An Ethics of Love and a Common Humanity: Gaita – Lecture 6

August 22, 2016

470_prof_raimond,0So far we have investigated the critique of morality from Spinoza to Foucault. What is common between all these writers is the view that morality is a smokescreen for power. This does not mean that morality does not exist, since it is clear that morality is very real, but to understand morality, and especially its justification, you have to examine the social logic that underpins it. This social logic, of course is not itself inherently moral, but is the legitimization of power as its changes contingently through human history. This is why we see different moralities through time and in different cultures. Moral discourse, from a Foucauldian perspective, is a kind of knowledge or discourse that attempts to fix and stratify power through apparatuses that can be as diverse as institutions, scientific statements, and moral and philosophical propositions (Foucault and Gordon, 1980, p. 194).

It is wrong, however, to think that Foucault is only interested in the relation between power and knowledge, as we suggested in the previous lecture, because just as much as knowledge attempts to capture power, power, as a relation of forces, also constantly escapes knowledge. If we think of morality as the control of life, then we can also think of life as continuously escaping this order and regulation. So although his work mostly describes how life is captured in apparatuses, anything that shapes or moulds human behaviour, of which morality would be one, he is also interested in the way that life resists capture, and of course must do so, otherwise knowledge and power would have no object.

One way to think about this is through subjectification. In Foucault’s later work, he is not so much interested in the relation of the self to apparatuses as such, but of the relation of the self to itself, a process of individuation produced not by power relations as such, but a subtraction from them. In the example that Foucault looked at, which was the formation of Athenian city, the rivalry between free men was internalised as self-mastery, for only in that way could one free man command another. Such a relation of the self to itself, Foucault called ethics, which was different from morality as an apparatus of external relation of power to knowledge. As Deleuze argues, this analysis was cruelly interrupted by Foucault’s death, but there is nothing stopping us expanding it to other kinds of subjectification, one of which could be the ‘marginalised existence of the outsider’ (Deleuze, 1992, p. 161). This could suggest an even different way of thinking about ethics, which is not the relation of the self to itself, but to the other.

Although Gaita comes from a completely dissimilar way of doing philosophy than either Foucault and Deleuze, this is how he differentiates morality from ethics in his work.[1] Morality has to with rules and principles in which we make judgements and rationalisations, whereas ethics is the relation to the other who I feel an obligation towards that cannot be negotiated away without denying their humanity. His work repeatedly aims at making us see that there is a difference between morality and ethics, because my recognition of the singular obligation I feel for the other is not the same as my rational justification of my actions or my own virtues.

We might be willing, after the critique of Spinoza, Nietzsche and Foucault, to accept that morality is relative, but ethics is not when we think of the harm and dehumanisation of the victim. Take for example the eighth poem from Reznikoff’s Holocaust:

One of the S.S. men caught a woman with a baby in her arms
She began asking for mercy: if she were shot
the baby should live.
She was near a fence between the ghetto and where Poles lived
and behind the fence were Poles ready to catch the baby
and she was about to hand it over when caught.
The S.S. man took the baby from her arms
and shot her twice,
and then held the baby in his hands.
The mother, bleeding but still alive, crawled up to his feet.
The S.S. man laughed
and tore the baby apart as one would tear a rag.
Just then a stray dog passed
and the S.S man stopped to pat it
and took a lump of sugar out of his pocket
and gave it to the dog. (Reznikoff, 2010)

It seems almost a betrayal to write any explanation of this. The words are enough of a testimony without commentary, but surely it would be strange to think that the S.S. man’s only failure is that he hadn’t rationalised his behaviour, or that it is sufficient to explain this action as an expression of his will to power. No doubt you could, but is this the last word we would want to say about his victims?

One way of thinking about the difference between morality and ethics, and whether there is a possibility of an absolute demand of ethics that would transcend any historical or culture context, is the existence of evil. We have already seen from Spinoza’s perspective that evil can only be a relative term, since one person’s good might be another person’s bad. It is difficult to imagine Foucault supporting such a concept.[2] But can we imagine evil not so much in terms of the act or the agent, but action visited on the victim. One striking aspect of Reznikoff’s poem is that as he brutally murders the mother and her child, he seems capable of kindness to a stray dog.

We have to be very careful here of not falling into sentimentality and mawkishness when defending the existence of evil, especially when such a word has religious and theological connotations for us, so it is worth looking at the opening of chapter of Gaita’s book A Common Humanity in some detail to precisely understand what he thinks the difference between ethics and morality might be, and why he can both claim that evil exists and is not a moral concept, but an absolute demand the other person makes upon me when I respond to their singularity without reserve (2000). What is lacking in the S.S. officer is not an absence of thought, but of feeling and sensibility. He does not see the Jewish mother and child as human beings because of a surfeit of intelligibility, and not because he lacks it. His objectivity has consigned them to less respect than the stray dog, but only because he does not experience their humanity in the first instance. They have already become mutilated by his language and discourse, which is the condition for the evil visited upon them.

In the preface to The Common Humanity, Gaita tell us what is central to his understanding of ethics is that every single individual is precious. What does it mean to treat a human being in this way? It means to love them. Our attachment to other human beings is not revealed to us in the language of rights or morality, but love. Yet we wont to think of love as sentimental and emotional, as though love were less than morality. Do we not only love those who are close to us, whereas morality is about the rights of everyone? To show us what he means by this emotion, and why he thinks it is deeper and more fundamental than morality, he recounts an early experience of his youth when he worked in a psychiatric hospital. It reminded him of a zoo and the patients were treated as though they were animals. They had lost everything and their lives had become meaningless. What they had lost above all was the respect from others who might have loved them, and for this reason they were treated ‘brutally by the psychiatrists and nurses (17-18).

What does respect mean in this context? We might think of the counter position, if the patients had been treated properly, as one of dignity and there were some psychiatrists, Gaita tells us, that did speak of the dignity of the patients. We speak of rights and dignity as inalienable, but what we discover like the Jewish mother and child in Reznikoff’s poem that it can quite easily be lost. When someone has lost it, then it needs more than just the law to regain it. They need the ‘love of saints’ (18). One day, Gaita, writes, a nun came to the hospital and he saw what this might mean. In her eyes the patients regained their humanity that they had lost in the eyes of others, even when they spoke of dignity and respect.

Is what was revealed in this encounter dependent on the religious beliefs of the nun? Is this a religious experience the unqualified love of another human being? But this would miss something about the experience, since it turns everything the wrong way around. It is not the nun’s beliefs that determine her behaviour, but her behaviour her beliefs and this behaviour reveals something true about our relation to others independent of any belief, even if these beliefs sustained the nun herself, for it is perfectly possible for someone with the same beliefs would not have behaved in that way, and their actions would not have revealed anything to the young Gaita.

What is particular about the relation of love, which makes it more than just a matter of belief is that what is revealed, the humanity of the other, is dependent on the relation itself. It has nothing to do with a property or attribute of something, or a particular aspect of reality, since that is not why the S.S. brutally murders the Jewish mother and child, or the nurses and the psychiatrists treat the mental patients like animals in a zoo. It is because they already lack love that they do so, not because an attribute or property forces them to do so. This is what it means to say that the love the nun’s behaviour expresses is unconditional. Because philosophy takes concepts and rationality as primary, and feelings and sensibility as secondary, it claims that former is more important than latter, but Gaita wants to argue that without love our morality can become the opposite of justice, for we can fail to see others as human at all.

Such unconditional love is commanded from the other. This is not an attribute but our response to others. To love another is to experience this unconditional love. It exists in the relation, not in the terms of the relation. It seems very close to when Kant says in the Groundwork that every human being is an end rather than means, but this respect for Kant is rational belief rather than an emotion or feeling. In fact, he is critical of the very possibility of resting morality of feelings, since by definition they can come and go dependent on the person who is the object of it. But equally, we might say to Kant, that whether an individual standing before me falls under the concept of end in itself can also come and go, depending on how I define humanity (considering again our example from the previous lecture of Kant’s how clear racism). What Kant lacked was not reason, but love.

Common humanity does not just mean having attributes that are universal to human beings. It is not a definition. Nakedness and vulnerability, suffering and pain, is an appeal to something basic, but it not the same as the expression of a common definition, because we can change the definition so that certain individuals can fall out of it, or because we can still think and speak of human rights and morality, but nonetheless treat individuals cruelly and indifferently who stand before us, because we do not respond to their humanity. I do not have a definition or concept of humanity and then apply it to them, rather my attitude or behaviour to them reveals their humanity to myself and others. Ethics is a response to a ‘living human body’ (272) first of all, before it is reflection on abstract concepts like person and rights that belong to a philosophical and moral discourse. ‘It is,’ Gaita writes, ‘astonishment at alterity, at otherness, at how other than, and other to oneself another human being can be’ (272. Italics in original).

This why racism, the example from Reznikoff’s poem being such an extreme form so that we can see what is lost, is such an important counter instance of what the absence of love might mean for Gaita. For we might think that racism is an illustration of an empirical generalisation. If that were the case, then it would be possible to rationally demonstrate to someone that they should not be a racist, since rational differences are only phenotypical. The only reason that white people are white is because of a colder climate, where white skin was advantageous since it allowed for the maximisation of vitamin D synthesis. Such external traits, like eye shape and colour, tell us little of significant interest about another individual. Yet to think that one could convince a racist in this way is to see the situation the wrong way around, much in the same way as with the nun. It is to think that the racist is a racist because they entertain certain beliefs, which they then subsequently put into practise, whereas it is because they are already racist that such traits are examples of sub-humanity, which in the worse cases could lead to murder and genocide. You already treat others as sub-human, an object of hate rather than love, and it is relation that leads you to stereotype them through an ensuing pseudo rationalisation.

For someone to be treated as an equal, to grant them full humanity as ourselves, already demands an immediate relation to them that recognises their humanity through absolute unconditional love. Without this relation, our morality can end up justifying evil rather than being outraged by it. ‘Our talk of rights,’ Gaita writes, ‘is dependent on the works of love’ (26).

Works Cited

Connolly, W.E., 1993. Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel Foucault. Political Theory 21, 365–389.

Deleuze, G., 1992. What is a dispositif. Michel Foucault: Philosopher 159–168.

Foucault, M., 1977. Revolutionary action: “Until now,” in: Bouchard, D.F. (Ed.), Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S. (Trans.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., pp. 218–23.

Foucault, M., Gordon, C., 1980. Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon Books, New York.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.

Reznikoff, C., 2010. Holocaust. Five Leaves Publ., Nottingham.


[1] If we were to characterise his work, then we might say that it is Wittgensteinian. Philosophy is an activity of clarification and critique. The difference between morality and ethics is neither semantic nor logical but descriptive.

[2] Morality is a part of the intelligible, how we make sense of the world, and for Foucault is never necessary but always historically contingent. There can never be an absolute evil, since ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are moral concepts. Ethics, then, for Foucault would precisely be the recognition of the contingency of morality and to leave a space open for other ‘moralities’. This is one version of subjectification as the ‘aesthetics of the self’. The question that Gaita and Levinas would ask of Foucault is whether the relation of the self to the other is the same as the relation to the self to apparatuses, or the self to itself, as described in his later work. The ethical relation to the other they describe has nothing at all to do with the intelligible or virtual spaces of possibilities within the contingency of reason, but an absolute demand without context. I suspect Foucault would be sceptical about such an appeal. See Foucault’s interview ‘Revolutionary Action: “Until Now”, for his own suspicion of the language of humanism and absolute values (1977). For an excellent explanation of Foucault’s ethics, see Connolly’s article (1993).


Genealogy and the Will to Power, Nietzsche and Foucault – Lecture 5

August 11, 2016

panopticonFrom one so dismissive and critical of much of philosophy, Nietzsche is unhesitating in his admiration of Spinoza. He writes in a postcard to this friend Overbeck:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted. I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his over-all tendency like mine – making all knowledge the most powerful affect – but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself: this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.[1]

What does the death of God mean in Nietzsche? It isn’t merely a matter of demonstrating once and for all that God does not exist, since in some sense Kant had already achieved this, but that with the death of God Man also ceases to exist. We forget, in the famous scene of the madman in the Gay Science, the crowd who are laughing at the man searching for God and who declares we have all killed God, are themselves atheists. No one believes in God anymore, at least not serious people, and no-one is the least worried about whether God exists or not. What is really disturbing is what happens after God dies, for it there is no longer any transcendent order to the universe. ‘Are we not straying,’ the madman cries, ‘as through an infinite nothing’ (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 181).

God is a symptom not a cause. It is the sign of a desire to uncover an ultimate purpose or goal of the universe, as though all of this meant something more than the fact that it exists. This purpose or goal is a reflection of human interests and desires projected upon the universe. As though the universe only existed for the sake of human beings. God is just a sign of the ridiculous over weaning pride of a highly evolved chimpanzee who imagines that the universe is a reflection of itself.

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human beings are not a special being separate from the rest of nature, but a part of nature like anything else. Human beings are no more sinful or evil than any other being. The right way of living is not to be referred to some mysterious human power that takes us outside of nature, but to active and passive affects and how the mind can moderate them that are immanent to nature. It is not enough to curse and laugh at our affects and actions, rather it is important to understand them, just as we understand any other animal behaviour. What is good and best for us. Just as it would be absurd to morally judge the actions of lion or a volcano, then it is ridiculous to morally judge our affects. Anger, for example, is a natural affect of human beings. It would be wrong to label it therefore as a defect or evil. We might come to see that in certain circumstances anger is a not beneficial, and then we might come to moderate it, but we do so because we understand and rationalise it, not because we have given it a moral label. Nature operates by rules, and if human nature is part of nature, then it too must operate by rules. To understand our behaviour means to understand what causes us to act or respond in a certain way and what would be most beneficial to our lives (in the same way that we understand what benefits a plant or animal, too much water and sun it will die, or it if it is not fed the right kind of food). This means that we treat human actions ‘just as it were a question of line, planes and bodies’ (de lineis, planis aut de corporibus) (Ethics 3 pref.).

This is not to argue that values, morals and religions do not exist, because we can look around the world and see that they do, but that the origin of values, morals and religion cannot not itself be moral or religious. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is about the non-moral or non-religious origin of morality or religion. This origin is power. Thus, although morality and religion present themselves as the opposite of power, as though they were objective rather than subjective, they are disguised forms of power, or the way in which power organises and distributes affects. What better way to control and dominate others than to cause them to control and subjugate themselves? Religion, before it is a metaphysical doctrine of the origin of the universe, is a legitimisation of political authority. God the King is a justification of the King as God.

Value judgements, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are immanent to a form of life. What is good for me is bad for you or vice versa, just as the gazelles are good for lions, but lions are bad for gazelles. That the gazelles construct a universe in which lions are intrinsically evil is retrospective justification of their hatred of lions. The universe, of course, is indifferent to them both. The language we use to justify ourselves has its origin in history. It is just that we have forgotten this history. For Nietzsche morality has it origin as the expression of power. Those who have power see themselves as good against those they see as different from themselves. Morality is the expression of a rank society. If we were equal, then there would be no moral judgements. The antithesis of this aristocratic instinct is herd morality. How do the weak impose their own values? ‘By inverting, disfiguring the meaning attributed to the strong’ (Kofman and Large, 1993, p. 87). Our values, rather than expressing a separate hidden order of the universe, are nothing but the forgotten etymological transformations of the result of the historical changes in power and the social logic that maintained them.

In the past, what was called good was the expression of the power of those who had aristocratic values. The was still the case when priests took power, since divine authority (the pure and the impure) was there to maintain aristocratic values. The emergence of kingdoms in human history was the result of military conquest. The function of religion subsequently was to legitimate social stratification. We are the pure, they are the impure. We are pure because we are powerful. They are impure, because they are weak. The emergence of a kingdom from a rank society always follows the same logic:

Eventually the aggressive leader of one rank society (often a highly motivated usurper) gained an unforeseen advantage over his neighbours. He pressed his advantage relentlessly until he had subdued all his rivals. He turned their chiefdoms into the provinces of a society larger than any previously seen in the region. To consolidate power, he broke down the old loyalties of each province and replaced them with an ideology stressing loyalty to him. He rewarded priests who were willing to verify his genealogical credentials and revise his group’s cosmology, ensuring his divine right to rule. (Flannery and Marcus, 2012, p. 347).

It is not morality and religion that explain social stratification, but the other way around; social stratification explains the origin of different moralities and religions. This is the major and perhaps only lesson of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, even if you disagree with the details of his argument.

The final social logic we observe is the internalisation of the priestly type. Here the priest does not exist for the sake of the power of the king, but for himself. This is the history of Judeo-Christianity and the domination of a slave morality and the inversion of the moral order. What had hitherto been seen as worthy and good, the aristocracy, is now seen as a base and evil. All that is powerful is evil and all that is weak is good. But not only do we get a reverse of the terms of the relation but the type of relation. The first form is active, whereas the second is reactive. The noble morality first of all experiences itself as good and then judges what is different from it as bad, whereas the second form of power, slave morality, has to judge first what is bad to be able to feel good about itself. Thus the noble spirit cannot take its enemies seriously for long. It does not have the spirit for revenge. It forgets. And for this very reason it loves its enemies for how else is it to prove itself. For the slave, on the contrary, the enemy, the noble spirit, is the wicked and evil one. The thought of evil is the first thought, and only secondarily does it come up with the idea of the good.

It is in the triumph of slave morality that Nietzsche believes morality as ideals and thereby judgement is born. Weakness is turned into an ideal, as though it were something that one had to choose to be rather than what one is. Thus patience and obedience to a higher power (God) is seen as a virtue. Be submissive! They are no doubt miserable and hate life, but they believe that they will be rewarded in the future, in heaven. They see themselves better than the noble, even though they have to obey them, and obey all authority, because their God has told them to do so. But they comfort themselves that they, the nobles, will punished in the future, whereas, the slaves they will see their reward. Or own morality is a residuum of this triumph of reactive will to power. The only difference is that there no nobles, but only the values of the slave, and thus we do not even see ourselves as slaves anymore.

Even though Foucault’s story will be very different from Nietzsche’s, there are many things, in terms of methodology, that they share in common, and Foucault himself is transparent about this.[2] History is not made up of a necessary evolution that somehow ends up with us, as though the whole of history had this intention in mind from the beginning, or that there was an internal logic to its development like ripening of a fruit. On the contrary, history is contingent and we only discover its meaning after the fact. Thus Nietzsche’s story of the origin of our morality is not necessary. Things could have happened differently and our morality could be totally different. There is no necessity that slave morality would have triumphed or that slave morality had taken the form of Judeo-Christianity, and thus we could be living totally different lives with totally different values, as there is no necessity that the universe itself came into existence.

Rather than human history being made up of chain of historical events that are linked together necessarily, it is made up of singular contingent events that are rare and exceptional. What we discover, in the archaeological and anthropological evidence, is changes in social logic are sporadic and intermittent, and nothing changes for 1,000 of years or hundreds of generations, if not at all. What is interesting about human history is not how many things happen, but how little different kinds of things happen, and thus is because of course power is essentially conservative. Why change something when things have always worked.[3] If revolutions in social logic are rare, then they are also discontinuous. Thus a society that works with one logic that stresses equality and sharing, for example, in which hoarding and wealth is seen as shameful and dishonourable, like the Hadza, will be completely different from a society in which inequality is hereditary and stratified, like the Tongans. They will speak a completely different social logic, and their religions and moral values will therefore be completely different. Societies with different social logics are discontinuous and incommensurate and there is no universal language that can translate one into the other. There is no such thing as truth, but only truths (the Hadza truth, the Tongan truth and so on).

It is for this reason that we have to understand power historically rather than metaphysically. There is no essence of power, only different social forms of power that are expressed historically. If we look to our most recent past, rather than the long stretch of our human history from 200,000 years ago, then we can say that Europe has undergone a transformation of political power. In the first instance, power is justified, as in most kingdoms, through divine right. Sovereignty is the authority of the king justified through religion as is the case in all kingdoms. From the 16th century, Foucault discerned a new kind of power, which he called disciplinary power, and which was latter transformed into new form in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he called biopolitics. In the first case, power has as it object individuals, in the second, the population as a whole.

The justification of society is no longer transcendent, in the sense of sovereign power, but immanent, in the sense of a contract. The key distinction is no longer between the people and the sovereign, as it is in an aristocratic kingdom, but between the people and the multitude. The question of power is how can we transform the multitude, which represents chaos and disorder, into the people, which represents stability and order. Disciplinary societies do so through controlling individuals through institutions (prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals), biopolitical societies through the production of populations through norms and standardisation. Each society would require its own discourse and moralities, which would be very different in their meanings and effects, even if they were to use the same language and terms. This new form of power is the power of the market:

The market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice. The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to truth. (Foucault et al., 2008, p. 32).

Thus it is the change in the nature of power that determines the rise of utilitarianism as the dominant form of moral rationality, because utilitarianism can now be expressed in language of the market, cost-benefit analysis and rational choice theory, rather than whether utilitarianism is the best expression of an objective universal ethics, as opposed, for example, to deontology. Morality is not external to power relations. It is just one more discourse amongst many used to justify and legitimate them.

If power is the explanation of morality and not morality power, then how do we explain power? Power names actions or practices. Promising, judging, loving, and governing are all practices. History is nothing less than the history of changing practices and the social logic that underpins them. When it comes to practices there is always a relation between forces, one which is active and one which is passive or reactive. So there is the loving and the being loved, the judging and the being judged, governing and the being governed. A practice is the encounter between these two forces. This encounter Is not causal. In other words, the active force does not cause the passive one, rather there is an encounter between an active and passive force. Nor is the difference between the passive and active force one of quantity. It is not necessarily the case the active force is stronger or tougher than the passive force.

When Deleuze explains Foucault’s work he distinguishes between pure matter and pure functions (Deleuze, 2006). The pure matter of force is power to be affected, and the pure function of power is the power to affect. It is important not to confuse this with the actualisation of power, which is formed matter and formed function. The actualisation of power are actual historical institutions and practices. Foucault’s genealogy is the description of virtual relations of power and not actual relations. These virtual relations of power are diagrams. The example of a diagram that Deleuze gives is the Panopticon. Foucault is not interested in actual Panopticon nor the fact that Bentham’s plan was never actually built, but rather what the idealisation of Bentham’s plan says about how power has been changed or transformed.

There is always a relation between power and knowledge. Power always attracts knowledge, but that does not mean that knowledge and power are the same. Knowledge has to do with formed matter and formed functions rather than pure matters or functions. Knowledge concerns the actualisation of virtual relations of power in institutions. When we come to think about morality, then, it concerns knowledge. How virtual relations of power are actualised. These actualisations are always subsequent to the practices themselves. Knowledge is always the attempt to fix and stratify relations of power so they repeat invariantly through techniques of power and the human sciences (what Deleuze calls ‘dispositif’, but is variously translated as ‘device’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’, ‘machinery’, and so on). On the other side, however, because power and knowledge are not the same, even though power attracts knowledge, and knowledge falls back onto power and ‘miraculates’ it, as though it were the origin of power, the virtual relations of power are always escaping their stratification. The virtual relations of love are infinite, even within a given field, whereas actual relations of love are finite (only these relations of love are permitted and none other).

There are two possible confusions. First of all, we can think that the relation between active and reactive forces is dialectical and that the one causes the other. In this sense, we might think that power is transcendent and sovereign. There is never a substance or essence to power (we cannot define outside of situation in which we find power operating). This means that wherever there is power there is always resistance because there cannot be an active power without resistance. Secondly, we should not confuse actual relations of power with virtual relations of power. Rather than thinking of power as homogenous and regularised, outside forces are constantly escaping it. In one of the last papers Deleuze wrote, ‘Postscript of the Societies of Control’, he speaks of the new form of power as permanent training and perpetual audit, but he also imagines, even now, in ways that we have never visualised, the young are conceiving of new ways of escaping and new lines of flight.

Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill. (Deleuze, 1992).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., 2006. Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3–7.

Flannery, K.V., Marcus, J., 2012. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

Foucault, M., Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S., 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Foucault, M., Senellart, M., Collège de France, 2008. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [England]; New York.

Kofman, S., Large, D., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Stanford University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, New York.

Yovel, Y., 1991. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton University Press.


[1] As quoted by Yovel in ‘Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor Dei and Amor fati’ (1991, p. 105).

[2] See his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (Foucault et al., 1977).

[3] It is usually external contingent events that causes revolutions in social logic, like climate change, agriculture and domestication, or the Europeans turning up on your doorstep.


Natural Rights and Virtue – Lecture 4

August 7, 2016

SpinozaSo far in this course we have looked at the traditional philosophical arguments for morality: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We have seen that the first two, though at first glance might appear to totally oppose one another, have, as their object, actions. Morality is a subset of rational activity. We are moral because we are rational. In the first case, consequentialism looks at, as the name implies, the consequences of an action, and in the second, deontology, the intentions behind an action. Virtue theory is different because it does not examine moral activity itself, deciding which action is moral or not, but the character of the moral agent themselves over a life time. The question is not whether such an action is honest, but what does it mean for me to be honest, which might differ in different situations.

There is, however, a more fundamental question, which we shall examine over the course of the next two lectures, whether the philosophical justification of morality is itself an illusion. Levinas asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, whether we are ‘not duped by morality?’ (1969, p. 21) The aim of this question is to make us think about the status of moral justification. When we observe people’s behaviour we might think the last thing we observe is morality. Is not the world exactly the opposite of the one described by philosophers? Deeper than this suspicion, we might also wonder whether the morality of philosophers themselves is as universal and rational as they portray. At one and the same time as Kant is defending the universality of the categorical imperative, he is declaring in his lectures on anthropology that Black people and Native Americans are congenitally lazy and incapable of real work.[1]

One way to respond to these criticisms is to say that Kant is merely repeating the prejudices of his age and that it is possible to salvage a rational core, but another response might be that morality is really a secondary phenomenon of a more fundamental aspect of human history, which is power. Kant conceives of Native Americans and Blacks as secondary human beings because of colonialism. The moral abrogation of their status as human beings is secondary consequence of this fact. What better way to justify slavery and genocide than a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of human races, but also we might notice how neatly this pseudo theory fits the actual actions of the European powers at the time in their systematic plundering of wealth and resources, which was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

Morality, then, is not a subset of rationality but of power and we ought to be more critical of its supposed claim to universality that merely acts as screen concealing its true ideological function. There is a whole other history of philosophy, however, which is far more realistic about morality and power, and that is the theory of natural rights which has its source in ancient philosophy but has its modern form in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza.[2] Before we come to this tradition, let us describe how we normally think about rights (and this too has its own long history). We normally think of rights in terms of the essence or definition of something. We define what it is to be human being, for example, and then from that follows certain rights, which might be different from the rights of animals. Indeed, we have seen from our own history that how we consider the definition of people will change how we think about their rights (if we define women to be equal to men, then what we mean by this is that they have the same rights).

This way of thinking about rights goes back to antiquity. The Roman philosopher Cicero would argue that a thing is defined by its essence, which is the law of its nature.[3] Natural right does not refer to a state prior to nature but what conforms to an essence in a good society. A good society is one in which a man might realise his essence, which is his true nature. What is first is one’s duty. One only has rights to the extent that one has obligations, since it is these obligations or offices that allow me to fulfil my essence. It is the philosopher or sage who knows what essence is, what the best society would be to fulfil this essence, and what offices or duties, therefore, that would bring this realisation about.

Christianity repeats this doctrine of natural rights. The difference between the Christian version and the ancient theory is who has the authority to define what essence is, what the best society would be, and the offices and duties therein. It is no longer the philosopher who does so, but the church. How does one reverse this account of natural rights? Not by coming up with a different definition but by completely rethinking what we mean by ‘right’ altogether, and the first philosopher to do so is Hobbes. What he is doing is also saying that morality has to do with politics, which is not that different from Cicero, who is appropriated by Christianity, but he adds that when it comes to politics we need to think of power not essences. Not what is something, but what can that thing do, what is it capable of. Thus it is within the right of a small fish to eat the larger one (Spinoza, 1951, p. 200). This sounds abhorrent to us because we still think of rights in terms of schema of antiquity and Christianity, where a moral action conforms to an essence.

If natural right is defined in terms of power, then the state of nature precedes society. This means for Hobbes that human beings are not born social but have to become so. This is directly against the Christian tradition where Adam existed without sin prior to the fall. Without sin, he conformed to the natural essence of man and it was the adventures of existence that caused him to lose it. In Hobbes’ eyes it is the other way around. One is not born social and reasonable, rather one has to achieve it. What is first is not obligations or duties but rights. One limits rights in order that one can become social and responsible, but it is rights that are first. At the level of rights everyone is equal. Everyone does what they can in terms of their power. Difference arises at the level of the social, which limits people’s rights. What is important here is that it is not at the level of natural rights that we can speak of the differences between people. This means that there is no competent authority who can say what anyone is capable of or what their essence might be (it is up to them to decide what they are capable of and not an external authority). If rights come before obligation or duties that are decided in advance by an authority, then the question becomes why should I limit my rights in order to become social. In other words, what are the benefits of society to me? If a society does form, then it does so as an agreement of persons of equal rights because as a collective each increases the power of the other that would be less if they existed alone. It is we who decide to come together because it is in our best interests to do so and not because of any external authority. Here we have two very different conceptions of politics. The Antiquity-Christian model, which is juridical, and this new theory of politics that is based on power.

Just as much as we can view rights in terms of power, then so too can we redefine virtue, which would give a different meaning to virtue theory. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, virtue (virtù) does not necessarily mean moral virtue, as we might mean it, but strength or power. Thus he speaks of skill of an archer who can hit the target of from a long distance because they know the ‘strength’ of their bow.[4] The word that he uses in this context is virtù. In this way, when he speaks of the virtue of the prince, he is not listing their moral qualities, but their power to influence events and their ‘fortune’.

Spinoza, who read both Hobbes and Machiavelli, too thinks of ethics in terms of power. ‘By virtue and power,’ he writes, I understand the same thing (E4 D8). At the heart of Spinoza’s ontology is conatus. What determines the singularity of a being is not its conformity to a universal essence, whereby we might claim it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such that we might say of someone that they are not rational enough once we have defined all human beings as ‘rational animals’, but its power to exist. Every individual thing, be it a stone, plant or animal, strives to preserve its existence and will continue to exist as long as something more powerful does not prevent it from so doing. I am nothing more than my power to exist, as you are, and our power to exist, conatus, is individual to each one of us. Universals, like ‘humanity’ are only abstractions that do not exist as such. I can have an encounter with you on the street, but I cannot encounter ‘humanity’.

When we normally think of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we do so through moral values. So we might think of ‘good’ as morally good, and ‘bad’ as morally evil, but for Spinoza these are retrospective justifications for something much deeper. What is good is everything that I find useful for me; that is, what increases my power to exist. What is bad is everything I find not useful to me; that is, everything that decreases my power to exist. What is good or bad for me will be determined by my nature. Thus what is good or bad for a stone, is not going to be good or bad for me, what is good or bad for a plant is not what is going to be good or bad for me, and what is good or bad for a lion is not going to be good or bad for me, and equally, since being is singular for Spinoza, each of us are an individual expression of the power to exist, what is good or bad for me is not necessarily going to be good or bad for you. ‘We do not desire,’ Spinoza writes, something because we say it is good; rather it is good because we desire it’ (E3 P9sch.). Thus, it is not bad for the lion to eat the gazelle, since that is what lions do, but it is not good for gazelles to be eaten by lions, so generally gazelles try to avoid lions. What Spinoza would say is that we don’t need to add a moral language to understand it. Moral judgements, as we might suspect are irrelevant.

Now we might say that is alright for lions and gazelles but not for beings like us, since we, as consequentialists and deontologists would say are special and unique within the animal kingdom because of our capacity to make moral judgements. It is at this point that Spinoza’s ontology meets his ethics (and that there is no difference between them is central point of his thought, unlike Kant, for example, who saves ethics by separating them into two distinct worlds). For Spinoza, all beings, stones, plants, animals and human beings are expression of one and the same being to a certain degree. There are no exceptions, or as Spinoza says, human beings are not ‘a dominion within a dominion’ (E3 Pref.). No doubt a plant is more complex than a stone, and animal more complex than a plant, and a human being more complex than a lion, but this does not mean, ontological speaking, that human beings are a completely different kind of being. No doubt because we can speak we can confuse words with ontological reality. So because we have the word ‘evil’ we think there are evil things that transcend our own interests, but this does not mean that evil exists as such exterior to these interests. Human beings act just as lions do, the only difference is that they try and convince the gazelle that they are good for them as well. It might be true that I would lock the serial killer in prison, because such an encounter would seriously undermine by power to exist, but why, as with the example of lions and gazelles, do I need to add a moral language of judgement on top of this to justify it?

Ethics is ethnology. Just as I can study the behaviour of a lion, then I can study the behaviour of human beings. We can just as much talk about an ethics of fleas as we can of human beings, though of course the life of a flea is simpler. How is this different from the normal way that we talk about morals? Normally we talk about morality in terms of norms and values. We say that if you want to be a good person you should behave in such and such a way. ‘Ought’ is not the same as ‘is’. This brings us back to essences that we discussed before, because you can’t have a norm without an essence. I can’t act in the right way if you don’t tell me what it is to be such a person. Thus if there are norms about what it is to be a woman then this follows from the definition of woman. This essence of course is an ideal. In this way no individual woman could ever live up to what it would be to be a woman. All women would fail from the beginning.

Spinoza’s ethics has nothing at all to do with norms because he understands essence in a completely different way. An essence is not an abstraction or definition, but the individual existence of a singular being. We can speak of the essence of ‘William’ as the individual existence of someone called ‘William’, but there is no essence of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as such. Ethics is a way of being, rather than a norm. When I speak about my ethics (and there can only be an individual ethics for Spinoza), then I am speaking about my individual way of being.

Throughout my life this essence is to be understood as a variation. Sometimes my power to exist increases and at other times it decreases. This is because my body is always in contact with other bodies, and since I have a very complex body, then this means that these relations are numerous and complex. If this contact increases my power to exist, then I experience it as joyful, and if it decreases my power to exist, then I experience it as sadness. These are the two primary affects of existence for Spinoza, which correspond to my conatus. Ethics, then, for Spinoza, is understanding those encounters that bring you joy and those that bring you sadness, and learning to avoid the latter. I know that coffee increases my power to exist in the morning, but drinking too much gives me eczema, so I shouldn’t drink too much. I know speaking to Paul makes me happy, but Peter really depresses me (perhaps it is the other way around for someone else), so I should avoid him. What really surprises Spinoza is that people seem to go out of the way to make themselves sad, and moreover we appear to live in societies whose only function seems to be to make the vast majority of people unhappy and miserable (the two source of this are the two great normative tyrannies, which are religion and politics).

It might appear on first sight that Spinoza’s ethics is egotistical and individualistic. If all that matters is my own power to exist why should I care about others? This would be to ignore human nature, though. Human beings are by nature social beings. The more I compose my power to exist with others, then my own power to exists increases. It would belong to my own interests to create a society in which the greatest amount of people would be capable of expressing their own power to exist. What best serves my purpose is another person who increases my power to exist and this would be the same for them, and so on to the next person. This is why he will argue, in the Tractatus Politicus, that democracy is the best form of government (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 385–7). ‘Nothing,’ he writes in the Ethics, is more advantageous to man than man’ (E4 P18 Sch.).

Works Cited

Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980 [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=20&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 4.9.16).

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H.C., 1998. The prince. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Mikkelsen, J.M., Kant, I., 2013. Kant and the concept of race: late eighteenth-century writings. SUNY Press, Albany.

Spinoza, B. de, 1951. A theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. Dover, New York.

Ward, J.K., Lott, T.L., 2008. Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. John Wiley & Sons.


[1] Kant writes in his unpublished notes, Reflexionen, that ‘Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus are only good as slaves’ (Mikkelsen and Kant, 2013, p. 8). See also Bernasconi’s essay ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ (Ward and Lott, 2008, pp. 145–66).

[2] An excellent and concise of this history can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza (“Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980,” n.d.).

[3] Cicero is useful for us, because he sums up the ancient Greek tradition of ethical thought in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, but also his own work was influential on the ethical theory of Christianity and especially Aquinas.

[4] ‘He should do as prudent archers do when the place they plan to hit appears too distant, and know how far the strength of their bow carries, they set their aim much higher than the place intended’ (Machiavelli and Mansfield, 1998, p. 22). It is interesting to note that the translator, Mansfield, feels that he cannot leave virtù translated as ‘virtue’ in this context, since it has such a moral overtone for us.


Virtue Theory – Lecture 3

August 1, 2016

anscombeModern, as opposed to ancient (though it finds its inspiration there), theory of virtue can be difficult to first understand because it is essentially negative in character. It knows what it is against, rather than what it is for. This is entirely the case in Anscombe’s paper ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, which is said to have initiated its revival. For the paper, as the title suggests, is an attack on moral philosophy as such and not the introduction of another new theory. Anscombe alludes to the possibility of another way of speaking about ethics against its modern version, but does so by saying that we haven’t got the resources to even understand what that might be beyond the history of philosophy. We know what Plato and Aristotle said, and what it meant to them, but that does not mean that we can apply it to the way we live today, no more so than we could suddenly start believing in their gods.

Beyond the rather idiosyncratic and convoluted style, Anscombe’s argument is genealogical (though as far as I know she does not refer to Nietzsche). Modern moral theory, in both its forms, deontological and consequentialism, is Christian without Christianity; that is to say, they take the form of Christianity without its content, because of the secular age in which we live. Christian because they because for something to be morally right, in the sense of absolute, require a divine external legislation. It is easier to know what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in itself if there is external guarantee for it (the gods require human sacrifice), then when one is opposite, yet both deontology and consequentialism act as though they do operate in such a black and white world, and we could know in advance, when facing a decision, what was morally right (even if what was morally right contradicted what we thought was just, like the murder of innocents, which she says is what any kind of consequentialism is committed to).

If Anscombe only alludes to what a neo-Aristotelianism might be, then we are going to have to look elsewhere for it. At its heart, and this is there even in Anscombe’s essay, if one looks hard enough for it, is that what we should concentrate on are not actions (whether in terms of intentions or consequences), but the character of someone who performs these actions and whether they are virtuous or not. Unless we are going to go around in circles, then these virtues must be grounded in something (otherwise a virtuous person is simply someone who act virtuously), and those are the practices we claim lead to the best life. The difficulties come as to how define what such a life might be. Plato and Aristotle have a good idea what a virtuous life was, but we might not be so sure, and Anscombe certainly didn’t think we could define it.

Julia Annas has more ambition in this regard, in her book Intelligent Virtue, and does think we can define what a good human life might be, without aping Aristotle and Plato (even though she herself is a scholar of ancient philosophy), and thus gives some basis to our virtues, and why we should choose them over our vices. Her argument is that we should think of virtue as skill, like music or sport. It is something that we get good at through habit and repetition. This is the opposite of mindless repetition, however, as anyone who knows who has played an instrument or learnt a sport, since both activities require a lot of our attention. Since they do require time to develop then we have to have the desire to do well at them, since some days the last thing we would wish to do is practice scales or run around the track. It is because they require our attention and our time that skills like music or sport are activities that we can give an account of. I can explain to you why I am learning the classical guitar, and you could explain to me why want to become good a playing tennis.

These activities matter because they come from an embedded context. It would be strange to pay attention to them and to speak about them with others if they were not part of the culture in which I was born and live. Only a given cultural context explains what it is to be virtuous. I don’t just repeat a rule because people say I should do. Rather I inhabit it myself and become better at through repetition and experience. Part of that repetition means paying attention to what I am doing, which includes thinking about the reasons why I do something the way I do it, and whether there are better ways of doing it. All this requires reflection as well as acting (Aristotle would have called this kind of reflection phronesis).

Virtue theory cannot be a theory of right action, but no more so than a music teacher can tell you in every instance how to interpret a note, or coach precisely how you should strike a ball. What they can offer you is guidance, but this is not the same a manual that would always tell you what the right thing is to in every situation. Virtue is developmental. I don’t become virtuous in one step but through experience. Virtues might be what I am taught by my culture, but I have to actively inhabit them through self-understanding. I might have been taught generosity by my parents, but I become generous through acting generously and coming to understanding what it means to be generous.

To say something is right, which is one aspect Anscombe is getting at, is know that it is so before one has acted. If such an action has the right kind of feature (like red things have the property ‘red’), then we would know that it would always be moral, but there are circumstances and exceptions where the rule would not apply in the way I thought it could.[1] What is just and unjust and what counts as exceptions, and what is without exception, are all embedded within a social context since there is no exterior law we could possible refer to say an action was morally right or not.

Why should I be virtuous? A person’s virtues relate to their overall character. To live virtuously means to live one’s life as a whole. It is to answer the question ‘this is what it means to live a life’. Embodying the virtues are therefore the fundamental telos of one’s life. They tell you what that person wishes to be seen as. In this sense, the virtues are different from practical skills. A skill is linked to an object or a part of oneself (I wish to be a better guitar player or a better runner), but being virtuous is about how one wishes to be a person, and how one is seen by others. We can say of someone that they have lived a ‘good life’. Goodness here is life considered as a whole. We can see that such a life has a positive direction. It embodies these kinds of virtues and it puts these virtues into practice. And we can compare that with a life that didn’t or doesn’t do that. A life without goals, direction or purpose. We might say that the first life was well lived and the second not. Have we not obtained a criterion for flourishing or happiness?

Virtue, then, would be a way of being with oneself and others. Happiness is not about the circumstances of your life (I am rich, healthy and famous), but how you live your life. Happiness has nothing at all do with pleasure, desire, or a positive outlook, but the consideration of one’s life as a whole. What our virtues are is something that is handed down to us (you should be honest, brave, caring and so on), but how we live them is something that each of us have to achieve. Being a self is a drama and not a property. It is possible not to be oneself and to lose oneself. To have no direction, goal or purpose and to simply be at the mercy of one’s fleeting desires. Or one’s virtues can give direction and purpose to one’s life, even if that means one has to reinterpret those virtues against one’s own culture. Is this not what we see in the actions of the virtuous, a consistency of character over a life time?


[1] It is clear that Anscombe does not think that certain actions are not intrinsically unjust, because this is her argument against consequentialism, but they are not so for any kind of Kantian reason.


Kant’s Ethics – Lecture 2

May 9, 2016

Last week immanuel-kantwe looked at Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism, which is a version of consequentialism. This week we are going to investigate Kant’s ethics, which is a kind of deontology. In the former, what is of moral worth is the consequences of the act, and the criteria is whether the outcome of an act contributes to happiness of the greatest number. In the latter, moral value is ascribed to the intention of the agent, rather than the consequence of the act. What matters to both, however, and which they hold in common, is ethics is a matter of moral deliberation that begins with the rational self. It is this assumption that we will question is the last part of this module. First of all, as Gaita writes, ethics is not accessed through an ‘epistemic route’ (Gaita, 2000, p. 22), but through feeling and sensibility (in some way Kant will recognise this, but still it is not the major motivating force for his morality), and secondly, that such an ethics does not first begin with the rational self, who makes a decision about the limits or extent of its moral responsibility, but with suffering of others, who make a demand on the self and its self-satisfaction and egotism, as though the language of rights and responsibility were not one and the same.

At the heart of Kant’s ethics is autonomy and reason. Why are we moral beings? Not because, Kant would answer, of some mysterious attribute of our natural being, though like animals we feel sympathy for our kind, but because we can deliberate about our actions and choose them. If, like natural beings, our actions were only the result or our desires and appetites, then we would be held morally responsible. No one blames the lion for hunting the gazelle, though the gazelle probably does not like being eaten by the lion, for it is in the nature of the lion to eat gazelles. Human beings too are animals, but not just animals, because we can used ideas to guide our concepts, and these ideas, concepts, or principles are freely chosen by us.[1]

In other words, we are moral because we are rational, and we are rational because we are free. Freedom is at the heart of Kant’s ethics. He is saying to you that if you are willing to give up freedom, then you will live in an amoral universe. Just as no one blames the lion who eats the gazelle, since it is the nature of lions to do so, then no one blames, the asteroid that kills or life on earth, for it that is what asteroids do. So you can’t blame the murderer for killing, the robber for robbing, the rich man for exploiting the poor, and the liar for lying, and so. So Kant is saying to you do you really want to live in a world like that. It might be fun imagining yourself a nihilist, but it really isn’t a world anyone would want to live in for long. Equally, if you do want to live in a moral world, where people are held responsible for their actions, and people act morally, then you have to accept that people are free, otherwise that isn’t any reason for you to expect them to be moral at all

It is important to realise that Kant does not think that freedom is a real property of the universe. That we are free in the way that asteroids are determined by gravity, for example. For in this case, asteroids are not free at all, since they do not choose to be determined by gravity. Freedom isn’t a property of something, still less a mysterious property of human beings, that make them different from lions or asteroids. Rather freedom is an idea, and in that sense, one might say it is a necessary fiction. The sciences tell us about what asteroids do, and so to speak, why they do it (though there isn’t really a ‘why’ here at all, since they have no intentions), whereas morality is the explanation of why human beings behave in the way they do (and there really is a ‘why’ here, because human beings have ideas). Now it is true to say that you can give a naturalist explanation of why human beings have ideas (because we have large brains, which give us ideas and so on), but it is absurd to say that brains have ideas, as it is to say that they open doors, since that would be a very messy business indeed. The meaning of an idea is not reducible to physical state, otherwise the origin of ideas would be the same as the causal relation between physical things. Again Kant would say to you if you are going to accept such naturalist explanations, then you would have to forgo any kind of moral responsibility whatsoever for the murder would claim that it was her brain (perhaps through some kind of chemical reaction) that caused her to kill her victim she was not to blame (can one even speak of a ‘she’ here), and so would the concentration camp guard.

Freedom is not just the necessary condition of morality; it is a sufficient one as well. For it alone shows that what it means to be moral is to choose to be moral, and then only morality that could be freely chosen is a universal one. This is because a universally valid moral law would be the one that a free rationality would choose if it were free. The only reason it would not choose this law is if it were not free, in other words, there were some external constraint (desires, and inclination, that were causing me to choose this action against by reason). Another way of thinking this is that Kant is saying that a reason for an action cannot an individual or particular reason, because this reason would always be self-interested, and such a self-interested action would have another origin rather than a rational one, and it is only rationality that is compatible with freedom. A rational law is one that is freely chosen; not one that is forced upon you if you understand it (a child might not lie because they fear the anger of their parents, but I don’t lie, because I understand that it is wrong to. It would be absurd to say that in the latter case I am being forced not to lie, since I actively choose not to so through my reason.

The reciprocal determination of freedom and morality is a philosophical problem, but Kant would argue that what he is putting forward in the Groundwork, is common sense. He says that everyone knows the difference between acting morally and not so. To act morally is to act on principle (or duty), whereas to act self-interestedly (by inclination and desire), is not to. This distinction is only valid when at the level of intentions, and not outcomes of acts; that is to say internally, rather than externally. This is the point of the example of the grocer. Externally, in terms of outcomes, we cannot distinguish between the grocer who acts honestly because he wants more customers and thus to make more profit, and the grocer that acts honestly on principle, since the outcome is exactly the same. Only the second grocer, however, Kant thinks, anyone would say was truly moral. To act morally is act from principle as a rational agent and not in terms of consequences, which would always be self-interested, and therefore objectively and subjectively motivated by desires.

Let us say that we accept Kant’s description of morality. How would we actually put this in practice? Kant’s answer is the categorical imperative. Only act on those maxims that can universally applied. The key here is universality, for universality shows that at I am acting rationally, and only in acting rationally, on principle, can I be truly free (otherwise, as we have seen, I am the mercy of my desires and inclinations, and am thrown this way and that, like boat tossed about on a stormy sea).

There are three forms of the categorical imperative that Kant describes in the Groundwork: act in accordance with a universal law; treat people as ends rather than as means; act in harmony with a kingdom of ends. Usually when people explain Kant’s morality they only discuss in any depth the first version of the categorical imperative, and forget the other two, but all three versions are equally important.

Kant makes a distinction between two kinds of rational action: hypothetical and categorical. Hypothetical rational action is both technical and pragmatic and is related to the self-interests of the agent. I am thirsty. I need a cup of tea. In order to assuage my thirst I will need to leave my desk go down to the kitchen and boil the kettle. Categorical imperatives are different. This is technical end for Kant. The pragmatic end is happiness. So I might say that I need food, water, clothing and shelter for a happy life and all human beings do. Utilitarianism is therefore a pragmatic hypothetical imperative for Kant. This does not mean that it insignificant for Kant, since of course everyone desires to be happy, but this in itself does not make it categorical.

What is unique to a categorical imperative is that they are unconditional and are not dependent on ends but principles. He has to prove to us that such imperative exist, since we are likely to think that there are only hypothetical ends. To act on principle means to act through a law which is universal to everyone. I ought never to conduct myself except so that I could also will that my maxim become a universal law (ich auch wollen können, meine Maxime solle ein allgemeines Gesetz werden).

So I have to show that it makes sense to speak of morality is that way. Do we act through laws that are universal to every rational being? The test for universality here is consistency and coherence, and this is what Kant’s examples demonstrate. To universal lying is to be incoherent, because one cannot at the same time thing that one can benefit from lying and at the same time make it universal, because if everyone one lied, then there would be no self-interest to lie. This is not the case with keeping promises, because one can universal it. Let us imagine that there is a rich man who decides that he doesn’t wish to give money to beggars and he universalises this as a maxim that we should never help others who are in need, then the rich man is being inconsistent, because he does would not wish to live in a world where he too would not be helped if he were in need because some disaster was to befall him. We can see that his desire not to help others is not a moral imperative at all but merely an expression of his own selfish greed.

Objects are relative to my desires. I am hungry so I consume food. Food is a means to an end for me. But persons are rational beings like me, so they could never be merely means. To treat a human being as end is to treat them as a thing, rather than as a free being. The second formulation of the categorical imperative, therefore, is to treat other human beings as ends in themselves, which is tantamount to saying treat others as you would wish to be treated, since we both are members of the same rational moral universe. ‘Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as a means’ (Handle so, daß du die Menschheit, sowohl in deiner Person, als in der Person eines jeden andern, jederzeit zugleich als Zweck, niemals bloß als Mittel brauchest). To lie to another, then, is to use them for one’s own means, even if it some context that might mean you do not wish to hurt them, since their happiness is of course something that you benefit from.

Rather than promoting my happiness, I ought to promote the happiness of others. The end of the moral law, then, is the promotion of ‘kingdom of ends’, where each lives in accordance or harmony with others. We can see, if each of us act morally, how this must necessarily be the case, since the moral law would be the same for us all, and we could see that it would benefit us all. A rational free society is the best for everyone. It is clear also that Kant does not rid his moral theory of ends, as though the happiness of all, were of no importance, but that it obtains that end through universal moral law rather than through the outcomes of actions in the first place.[2]

We might ask ourselves why Kant needs different formulations of the categorical imperative. I think it is because it is perfectly possible in the first case (universal laws) to think of exceptions. So for example if a murderer were to come my door and I would think that it would be permissible to lie, which seems to contradict principle of universality, whereas if I were to apply the principle of humanity and kingdom of ends, it would not be, because here I am not universalising a particular situation (should I not lie in this situation), but what is it to be a human being and does it mean to belong to an ethical community. To treat someone as a means, is not only to use them, but also to deprive them of their humanity.

What Kant’s argument sets out are ideals that guide our actions. He is well aware that in the ‘real world’ things might not be as that easy, but if we were to give up our ideals altogether, then there would world would in chaos. We might readily agree that if everyone acted morally, then the world would be better, but the problem is that the world we live in isn’t like that at all. Not only is the world full of evil, even those who are evil, do not get punished. It seems grotesque to say that in telling the truth to the murderer I have done the moral thing, but the consequences of the act are of no interest. Kant gets out this problem by supplementing a religious argument for a moral one. If the kingdom of ends is only ideal in this world, then it will be real in the next one, but we might find this religious supplement in a secular world not comforting at all, and might even have the suspicion that Kant’s morality is only possible because of his religious beliefs and not the other way around.

Works Cited

Franks, P.W., 2005. All Or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism. Harvard University Press.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. Routledge, London.


[1] Even if Kant shows that freedom and morality are reciprocal, this does not prove that anything like freedom exists as an empirical possibility, and in fact cannot do so. On freedoms as a fact of reason, see (Franks, 2005, pp. 278–84).

[2] It is for this reason that the difference between rule utilitarianism and deontology can be slight indeed. It is certainly the way that Mill understood Kant.


Utilitarianism – Lecture 1

April 24, 2016

John_Stuart_Mill_by_London_Stereoscopic_Company,_c1870In this course I am making a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality is the application of reason to moral decisions. Ethics, on contrary, is not about procedures but how I respond, or fail to respond to the sufferings of others. This isn’t a matter of reason, but of sensibility, since it is perfectly possible to ‘reason’ oneself out of ethics simply by refusing the status of humanity to others.

In Western philosophy, at least, there are 3 standard form of moral rationality (though the third is really a critique of the other 2): utilitarianism, deontology and virtue theory. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of acts, whereas deontology emphasises the intentions of the agent. What is common to them both, however, is that they begin with the self and the self is primarily understood as a rational agent. It is this presupposition that will be questioned to some extent by the third theory, virtue theory, and fundamentally by ethics. In virtue theory, will still begin with the self, but the self is interpreted as existing in a concrete situation (a given community, society and history) whose values are embedded rather than deduced rationally, and what matter is not just the intentions or consequences of actions, but character and authenticity. Ethics, as we shall later in the course, goes even further than this, because it questions whether we should begin with the self at all, but rather with others, and that our commitment to others is first about sensibility, rather than rationality (in other words that the relation to other is different from the relation of the self to itself in moral reflection).

In this lecture, we are going to focus on utilitarianism, which is perhaps the most popular and well known, but also the one moral theory that pervades our everyday lives because it is the basis of public policy and government decisions that generally are taken on a utility basis. There are two version of utilitarianism. One by Bentham and the other by Mill, whose version can be seen as a correction of the formers. The basis of Bentham’s utilitarianism is the ‘happiness principle’. A policy or decision is moral if it contributes to the general happiness of everyone. Happiness, here, is a psychological category, and for Bentham is a quantifiable and calculable in terms of its intensity and duration. What is good is what gives us pleasure, what is bad, is what causes us pain. All moral arguments come down to the maximisation of happiness as opposed to personal preference or dogma.

An example of Bentham’s utilitarianism in action would be the planned creation of workhouses in England in the 19th Century, which luckily for the poor were never fully implemented.[1] Bentham’s argument was that encountering the poor on the street was a public nuisance that lead to a decrease in the happiness of the majority so it would be better for them to be incarcerated in workhouses against their will. Moreover, it was better for society as whole if the poor were forced to work rather than being unproductive parasites, as he saw it, on society. By putting the poor to work they would in fact pay for the cost of the workhouses, and therefore not be a burden on the taxpayer. Although these ideas where never fully put into action, we can still here them loud and clear today.

Why might some find Bentham’s ideas morally dubious however unpractical they turned out to be? The fundamental problem is it sacrifices the freedom of the individual for the sake of society as a whole.[2] The workhouse was repressive and cruel system that destroyed the lives of those who were incarcerated, as the novels of Dickens portray, and it seems hardly justifiable to argue that destroying a human life is justifiable for the sake of the happiness of the majority. If this were the case, as Sandel argues, why wouldn’t we justify the throwing of the Christians to the lions, since the majority obviously gained pleasure from this spectacle (2010, p. 37)? Can the pleasure of one, justify the pain of another? Doesn’t this go against our moral intuitions?

As Sandel goes onto write, some people have used this argument to justify torture. We might think that the suffering of an individual is not as important as the social good gained by torture.[3] We could think of good utilitarian arguments, he adds, about why torture is wrong: that in the end you don’t gain much information from torturing people; that society itself, in the long run, would be undermined if we let systematic torture happen (what would be the difference between us and our enemies?); that our own soldiers and agents would be tortured. Yet there is also an argument on principle that torture is wrong. The dignity of the individual outweighs any utility (this is the same critique of Bentham’s workhouses and prisons).

One way that people justify torture is the ‘ticking time bomb’. The argument goes that if a nuclear device were to go off and we had a terrorist in our hands, then all of us would tortures the terrorist to find out the information and stop the bomb. The problem with this scenario, as Sandel points out, is that we are not describing like with like. It implies that the person being tortured is innocent like us and therefore we are willing to sacrifice one life for another, but of course the terrorist is not the same as us. The real example to see whether you think there could be a utilitarian defence of torture would be whether you think it would be worth sacrificing the innocent daughter of the terrorist to find out why the bomb is. Would the happiness of the majority justify the suffering and death of a child?

Our worries about utilitarianism, at least in the crude form that it put forward by Bentham and public policy, is that it isn’t a moral philosophy at all but just a moral calculation, which reduced every human life to a common denominator. Sandel alludes to the famous example of the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pinto (which was the basis of the scene in the film The Fight Club) (2010, p. 43). When Ford did a cost benefit analysis if found that the cost of fixing the fault was higher than the costs of people burning or dying. Is there not something morally repugnant about putting a value on someone’s life in this way, in the same way that Bentham only saw the lives of the poor in terms of an economic value?

It is for these reasons that Mill sought to improve Bentham’s utilitarianism. First of all he makes a distinction, though it is not always clear in his text, between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, a utility calculus is performed for every situation. Thus it is perfectly possible, that in a particular situation, the best cause of action would be to tell a lie since this promote the happiness of the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism does not focus on the consequence of an action, but a rule. The argument then would be about whether telling lies would benefit society as whole, as opposed to keeping promises. Rule utilitarianism would not justify, therefore the telling of lies in any situation, because constantly making exceptions to the rule would undermine social relations confidence and trust.

Mill’s fundamental reform of Bentham, however, is at the level of the psychology of pain and pleasure. For Bentham, this was a matter merely of quantity, intensity and duration. Every rational creature would seek pleasure and avoid pain. Mill’s argument is that it is psychological incorrect to reduce pain and pleasure to sensation and everyone knows this through introspection. We do not merely speak of quantity of a feeling but also the quality of one. Even when we speak of pain, we can think of a dull or a sharp pain. We can think of dull pain being more or less painful and the same with a share one, but the difference between them is qualitative not quantitative. As rational beings we are capable of ordering our desires qualitatively as well as quantitatively.

Everyone knows Mill’s famous statement ‘It is better to be human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. When it comes to individual acts, this might be difficult to defend. It is really true that reading book is more pleasurable than sex? Even those who like reading books would hardly defend that. Moreover, is it true to say that in having sex I don’t use my mind at all? Mill’s dictum makes no sense if we think about it in this way, and is hardly convincing psychologically. When Mill is thinking about the quality of pleasure he is thinking about life lived as whole (this again is the important difference between act and rule utilitarianism). Would a life that was dedicated wholly to sex be better than a life that was not? Mill’s argument would be that it wouldn’t be if we thought about society as whole, for the one reason that person who dedicated their lives solely to sensual pleasures would essentially be selfish and egotistical. It is only through education that I would realise that society exists only because of the selfless acts of others who are willing to sacrifice their own advantage.

In some sense Mill could be seen as a utopian socialist, as opposed to the reactionary views of Bentham, and the revolutionary socialism of Marx.[4] His utilitarianism is about social progress, which the major theme of his work On Liberty, and which should be seen as the context of his moral theory. What would benefit the majority rather than the minority? A morality that has its source in intuition or tradition tends to be authoritarian, reactionary and conservative. We ought to change the world so as make it better for the vast majority of people, and the two great wants in our word are poverty and disease, so we should change the world to rid ourselves from them. The problem is that we can certainly imagine a despotic society that could achieve these ends rationality without individual rights. Do we think this sacrifice is worth it, or does it undermine human dignity and respects for others beyond calculation for a future good? It seems the only way to save utilitarianism is through the idea of dignity, but the latter cannot be determined by a calculus. It is a principle.

Works Cited

Bahmueller, C.F., 1981. The National Charity Company: Jeremy Bentham’s silent revolution. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Kurer, O., 1992. J.S. Mill and Utopian Socialism. Economic Record 68, 222–32.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ? Penguin books, London.

Schiemann, J.W., 2016. Does torture work? Oxford University Press, New York.


[1] For a full historical account of Bentham’s ideas and implementation of Poor Law reform in England, see (Bahmueller, 1981).

[2] A separate and equally important issue is whether poverty is the fault of the individual. The real cause of poverty in England that the time was not the idleness of the working classes, but the Corn Laws, and industrialisation. Bentham’s incarceration of the poor stems from a fear of revolution not a concern with their welfare.

[3] This moral argument is different from the argument whether torture works or not, which it does not. The moral argument would be that even if torture did work, it would still be wrong. For an account of whether torture actually works, using game theory, see (Schiemann, 2016).

[4] For a detailed account of why Mill should be considered a utopian socialist, see (Kurer, 1992)


Aesthetics – Lecture 5

April 21, 2016

brillo-soap-pads-1969What do we mean by aesthetic judgement and what are we doing when we talk about something that we call art. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek word αισητική. It means ‘sensation’ in the sense in which we might feel the cool wind blow against our cheeks or the taste of the bitter sweet coffee in the morning. Both these are sensations. Let use this word as a clue for our own investigation of aesthetics, even though for the ancient Greeks this word had no reference to art. We might say, therefore, that the first, and most simple, component of art is the existence of an object, for it is objects that we sense. Let us not make any judgement about this object at the moment, for we will want to leave the contentious debate about what constitutes an art or media object till the end of this lecture. At the moment all we have before us is an object and the idea, perhaps the most obvious one, that without objects there wouldn’t be any art.

So well and good. But what is an object in an aesthetic sense? We know what it means to sense an object, but is this all we are speaking about when we speak about an art object. We say that the object has certain properties or qualities that are, what can we say, ‘picked up’ by the brain in the way that a radio picks up signals from space. The coffee is bitter and sweet and this bitterness and sweetness is somehow, very mysteriously, transported to my brain via the taste buds of my mouth and tongue, and then even more mysteriously translated into the thoughts ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’ in my mind (not my brain this time!).

This whole occult process of sensation has been the debating point of philosophers for centuries. Is the sensed object real? Is the bitterness and sweetness actually in the object, or only in my mind? How can we distinguish the brain from the mind? And so on and on ad nauseam. Thankfully for us we don’t have to get involved in this debate, but it has introduced something that we might find as useful for the understanding art as an object, and that it is the subject who senses, perceives and reflects about the object. Thus, no matter what kind of art we are talking about we can always say that there must be at least two things: an object, and a subject relating some way with it.

Let us stay with this subject and object for a bit, and see whether it may help us understand the nature of aesthetic judgement a little bit more. The question we need to ask ourselves is how the subject, the spectator, stands towards the art or media object. To get closer to this we need to think about how we ordinarily stand towards objects in the world. I would say that objects mean something to us in relation to their uses. We interpret objects in relation to what matters to us. Thus, it is probably incorrect to say that we have sensations that we then convert into meaningful objects, rather the world of objects we move around in, and which is our home and context, is already meaningful for me. I do not hear sounds out of my window and then hear a car, rather I hear the sound of the car from the first (of course I might hear sounds that I cannot recognise, but they would still have the meaning ‘unrecognisable sound’ attached to them, and I might be wrong about the sound that I hear, but nonetheless I would be hearing meaningful sounds and not just a jumble of senseless noise that I then have to construct into a meaningful object). Even in our most theoretical approach to object, there meaning is given in advance by the corresponding scientific telos, whether we are talking about quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology.

With art, however, something different is going on. For in art sensations are in some sense redeemed; that is to say, sensations matter to us, but not in the same way as they do in our practical involvement with objects. In the latter, sensation is subordinate to meaning, but in the former sensation and meaning are in conflict, and the experience of art is perhaps nothing else than a deep feeling of the gap or gulf between them. This is why the experience of art is always the experience of a resistance of expression. For unlike with our practical involvement with objects, sensation is never wholly subsumed under meaning. This is why art and media are significant, but not in a conceptual manner. They always seem to resist being completely exhausted about what we say about them.

There are two ways we can look at this strange relation between sensation and meaning in art: one from the side of the subject, and the other, the object. Let us begin with the subject first. We think that what makes something a artwork is a property of the work itself, such that it has ‘art’ just in the same way that our coffee has ‘bitterness’ and ‘sweetness’. Perhaps this is most common-sense theory of art, and is certain the one that you most hear about in the newspapers, on radio and television, and the internet. Thus, we get the endless and infinite debates about what good art is, as if it were a matter of simply recognising something about a painting in the way that one comes to recognise what a dog is by the ability to remember certain features. From this it follows that good art has certain properties (x, y and z) that bad art does not possess. Good art, for example, is usually figurative, and bad art abstract or conceptual.

But that is to treat art as though it were simply an object of perception with certain objective properties, which is to miss completely the significance of the aesthetic relation to objects. What is important is precisely this relation itself and not the object, for it is clear, with what is called ‘modern art’, that anything can be art object, for what the object it is not just what matters, but how we relate to it. This does not mean, however, that aesthetic judgements simply a matter of liking something? This is when this peculiar gap between sensation and meaning, which is how we spoke about art, returns. For if art were merely a matter of sensations, then aesthetic judgements would be merely a question of preference. You like Picasso, I like Duchamp and so on.

To see that the relation to art cannot be the same as mere preference is to understand that in talking about art I am making a claim upon others. There are actually three elements we need to be aware of when we are investigating art: the object, the subject (the spectator, if you prefer) and others to whom I address my claims about the object (of course, I also belong to these others). The difference between an object of mere sensation and an aesthetic object, is not to be found in the object itself, rather it is in the claim I make to others. In saying something is a work of art and has aesthetic excellence, then involved in this judgement is the implicitly the notion of universal agreement (Kant called it the sensus communis (1952, p. 82)). This does not mean that there will be universal agreement. In reality we know this is never the case, but I make an aesthetic judgement as if it were possible. Thus I do not just say that I like Picasso, rather I say that Picasso is a great painter, and you ought to agree as well, and there is something wrong with (you lack understanding if you don’t). This is not the case with mere preference, which is purely subjective, and I do not seek to gain, if only ideally, universal agreement that chocolate is better than strawberry ice cream, for this is merely a matter of enjoyment and pleasure and not an aesthetic judgement. The difference would be if the ice cream were in an art gallery and some one asked for my aesthetic opinion about it. I would have misunderstood them completely if I had gone up to the ice cream and licked it and said that it tasted quite good. Of course I could do this as an aesthetic judgement, as a statement that I didn’t think it was a work of art, but that would be something quite different, precisely because I would be making be making a claim for universal agreement.

This subjective account of the relation to art, however, misses out something very important, and this is the object. For in this subjective account of aesthetics, what counts is the discourse about art and not the art itself. An object is art, because it part of a discourse about art that has a certain form of the ideal universal agreement, rather than the mere expression of liking and preference. But I would like to say that the art object also has a presence, which differentiates it from ordinary objects, and which always resists our judgements about them. I would not say ‘outside’ or ‘exterior’ to, for this resistance of the object only ‘appears’ as such through the judgements, including their appeal to an ideal universal agreement, we make in their failure to capture completely their enigmatic and obscure presence. It is this that is the particular tension between sensation and meaning that creates the aura of an art work.

This resistance interrupts our understanding of our everyday world. In so doing it makes our world present. In our everyday affairs and general business, it is not so. It is only when my involvement is broken and interrupted it does so. A chair that I sit on every day at my desk is not present, nor the world in which it stands, unless one day it breaks as I sit on it. But Rauschenberg’s bed does so. In our everyday lives we never notice that the door is there. We simply grasp hold of the handle and walk through into the room. But if one day the door handle were to break, and I could not open the door as I ordinarily do, then the presence of the door would be visible to me, but also, and this is the most strange thing, so would the world in which working doors are necessary. The class room where I need to teach students about aesthetics, the university, the aim of teaching, Western culture and so on. Art, in its strange and enigmatic presence (a presence which is the opposite of the commodity) are like broken objects that reveal our world, like the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux grant us a glimpse the absent world of the Palaeolithic age.

Works Cited

Kant, I., 1952. The critique of judgement. Clarendon Press, Oxford.


From Kant to Marx via Hegel – Lecture 4

April 19, 2016

We are interested in Marx the philosopher. We are not interested in Marxism nor in the histMarxory of communism. To understand Marx as a philosopher we have to go back to his philosophical roots. This means going back to Kant’s ethics and to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics. To understand Marx as a philosopher, we have to understand why he went further than Hegel and why, in the end, he rejected Hegel’s defence of the state as the ultimate guarantee of freedom because it was not sufficiently concrete.

Freedom, as Kant argued, is not a real property of things. I can see that the table is brown and the chair is blue, but I cannot ‘see’ freedom in that way. Freedom, on the contrary, is an ‘idea’. It is a necessary human invention that is an expression of what it means to be a rational animal. It is a necessary invention, because without it, we cannot even understand what it means to be a rational being, and therefore what it means to be human. We are not rational and then free, rather to be rational means to be free. Rationality and freedom are one and the same thing.

Kant’s ethics starts from this intuition. To be moral means to be responsible for your actions. No one thinks that a non-rational being is responsible for what they do. Thus I do not think that my dog is morally responsible for peeing on the kitchen floor, even though I might find this inconvenient. Likewise, I do not take a young child to be morally responsible for soiling their diapers. I think that they do not know any better, so I do not judge them. However, I do think that you, as a morally responsible adult, are to be judged for your actions. For you are capable of deliberating about them. If not, then I do not judge you. Kant is making the point that if we did not think that human beings, as rational animals, were not responsible for their actions, then there would be no morality as such, and if there were no morality, then there would be no society. Freedom, responsibility, and ethics all go together, and one follows necessarily from the other.[1]

To act morally is to act from principle. The grocer does not adulterate his products not because he will gain more customers from being honest, but that he knows in principle it is wrong to be dishonest (Kant, 1956, p. 65). Of course, from the outside it is impossible to know whether the grocer is acting from principle or not, since both a selfish and selfless action appear the same: the grocer does not adulterate his flour. It is only from within the subject’s intentions that an action is moral or not. This is the function and purpose of the categorical imperative. As a process of deliberation it tells me whether my actions are moral or not. If I can universalise my subjective maxims, then I go know with certainty whether they are coherent and consistent. Thus stealing is not wrong because others have told me so, but because it is incoherent to both wish it and universalise it at the same time, since to steal is dependent on this existence of property that it contradicts in its application.

Freedom can only be preserved through the consistency and coherence of rules that are universal. Freedom is not a fact of nature, it is a fact of reason. If we wish to live as free beings, then we have to follow the moral law, otherwise my freedom would be the limitation of others. It is only because we all follow the same moral law as rational beings that we can all equally be free. In the end, for Kant, reason is only important because it allows us to be moral beings, to rationalise and be responsible for our actions. There is no empirical proof of freedom, it is normative. Kant is arguing that if you want to live in a word of free beings, then the only way to do so is to act morally in a coherent and consistent way. If you don’t want to be free, then give up morality, but are you sure that you do really wish to live in a world like that?

For Hegel Kant’s practical philosophy has two important weakness. First, the formalism of the moral law means that it doesn’t give us sufficient content in order to apply it in a given situation without additional material. Second, even if the moral law did work as Kant describes it, it is not sufficient to motivate us to act morally (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 2). As every undergraduate knows, it might seem quite right not to tell lies, but surely it would be absurd to tell a Nazi that I am hiding my Jewish neighbour in my cellar if he were so to ask me. As Hegel argues in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is no contradiction to steal if no property existed, so property has to exist as a real social fact, rather than a universal formal law, for theft to be seen as violating morality (Hegel, 1991, pp. 162–3). Moreover, if morality does not benefit me as a particular individual (rather than some abstraction like ‘humanity in general’), then it would hardly motivate me to act at all. Why would I act from duty, if doing so did not make me a better person?

For Kant, the self is thought abstractly through reason. For Hegel, it is thought concretely through society.[2] There is freedom because we mutually respect each other, first of all in terms of our physical existence, since slavery is the belief that we can own another human being, like any other commodity, and secondly through our respect of the other’s possession, which in are in reality an extension of their own subjectivity. The fundamental opposition for Hegel is between morality (Moralität) and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Kant’s conception of morality, every individual lives in their own private world, and the agreement with others is accidental. But the fact, Hegel would argue, that we can live as free individuals without being molested by others, is that are real social institutions that protect our freedom. Freedom is a social reality before it is a ‘fact of reason’.

Hegel was aware, however, from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that there was a great difference between modern societies and ancient ones. Kant too recognised the danger of the market. It would undermine the respect we would have for each of other as an end in itself, but for Hegel it was insufficient to think that the alienation of economic relations could be overcome by morality. It required the state to intervene to balance the excesses of market where individuals were reduced to commodities. The state preserves society so as to promote autonomy. It is not the state that destroys the freedom of the individual, since in its true form it should be the expression of the individual’s freedom, but the market, which if left unchecked leads to alienation and exploitation, a universal slavery of another form, wage slavery.

Has the world turned out as Hegel thought it would? Perhaps the answer to this question is ‘no’. In Hegel’s mind, the state would replace the social bonds that were being destroyed by the market in civil society, but what in fact happened is that the state identified itself with the market. Government is nothing but economic self-management and all social relations have been sacrificed to market ones. Hegel, then, completely underestimated the power of capital to destroy all societies that have existed and to replace them in their own form, as Marx and Engel’s famously wrote at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is a last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 223).

The reason that Hegel’s philosophy failed is the same as Kant’s. It sought the solution to alienation and exploitation in thought rather than in real lives of individuals. If Hegel did argue that the foundation of morality was society, then this society a concept rather than the real social existence of individuals. The individual, the self, the subject, is something that is thought by Hegel. It is the individual as thought, the self as thought, the subject as thought. It is not the individual who lives, the self who lives, the subject who lives. It is because Hegel’s solution to the alienation and exploitation of the market was a solution of thought alone that in the end his philosophy made no difference to reality at all for those who suffered and were exploited and who suddenly found themselves ‘unfree’ in the a so called free society.

Human beings, for Marx, are first of all living, breathing suffering beings, before they are thinking beings, and what they suffer from are not merely the thoughts of suffering and pain, but real suffering and pain. The world is real. It can engulf me. It is not merely the projection of my mind and imagination. Take the example of hunger, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1992, p. 390). Hunger is a natural need, therefore, the object that corresponds to it is something real and objective, not merely a postulate of thought. I cannot overcome my hunger merely by thinking about it. I must eat something or in the end I will die of hunger. I must eat in order to live. It is only by transforming the real world through real activity that I will solve this problem of hunger and not through the idea of hunger.

This does not mean that Hegel’s philosophy does not contain the truth of criticism, but it exists in a doubly alienated form, where the object is only the thought entity, and the subject is only consciousness. The solution to alienation for Hegel, therefore, is a solution that is internal to the mind. The separation of consciousness from the world, which finds its highest expression in religion, is separation which it discovers internally in its mind. The solution to this separation is therefore only mental. I only have to think this alienation as end and it magically it is ended. But it is ended in thought alone Marx will reply. I think that I am no longer alienated but really I am still alienated, for as a philosopher I have alienated myself from my own natural existence, as a human being, as Marx writes in a footnote, ‘with eyes, ears, etc., living in society, in the world and in nature’ (Marx, 1992, p. 398). You cannot think your way out of alienation; rather you have to find the solution in life. All the solutions of Hegelianism are false solutions.

What is true about Hegel’s philosophy is the meaning of humanity is one of movement and process. Humanity is not given, rather it has to create and make itself. It does so by overcoming its alienation, by destroying the separated character of the world. But this superseding of alienation must be a real superseding at the level of existence and not merely at the level of thought, a real act of living self-creation, and not merely the thought of such an act, and human beings will only become truly free when capital is for the sake of life, rather than life for the sake of capital. This would require a fundamental transformation of democracy where the state would exist for the majority of the people, rather than a small minority who believed they already knew what the interests of the majority were.

Bibliography

Beiser, F.C. (Ed.), 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.

Kant, I., 1956. The moral law: Kant’s groundwork on the metaphysic of morals : a new translation with analysis and notes. Hutchinson, London.

Marx, K., 1992. Early writings. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 2002. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Musil, R., 2011. The man without qualities. Picador, London.

Sedgwick, S., 2012. Hegel’s critique of Kant. OUP Oxford.


[1] If we were to argue that no-one is responsible for their actions, thus that genes or their upbringing were, then we would have no right to punish them. We punish others as a mark of our respect for them as autonomous free individuals. This is one theme of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities. If the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger commits his crimes because of physical causes, then how can he be blamed for them, since no one accuses the rock that falls on someone head of committing a crime (Musil, 2011).

[2] For an excellent account of Hegel’s ethics see ‘Hegel’s Ethics’ by Allen. W. Wood (Beiser, 1993, pp. 211–33).


Kant’s Transcendental Idealism – Lecture 3

April 9, 2016

immanuel-kant-2To understand Kant you have to, of course, understand what he is rejecting. If you don’t the know context of a philosopher, which is always what problem they are facing, then you won’t really be able to understand the point of their work. You will, for example, think it is easy to dismiss a whole or part of their argument, because it disagrees with some contemporary position (as though they were guilty of some unforeseen stupidity on their part, as though they should have none better). Thus Plato is dismissed because he thinks forms can be separate from instantiations of them, or Aristotle because he believed that reality was made of 5 elements, or Descartes because he believed in God, and so on. Of course, once one has grasped the context of a philosopher that does not mean that one has to take on board all the they say, but it does mean that one won’t dismiss them in a superficial way.

One way of understanding Kant’s philosophy is seeing how it arises out of the perennial conflict between empiricism and rationalism in Western Philosophy (though we shall see that it is not as simple as simply unifying them as some might believe). We have already spent some time in discussion of rationalism because of our lecture on Descartes, so this time we will look at, in a little detail, empiricism, and more specifically Hume.

He famously woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’, since before reading Hume, he was a rationalist of a kind.[1] What then is the basis of Hume’s philosophy? We do not require unjustified metaphysical speculation in order to have a rational scientific understanding of nature. To rid ourselves of this metaphysical speculation we have to become sceptical has to the objective basis of science, but this is necessary if we are not to base it on fictional and imaginary ideas. For Hume the source of all our ideas are the senses. This limitation is very important for Kant. Like Hume, he will argue that our knowledge of the world is limited to what is given in experience. Outside of that we can know nothing. In this sense, Kant is more Humean than he is Cartesian.

Sensations themselves are divided into two for Hume. On the one had there are impressions, and on the other ideas. Impression are direct sensations. I see the colour blue. Blue is the immediate sensation. Ideas are the relations between impression. I see many blue things, and I compare them through the concept ‘blue’. This does not mean ideas are separate from impression in terms of their existence. An idea exists only because there are impressions, and these impressions have their source in the sensation of the world. Ideas are, if you like, impressions that have become older. They are less vivid and present than immediate sensations, but they are made of nothing but sensations. A blind man, Hume argues, could not have an idea of a colour, because he has not seen it, nor a deaf man sound, because he has not heard it (Hume & Buckle 2007, p.16). Hume’s question is whether there is a necessary order in the relations of ideas, as there is in the order of impressions (in sensation, one impression comes after the other). In other words, what groups or orders my ideas together. If I think of x, must I also think of y?

The answer is that I associate one idea with another. There are three kinds of association for Hume, resemblance, proximity and causality. If I see a picture of a fox, then I am likely to think of a fox, if I imagine a room in the university, then I am likely to think of a room next to it, and finally, if I think of stone dropping from someone’s hand, then I likely to think of falling to the ground. Now it is the last association that is fundamental to how we think of the explanations of natural sciences. When we think of explanations in total, then are two kinds: relations of ideas and matters of fact. For the former, Hume is thinking of logic and mathematics. For these, we do not have to go beyond the ideas themselves (if you understand the meaning of one idea, then you will know why the other idea is necessarily associated with, so that ‘bachelor’ must mean ‘unmarried man [remembering that these ideas still have their origin in impressions]). But for matters of fact this is not the case, because they tell us something new about the world, rather than just analyse what we already know. Why do we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, when we could equally believe the opposite. Hume is not arguing that we shouldn’t believe that the sun will rise (in fact he has good argument to think why we do), but there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t. The reason why we do is that we associate one idea with the other, the idea that the sun rose yesterday with the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow. We might think that we get to this second idea through an argument, where the statement ‘the sun rose yesterday’ is a premise. If it is an argument of this kind, then it could only be a relation of ideas or a matter of fact. It can’t be the first, since there is no contradiction in thinking the opposite, but it can’t be a matter of fact, because it is precisely that kind of argument I am trying to prove, so I appear to be going around in circles.

The answer must be that my conviction must have its origin elsewhere and that a belief is not the same a giving a reason or having a reason (indeed Hume will argue that our reasons have their source in our beliefs rather than the other way around). His answer is that the source of this belief is in our impressions rather than in our ideas first of all. It is because I have had the vivid experience of the sun rising again and again in the past. The belief that it will do so in the future is a habit and custom of the mind that I associated with the impression of I am having now. Thus when I see the see the dawn, whether directly or indirectly, I immediately associate it with the idea of the sun rising and I cannot help but do so because this custom or habit belongs to human nature intrinsically. A belief then is a particular vivid idea. Not as vivid as a direct sensation, but more vivid than a reason or a concept, and it is this that cause me always to associate x with y. Of course experience is open ended. It is perfectly possible that one day my belief will be unconfirmed rather than confirmed by experience.

Kant is more on Hume’s side, as we have said, rather than Descartes. In these sense, he is an empirical realist, that our understanding and experience of the world is given by experience, and we cannot deduce facts about the world by arguing from ideas. Where he differs from Hume is how far he is willing to take this. He argues that causality cannot be just an habit of mind, an association, but must be fundamental to our experience as such, so fundamental that we would even be having experiences of objects at all, rather than worrying whether the sun might rise tomorrow or not.

What is fundamental to Kant’s difference from both Descartes and Hume is how he conceives of the relation between the subject and object. For both of them, though they give completely diametrically opposed answers to the problem, it is a question of how the subject conforms to the object. For Descartes, my knowledge conforms to the object through ideas, whereas for Hume, it does so through sensations. For Kant, on the contrary, and it is this that is totally novel in his approach, the relation between the subject and object must be reversed. It is not how does the subject conform to the object, but how does the object conform to the subject. As Kant writes,

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all our attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge […] We should then be proceeding on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. (Kant 2007, p.Bxvi)

Both Hume and Descartes relate knowledge to knowing the thing as it is in itself. One asserts that we can now it through ideas, the other through sensations. But it precisely this ‘thing’ that we cannot know, Kant argues. We can know how the object appears to us. Appearance itself is split into two: the content of appearance and the form of appearance. The content of appearance is what is given in experience (what Hume calls sensations or impressions). The form is how these contents appear to us. Thus, we can distinguish between what the chair is, and how the chair appears to us.

It is Kant’s argument that the form of appearance is universal and necessary. Unlike the habits of Hume, then, they are true of all human cognition, and we cannot experience the world in any other way. In the transcendental aesthetic, Kant describes the pure forms of sensation, time and space; in the transcendental logic, the pure forms of the object (the categories of the understanding); and finally in the transcendental dialectic, how philosophy gets into difficulties when it treats these pure forms as though they were objects of experience that one could know directly.

Let us look at Kant’s argument for the pure form of space in the Critique of Pure Reason, because by examining this one argument we will see how Kant’s employs a transcendental method to solve the age old antagonism between empiricism and rationalism. Kant is arguing that space and time are a priori and synthetic. What he means by that is that space is prior to experience but also adds something to experience (it unifies it; this is the formal element). We can already see that Kant is doing something novel here, because usually we think that the a priori is analytic, and the synthetic is a posteriori, so it seems quite strange to argue that space and time are a priori and synthetic.

Let us first of all look at the belief that space is something real, just like the objects that we can see. Kant’s argument against this common sense view is quite simple: space, he argues is the outer form of things for us. In other words, things that are outside of us are always in space (the difference from time, is that this is the inner form of ideas – are memories are not literally in space). To say that space is derived from experience is therefore to beg the question, for the very thing that one is trying to prove, spatiality, is already appealed to in the proof. Secondly, space cannot be derived from experience because of its necessity. The necessity of space for every appearance is that it is possible to imagine space without any appearances, no tree, no house and so, but it is not possible to imagine the absence of space and appearances (of course it is possible to think the absence of space, but it is not possible to imagine that there is something and no space). The argument against the Newtonian view that space is something real (a self-subsisting entity, as Kant calls it) is that this would mean that space were a container, but this container itself would have to contained and so on ad infinitum.

This would seem to imply that space, therefore, can only be a concept of things rather than something real, but Kant has to show that space is the pure form of sensations, and not just a concept that we have of things. This is much harder to prove than that space is not real and Kant, for this reason, spends more time doing so. The philosopher he has mind, who thinks space is just a relational concept, is Leibniz. For Leibniz, space is not something, so to speak that exists outside of objects and thus independently of them, rather it is an idea that expresses the relation between objects. Space is, therefore, not something real, but merely an idea. How can we best understand this notion of relational ideal space? Think of two places and the distance between them. Let us think of the two cities of Plymouth and Exeter in the South-West of England. We might say that Exeter is near to London than Plymouth, but is this being nearer a property of Exeter, or does it not rather express the relation between Exeter and Plymouth. For there to be space at all, there needs to be at least two objects. With just one object, there would be no space. If space were not a relation between objects, then it would exist, if there were only one object.

Kant needs to show that space is not simply a thought that we associate with objects, but their necessary form of presentation. He does this by showing that how we use pure intuition of space, is not the same as how we use concepts.[2] The intuition of space is unitary, singular and unique. This means that diverse spaces are parts of one and the same Space. The relation between these spaces, and Space, is not the same as the relations between the concept Tree and instances of trees. All the diverse parts of space belong to one space, but trees do not belong to one and the same Tree, therefore space cannot be a concept, and if it cannot be concept it must be an intuition, since these are the only two sources of human knowledge.[3]

So the conclusion of the argument is that space is not property of things, either as sensation or a concept, but is a necessary part of our experience of the world, for we cannot have an experience of an external without it already been organised through space. Space, therefore, is both a priori, since it is necessary, and synthetic, since it is added something to experience (namely it is spatial). Things are spatial because human consciousness is spatial, and not the other way around. Kant repeats the argument with time, and then in the transcendental logic with logics. It wants also to show through the transcendental deductions that without these pure forms of appearance there would be no object for us at all. As Kant writes,

The a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. (Kant 2007, p.A111)

So Hume’s argument is that we have an experience and then associated these ideas in our minds. For Kant, on the contrary, we wouldn’t be having an experience at all. Causality is not something that we apply to our experience; it belongs to the very fabric of our experience as something meaningful and coherent from us, and it is on this foundations that the natural sciences are built.

Bibliography

Gardner, S., 2006. Kant and the Critique of pure reason, London; New York: Routledge.

Hume, D. & Buckle, S., 2007. An enquiry concerning human understanding and other writings, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 2007. Critique of Pure Reason 2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan.

Kant, I. et al., 2004. Immanuel Kant Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Of Leibniz-Wolffian kind. Kant writes in Prolegomena, ‘I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction’ (Kant et al. 2004, p.10).

[2] We need to be certain here, as Sebastian Gardner points out, that Kant is not denying that there is a concept of space, but we should not confuse this with the pure intuition of space, which must underlie even this concept (Gardner 2006, p.77).

[3] Kant, in the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, also demonstrates the difference between the pure intuition of space and a concept by demonstrating that the infinity of space is not the same as the infinity of a concept.


Descartes and Rationalism – Lecture 2

March 18, 2016

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesFor the next several weeks we are going to do a quick tour of the history of philosophy. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but give you a general map of some of the key concepts and ideas. Philosophy is not the history of philosophy, but you cannot do philosophy without its history. First of all because all philosophers are in argument with others, and you don’t know what they are arguing about if you don’t have a grasp of the context of their argument. Secondly, there is a lot of technical jargon in philosophy, so if you don’t know what the concepts are, then you can be totally confused (especially since a lot of these concepts sound like words we ordinarily use, and you soon come to realise that ordinary definitions are pretty worthless when it comes to philosophy). Some people argue that history isn’t important in philosophy, but I don’t agree. Philosophy is historical through and through, like any human activity, and the idea that philosophical ideas are timeless and eternal, is itself an historical idea. There seems something very strange to me to treat Plato’s problems as though they were exactly the same as our, and what he meant by the words he used, is the same as what we do, even though there are thousands of years separating us. Of course, in the end history does not answer everything, but not to know the history leaves you very much in the dark.

When we come to read Descartes’ Meditations we can be very blasé about it. Doesn’t everyone know the famous cogito ergo sum, and has the idea that reality is a dream the basis of a very successful movies series?[1] Because we have become very used to Descartes’ ideas, we also think that they are very easy to dismiss and counter, as though we hardly have to think about them at all. To understand Descartes, however, like every philosopher, is to know what his problem was, since metaphysics is always an answer to a problem. His problem wasn’t whether reality existed or not, but what is the status of our scientific theories. Scientists, on the whole, are not interested in metaphysical problems, but of course philosophers are.

Descartes’ Meditations cannot be understood without the rise of new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he was a philosopher, Descartes was a scientist and mathematician. What propelled him towards philosophy, was his worry about the metaphysical consequences of the new science. Something he believed, for example, that Galileo had not been sufficiently concerned.[2] What this new science required was a completely different metaphysics, but before we can understand what this is we need to be aware, if only in a very schematic way, the metaphysics he was rejecting, which was Scholasticism that had its basis in a reworking of Aristotle.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield, 2003, pp. 291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Now the point is, if you are going to reject the scientific account of Aristotelianism, then you are also going to have discard the metaphysics that underpins it. This is what Descartes does and he thinks Galileo doesn’t. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing (if we wish for a total explanation), whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

True, however, only internal to my own thoughts. Not true as true to reality. I still have no idea whether reality is what my ideas say it is, however internally coherent my ideas are. At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

It is at this point that we can get confused about Descartes’ philosophy. We are told that he is a rationalist and that he is attempting to ground the new science in more rigorous metaphysics, but we associate the idea of God with religion, or even worse with superstition. Why would he know introduce God? Isn’t he rejecting reason altogether? This answer to this question is to go back to the problem. The new science postulates a mathematical reality which is not open to the senses. How do I know that this isn’t a fiction? To the practical scientists this is not a problem. She isn’t worried. She just gets on with her experiments. For the philosopher that isn’t enough. He wants to know that reality really is what we say it is. For this we need there is an external guarantee and this is what God is. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, in the conclusion to this this lecture, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[3] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze, 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects here, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams, 2005, p. 124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out ‘Descartes’ Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (Spinoza, 1996, sec. 1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two), which express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain our place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese 67, 77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze [WWW Document]. Sur Spinoza. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 10.9.14).

Hatfield, G., 2003. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Descartes and the meditations. Routledge, London.

Spinoza, B. de, 1996. Ethics. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Psychology Press.


[1] I am thinking of the Matrix trilogy, and the first film in particular.

[2] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain it sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew, 1986).

[3] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.