One aspect of our existential situation is that people are sometimes involved in their own histories and sometimes they are not. Sometimes we are actors in our lives and our circumstances as when we take on a new job or act as a Good Samaritan and sometimes we are bystanders, as when we experience technological unemployment or notice what is happening in a Presidential race. Sometimes we shift our focus, and so we are drafted into the Army because of Pearl Harbor and yet the story of ourselves as soldiers is so profound that the war is a story of all those G. I.’s. who make up the Greatest Generation, each one of them to be immortalized as the doers who brought World War II to its righteous conclusion. This alternative between being at the heart of a story or on the periphery of a story is such a fundamental feature of human existence that we are not aware of the importance and pervasiveness of the distinction even as It is a distinction that we cannot do without if we want to grasp what happens in life and what life itself consists of, just as we can not easily grasp what it would be to be a creature in heaven that had no physical being, just a spiritual being, and so not subject to respiration or the feel of the breeze on our cheeks. A good way to get some sense of this distinct characterization of every human being as caught up, somehow, in his or her history, is to treat it as a version of what can be more readily understood in art as the distinction between foreground and background, which is not just a convention of art but a characteristic of life recognized by art with perhaps greater accuracy than is true in literature or philosophy.Read More
There is something profoundly different in these two things: the activity of writing history and the activity of living within history. Sorting out the differences between the two sheds light on the more abstract issue of the difference between living in the mind and living in existence, which is a question as old as philosophy, what with Socrates having maintained that the demands of the two were quite different: mind requiring unrelenting criticism, even if it earns scorn from those not engaged in the pursuits of the mind, while life itself required obedience, even to the drinking of hemlock. Let’s bring the dispute up to date.Read More
During the late Nineteenth Century, Gottlob Frege said that every sentence was a proposition in that a truth value could be attached to it. That meant that every sentence (except those that were obviously just for emphasis, like “Ugh!”) was either objectively true or not. The blue unicorn is there behind you or he isn’t. One can quibble about whether this is only true of sentences with Western grammatical constructions, but the point is telling about English and associated languages. It is not far from that to Bertrand Russell’s theory of definite description, which said, at the turn into the Twentieth Century, that every sentence says about its object that the object exists. The blue unicorn exists even if only as a figment of your imagination. That is perhaps the high point of the philosophical view that language could be reduced to the same thing as science: a set of assertions that could be put to the test of their truth because what else was there? All statements were either true or nonsense. There is no place in that sense of language for metaphor or symbol.
The way around this is to notice that while it may be the case that, strictly speaking, sentences are true or not, that often is not what people find interesting about them. If I hear gossip, I care less about whether it is true or not than about the images it puts in my mind to contemplate. Yes, I might wonder if the rumor that JFK had an affair with Marilyn Monroe is really true, but it is the contemplation of that rumor which is intriguing, and so I remember her singing a sexy version of “Happy Birthday” to Jack at a birthday party given for him. Language, in fact, has many ways of qualifying a truth claim so that it is a sort of truth where the truth of the matter is not really central. Look at some contemporary political examples of the ways language can evade or easily satisfy the demands of truth.Read More
There are three major theories that are used in the contemporary world to explain how to decide what a person should do when confronted with a moral dilemma such as that presented by abortion. The first is the theory of obligation that is identified with Immanuel Kant and it is the theory that people often identify as containing the essence of all moral argument. The second is the Utilitarian theory identified with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The third is the pragmatic theory, which has John Dewey and Richard Rorty as its standard bearers. That is to put aside the outlier moral theory of C. E. Moore, who identified moral taste as somewhat the equivalent of aesthetic taste, or the ancient theories that tried to assess moral life as the exercise of an emotion, a singular one serving as the greatest good, as in the case of Epictetus, who saw the best course in life as the cultivation of resignation, or morality consisting of the long list of emotions that Aristotle dazzlingly reduced to a formula whereby the Golden Mean between two extreme emotions was the right emotion for people to pursue. The three major theories of the modern world do not provide a way to choose between them but they do provide distinct forms of reasoning for people to choose between.Read More