic responses - can they be disinterested? the writing of music? Did Mozart compose music disinterestedly?


Jordan said...

Not sure if you're asking me or Prof. Wolff, Jerry Fresia. If you're asking me, the answer to your questions is a definite "no" (and I can't imagine Prof. Wolff would disagree). The point is just that there's a way to be deeply interested without formulating precise reasons for why you're interest is legitimate or normatively justified.

Jerry Fresia said...

No Jordan, I was asking the Professor:)

s. wallerstein said...

In his essay on Charles Dickens (an example of how good literary criticism can be!)
Orwell describes Dickens as a "change of heart man".

Orwell says: "His whole "message" is one that at first glance looks like one enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent".

Lots of academic moral philosophers are basically change of heart people and Marx is certainly not one.

However, the fact that one is not a change of heart of person does not imply that one cannot have moral judgements about society being indecent and Marx does have them. Rather not being a change of heart person implies that one does not expect moral judgements to make significant changes in an unjust world.

Matt said...

That's a nice distinction, S. Wallerstein, and a helpful one. I'd only add that there is a lot of space between the position you attribute to Marx and the "magical words" view that Jordon thinks many academics hold. I am less sure that such a view is held by many people. I have met some people who think there are such things as irresistible arguments in ethics or political philosophy - an argument such that, if you heard it and really, really, understood it, you would _have_ to accept the conclusion. They think the goal of moral philosophy is to find the irresistible argument. But, lots of other philosophers think this is clearly wrong. I think most of them do. So, when they give moral arguments, they are doing something other than what Jordon suggests that some philosophers are doing. (There's a good discussion of this sort of thing in Burton Dreben's contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Rawls, if you can get your hands on it. It is clear, I think, that Rawls doesn't think he's presenting an irresistible argument, or that he has a "magic words" view of what political philosophy can do. That's compatible, of course, with seeing him and Marx as doing very different things.)

Jordan said...

Matt, I think you're quite right that the "magical words" (or "irresistible argument") account is not one that many philosophers would consciously espouse. And really, the main thing I was trying to say was that, in Marx's view, a well-formulated moral theory is not merely insufficient for the undermining of capitalism but also (and much more importantly) unnecessary. As such, it is to be actively avoided; as Nietzsche says toward the beginning of his history essay, "we still lack even the things we need and the superfluous is the enemy of the necessary." That's enough on it's own, it seems to me, to make Marx's dislike of moral theory understandable. One might disagree with Marx here, of course, and think that moral theory, while not in itself sufficient to undermine capitalism, plays some kind of necessary role in the movement. I'm not inclined to find the proposed necessary roles actually all that necessary, and so tend to agree with Marx here.

I think the "magic words" stuff actually might be a vague subconscious motivation of some people who spend their entire lives spinning out more and more carefully formulated moral theories (especially if they are doing it to "fix up" what they see as a deficiency in Marx). If Marx is right that moral theory is unnecessary, then it is natural to start looking beneath the surface for explanations for the insistence on it among so many of his interpreters. But I don't think any of this is as important as what I said in the previous paragraph.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Doesn't the Principle of Charity require us to read Marx as not only attuned to the True, but also as attuned with the Good? Not the Priciple of Charity as I understand it, but as misuderstood by Kliman perhaps....