In his famous Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues that a society organized around the principle of private property and the commercial production of commodities forces man to stand in opposition to his own nature in order to subsist, and that this self-oppositional stance is best described as ‘alienated’ (or ‘estranged’) labor. To fully understand what Marx means by ‘alienated labor’, and under what circumstances labor becomes alienated, we must therefore first understand what Marx means by ‘human nature’. From there, we can understand what it means to be alienated from it, and the various ways in which this alienation is accomplished in a capitalist situation.
Welcome to the first episode of “Exiting The Cave”. My name is Greg. I am an amateur philosopher, studying philosophy part-time at the University of London, in their International Program. My “day job” is in tech, but my passion is philosophy. In case you’re not familiar with it, I have been writing a philosophy blog for about 5 years, now. You can find it at https://exitingthecave.com
This podcast is an attempt to extend that work, to challenge myself to do more, and to give readers of my blog more philosophy content. The blog has been, more or less, a running record of my attempt at a properly formal philosophy education. I’m hoping to take the podcast a bit further. Here, I want to explore ideas more freely, and delve a bit into subject areas I’ve studiously avoided on the blog. I’ll be venturing into the philosophy of aesthetics and music (as one of my keen hobby interests), and cracking open the Pandora’s Box of political philosophy and practical ethics. This way, I can sharpen the focus of the blog even further, creating a self-made resource for evidence, arguments, and other artifacts supporting the podcast.
To get things started, I want to use this podcast to benchmark the inspiration for the blog – Plato’s allegory of the cave – and talk a bit about why I have found myself sticking to the allegory, in spite of its cliché reputation these days. I’ll begin by telling the story, as portrayed in The Republic itself, and afterward, I’ll offer a few remarks about the many layers of meaning built into it, and why it resonates with me.
The Allegory of the Cave
Let’s get started. We’ll be entering Plato’s Republic, at Stephanos number 514a1, for those who want to follow along. Socrates’ dialectic partner throughout, is Glaucon, but the dialog is entirely in Socrates’ voice. I’ll be speaking in the first-person from this point on, as Socrates, then.
I said [to Glaucon], “make an image [in your mind] of our nature in its education and want of education, likening it to a condition of the following kind. See human beings as though they were in an underground cavelike dwelling with its entrance, a long one, open to the light across the whole width of the cave. They are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them, unable because of the bond to turn their heads all the way around. Their light is from a fire burning far above and behind them. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a road above, along which see a wall, built like the partitions puppet-handlers set in front of the human beings and over which they show the puppets.” 514ab
“I see,” he said.
“Then also see along this wall human beings carrying all sorts of artifacts, which project above the wall, and statues of men and other animals wrought from stone, wood, and every kind of material; as is to be expected, some of the carriers utter sounds while others are silent.” c515a
“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.”
“They’re like us,” I said. “For in the first place, do you suppose such men would have seen anything of themselves and one another other than the shadows cast by the fire on the side of the cave facing them?”
“How could they,” he said, “if they had been compelled to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”b
“And what about the things that are carried by? Isn’t it the same with them?”
“If they were able to discuss things with one another, don’t you believe they would hold that these things that they see, are the actual beings, to which they give names?
“And what if the prison also had an echo from the side facing them? Whenever one of the men passing by happens to utter a sound, do you suppose they would believe that anything other than the passing shadow was uttering the sound?”
“No, by Zeus,” he said. “I don’t.”
“Then most certainly,” I said, “such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.”c
“Most necessarily,” he said.
“Now consider,” I said, “what their release and healing from bonds and folly would be like if something of this sort were by nature to happen to them. Take a man who is released and suddenly compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light; and who, moreover, in doing all this is in pain and, because he is dazzled, is unable to make out those things whose shadows he saw before. What do you suppose he’d say if someone were to tell him that before he saw silly nothings, while now, because he is somewhat nearer to what is and more turned toward being, he sees more correctly; and, in particular, showing him each of the things that pass by, were to compel the man to answer his questions about what they are? Don’t you suppose he’d be at a loss and believe that what was seen before is truer than what is now shown?”d
“Yes,” he said, “by far.”
“And, if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that he is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?”e
“So he would,” he said.
“And if,” I said, “someone dragged him away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way and didn’t let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, wouldn’t he be distressed and annoyed at being so dragged? And when he came to the light, wouldn’t he have his eyes full of its beam and be unable to see even one of the things now said to be true?”516a
“No, he wouldn’t,” he said, “at least not right away.”
“Then I suppose he’d have to get accustomed, if he were going to see what’s up above. At first he’d most easily make out the shadows; and after that the reflections of the human beings and the other things in water; and, later, the things themselves. And from there he could turn to beholding the things in heaven and heaven itself, more easily at night—looking at the light of the stars and the moon—than by day—looking at the sun and sunlight.”516b
“Then, finally, he would be able to make out the sun—not its mere appearances in water or some alien place, but the sun itself by itself in its own proper place — and contemplate it as it truly is.”
“Necessarily,” Glaucon said.
“And after that he would already be in a position to conclude about it that this is the source of the seasons and the years, and is the steward of all things in the visible place, and is in a certain way the cause of all those things he and his companions had been seeing all along.”516c
“It’s plain,” he said, “that this would be his next step.”
“What then? When he recalled his first home and the wisdom there, and his fellow prisoners in that time, don’t you suppose he would consider himself happy for the change and have pity for the others?”
“And if in that time there were among them any honors, praises, and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and most remembers which of them are accustomed to pass before, which after, and which at the same time as others, and who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come, in your opinion would he be desirous of them and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men? Or, rather, would he be affected as Homer says and want very much ‘to be on the soil, a serf to another man, to a portionless man,’ and to undergo anything whatsoever rather than to opine those things and live that way?”d
“Yes,” Glaucon said, “I suppose he would prefer to undergo everything rather than live in that way.”e
“Now reflect on this too,” I said. “If such a man were to come down again and sit in the same seat, on coming suddenly from the sun wouldn’t his eyes get infected with darkness?”
“Very much so,” he said.
“And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up? And if they were somehow able to get their hands on and kill the man who attempts to release them and lead up, wouldn’t they kill him?” 517a
“No doubt about it,” he said.
“Well, then, my dear Glaucon,” I said, “this image as a whole must be connected with what was said before. Liken the domain revealed through sight to the prison home, and the light of the fire in it to the sun’s power; and, in applying the going up and the seeing of what’s above to the soul’s journey up to the intelligible place, you’ll not mistake my expectation, since you desire to hear it. A god doubtless knows if it happens to be true. In any event, this is the way the phenomena look to me: in the knowable the last thing to be seen, and that with considerable effort, is the idea of the good; but once seen, it must be concluded that this is in fact the cause of all that is right and fair in everything—in the visible it gave birth to light and its sovereign; in the intelligible, itself sovereign, it provided truth and intelligence—and that the man who is going to act prudently in private or in public must see it.”bc
My Analysis of The Allegory
The Republic is itself a dialogue so layered and so subtle that one could spend an entire philosophical career on it (indeed, several have). The allegory of the cave embedded within the dialogue is one of several gems dotting the whole narrative, and is arguably the most brilliant of them. It is not hard to see why this dialogue has inspired so many philosophers throughout history. Notice, for example, the use of physical direction, and motion. At the opening of the the Republic, for example, Socrates’ first words are, “I went down to the Pireaus…”. In the allegory of the cave, we are following him down into the cave. By the time we get to the end of the allegory of the cave, we have risen not only out of the cave, but up to a plane of existence beyond mortal imagining — only to descend down into the cave again. In other words, the allegory becomes a meta-narrative describing the reader’s journey through the dialogue of the Republic, itself.
Many other examples of this sort of symbolism and allusion are present (such as, for example, the fact that Adiemantus, Glaucon, and Socrates are themselves representatives at times, of the three kinds of citizen populating in the ideal republic; or, for example that the cave and its escapee are a metaphor for childbirth, in the transition from womb to independent organism). But, for the purposes of this podcast, I want to focus on three insights of my own.
The Problem of the Forms
First, there is the role of Plato’s Forms in the allegory of the cave. It’s not clear whether and how much of Plato’s dialogues are Plato talking, or Socrates. But many agree that the Theory of Forms was entirely a creation of Plato, and his use of Socrates to elucidate it was purely dramatic. One problem with this, is how it confounds the Allegory of the Cave (which may have originally been Socrates’).
To briefly summarize the theory here, Plato’s Forms are transcendental universals out of which all particulars in the material changing universe derive their genuine, or ultimate, reality. They are not simply conceptual generalizations in the mind, encapsulating, say, the “idea of chair” or the “idea of justice”. They are permanent, unchanging casting dies, from which the demiurge presses the material instances of chairs, or acts of justice, or even particular properties like size, color, shape, and nature. This is what Plato is referring to, when he puts into Socrates’ mouth, the words “… the idea of the good …” 2
But, this raises a serious problem with the allegory. For, as Parmenides3 pointed out in his dialogue with Socrates, there is no method by which men could obtain knowledge of the Forms, while remaining in the mortal realm. The implication for the Allegory, is simply this, then: nobody ever, really, leaves the cave. But Socrates (or perhaps Plato?) seems to think we can. The allegory is explicit about this. The philosopher king dwells in the realm of the Forms, and then faces the choice of whether or not to return to the cave to rescue his comrades. If it were a one-way trip, no such choice would confront him. But, it could only be a one-way trip, if the Forms are as Plato insists they are. So, either the Forms are not eternal, or we cannot return to the cave.
Epistemology and Motivation
Second, there is a problem with why any particular person in the cave would actually undergo such an ordeal as being extricated from his shackles. This is not just a practical question. I’m not simply saying that because nobody sane would bother, then neither should we as philosophers. Rather, I’m saying that the allegory skirts the question of motivation by putting us already in the “deus ex machina” position of having extracted the captive — and, that motive is key, because it calls into question the whole project. What, exactly, are we seeking? How did it come about that we knew to seek it? How will we know when we’ve found it?
So, in addition to the ontological problem that the Forms present us with, we’re now saddled with an epistemological one as well. Not having access to the Forms (assuming they do exist), and having no awareness of anything but the cave shackles into which we’ve been born, how could we possibly have any awareness to even ask the question of what is “beyond the cave”, or any motivation to question our experience of the cave itself? Socrates admits as much in the retelling of the allegory itself. We are cave dwellers ourselves, and would have no means of unshackling ourselves or the object of the allegory. Were we to tell him we could unshackle ourselves and him, he would surely tell us that we were lunatics for suggesting such a project — and he would be justified in doing so, without some rational standard for believing that such a thing is not only possible, but likely to yield what we claim, if attempted.
The Forced Rescue
There is an addendum to the traditional allegory story, that is often not included in its retelling. Recall that the largest part of The Republic, is Plato’s argument for what a just polis would look like, and by analogy, what a just soul would be. Socrates imagines three classes of men in The Republic: the men of everyday appetitive concerns (the craftsmen), the men of honour (the warriors), and the men of wisdom (the “Guardians”). For Plato, the “Guardian” is the man who has ascended from the cave, and dwelt in the realm of the Forms. Having both the capacity for, and the acheivement of, this enlightenment, he is the class of man who is best equipped to rule the rest of us, because he can see things that we cannot. But there is a problem with this part of the theory. Plato hinted at it already, in the reading above4, but later gets more explicit about the implications of this. Let’s have a look at that, here, beginning at 517d:
“Come, then,” I said, “and join me in supposing this, too, and don’t be surprised that the men who get to that point aren’t willing to mind the business of human beings, but rather that their souls are always eager to spend their time above. Surely that’s likely, if indeed this, too, follows the image of which I told before.”
“Of course it’s likely,” he said.
“And what about this? Do you suppose it is anything surprising,” I said, “if a man, come from acts of divine contemplation to the human evils, is graceless and looks quite ridiculous when—with his sight still dim and before he has gotten sufficiently accustomed to the surrounding darkness—he is compelled in courts or elsewhere to contest about the shadows of the just or the representations of which they are the shadows, and to dispute about the way these things are understood by men who have never seen justice itself?”
“It’s not at all surprising,” he said.
And, further on, at 519c, Plato explains what would happen to such men:
…Isn’t it likely,” I said, “and necessary, as a consequence of what was said before, that those who are without education and experience of truth would never be adequate stewards of a city, nor would those who have been allowed to spend their time in education continuously to the end—the former because they don’t have any single goal in life at which they must aim in doing everything they do in private or in public, the latter because they won’t be willing to act, believing they have emigrated to a colony on the Isles of the Blessed while they are still alive?”
“True,” he said.
“Then our job as founders,” I said, “is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”
“What’s that?”, Glaucon asked.
“To remain there,” I said, “and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious.”
“What?” he said. “Are we to do them an injustice, and make them live a worse life when a better is possible for them?”
“My friend, you have again forgotten,” I said, “that it’s not the concern of law that any one class in the city fare exceptionally well, but it contrives to bring this about in the city as a whole, harmonizing the citizens by persuasion and compulsion, making them share with one another the benefit that each is able to bring to the commonwealth. And it produces such men in the city not in order to let them turn whichever way each wants, but in order that it may use them in binding the city together.”
“That’s true,” he said. “I did forget.”
So, Plato’s philosophers would not naturally wish to return to the cave on a voluntary basis. They would, rather, wish to “remain and not be willing to go down again“. Glaucon rightly supposes forcing them to go down would be an injustice against them as individuals, since this sort of compulsion would be imposing a form of evil on the enlightened man. But, Plato reminds us, the goal here is not to maximize the individual’s own happiness. It is to harmonization the polis as a whole. To put it in modern parlance, they would be forced to return for the greater good. They would not return because they had any sort of love for their former cave mates. Plato understood the difference between love and pity, and the difference between love and duty.
But, the point here, is not to take issue with Plato’s totalitarianism, or to argue the efficacy of an idea like a tripartite polis (I will do this, in a later podcast). Rather, it is to say that the allegory of the cave is clear evidence of a problem with Plato’s theory. As a thought experiment, it has exposed an irrationality in his design. The moment one must resort to compulsion, and to apologetics for the use of force, one has abandoned reason. But Plato cannot see this, because he has so fallen in love with his own idea, that its flaws are invisible to him. Two of those flaws have been outlined here already. But there are dozens of other problems as well; not only within the confines of Plato’s own logical structure, but also across the span of three thousand years of hind-sight. Analysis of those additional mistakes will have to wait for another discussion.
Given my criticisms of the allegory of the cave, why would I adopt it as a defining feature of my philosophical “brand”, as it were? Clearly, I recognize how deeply flawed it is, in spite of how inspiring it is. So, why venerate it with a permanent reference built into the podcast? Good question.
One feature of Plato’s dialogues that I find compelling, and in many ways preferable, to the writings of, say, Aristotle, is precisely the fact that they are dialogues. Aristotle goes to great lengths in the Nicomachean Ethics to explain and to argue the necessity of practice in the formation of a virtuous character. He is right, of course. But, ironically, by engaging in didactics, rather than dialectics, Aristotle does not practice what he preaches. Plato, again ironically, is doing precisely this. Rather than explaining to us how and why we ought to prefer reason to appetite, Plato shows us the art of reason in the form of a drama, expecting us to take that example and employ it ourselves, in our own dialectics in the present. He is encouraging us to think and introspect by way of example, not simply enjoining us to do so.
Reasoning well is not something that can be imparted as a complete package, and by explanation alone. It must be done, repeatedly, and with expert guidance, in order for mastery of the art to be achieved. Aristotle provides us with a useful toolset in the form of the syllogism, and the model of generalizations from particulars. But he does not give us sufficient examples of these tools actually in use. Plato’s dialogues are the kinds of examples that are needed. We can see this here, in both the example of the Republic, and the Parmenides. Learning to reason is like learning to swim, or learning to sing. You must feel what it’s like to have a moment of rational clarity, must remember the state you are in when that happens, and must learn how to repeat that state. The dialogues are the meditations needed to facilitate that work.
When you take your first steps in philosophy, at least traditionally, you are confronted with dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Meno. Dialogues that are not simple or superficial, by any stretch. But dialogues that are narrowly focused on one particular idea. The apprentice philosopher learns to examine one idea, and explore all of its facets, before he is tasked with looking at two or three in relation to each other. The Republic (and arguably, The Parmenides), represent the culmination of that effort. These works demand that the thinker examine numerous inter-related ideas, all in relation to each other, and on several levels of analysis. The allegory of the cave embedded in The Republic, then, is as I have said before, the metaphor for the intellectual and emotional journey of the philosopher.
As I have shown in this critique, Plato must have understood that the attainment of full communion with the Form of The Good is not something that is possible for finite, incomplete beings such as ourselves. And yet, he did think that glimpses were possible. The allegory of the cave, then, represents not the attainment of enlightenment, but the striving for it. The pursuit of truth is a sort of “Zeno’s Paradox” for the problem of enlightenment. Through study, introspection, and the practice of dialectic, we slowly learn that we are shackled, we gradually gain the knowledge to unshackle ourselves, and we slowly stumble our way in the dark cave, toward the dim light high above, coming from the cave mouth. Yet, we can never quite achieve the threshold, as it always seems just that much further away. We are always exiting the cave, and this is why my blog and my podcast are so named.
- Republic, 514a ↩
- “Idea” is often a substitute for the word “Form” in translations of the dialogues. I generally prefer not to use it, because of the confusion it causes as a result of our modern notion of “idea”. But this translation used it. So, I’m sticking with it in this quote. ↩
- Parmenides, beginning at 133c, “…when ideas are what they are in relation to one another, their essence is determined by a relation among themselves, and has nothing to do with the resemblances, or whatever they are to betermed, which are in our sphere, and from which we receive this or that name when we partake of them. And the things which are within our sphere and have the same names with them, are likewise only relative to one another, and not to the ideas which have the same names with them, but belong to themselves and not to them… if God has this perfect authority, and perfect knowledge, his authority cannot rule us, nor his knowledge know us, or any human thing; just as our authority does not extend to the gods, nor our knowledge know anythingwhich is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, are not our masters, neither do they know the things of men. Yet, surely, said Socrates, to deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.…” ↩
- Republic, 516d-e ↩
The following notes are an attempt at outlining my basic thought process, to document my progress in the study of metaphysical realism, and offer the reader some food for thought. I offer it, as is. If there are any actual arguments in this post, it is purely by accident. If there are any answers to the problem of realism within this text, the reader is free to take them.
A (Very) Brief History of What Is
The first question in metaphysics, the fundamental question, is “What is there?” Putting this more succinctly, in order to rely on fewer linguistic crutches, you could just say, “What is?”. In order to answer this question — or even to imagine an answer is possible — we have to ask ourselves a few other questions first. To begin with, why is this the question?
Somehow, we are beings. Somehow, we are beings aware of being, and of our own being. What is that awareness, and why do we have it? Descartes1 took that awareness as axiomatic (a “clear and distinct idea“, in his terms). It was the fundamental feature of his entire ontology, famously captured as “Cogito, Ergo Sum“. Awareness, thinking, not only implies being, it entails it. Descartes speculated that sense experiences were just another kind of thinking: they are the ideas that come to us as sense experiences. Berkeley posited this speculation as a fact.2 Experiences just are ideas in the mind, including the mind of God. Locke3 agreed that sensations are ideas in the mind, but insisted in a world apart from those ideas, a mindless mechanical world, in which inhered powers to populate the mind with the ideas of experience. Our bodies function as a reception medium, upon which reality makes its impressions, and the mind records those impressions. There are whispers of Hume in this language.
Tying this back to the germ of “awareness“, it seems from the preceding paragraph, that there are two different forms of awareness taking shape: thoughtful awareness, and experiential awareness. This vague duality corresponds with several well known distinctions in philosophy. The “subject-object dichotomy”, the “analytic-synthetic” distinction, and the “rationalism-empiricism” distinction. Described in various ways, by various philosophers, these two forms of awareness are said to give us a complete set of tools for discovering “what is“. As I see it, then, the core dispute amongst metaphysicians of modern philosophy, has been over whether experiential awareness just collapses into thoughtful awareness, and whether it makes sense at all to talk about the being of things beyond the reach of either thoughtful or experiential awareness. In the first case, this is the argument between rationalists and empiricists. In the second case, this is the argument between the realists and the anti-realists. The realists, so-called counterintuitively, because they accept as “real”, any number of beings beyond the reach of thoughtful or experiential awareness. The anti-realist, so-called because he does not accept anything as real, other than what can be grounded in thoughtful or experiential awareness. The Idealist may find it hard to locate a fit for himself within this schema. On the one hand, the Berkeleyan Idealist will want to say that it makes no sense to talk of beings that are beyond the reach of thoughtful or experiential awareness, thus placing him in the anti-realist camp. The Platonic Idealist, on the other hand, could be seen as defending realism, as against Parmenides 4 , by insisting both that the Forms exist, and that they are beyond our worldly apprehension.
How Do We Know?
Lurking in the background of this outline, lies a third major component. Namely, the problem of knowledge. When I speculate about tools for answering questions of an ontological nature, I am talking not just about whether the answers to those questions are true or false, as compared to a reality. I am also asking how we know “what is“? I have left it an unspoken assumption up to this point, that thoughtful and experiential awareness constitutes knowledge of being, whether that being is a complete entity or merely some particular property of a complete entity. Despite the confusing label of “conceptual realist“, Berkeley would deny that anything like an entity or properties of an entity could be known without an idea of it, because it is a bald absurdity to say that what is unknown is also known. On this basis, one could count Berkeley amongst the anti-realists, though also an idealist.
Empiricists like Locke seem far more willing to take certain beings as real, independently of any conception of them. Locke posited two kinds (“primary” and “secondary”) of properties of objects. His “secondary” properties were a kind of experiential awareness of an object that did not derive directly from the object, but from powers or features hidden from experiential awareness, yet inherent in the objects nonetheless. It is not hard to see why Berkeley would have had a complaint with Locke. How could he claim this reasonably, with no recourse to any demonstration, logical or empirical? The paradigm example of such a thing, is color. An apple is not red, says Locke, but hidden features of the apple and its surrounding environment conspire to produce the experiential awareness of red within our minds. Berkeley (I think rightly) asks, if we are going to posit such mechanisms for color or smell, then why not for shape, or heft, or motion, as well? He insists it is a distinction without a difference. If the idea of red is in the mind, then so is the idea of the shape of the apple, and the idea of it’s girth in our hand, and this is what makes the apple and all of its properties real.
As it turns out, later discoveries about light, the eye, and color have all apparently vindicated Locke over Berkeley. It is indeed a hidden feature of the apple, interacting with hidden features in the environment, that give us the experiential awareness of a red apple. However, further discoveries about the neurology of the eye and the brain, and subsequent discoveries about the quantum behaviors of light, that also seem to vindicate Berkeley. We know from neuroscience, for example, that experiential awareness is actually a coordinated composition of numerous asynchronous events. Nerve signals from the retina, from the ear drum, from the skin in our fingertips, from the olfactory nerves, and the tongue, all arrive in the brain as a more-or-less disordered collection of snap-together parts, often in different orders of arrangement and time, requiring the waiting for parts to complete the assembly of each moment of experiential awareness into a coherent composite image. This is often cited by determinists as a strong reason to reject free will (a question I will not address here). Why is this not also a strong reason to accept Berkeley’s “conceptual realism“? If this composite picture is not in fact, an idea, what is it?
But I digress. The present question, is what constitutes a justification for a claim that some entity or property is “real”? How can I make a claim about “what is” or “what is not”, that will carry at least the force of believability if not also deductive and epistemic certainty? The anti-realist insists not merely that an assertion about something be logically justifiable, but that it is also amenable to some sort of experiential validation. I cannot concoct just any story about what exists and have it accepted merely because I can demonstrate the validity of the logic. My story cannot be “evidence transcendent“5, as the philosophers like to say. To be true or false — to even be able to judge as true or false — my assertions must be subject to some sort of comparison with some sort of object of the senses. As the dominant epistemologists would say, they must be subject to validation by way of correspondence with a reality6 about which my assertions make reference. Parmenides’ complaint to Socrates comes to mind here. How could the gods know us, or we them, if the world of the gods is impenetrable by the sensible world of instances? Descartes’ “clear and distinct idea” is no help here, either, since it just reiterates this very problem.
What Do We Mean?
The semantic philosophers would say that I am on the right track to ask about assertions, and what they mean, or in wondering how utterances about reality are justified in terms of their meaning. But I think this is a different problem than the questions I have been asking so far. The semantic philosophers are concerned with the assignment of a property to a thought. The description of a value belonging to a relationship between a thought and the object of that thought. They are unconcerned with objects beyond the fact that objects must be there to somehow give substance or experiential content to the relationship. A kind of equation: Thought == Object. (Interestingly, Hume frequently referred to events – both in reality, and in the mind – as “objects”7). This is the structure that Blackburn gives to truth8. Not so much a correspondence, as an equation. And he goes further than this. He wants to say that some objects come into being by thier having been thought about. Realizing the dangerous territory he is in, he is quick to draw clear lines of demarcation. Only certain things are “real” by virtue of our having thoughts of them; moral properties, or the value that inheres in money, for example. He calls this “quasi-realism”. In moral philosophy, this has come to be known as “projectivism”. This is different from Humean emotivism, because for Blackburn, the qualitative and quantitative value properties he’s describing really do exist. It’s just that the source of their existence is entirely mind-dependent. This mind-dependence is collective like Berkeley’s but it requires at least one human mind. For example, as long as at least one person sees the “value” in a dollar, the dollar has that value.
This question of the direction of flow between thought and object is fascinating to me. In Locke and Berkeley, it is fairly obvious that a substantive reality (be it a universal mind, or a mindless material) is producing experiences, and giving rise to the ideas of experiences, which we then express with varying degrees of specificity and accuracy with language. The only difference between Lockeans and Berkeleyans seems to be the nature of that substantive reality: is it mindless material governed by immutable laws in a mechanical clockwork universe, or is it a manifestation of the universal mind of God, intelligible to us because we share in that mind in some way? Both of these views puts the “ultimate” reality outside ourselves, while Blackburn wants to place at least some of it — or the responsibility for some aspects of it — squarely in our own minds. Does the source of an object or its properties affect how we answer “what is?” or even “is it real?” What sorts of properties constitute the full status of “real”? What things can be said to attain the property of existence (if being is a property, say, and not an absolute state)? For that matter, what is “existence”? The matrix of reality, within which individual beings are located? The “substrate” (as Berkeley’s Hylas would put it) that grounds all objects? Scientists (at least, the Einsteinians) would say, in a broad sense, that “existence” means some identifiable, finite accumulation of matter and energy at a locatable point in space-time. The planet Earth “exists”, for example. But this is too concrete, and thus too limiting, says someone like Blackburn. To say that because the value of a dollar has no spacio-temporal location, it therefore is non-existent, is to make us all into crazy people. So, returning to the question of direction, thoughtful and experiential awareness may be impressed by the objects in existence, or it may manifest the objects of existence, or both, or neither. Those are the choices, it seems. The last is some sort of extreme nihilism or Pyrrhonism. Locke (and Hume) take the first option, Berkeley takes the second, and Blackburn takes the third. Which of these is the correct choice?
Truth, Meaning, and Being
Crispin Wright9 takes us one level up, and asks the meta-linguistic question of whether truth is a substantive property of thoughts. Wright argues for the “deflationist” view of truth, and his is the first explication of the position that didn’t seem to me to be nothing more than a truism, or a complaint of superfluousness. The deflationist, he says, isn’t just suggesting that we economize our use of phrases like “is true” by retreating to implication only. Rather, the deflationist is denying that truth is a property of sentences at all. He is saying that it is a “disquotational tool” for making an agreement between thinkers, explicit. Since truth is either the assignment or the identification of a value property to a relationship between thought (subject) and reality (object), this would make the deflationist a kind of anti-realist about truth.
It seems to me, there are at least three ways to think about this problem:
- Truth is a real property of the relationship between thought and object, that only manifests in our asserted language through the disquotational device: “P is true, if and only if P”
- Truth is a real property of the relationship between thought and object, and is manifest in our asserted language whether or not we employ the disquotational device: either “P” or “P is true, if and only if P”
- Truth is not a real property of the relationship between thought and object, and any use of a disquotational device is misleading at best: “P” is merely the expression of an attitude or a
Perhaps it is misguided to attempt to apply the question “what is?” to such things as sentences, and the valence meanings applied to them. Do sentences “exists”? My use of phrases like “such things” suggests they do. What about thoughts? Can they have properties like an apple or a table? Can they have properties unlike an apple or a table? Can those properties be “primary” or “secondary”, as in Locke’s empiricism? The semantic philosophers are asking these questions from an analytical point of view (the view I have been taking throughout this post). But the questions have application far beyond understanding the instrumental components of linguistic meaning.
Applying my earlier question to the idea of truth makes this fairly clear: What is the “direction of flow” of the instantiation of these properties? Do we impose truth as a property on our relationship with reality? Is the relationship itself what imposes the truth? Is conceptualizing a “relationship” itself unreasonably imposing a meaning on experiential and thoughtful awareness? Where do we draw these lines, and why? More to the point, how do we draw these lines? Should we be drawing lines? As beings, as parts of the whole of being itself, there is the fundamental question of how it is we can tell the difference between the two, and even more significantly, how there can even be a difference? To put it in more concrete terms, how can mindless, mechanistic material being (the reality of Locke and Newton), give rise to a mindful, thoughtful, intentional beings? This is the kind of question that leads many philosophers into positions like animism, theism, and panpsychism.
One of the most frustrating features of the study of metaphysics, is it’s capacity to pull you down an endless rabbit hole, strip away all your certainties, dissolve all your boundaries, and leave you with endless questions, the answers to which you have almost no hope of answering. This disorienting effect, instinctively, sends most people screaming in the opposite direction. Many philosophers who are not metaphysicians, will simply draw lines arbitrarily, and insist we go no further than them. Scientists do this, too, for professional reasons. I can’t say that I blame them. There is great value in the mechanistic, dualistic view of the universe and our place within it. It has yielded many benefits to the human species. But the philosopher cannot help asking the question, “what if we’re wrong?”, and based on some of the work going on in physics and astronomy, it seems like we just might be.
- Discourse on Method, 1637 ↩
- Three Dialogues Of Hylas and Philonous, 1714 ↩
- Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689 ↩
- Plato, The Parmenides ↩
- Realism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
- Correspondence Theory of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ↩
- Treatise on Human Nature, 1739 ↩
- Spreading The Word, 1984 ↩
- Truth and Objectivity, 1994 ↩
Depending on the author, and the level of complexity of the analysis, some parse Parmenides’ case into four objections, some five, and some six. For the sake of limiting the difficulty of this post, I’ll be taking the four objection approach, clustering the minor ones in where they make sense. I’ll go through each of Parmenides’ objections as they occur in the course of the dialogue, and considering whether he’s sufficiently refuted Socrates.
In this installment of the series on Plato's Forms, we'll have a brief look at the major conceptions of the theory, some of the key differences, and dig deep into the one formulation Plato seems to have favored the most. For those of you looking for a thorough discussion of Parmenides' refutations, you'll have to wait until the last installment. In keeping with the principle of the first post, the idea here is to just try to understand the theory itself, and the problem it was trying to solve, before we make any move to object to it.
Over the next three posts, I will be outlining the theory of Forms, beginning today with why Plato might have concocted the theory in the first place, moving next to what exactly the theory is and how it works, and finishing up with an analysis of the criticisms of the Forms offered by Parmenides (primarily), and a few others since.
I decided to spend three of my vacation days on the London School of Philosophy’s “Summer School” conference, this week. The theme of the conference was “Philosophy: Past, Present, and Future”, and the talks focused heavily on the broad questions like the nature of philosophy, it’s role and purpose in society, it’s place in history, its relationship to art and literature, and the implications drawn from consideration of these questions, for the future.
Day One: The End In The Beginning
The first day carried us into the past, to ask the question “where did we come from?”. The day opened with a lecture by Tom Rubens on Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, and ended with a lecture by Tim Beardsmore-Gray, on Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. These two lectures functioned as profound book-ends, framing the picture of the entire day. The never-ending quest to understand ourselves, the universe within which we must take our place, and the significance of that role as self-aware and self-examining creatures, was a quest taken up with great gusto by the German half of the Enlightenment project, and they provide a powerful signpost in the history of philosophy. Though the German outlook was deeply pessimistic in character, it was also deeply optimistic in its ambitions, and this sense of conflicting attitudes about the past, present, and future, seemed to resonate throughout the conference.
The dualistic character of the day was made almost comical, by the juxtaposition of Dr. Hurley’s lecture on the history of Truth, and development of theories of truth, directly with Dr. Golob’s discussion of the nature and evolution of stupidity. Questions of what we can justifiably say that we know, when certainty transforms into absurdity, how we can tell the difference, and what implications this has in practice, are as old as philosophy itself. While stupidity might seem to be one of those common sense “I know it when I see it” problems, Dr. Golob made it amusingly clear that the answer is not so simple after all. Likewise, famously, the problem of defining Truth, was humbly demonstrated by Dr. Hurley. For all our progress, philosophy still struggles with the most fundamental questions, it seems.
Into this mix, entered Descartes, and the problem of the self. Grant Bartley’s lecture walked us through the core problem in Descartes’ Meditations – the problem of what we can know without doubt, including ourselves, reminding us of the need of philosophy to continually renew and remake itself – and in the process, remaking ourselves. As Iris Murdoch puts it in her essay, “The Idea of Perfection”:
“I think it is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning; a thing which is not at all easy to do…”
Jane O’Grady carried this notion forward in her outline of the project of the Enlightenment, showing its central characters to be the embodiment of what Iris Murdoch, again, described as the “two-way movement in philosophy… toward the building of elaborate theories, and… back again toward the consideration of simple and obvious facts…” Dr. O’Grady suggests that this movement is how best to understand the Enlightenment, and offered Theodore Adorno’s book, “The Dialectic of the Enlightenment” as a guide to the way the process might work.
This idea of a cyclical ebb-and-flow, or recreation, of philosophy and of the self, reached its crescendo and resolution in the talk by Tim Beardmore-Gray, on The Eternal Recurrence. It would be easy to view Nietzsche’s idea as an attempt to achieve some sort of Transcendence without calling it Transcendence. But, I think the more correct interpretation is one in which Nietzsche is trying to find a path to the resolution of all of philosophy’s great dualisms. Self-creation and the embrace of the eternally returning past, is not just an embrace of suffering for the sake of the good, it is an acknowledgment and acceptance of all the Heraclitian oppositions of existence, and experience (an opposition itself), and an awareness of their necessity to each other. But this view carries us beyond what Beardmore-Gray is likely to ascent to. My views are my own, of course.
Day Two: Transcendence, Order, Chaos, and Pessimism
The second day of lectures, addressing the question, “where are we now?”, opened with the triumphal optimism of Dr. Steinbauer’s seminar exploring what philosophy is, and what it can be. At issue in this talk, was nothing less than the nature of philosophy itself, and how we ought to regard ourselves, as philosophers, partaking of that nature. Are we scientists? Are we theologians? Are we something else entirely? Ultimately, Dr. Steinbauer eloquently argued that what it means to be a philosopher today, is to be a catalyst for understanding, both of the world and of ourselves. The right path seems to be, for Dr. Steinbauer, somewhere between the ancient Greek love of wisdom, and the modern mechanistic notion of philosophers as Conceptual Engineers.
As if on cue, John Heyderman then offered up an attempt to unify the notion of wisdom traditions and conceptual engineering, in the form of Spinoza’s pantheistic monism. According to this view, mind and body are two sides of the same coin. Heyderman explained that Spinoza saw all of reality as a consequence of the activity of the mind of God. To put it more succinctly: the universe is an idea in the mind of God, and by analogy, the body of man is an idea in the mind of man. This, perhaps, takes Descartes’ speculations about the sustenance of real experience (as a consequence of God’s goodness) to another level, by suggesting that his goodness is not enough. It is his existence that makes all of existence possible – his existence is as a mind, which as ideas. God, on this view, could be said to be the ultimate conceptual engineer.
Professor Fiona Ellis, later in the day, seemed to borrow from Heyderman on the basic idea of Spinoza, but painted the picture in a more naturalistic light. On her model, the universe of facts – the universe explained to us by modern physics and chemistry – is the correct view, but not the complete view. She described a reality in which various features of existence are co-mingled: Nature, Value, and God, all count as aspects to be reckoned with, and modern science is only capable of addressing the first. The specter of the fact-value dichotomy, and the is-ought problem, loom large in this picture, and Professor Ellis struggled to elaborate a coherent reconciliation of these distinctions. She invoked Levinas, in her own defense, who apparently argued that attempting to know God is attempting total control of reality, which is nothing less than deluding ourselves. Professor Ellis, in addition, argued inspiringly for a kind of knowledge of God as an experience had in essential relationships. Something that is not quite “God is Love”, but akin to the notion.
Returning to earth, Kieth Barrett gave what I believe to be the highlight lecture of the conference. His, was a tour de force defense of the idea of philosophy as a sense-making apparatus, extracting rational order from the chaos of existence around us. To open the discussion, Dr. Barrett provided two fascinating conceptions of order. One Transcendent, and one Immanent. The transcendent order comes to us from the ideal, and is realized by careful study and contemplation. This is the order of Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, it is static and uniform. The immanent order is not revealed, but discovered in patterns of essential characteristics made apparent through consistent observation. This is the order of Aristotle’s Organon.
Dr. Barrett’s bridging synthesis of the thesis of Transcendence, and its antithesis of Immanence, is the Enlightenment. Here, he argues, the modern natural philosophers take their inspiration from Aristotle, but their ideological commitments from Plato. The science of the Enlightenment, says Barrett, is not a genuinely empirical endeavor, because it goes far beyond the justifiable claims of sense experience, and posits a completely new conception of Transcendent order in the mathematics of Newton, and the abstractions of the presocratic Atomists. This, then, coupled with the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition of the 17th and 18th century, forms the basis of the Enlightenment worldview, and the construction of “The Rational Subject”, as posited by Zaretsky, in Secrets of the Soul. Dr. Barrett concludes his case by outlining Zaretsky’s evolution of the self, as a primary feature of the evolution of the Enlightenment, ultimately arguing, in a similar vein as Professor O’Grady earlier, that the Enlightenment never really ended, it has simply evolved into new forms in the present. The Rational Subject of Descartes, in synchrony with this transformation, has itself transformed into the Situated Subject of Freud, and finally the Deconstructed Subject of Levinas.
Which brings us up to the (philosophical) present, and all the political chaos it presently entails. Mark Fielding’s contribution to this effort, was a view of the present political landscape through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s famous “Truth and Politics” essay of 1967. Here, the opposition presented is between Truth as a value and Power as a value, and the implications of that choice. This talk was, by far, the most confounding to me. The argument seems to run something like this: politicians are expected, as a normative condition, to be liars. The polity loves to be lied to. Successful politicians, then, are the best at offering the lies that the polity most want to hear. The most successful liars are the ones who are best able to lie to themselves, especially. However – so goes the rest of the argument – it is also the case that truth is necessary for making sense of the world, and power is the capacity to get things done in the world.
The implications of this paradox are peculiar. If the most successful politicians are indeed the most successful liars, then either those politicians are not actually getting anything done in the world and thus have no real power, or the truth is somehow not necessary for making sense of the world or getting things done within it.
It is utterly unclear how this conundrum is to be solved. But I would venture a guess that the first implication is the correct one – albeit counterintuitive. Political power is one of the most illusory powers on earth. It often seems as though politicians are getting loads of things done in the world, but when you watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, you begin to realize that the world of politics is great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing at all, and that the vast majority of politicians actually do not in fact, get anything done in the world. This suggests that Arendt was right to recognize the lying, but failed to see its impotence, as manifest in political power, because she could not square impotence with political power. But, had she remembered her Plato, she might have recalled the story of Archelaus from The Gorgias, and Socrates’ judgment of him as the least powerful man in Macedon, or his discussion with Glaucon or Thrasymachus in The Republic, on the nature of the truly just man. Perhaps Arendt found these unconvincing, but if Fielding’s reading is correct, it is hard to see why anyone would find her convincing.
The night was capped off by adding bitter herbs to this simmering broth of pessimistic cynicism. A four man panel was convened to discuss “Philosophy in a Post-Truth Age” (whatever that means). The discussion centered primarily around “fake news”, “free speech”, and the overwrought political dialogue of the popular press. The opening speeches were awkward, curt, and uninteresting, and the room was more or less paralyzed by an overarching anxious malaise that prevented any real discussion from taking place. I left the conference on the second night, wondering whether I should come back or not. The contrast from the morning’s lecture by Anja could not have been more stark, in terms of the pessimism, and I seriously questioned whether philosophy could — let alone did — have any traction in the “real world”. The chaos of the present has just about scrubbed away most the enthusiasm for the orderly universe engendered over the course of the rest of the day.
Day Three: Idealism, Utopianism, and The Disintegrating Self
Day three of the conference purports to address the question “where are we going?”, beginning with a deep discussion of who we are, and want to become. The final lecture of Thursday night, “Human and Robot Minds”, by Richard Baron, and the opening lecture of Friday, “Philosophical Zombies”, by Rick Lewis, examined the problem of consciousness from the opposition of internal and external perspectives. Robot minds, it turns out, force us to look inward to discover what matters most about being human, meanwhile Zombies force us to look outward and face the possibility that there may not actually be anything significantly different. A key point raised by Lewis, is Chalmers’ conceivability criterion. Chalmers invents the Zombie as a means of asking whether it is conceivable that a creature emptied of whatever it is that makes a human special, but behaved in every way the same, could fool us into thinking it was the same. This is the mirror image of the Turing Test, really, and we are now getting to the point where in some settings, it is difficult to distinguish between a machine brain, and a human mind. The point is that it is now conceivable that, in the distant future, philosophical zombies could exist – as robot minds. At that point, how would we tell the difference? And, if we can’t, then what is it, exactly, that defines the human experience? As dazzlingly futuristic and apparently escapist a topic as this seems, it is profoundly distressing because it suggests that the mind-body problem resolves not into only mind, but into only body. Perhaps the hard determinists and physicalists are correct, and there are only bodies in motion. Maybe Sam Harris and his ilk are correct, and the self is just a complex delusion, required for the survival of the human organism.
But, the intractability of the subjective, first-person, conscious experience (what “it is like” to be “me”), is a problem only for the empirical disciplines. Notice how all the tests require a third-person perspective, and the sort of data that cannot tell you what you want to know anyway. From the perspective of science, it is an unfalsifiable problem, and as such, is not a scientific one. But it does not follow logically that the “self doesn’t exist”. This is a physicalist presupposition similar to the old business management maxim: if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. But conscious experience does matter. In humans, it is the one thing that seems to matter the most, of all our characteristics. What is needed, is a new toolset, or some new methodology, which is capable of accounting for subjective conscious experience. In the absence of such a thing, philosophers will have to continue to do battle in the realm of speculation, mytho-poetics, and moral philosophy.
The next round of speakers for the day all moved us beyond the self, pressing the problem of the relation between the individual and society. Christian Michel, John Holroyd, and Sam Freemantle, each addressed this problem in ways that were simultaneously naively optimistic and yet weighed down by skeptical wariness born of experience. Christian Michel offered a defense of Nozick’s conception of a property-based anarchist utopia. Christian buoyed us with his deeply moving memories of post-WWII France and Charles de Gaulle, and provided a powerful critique of the property-less communist ideal of French intellectualism of that time. But his exposition of the alternative, while enthusiastic and inspiring, was nonetheless unconvincing because of its superficiality. There are hundreds of critiques of Nozick’s book, and numerous treatments of the problems of a stable property-rights regime in an anarchist world, that once understood, render this dream somewhat stale. His particular lecture was especially poignant and frustrating for me, because I have my own experience of just this sort of enthusiastic zeal on first discovering the likes of Mises and Rothbard, Nozick and Nock, Friedman and Hans-Hoppe. There is no question that the nation-state, as we presently experience it, is not quite right; that something needs to change, and — if you’re disposed to think as I do — the most likely improvement is going to be in the direction of minimalism and decentralization.
John Holroyd, by comparison, was much more circumspect in his aspirations. Holroyd’s talk offered interesting perspectives on the problem of localism and sense of community, in an increasingly globalized world. He highlights Michael Ignatieff’s book “Ordinary Virtues”, as a possible approach to thinking about these problems, and the book contains many allusions to the earlier iterations of globalization (before and during WWI, for example). Next, he takes on the question of “trans-humanism” – the movement eager to expand the conception of the improvement of human life through medical technology, to include things like cyborg augmentation (e.g., Neuro-link), and life-extension. The problem here, for Holroyd, is how to maintain a sense of humanity in all this augmentation, and what we do about the unintended consequences such changes are likely to have on quality of life and our sense of fulfillment. Lastly, Holroyd wants to tie the answers to these problems to an education system geared toward more human contact. The idea seems to be that, as technology begins to crowd out more and more of our time and attention, a conscious effort is going to have to be made to incorporate a more “organic”, local, human-to-human social culture.
Sam Freemantle’s talk purported to address the question of the future of Liberalism. This may be the most important political question of our age. We are literally on the precipice of ending Liberalism as a political project, and without any serious consideration, that death is likely to come all too quietly. Dr. Freemantle’s talk was useful, in the sense that he rightly pointed out many of the biggest problems posed by Liberalism’s reliance on traditional Utilitarianism, and he rightly lamented several failed attempts to rescue Utilitarianism from itself (namely, in the form of Rawls’ Theory of Justice). However, this talk left me feeling painfully aware of just how much more work needs to be done to revive the Classical Liberal tradition in the mind of the popular demos. Dr. Freemantle only offered tantalizing sketches and suggestions, and while one can’t be faulted for not having “The Answer” in a single one-hour talk, it remains to be seen whether anyone will ever have a sufficient answer. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, but unless someone can explain how something could come out of the slow death of English Liberalism, I remain fearful for the future on this front.
Putting It All Into Perspective
There were a few folks whose talks I did not mention here, but this should not be construed to mean they were not worth attending, or that they were not germane to the theme of the convention. On the contrary, it would be difficult to say that any of the talks “didn’t belong”. The problem, as I see it, is that the subject matter is so broad and so deep, finding ways to integrate it all into a summary such as this, and still do it all justice, is a task for a much better writer than myself. Also, there seems to be an analogy here, to the problem of the discipline of philosophy itself. Socrates takes Gorgias to task for being unable to answer the question of what subject rhetoric is “about”. In a sense, philosophy itself suffers from this problem. Plato wanted to answer the question by asserting that it was Justice and Truth, as such. But, we seem to have collectively rejected that conception throughout history, as simultaneously too narrow, and too ill defined. What philosophy is “about”, and what it is “for”, is not something I can tackle in this post. And perhaps it is too big a question for any one conference, no matter how thorough or lengthy it is.
As is the case with most philosophical inquiry, this conference generated more new unanswered questions, than it answered. Some argue that philosophy is a tool for sense-making, finding the rational order in the chaos of existence, or seeking understanding. Indeed, it seems even I made overtures to such an explanation earlier in this post. But I think now, that maybe the main job of philosophy is not so much “sense-making”, as it is just discovering what the right questions are, in any given age. This, it seems to me, is a task that is needed now, more than ever. We are awash in a sea of noise, from the internet, from the political sphere, and from our various social spheres. One good question can pierce that noise, like a siren in the fog. If this conference has managed to accomplish that, then it was well worth the effort to organize, and well worth the effort to attend. I have indeed heard several sirens throughout the course of the last three days, and as such, count this conference as a rousing success.
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ ~Isaiah 46:10
In The Republic, Socrates repeatedly insists that truth will be the highest value of his utopian society. To accomplish this, he argues that the myths of Homer and Hesiod should be hewn down to only those stories that are in accordance with what we know to be true, by proper philosophic study and dialectic argumentation. He further describes how the golden souls — those destined to be the philosopher king rulers of this utopia — having been weened and nurtured on these stories of truth, and having eventually come to know the truth for themselves in adulthood, will happily choose to submit themselves to the proper order of a truly just society.
And yet, he goes on to deny these “guardians” their own property, wives, or children, on the grounds that they will be overcome by their natural impulse to self-interest and find themselves in conflict with the good of the society as a whole. To mitigate the contradiction, in other words, Plato decides to institute a form of primitive communism. In order to institute the communization of guardian life, Plato has Socrates declare the necessity for the founders of this society to instill a falsehood in the first generation of guardians. This is to be a new myth, in which their childhoods were but a mere dream implanted in their memories by their ‘true’ mother, the soil of Hellas which birthed them whole, and to which they now owe their undying allegiance.
Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, expresses an explicitly self-conscious pang of guilt to Glaucon at the utterance of this “noble lie”, as well he should. This is because this step in Socrates’ argument (if it is Socrates’ argument) is the complete undoing of his entire utopian vision. To put the point bluntly, one cannot base an entire society on the absolute value of truth (and beauty) as ultimate ends, while simultaneously infecting it with an obvious and egregious lie at its core — even if that lie is encapsulated in a rapturous myth. Eventually, the love of truth will expose the myth for the lie that it is, and the entire civilization will dissolve into nihilism and hedonism.
This should be ringing some bells for wary modern ears. Another great philosopher once identified exactly the same flaw in our own society. If you’ve ever read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, or Thus Spake Zarathustra, you know what I’m alluding to. In these works, Nietzsche describes a western society that is dedicated to truth as an ultimate value, but simultaneously committed to a mythology that elevates self-sacrifice as a means of redemption from sin against the creator god himself. Because this mythology has an ultimate value in competition with truth — namely, self-justification through redemption versus self-justification through the pursuit of truth – and because truth is a natural acid to mythology, the mythology is ultimately doomed to fail, and the value hierarchy along with it. In other words, the death of God will spell the death of our civilization. Nietzsche thought this was because truth alone could not stand as sufficiently meaningful to stave off the onset of nihilism, but I think the dissolution of this myth has rendered us incapable of imbibing truth through myth anymore; and even more deadly, has left us certain that redemption is no longer necessary, let alone possible.
In any case, Nietzsche tried in vain to rescue us from our fate, but his work on the revaluation of all values is as horrifying as it is tragic. In it, you can hear the strong echoes of voices like Callicles from the Gorgias, whispers of Protagoras, and of course, whole refrains of Thrasymachus from The Republic. Socrates does a masterful job of dispatching Callicles and Protagoras, but there are niggling missteps in the argument of The Republic around the problem of self-interest and the common good that he is never quite able to put to bed. That should give one pause, and I do find these realizations immensely disturbing. It means that recent critics of the Enlightenment are very likely on to something, even if they may be wrong in the particulars. It means that, after all these centuries, not only have we not solved the problem of value, we still don’t have a clear answer to the much more primitive problem of the relationship of the individual to his society. This last realization came itself on the heels of another recent realization: Plato’s model of moral psychology is far more sophisticated than our own, and men like Hume and Mill have done an enormous amount of damage to the study of the nature of the human soul (as Plato would have put it), by trying to reduce it to mere sensual satisfactions (i.e., pleasure-seeking). In the process, they’ve made it more difficult than ever before, to solve the two problems I’ve enumerated here.
Modern-day acolytes of Hume (see my review of Jonathan Haidt’s book), recognizing the primitive nature of Hume’s work, have attempted to layer on modern explanations for his rudimentary theories of moral psychology, but this is doomed to failure, because it reflexively dismisses Plato as archaic, merely because he came before Hume (Haidt even tragically references The Republic in his unfortunate book). This is a mistake I’ll have much more to say about in future, but for now, suffice to say that we are living in dangerously perilous times. A world which both Plato and Aristotle would have found horrifying. A world in which we are being encouraged from birth to indulge our appetitive nature, and to believe there is no such thing as a spirited conscience, or a free will with which to act upon it. In spite of the shiny appearance of “progress” our science and technology has glossed the world in, it seems to me that this modern evacuation of such concepts as conscience and will can only lead to disaster. In our zest for truth, we’ve abandoned the false myths of religion, but have tossed out the true myths of moral psychology along with it, and now we can’t seem to find our way back.
Moral maxims are rules governing actions, or commands to act in certain ways considered morally correct. Some of the most well known maxims are those that come to us by way of religious tradition. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness” are paradigm examples. Kant insists that his Categorical Imperative is the best means by which to test the maxims, for whether they correctly guide us to right action and away from wrong action. In this essay, I will argue that while the Categorical Imperative might seem plausible as a test of moral maxims because of it’s rigid logical form, it actually fails the plausibility test for one of the same reasons Parmenides rejected Socrates’ conception of the Forms.
In brief, the Categorical Imperative test is a thought experiment in which one attempts to universalize the maxim in question in order to discover a logical impossibility, or at least, an absurdity embedded in the consequences. Here’s how he states it:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
But there is a second, very closely related formulation, that looks like this:
“Act as if the maxims of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.”
The difference between these two might seem insignificant on the surface, but they represent a fundamental Platonic tension in Kant’s metaphysics of morals, which I’ll explain more fully, after outlining the distinction between these two a bit better. In the first conception, Kant is describing a feature of his moral law. In the second, he is making explicit reference to the natural law, in the Newtonian sense. He wants to link them because of their fundamental universality, but this linkage is only an analogy; the two universalities are fundamentally different in kind. In the case of natural law, scientists subsequent to Newton were attempting to infer the presence of a structure of rational intelligibility from the regularities and consistencies they observed, and in some cases could predict, in the behavior of objects in the mechanical universe given to us by Newton.
Kant rightly recognized the lack of ultimate necessity in these laws, and goes on about it at length in the Groundwork. He does this, because he needs his moral law to be something that is ultimately good, and that could not have been otherwise. In order to arrive at this, Kant has to borrow the notion of a telos for man from Aristotle. As with Aristotle, Kant chooses reason as the basis for that telos. But unlike Aristotle, Kant insists that the reason he has in mind is not the reason Aristotle wants us to accept. Aristotle’s reason would have us pursuing material ends that satisfy the conditions of living. For Kant, this is unacceptable. He makes a distinction between the rational mind of contingency, and the faculty of pure reason capable of discerning the absolutes of moral law, in the same way that Socrates would have us contemplating the Forms, in Republic or Phaedrus. The former is the basis for what Kant regards as “hypothetical imperatives”. These sorts of imperatives, he argues, can be of only relative or instrumental value, because they arise out of the contingency of circumstances and the temporal calculations of cost and benefit. For Kant, such imperatives could not constitute moral imperatives because they lack the constancy and objectivity of a mathematical equation or a geometric expression; in other words, the kind of truth that is true everywhere, at all times, and applicable to all rational beings – a_universal_ truth, of the kind envisioned in Plato’s description of the Form of The Good.
Intuitively, the ascendence into Platonic idealism may seem like a good idea. After all, why would we call a rule that only applied circumstantially a “moral rule”? Wouldn’t that simply be a convention, or a preference? Indeed, for Kant, the universal law of the Categorical Imperative is not derived from natural law, in the way that Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are derived by inferring them from the behavior of matter. Rather, the Categorical Imperative is derived from the moral law which is accessible only by means of the faculty of “pure reason”, as an entirely contemplative exercise. Kant goes so far with this concept as to suggest that there may be no acceptable method for justifying the Categorical Imperative itself by any exemplary application of the self-same principle:
“…how could laws of the determination of the will be regarded as laws of the determination of the will of rational beings generally… if they were merely empirical and did not take their origin wholly a priori from pure but practical reason? Nor could anything be more fatal to morality than that we should wish to derive it from examples. For every example of it that is set before me must be first itself tested by principles of morality, whether it is worthy to serve as an original example… but by no means can it authoritatively furnish the conception of morality… imitation finds no place at all in morality, and examples serve only for encouragement… they can never authorize us to set aside the true original which lies only in reason…”
Kant is invoking the ghost of Socrates here by complaining that examples are not enough, and that what he seeks is a universal definition for right action that can be contemplated in the realm of the intelligible, like the Form of the Good or the Form of Beauty. But Kant is also invoking the ghost of Parmenides here, by reminding us that the ideal good will, and the actual good will, do not seem to have any relation or connection to each other. As put by G. M. A. Grube:
If the [Forms] are not of our world, they are totally separate and there can be no connexion between the two. The [Forms] cannot then be objects of knowledge… If anyone has knowledge of them, a god has, but this knowledge of the Forms is beyond us human beings. We cannot know the god and the god cannot know us.
Kant even attempts to remedy this in his own metaphysics by positing a nearly identical Nuemenal Realm for his moral law as Socrates posits for Parmenides for his Forms (from Parmenides):
Could not, Parmenides, each of these Forms be a noema which cannot properly exist elsewhere than in souls? For then each of them would be one and what you said just now would not apply to it…
This could be the reason why Kant gives us these two different formulations of the Categorical Imperative — a difference that should appear much more stark now than at the beginning of this essay. Kant is trying to provide towers on either side of the chasm he’s attempting to bridge, with his “good will”. What’s more, Plato’s Forms are attempting to conceptualize an ideal for static objects of subjective experience, such as beauty or justice, or the shape of a triangle. But Kant is demanding the same standard of perfection for human action, as it manifests itself in the material world. There can be no perfect form of right action, because all of human action is bounded by contingency in the facts of reality. The Categorical Imperative is, therefore, a profoundly confused misapplication of Platonic Idealism.
It is telling, then, that Kant struggles so mightily in attempting to demonstrate the utility of the Categorical Imperative in the various examples he offers (and that earlier he complained could provide no true representation of it, much like Socrates would have complained of the Form of man). The case of the false promise, for example, does not expose a logical contradiction any more than Hume’s teapot refusing to boil does. Instead, all Kant is able to show, is how a world of nothing but false promises would seem a whimsically ridiculous place to us. The recognition of the absurdity in consequence is not the same thing as contemplating the injustice of the violation of a universal moral law. Even worse, the recognition of that absurdity exposes the fact that we’re implicitly dealing with a hypothetical imperative here: If you want to be able to rely on promises, then you need to honor them and expect others will do the same. Imagining this as some species of a Categorical Imperative residing in an intelligible realm of moral law renders you no less vulnerable to the unscrupulous man. But, more to the point, it leaves you with no clear reason to condemn him as having acted immorally. At best, you could complain about the inconvenience or the harm, at which point, you’d be applying a consequentialist standard, and our unscrupulous man could simply retort that its up to you to indemnify yourself against such a contingency in the real world.
For anyone who already prizes the beauty or the utility of the universal applicability of mathematics, or who is already wedded to the universal divinity of the human soul, Kant’s Categorical imperative is going to be powerfully seductive, as a moral system. If we all lived in a rational paradise in fact, then maybe we’d all be like that and Kant would just be another in a long pantheon of Philosopher Kings, ruling us rationally from the pulpit of the Form of Right Action, or the Form of The Good. For the rest of us in the real world, however, where life is lived in pursuit of contingent and temporal goals, the Categorical Imperative is at best a useful heuristic, and at worst, an oppressive ideal that renders us all moral failures at the outset.
Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” is an admixture of continental philosophy, eastern mysticism, Jungian psychology, Christian theology, clinical psychotherapy insights, personal biography, and folk wisdom. At 368 pages, it’s just large enough to keep a thoughtful layman engaged without the more intimidating academic burden of his first book, “Maps of Meaning”. Dr. Peterson is obviously well read and quite thoughtful. In addition to some of his own occasional profundities, the book is absolutely littered with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and many others. If you’re a curious reader, following these up will take you weeks.
A Jungian at heart, Peterson loves to cast his arguments into metaphorical and mytho-poetic form, which can be remarkably frustrating for a more hard-nosed analytical thinker like myself (he does this much less so, in Maps of Meaning). But Peterson is still very careful to cite modern sources for most of his empirical assertions throughout the book (with one significant exception, which I’ll get to later).
It took reading nearly the entire book to figure out how each of the 12 rules were related to each other as a whole, and the effort was well worth it. Chapters 6 (“Set your house in perfect order…”), 7 (“Pursue what is meaningful…”), and 8 (“Tell the truth…”), constitute the heart of the book in my view, with chapters 10 (“Be precise in your speech…”), and 11 (“Do not bother skateboarders…”) serving to really drive home the overall message of the book. What is that message? First, that contra Descartes, the fundamental unshakeable truth of human existence is the experience of suffering – a pre-rational essential phenomena that is, as Descartes might have put it, the primary “clear and distinct” knowledge we have of ourselves and of our “Being” (Peterson’s term. It seems to mean something like the state of existing and experiencing existence). Moreover, that suffering is a result of our having awakened to the fact of our own Being, that this was in some sense a choice, and most importantly, that now leaves us facing the perpetual choice of either accepting or rejecting the burden of this knowledge. The implication of all this, for Peterson, is that this is the fundamental moral choice. Our burden of this conscious choice – and the selection itself – is the acting out of our fundamental value. The ultimate consequence is the wholehearted embrace or rejection of the whole of creation. Not simply, as Nietzsche or Camus might say, the choice of suicide, but the choice of becoming judge, jury, and executioner of all Being including your own. The moral man, then, chooses life, and makes that his ultimate value in the process.
These chapters are, by far, the most philosophical of the book. They are essentially Peterson’s response to Nietzsche’s famous critique of value found in Zarathustra and the Genealogy of Morals. His formulation and answer to this problem is clearly influenced by Kirkegaard (whom he quotes twice), but the far stronger influence it seems to me is the Judeo-Christian Bible. Peterson casts the opening books of the bible into Jungian archetypes, and uses them to make his case. The Priestly Genesis is the origin of all Being: The Word is self-conscious Truth spoken as a means of deriving order from the chaos of the deep. Eve chooses to invite chaos into the walled garden of Eden and Adam follows her lead. In their offspring – Cain and Abel – we are confronted with the choice of life stated above, only in archetypal form: Cain condemns the world, its creator, and himself, out of resentment for the suffering he encounters; and not just for the suffering, but for the apparently unequal distribution of that suffering between himself and his brother Abel. Abel, on the other hand, chooses to properly honor himself and his creator with honest sacrifice. Peterson draws upon this metaphor again later, in a masterful parallel between this and the parable of Christ’s temptation in the desert.
So, for those who do their philosophy metaphorically, this book is a feast. It is an homage to hope, and a powerful argument against the nihilistic despair that seems to permeate our present modern culture. Still, I think this book is only likely to find fertile ground with seekers still open to the intuitive and allegorical approach to philosophical investigation. More to the point, those jaundiced by academic cynicism or jaded by ideological or intellectual biases, will generally find nothing more than a twenty-first century Joseph Campbell.
To be sure, there are some problems with the book. Rule 5, for example, lacks much of the intellectual rigor and careful citations of the rest of the book. Peterson makes numerous appeals to the work of B. F. Skinner in this chapter, which is only obliquely relevant anymore, since decades of work has been done on the developmental psychology of children since then (none of which he notes). Worse, he also makes appeal to several trite and easily refutable arguments in support of his position (for example, what I like to call the “hot stove defense”), and fails to acknowledge that much of what he put in this chapter is very often used as post hoc justification by many very poor parents. I think Peterson could have left this chapter out, and it would have been a better book.
Also, it is possible to charitably dispute Peterson’s allegorical approach to the question of meaning. The Joseph Campbell complaint, while somewhat of a straw man, is not entirely without merit. Sam Harris makes an excellent illustration of this, in his book “The End of Faith”, in which he satirically describes the spiritual significance of a Hawaiian snapper recipe. Though it is hyperbole, it does raise the question of how one would anchor the claims drawn from allegory in something more empirical, in order to make them properly defeasible. Peterson has yet to address this objection fully, as far as I know.
Despite these problems, I think the book is still well worth the effort to read, for any lay-philosopher looking for an interesting angle of approach to the problem of value and meaning, and its application in a very real-world way. The parallel psychoanalytic threads running through this book, also make it an excellent tool for meditation and self-reflection. It might be tempting to think that the work is mere “self-help”, because of this and because of the title. Don’t be fooled. Peterson explicitly rejects “giving advice”, in the book. What’s more, he’s secretly not even giving you “rules” to follow. What he’s offering, through the mnemonic device of easy-to-remember “rules”, is a glimpse into a unique psycho-philosophical framework for making sense of our phenomenal experience of the world. Or, to put it as Peterson might, a means of forging some order out of the chaos of your own suffering existence. The principles that make up the framework will sound surprisingly familiar to anyone who’s read any Greek philosophy:
- It is better to choose life, than death
- Aim for the ideal of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, but work on earth with what you have
- The responsibility for these choices is yours, and yours alone.
In a nutshell, he implores us all to be philosophical before (but not to the exclusion of) theological, and he thinks that if we would be, we would make the world better, even if only a little. Who can argue with that?