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.)
people who want to remain in the flock while being philosophically sophisticated should give this fellow a try:
Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says
Absolutely, dmf. Ricoeur has had an incredible influence on me and my thinking. I was exposed to him by a Jesuit in Seminary and never looked back.
yep, even if one doesn’t share his faith commitments, or even his philosophical anthropology, his characterization of the “masters of suspicion” should be required of anyone reading folks like Nietzsche:
Law Ware Twitter: @law_ware says
Great video–as always.
Yes, his post-critical naïveté literally rescued me intellectually from the cold, lonely shores of skepticism.
An education in Nietzsche is incomplete without at least a look at Ricouer.
Adam Swartz says
Thanks dmf, my first exposure to Ricouer and I am intrigued. Great article. Do you have any suggestions regarding which of his works to read?
sure AS, I would start with Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation and see if that is to your liking, will be interested in what, if anything, you make of it.
Adam Swartz says
Thanks dmf! Much appreciated!
Kierkegaard & Kant on freedom and evil:
David Buchanan says
A few comments on the issue of metaphysical realism and 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.” He argues for this realism despite the fact that it “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.”
Mark agrees with Willard up to a point, saying we need “a notion of the independence of the world from our whims” to make sense of “science, knowledge as a grounds for action, and communication itself” but he rejects Willard’s false dilemma: “The choice between a simplistic objectivism and a thoroughgoing subjectivism is false.” That’s about where I land too. Abandoning the thing-in-itself does not necessarily lead to vacuous relativism, nihilism or solipsism.
It seems there are at least two distinctly different ways to get rid of things-in-themselves. One way is to say we can never have epistemic access to them and the other way is to say that things-in-themselves don’t really exist in the first place. We Kant have access except through the categories of the mind, it’s a Sellars market when it comes to myths about the given and Husserl wanted to [bracket] the things-in-themselves. I think the idea is that our relation to things-in-themselves is causal but not epistemic. The world is really out there but we can never peel back the human contribution so as to expose reality for what it really is. (As the guys were saying in the Candide episode, nihilists are disappointed metaphysicians, former optimists who used to think they could have access to the thing-in-itself.)
The other way – denying the EXISTENCE of an external and independent reality and not just our access to it – isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. I think it’s a more extensive and aggressive form of the neo-Kantian position. (Like Kant, they say our perceptions are significantly shaped by our thought categories but the neo position says the categories are not innate. The categories of the mind are evolving human inventions which are inherited through socialization, especially in the process of language acquisition.) On this view, even the simple idea of a “thing” was invented, as William James says, “by some remote ancestor”. We all learned this idea so long ago as infants that it’s easy to forget that it is an idea. “Object permanence” is a good idea too. It so seamlessly fits with our sensations, especially when playing hardball, that we can sympathize with naive realism, with faith in the myth of the given. “Objective reality” is kind of like a bigger, fancier version of the same reification process wherein a concept is so good that it is mistaken for reality itself, mistaken as an ontological reality.
The so-called independent and external reality is a metaphysical posit that is meant to explain, among other things, why reality does not bend to our whims. Simple objects are posited to explain heaviness, sharpness, hardness, and the general persistence of resistances found in our experience. The simple idea of things or objects has evolved into the idea of an independent, objective reality. But the reality check that empirical science counts on so heavily is never really found in an independent or external reality. The resistances and regularities of nature have always been known first and foremost within the experiences of the investigators. In that sense, empirical reality is neither independent of us nor external to us. In that sense, our concepts don’t represent “things” so much as “thing” is a concept that represents experience, an abstraction derived from experience. The thing-in-itself isn’t the cause of our experience but is caused by our experience.
And the same sort of story could be told about the subjective side, wherein the self is a concept derived from experience. Inner and outer, internal and external, subjective and objective are all known, as James say, within the tissue of experience. They are names for the ways we sort experience.