We’re barely more than a day away right now from our interview with Frithjof, which he says he’s “thrilled” about, and I’m certainly looking forward to as well, though I can picture any number of things going less than ideally as I introduce these two known elements (Frithjof on the one hand and Seth/Wes/Dylan on the other) to each other.
For me, this period of preparation has been not only a chance to systematically treat this topic (work) that has occupied so much of my thoughts and experiences over the last twenty years since I learned about New Work, but it was an opportunity to bore more explicitly into some aspects of my own philosophical foundations. Frithjof’s class was the first philosophy course I took in college: as a sophomore (having not decided as a freshman that I needed to concern myself with reading Descartes and such) taking (through the dubious permissiveness granted by the University of Michigan honors program) this very upper-level course (a number of my fellows there were grad students) reading Hegel’s Phenomenology and Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego and such.
Despite my not being at all qualified at the time to take the course (I had never before written a philosophy paper and came out of the course with a B-.), this for the first time in college struck me as work in line with what I was actually thinking. I wasn’t learning history and methods of thinking in order to become a better philosopher; I was actually there philosophizing myself, reading these figures that did not strike me as archaic, as tainted by history (e.g. as I felt and still to some extent feel that Descartes and Kant are tainted by their cultures’ overall religiosity).
It’s no secret that a lot of the idiosyncrasies in our interpretations of the figures we read on PEL has been driven (and was moreso in our earliest episodes) by the lessons we took away (and were by the time we podcasted only half remembered) from the courses we took on these figures. A disproportionate portion of my ready-made picture came from Bergmann, and I’ve found as we went that some parts of this picture were clearer and received more post-Bergmann seasoning/processing/reconsideration than others.
Some of the key elements from Bergmann that you’ve heard out of my mouth on past podcasts are quite relevant to the current discussion of New Work:
1. People are NOT (contra Hobbes and most cynical people today) selfish. People don’t perform some calculation before acting re. what’s in their interest or what gives them the most pleasure. We’re drawn to do things for all sorts of stupid reasons, as when (Bergmann’s example) people ran off in droves to fight religious wars (like the wars between Catholicism and Protestantism: “over whether Jesus is actually in the piece of bread during communion or not.”). In the current context, Bergmann describes this as the “poverty of desire.”
2. Why aren’t we selfish in this way? Because we don’t have “selves,” strictly speaking, to start with; because the self is an achievement. Yes, I distinguish my body from your body, and my pain from your pain, but none of that is enough to have a defined “self interest.” On the contrary, the sense of what we “identify with” in the sense that we will defend it as if we are defending home turf is very fluid, and we are vulnerable to being sucked into stupid causes. How do we get a self? That’s now been the topic of several of our podcasts, including the ones on Hegel’s Phenomenology (the master and slave), Sartre, Buber, Lacan, and it’s come up on several other occasions. (See my recent long post contrasting Bergmann with Ayn Rand, who does have some of the right account on this issue but fails to break sufficiently from the Enlightenment picture exemplified by #1 above.)
3. Bergmann’s consequent view of freedom is one we’ve covered by considering Kant and others. He lays it out in his book On Being Free, which is the philosophical work (from 1977, not too long before he turned his focus from traditional academia; the start of that period, a dissertation on Hegel, was from 1959) that he’s famous for. To review, freedom according to this conception is not freedom from obstacles as the Enlightenment would have it (using the view of human nature as selfish, wanting merely to be free from people interfering from us serving our own needs). Mere freedom from things leaves one in a vacuum, purposeless, given the poverty of desire/lack of self/self-ignorance that we all suffer from (per Bergmann, drawing on Hegel and Nietzsche). No, real freedom is positive: it is a matter of deep identification with what you’re doing. Given the poverty of desire, institutions can be very helpful to achieve this: they provide a structure and practices in which one can thrive (MacIntyre is another figure we read with a similar view). However, for Bergmann has a complicated view of psychology like Nietzsche; it’s not just a matter of adhering to static Practical Reason a la Kant (recall that Kant defines morality, which is truly free action, as acting in accordance with this as OPPOSED to our mere desires), but rather a moving target as the self is built, so that only insofar as we’ve developed an authentic self can we achieve freedom. Note, however, that we can feel a LACK of freedom much more easily, which is where the application to jobs comes in: even if you don’t know what you really really want, you know at least at some key moments that it’s NOT THIS. (i.e. this task that for the sake of food and shelter and luxury you signed up to do every freaking day.)
All the above is review, and the purpose of this post is to call attention to two essays posted on Bergmann’s website that formulate some parts of Bergmann’s phenomenology-derived philosophy–parts which I’ve likewise tried to spout about in some prior episodes but perhaps less successfully, or at least with less specific memory of what Bergmann said about them, so reading these two essays for the first time in full over the last couple of days has been eye-opening.
“The Experience of Values” was written in 1983 and according to Bergmann’s wiki page is “used in universities across the world.” Its principal claim is that the fact/value distinction is bogus (well, not entirely without use, but not the metaphysical centrality we take it for), or more precisely rooted in a bogus epistemology which imagines that we perceive only objective properties like shapes and sizes and maybe colors and then impose judgments that those same things are “dangerous” or “merry” or “dreadful” or whatnot. So, like Pirsig and Heidegger and others, he’s trying to get rid of the subjective/objective distinction. His account is driven by phenomenology, i.e. our experience of valuing (from p. 5 of the PDF):
What we notice is the stark and unqualified “givenness” of these qualities. They present themselves and they confront us. If we set aside all explanatory frameworks and assumptions, even those that are only hazy shadows and habits, and make the effort to see clearly nothing but the actual brute experience of them (and that is at least a part of what Husserl meant by his “return to the facts”) then we are struck by the simple “thereness” of them. We look and we see that this gesture is clumsy while that one is graceful. We listen and we hear the sadness of a little tune. In all of this we are spectators and the qualities do not act on us, do not even offer themselves to us, but they simply are in a solid and assertive independence.
For example (from p. 7):
Take a situation that is very that is very threatening. Imagine a tree falling down in your direction. Does it really make sense to believe that we do not perceive the danger directly but that the “neutral” tree causes a sensation in us and that the whole response of our body is produced by it? But if not, then why should the experience of being charmed or tempted be metaphysically so different from that of terror? For that matter, what of other organisms? Are we to suppose that they too respond largely to their own sensations? If so, would this assumption not conflict with everything we know about awareness in the lower forms of life? Moreover, is this not in any case an inherently strange view of organisms? Is it not a needlessly complex theory of how organisms interact with their environment? Still further, what of Gestalt Psychology, or of Piaget’s contention that infants perceive (in his terminology) “affective qualities” before they have either a concept of self, or of their own body?
…In these situations there is often no sensation inside us. It may sound strange, but if one wanted to describe these experiences correctly one would have to say that it is the cigarette itself… that has the quality of “being-tempting.” And the same is true for the falling, threatening tree, for a leaf that is luxurious, for a vulnerable face, or a voice that is revolting… They are of one piece with the “given” and are encountered as integral with it.
This should all sound very familiar to anyone familiar with the language of Sartre. He connects this idea that first we perceive a value-neutral world and then some “I” behind the scenes judges that world to add a value to it with the general epistemic picture of classical empiricism where we are delivered up some raw sensations and then assemble them into an image that may or may not reflect reality. This leads to many of the perennial problems of epistemology, and Bergmann thinks that the phenomenologists starting with Hegel through Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre (he could have mentioned Heidegger but regards him as a hack; recall that his folks were from Germany, and according to Robert Solomon, Bergmann’s student, Bergmann shared the inability of many in that generation to in any way forgive Heidegger’s Nazi bullshit) already solved this through a picture of knowledge whereby our primary relation to the world is not “consciousness,” is not the intellect, that “knowledge” in the primary case of familiarity with the world is not a matter of cognizing anything, which would involve introspection upon our own sensations of “raw data” but simply of being in touch with the world.
This epistemic aspect is more explicitly spelled out in the second of Bergmann’s papers that I wanted to call your attention to: “Epistemology and Social Science,” which he wrote some time in the 80s but never tried to get published. Recently it resurfaced and he was severely scolded by his colleagues for not putting this thing out, so now it’s out as a Kindle book.
Listeners to our Hegel’s Phenomenology episodes might recall my first name-drop of Bergmann, where I tried to describe the diagram that he drew on the board to describe this new, non-Cartesian model of knowledge, that cuts off the thing-in-itself and the Cartesian subject to present a picture of knowledge as simple openness to the world, with no necessary self-conscious component (i.e. a Subject) involved. I was excited to see that very scrawl in this essay:
So the camera-looking box is the organism, and yes, of course it’s using its physiology (sense organs, nerves, brain) to sense the outside, but the result is not a two-step where there’s first a sense-data “given” which we in any sense experience (even subconsciously) which is then processed to add value judgments. So the position he’s giving this (“Model B”) in a simplifying contrast to is one (“Model A”) that sounds much like Dennett’s description of the “Cartesian Theater,” which Bergmann depicts as:
…in which the senses take in information and perform some magic on it to somehow create a mental image, i.e. to create consciousness.
The essay leads off by comparing these two models of perception and claiming that the simpler model is better motivated by what we actually know about brain physiology and sidesteps a lot of problems that many philosophers think of as insoluble.
Hegel thought that this picture [model A] of oneself as on the other side of the brain involves an experience analogous to that of the insane. For he thought the most characteristic element of insanity was the sense of aloneness, the suspicion that other people do not experience my world. On this model, this isolation and this privacy become part of the human condition.
On the new model,
The first step postulates that the process ends in the brain. For the moment we simply deny that the whole second half of the sequence envisioned by the first model actually occurs… We deny that the brain process is still metamorphized into an image, and that it is this image that the Subject perceives.
…In the second place, we no longer think of isolated and microscopic events in the brain as “by themselves” generating perception. …How could a string of molecules generate the picture of the forest that is all around me? By reversing this and by maintaining that the process of perception, however it finally may have to be understood, involves in any case larger parts of the organism–not only regions of the brain, but also sensory organs and perhaps more–one at the very least regains a certain amount of “space” in which the explanation has room to occur.
…In the first model these organs create mental images. In the alternative second model they create no “objects” at all. Instead, they endow the organism with a capacity… The neurological apparatus… “opens” the organism toward the world; it equips it with the possibility of having “access to it… the organism becomes exposed, and vulnerable to the external world: consciousness is a “wound.”
…The act of perception is no longer interpreted on the analogy of a reproduction, but is now conceived as a reaching out and grasping that the organism performs… it addresses the external object, and it is this object, and not an image of it, that is seen.
In the essay, this division of models is actually just introductory material to argue for Bergmann’s critique of “social science;” he doesn’t think that psychology and sociology and such are really susceptible to scientific treatment in the sense of physics at all. (And yes, relevant to New Work, this critique would extend to economics.)
The upshot of his argument is that in our being-in-the-world that this Model B of knowledge amounts to, even before the advent of mentality we have a lot of “knowledge” of the things that are important to us, like other people. This “wisdom of the body” (to use Nietzsche’s term) is actually extremely subtle and detailed, and when a science then comes in and tries to found itself only on strictly certain foundations, on pure “observations,” then it’s acting like we get knowledge according to Model A, and it effectively ignores the many things that we already know pre-scientifically. A scientific physics can be effective because physics deals with the truly abstract: regularities underlying everything. We don’t experience things in the abstract, so we have no pre-scientific opinions on this and welcome the new formulation. For social science, Bergmann thinks impossible to both attain the rigor of physics, which requires extreme abstraction, and to exceed the insight that we already have non-scientifically about ourselves and societies and the like. He critiques Levi-Strauss’s structuralism (the very essay we covered in our episode on structuralism) as hopelessly simplistic yet still not rigorously scientific. So while there are certainly ways to evaluate and improve upon our pre-scientific notions like those of economics, “science” a la physics does not provide an adequate model for doing this; it’s really a whole different animal. Likewise, science is thus only one small part of knowledge, one edifice carefully constructed, that has neither a monopoly on legitimacy nor on the tools of self-criticism. (Compare this, when our Popper episode comes out soon, to Popper’s take on non-science as still interesting and evaluable in terms of how elegantly it solves problems.)
To return to “The Experience of Values,” Bergmann’s approach to ethics is along the lines of the non-scientific as described above: we experience values all the damn time, and those base experiences are what we can then create moral rules upon, which can then in turn be used to critique some of our base intuitions re. specific instances. Moral rules can be rules of thumb only, necessary because we can’t stop and deeply reflect on every decision, but to be thrown out when they conflict with a new primary experience. Bergmann compares this to art (and this position is very similar to Santayana’s): we recognize that while we can come up with certain generalizations about what makes for a good piece of art, a good artist will violate these regularly, and it’s the rule that needs to be adjusted to account for his successful experiment, not the other way around. Brought into the moral realm, this is what is meant by Nietzsche’s talk of creating values. So on this model, there’s no real danger of nihilism, because values are ever pulling at you. Even if you are “unprincipled,” i.e. you never create those “rules of thumb,” that doesn’t mean you don’t have values. Morality is not in need of any foundation, because (just as scientific observations for Popper!) it involves the self-correcting interaction between these primary experiences and then attempts to make them into a coherent world-view, which includes (needs!) the input of other people, so if you and I disagree about a moral intuition in a specific case, that’s not the end of the matter. As MacIntyre pointed out, the top-down approach to morality, where we look for ever more fundamental principles, has been a failure: folks from Kant to the utilitarians and beyond failed to find a fundamental, grounding principles for morality, leaving disagreeing parties at an impasse about which fundamental moral rule to start with. Bergmann wants to make it clear that he’s not proposing instead a million little impasses over individual concrete moral judgments (as is arguably the case with ethical intuitionism). When two people disagree about a concrete value attribution, the case is much more, again, like two people who disagree about an interpretation of a work of art: there’s much positive work one can do to ferret out where the difference lies, whether one person is just missing something the other is seeing, or focusing on a different aspect of the phenomenon, or what.
All this, taken together, I think works to explain the differences in perspective between Bergmann and, say, your typical Adam Smith-inspired economist. People are complex, and their every association can produce unpredictable results, so you can’t just put their aggregate behavior into a model and think you can predict much of anything. Given our evolving experience of values and slow discovery of self, we certainly can’t predict that people will on the average work to maximize their utility or productivity or “happiness” (a problematically ambiguous notion).
Bergmann would therefore (I think) call most economic models overly simplistic to the point of actively false, and argues for predictions like the job apocalypse with techniques more like those of a historian or a sci-fi author. Specifically, to repeat the argument given in the topic announcement, it just “makes sense” to anyone paying attention that jobs just can’t keep shifting sectors forever, as they shifted from farming to factory work over to service work, and now service work is being automated away just as factory work was. I do feel like I need to learn much more about the economic models that will claim, “oh, no, the economy is an ecosystem that always yields up enough jobs to meet demand over the long run!” but this essay on social science by Bergmann gives me a little more confidence in my initial assessment that such abstract models are just so much ungrounded hocus pocus.