This post is a follow-up on my Dallas Willard post from a few days ago. A couple of reader comments on that (on the blog and Facebook) shamed me into re-listening to the second half of Willard’s lecture and newly listen to the Q&A afterwards. I can now say that his positive story is not anywhere as oversimplistic as I was implying, and in fact I agree with several of his main points:
1. Without a notion of the independence of the world from our whims, science, knowledge as a grounds for action, and communication itself don’t make sense.
2. Self-fulfillment requires real bonding with other people.
3. Freedom is not just “freedom from,” but “freedom to.”
4. Today’s society is excessively consumerist, which is not all that fulfilling.
5. The “hedonistic paradox,” which is that happiness is a by-product of the pursuit of goals that are not happiness; to actually pursue happiness itself doesn’t work too well.
My disagreement with Willard is that:
1. I don’t think any of the above insights is incompatible with atheism or a sophisticated post-Kantian epistemology.
2. I in particular don’t read Nietzsche as the father of consumer culture and the postmodern dismissal of any truth beyond the dictates of the individual’s will.
3. The choice between a simplistic objectivism and a thoroughgoing subjectivism is false.
Willard is not actually objecting to Nietzsche’s ethics when he complains about the culture of self-love, but to Rand’s crappy interpretation of Nietzsche’s ethics, which is unrepentantly self-absorbed in exactly the way that Willard objects to. Note that the alternative that Willard poses is not the mindless altruism Rand describes (which is another straw man), but has to do with the meaning given to your life by membership in a community, i.e. by other people. This is all in line with MacIntyre and Aristotle, and Willard’s comments on bonding are just another way of expressing the social view of self found in Hegel and Sartre. As we discussed in our Kierkegaard episode, it seems to make it more problematic rather than less to introduce a supernatural element into this story of the building of self. Willard describes meaningfulness as coming from our place in the kingdom of God, as if this was an Aristotelian polis, but if the forces upon which you’re supposed to reflect are, say, invisible and ultimately unknowable, then it’s just not going to work to build a self, and seems more likely to result in the kind of delusional solipsism that Willard wants to avoid.
Still, I agree with Willard (minus his supernaturalism) against Rand’s ethics. However, Willard agrees with Rand against Nietzsche’s (and Kant’s) epistemology. Willard argues that unless we think of ourselves as actually coming into contact with reality itself in our everyday experiences, then we can’t explain how we even have ideas of objects at all. Old-time empiricists thought that we know nothing but our own ideas; we just fool ourselves into thinking we know the world itself.
I think Willard is correct that this went away as a mainstream view in the analytic tradition by the time of Russell, and the phenomenologists also largely abandoned the idea of a thing-in-itself. Still, Willard appears to see the alternative (i.e. the current view of mainstream philosophy) as going back to even more old-timey metaphysical realism. It is this objectivist epistemology that Willard and Rand agree on.
But there are many positions between phenomenalism and metaphysical realism, comprising most of modern philosophy. Most of them involve, I think, simply accepting the Kantian picture of knowledge as thoroughly infected by our minds (our language, the limitation of our sense organs, our interests, our instincts, our culture, our embeddedness in the world) but then insisting that by definition, this shared construction IS reality. I interpret Nietzsche as playing both this position and the Kantian one at various points in his career, which is why he can both talk about practical truths and how the divergence of philosophers’ systems from unknowable Truths makes them all liars. There are difficulties with this type of view (which we went into in our pragmatism episodes, but the mature solution is not to just say the hell with it and go back to a philosophically ignorant, pre-modern epistemology, which is exactly what both Rand and Willard share.
(So yes, I acknowledge Willard is not a post-modernist a la Caputo, but he does interpret Nietzsche as a postmodernist.)