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.


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.


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.


Moral Reasoning – Lecture 1

February 8, 2015

We all act morally or otherwise. We all see others and judge whether they act morally or otherwise. The question is what right do we have to do so. Is there an underlying procedure or principle that allows us objectively to declare are own or others acts moral or not? In the history of moral philosophy there have been two standard ways of doing so, and these two theories form the mainstay of most ethical courses both in schools and universities. They are utilitarianism and deontology. Both also have a long pedigree and can be found right at the beginnings of Western philosophy. They can also be found in other traditions outside of this canon. For ease of explanation, however, in this lecture we going to focus on the main representative of both theories: Bentham and Mill for utilitarianism, and Kant for deontology. At the end will we ask, despite the fact that they are very different theories, whether they both harbour the same prejudice that is it possible to make sense of our ethical and moral principles outside of the culture in which we exist.

Though we can find utilitarian arguments for ethics in Socrates’ speeches, for example, probably the best modern representative is the English philosophy Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of his utilitarianism is the maximisation of human happiness. What determines all human action is pain and pleasure. Rationally, every human being, like any other natural being, seeks to maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain. To determine whether a course of action is moral or not is to add up the maximum amount of happiness for all. If the pleasure outweighs then the pain, then the action is rational.

What makes this moral theory attractive to many is that it seems to reduce moral choices to something quantifiable and calculable. It is not surprising that even today government policy is decided by utility calculus. At the heart of the calculus is the idea of a common currency. We can take what apparently appears to be value judgement and transform it into a cost benefit analysis. This is even clearer when we take this common currency literally and transform it into an economic calculation where we measure people’s preferences in terms of a monetary value. Thus we might say that it makes sense to force people to wear seatbelts because although this causes pain to a small number of people the benefit to society as whole is greater because of less deaths in road accidents.

Historically, when we come to look at the application of utilitarianism, we might, however worry about its moral basis. Thus Bentham argued that poor workhouses should be created for the poor, because the sight of beggars on the streets was more harmful to those who saw them, than the individual’s freedom to beg. The poor themselves would be forced to work in these workhouses so that they paid for their own incarceration so that the taxpayers wouldn’t have to forgo the pleasure of any loss of income.

Although this historical example might appear extreme to some, many people will defend utilitarianism in this way: a harm to one is a benefit to all. One such example is torture. If you could prevent a bomb killing millions of people would you not torture the terrorist to find out where the bomb was? It seems rational to say that you would, since you would be weighing one human life against a million others. The argument against this scenario is that it would be wrong to torture the terrorist because every human life inviolable. The utilitarian would respond that such principles are unrealistic, since this situation requires that we cannot seriously take the one life to be as important as the million others.

We might think, however, as Sandel points out, that we are not comparing like with like (2010, pp.38–40). For the real comparison, since we suppose that the millions who would die by the bomb are innocent, would we be willing to torture the innocent daughter of the terrorist in order to find where the bomb is, and many would not be willing to take this step even though the purely utilitarian argument would force us to do so. Those who routinely defend torture do not usually defend the torture of innocents even for the best utilitarian arguments that doing so would lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

That Bentham’s strict utilitarianism seems to go against some of our fundamental ideas of what morality is meant that his disciple Mill looked to improve it by resolving human rights with utility. His basic conception of liberty is any individual should have the right to do what they wished as long as they did not harm others. This idea of a right seems stronger than any utility, since no society, for example could banish religion of minority simply because it did not coincide with the wishes of a majority. Mill, however, argues it can be defended on a utility calculus because it is better for a society to have non-conforming elements than supress them. Thus, in the long term, allowing dissent and individual differences prevents a society from becoming rigid and stultifying. The majority should test its views and opinions, and can only do so because it allows for a minority to exist. The problem with this utility argument, again, as Sandel points out, is that it does not sufficiently preserve individual human rights (2010, p.50). Although it is possible to imagine a society that exist with minorities, it also perfect possible to image a happy society is which every one’s needs are fulfilled but is despotic. Now we might prefer to live in a society that has individual rights, but we could not argue for that on totally utilitarian argument.

To defend utilitarianism against the idea of a common currency that all lives and all pleasure can be quantified in the same way, Mill makes the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, as he famously writes ‘it is better to be a human being unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied’. The test is that if one individual experiences both the lower and higher pleasure (let us saying listening to One Direction or going to an art gallery), then if we add up all these individuals choices, then the higher pleasure will take precedence over the lower pleasure. The only problem with this analysis is that someone can desire the lower pleasure even though they know the other choice is the greater accomplishment. The nobler life might not the most pleasurable. It might be better to go to art gallery and listen to Shakespeare, but it might be more pleasurable to slob on the settee and watch rubbish T.V. If we do think that the other life is more noble, as Mill obviously does, then it cannot be a utility calculus that makes us think that, but our ideas of what a dignified and worthy human life might be. As Sandel writes, ‘It is not desires here which are the standard but the principle of human dignity. The higher pleasures are not higher because we prefer them; we prefer them because we recognize them as higher.’ (2010, p.55)

The opposite of utilitarianism is deontology, and we are going to use Kant as our example. Like Mill and Bentham, Kant too thinks that moral choices should be determined by reason, but for Kant moral reasoning determines the principles of actions and not its ends. Kant sharply distinguishes human action from natural events. Natural events are governed by external laws of nature. A stone falls to the ground because of the law of gravity, not because it chooses to do so.[1] The necessity of moral laws is neither empirical nor natural, but ideal. I act morally because I have rational principles I act by.

What does it mean to act rationally, rather than just morally? Human beings act rationally because we act through ends and means. I want to have a cup of tea. I know rationally that if I want to have a cup of tea then I need to boil the kettle. The cup of tea is the end, and the boiling kettle is the means. Ends are objects of human desire and the ultimate end for Kant is happiness.

To act rationally therefore is to act under an imperative. If you want x, then you must do y. There are two kinds of imperative for Kant, hypothetical and categorical. The hypothetical imperative is the example we have already discussed. I have an end, and I will the means. If I want to get to the lecture on time, then I have to leave the house at a certain time. Such an hypothetical imperative Kant calls ‘technical’, since to achieve them you need certain skills, knowledge and ability. The overall aim, why I should bother to go to lectures at all, or even get out of bed, Kant calls ‘pragmatic’, and is happiness, since every human being wants to be happy.

All hypothetical imperatives are relative to the individual, since it is me who wants to get to the lecture and not you, and although we all will happiness none us is going to agree what happiness is. The only imperative that has absolute necessity Kant calls categorical imperative. Here the principles of the action are not determined by the end and the validity of law is unconditional. Kant has to prove that such imperative exists. How could there be an action, which if it were rationally willed, would have to be willed by everyone?

For Kant, the moral law takes such a form. Take the example of dishonesty. Kant’s argument is that to will dishonesty is to will lawlessness, and that one cannot at one at the same be rational and will lawlessness. To act lawfully means one can test one’s actions and see if they were lawful for every other rational being. We do so by rationalising them. First order principles are rational means ends calculations. Second order principles, which are moral tests, is where I take my maxims and see if all can follow them. This means for Kant that they are coherent and consistent.

Take then the example of finding a purse fall of money on the street. Should I take the money or should I hand it in? My maxim, then, is as follows: given the circumstances in which I can appropriate the money of someone else without being found out to make myself richer, I will take that thing (Deigh 2010, p.147). Can I universalise that subjective maxim? Kant would argue that I could not and be coherent, because if I lived in such a world in which everyone took each other property at will then there would be no property as such. My belief that I would gain from stealing is predicated on world in which people do not steal but respect private property.

In terms of consistency, Kant uses another example. Imagine a rich man walking down the street who sees a beggar, why should he give that beggar any money since he believes we shouldn’t help others but only look after ourselves (Deigh 2010, p.151). We could imagine him saying to himself I doesn’t think I should have to give any poor people my money. Now this does not contradict Kant’s coherence test, because one can perfectly imagine a world in which the rich don’t give the poor money and help them, but it fails the consistency test, because one could not will a world in which one wanted to live in which no one would offer another a helping hand. Would the rich man, for example, want to live in a world, where in a flood or in an epidemic everyone would let each other die without assistance?

The problem with Kant’s ethics is its excessive formalism. It appears to justify actions most people using their common sense would not think were ethical. So for example, if I lived in a police state, and someone came to my door for my neighbour, and I knew that they would be sent to a concentration camp, then I would still have to tell the police man the truth, since not telling lies is a categorical imperative. More importantly, I think, this formalism hides a social bias in Kant’s account. The categorical imperative against stealing rests on the existence of private property, but it is perfectly possible to imagine societies without private property, and in that case it would not be wrong to steal. We are not really, then, universalising values for all rational beings. We are only universalising our own social values.

Moral theorists, as Macintyre points out, argue as though there were two levels of discourse, each absolute separate from the other (MacIntyre 2010, p.2). One, the everyday moral language that people use, which expresses their history and culture, and the other, the language that philosophers use, which is somehow meant to transcend every history and culture. Kant does not speak of stealing being wrong for 18th century Europe, but of being wrong for all time and for all culture, and for all rational beings (including non-human rational beings, one assumes). The same can be said for utilitarian theories. That one appears to be the greatest benefit for us today, might not be the greatest benefit in the future, nor might not be seen as the greatest benefit to other cultures (they might value different things).[2] What we value, and take to be right, reflect our own culture and society’s views, and that one discourse affects this other. This does not lead to moral relativism, which is merely the opposite side of the same coin of moral absolutism, but that our moral reasoning does not take place in a vacuum.

Bibliography

Deigh, J., 2010. An introduction to ethics, New York: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, A.C., 2010. A short history of ethics: a history of moral philosophy from the homeric age to the twentieth century, London [u.a.]: Routledge.

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


[1] Metaphysical speaking, the idea of freedom is that the heart of Kant’s ethics. We are moral because we are free and self-determining. In this lecture we only going to focus on the categorical imperative and its difference from utilitarianism. A full account would need to show this necessary relation between freedom and morality for Kant.

[2] We even might assert that utilitarianism, at least in the form of Bentham and Mill, is itself a historical phenomenon and impossible without the rise of capitalism and economic rationality.


Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

October 4, 2013

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on, and defend, some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites (thus it is perfectly possible to think that animals are capable of ethics in this sense).[1] We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudaimonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects. To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].


[1] This is not to say that animals have rights for Spinoza. Not even human beings have these, at least not in the normal way that we think of them. A right is a power for Spinoza and so we have a ‘right’ over something to the extent that we have power over them.