Monday, December 3, 2012

Birthday Meditations

“Even if we distance ourselves from some of our thoughts and impulses, and regard them from outside, the process of trying to place ourselves in the world leads eventually to thoughts that we cannot think of as merely “ours”. If we think at all, we must think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it.” Thomas Nagel, The Last Word

Each of us has an internal state that has gone by many different names and been addressed in radically disparate ways. Some will speak of the soul or spirit, others simply talk of consciousness, possibly the dimmest among us will speak merely of a self-organizing organism, or even only neural circuitry. This interiority is a sacred bedrock. It is inviolable.  It is not only that this state is supremely individual unique - being full of colors, shades, tones, subtleties, nuances, indirection - but it is an opaque one. No amount of quantification or measurement will ever capture the limits of this state, so full and deep is its mysteries, so vast is its contents and horizon, to paraphrase the great Heraclitus ("the obscure").

Yet as we face the world, in and with our interiority, we face what is, in part, a profoundly external world, a world at times so external as to be quite alien and apart, however unified we might feel or claim to be with this external reality. There is a real separation here. A great deal of this external world consist of plethora of stimuli - literally "coming at us", of course in the form of solid objects as well as more fluid colors and lights, but above all in separate life forms, from humble vegetation, to complex animals, and, above all, other fellow humans who are as akin to us as they are opposite to us.

I must say that my chief problem as a human being, for my first forty years on this marvelous planet, has been in the negotiation and relationship between the inner and outer worlds. It is not a question of boundaries but rather of feelings. Simply put, I rarely match the external world in terms of likes, dislikes, or what I feel to be important on the inside. Moreover, the sheer density of stimulation from this external world can at times be most overwhelming. One solution I came across was my discovery of the truth of pluralism. I realized, upon leaving my thirties, that others can achieve the deepest pleasures from things with which I have had only negative experiences and, of course, in reverse. That is, my own internal states, though important and sacred to me, are of little or no use in terms of other's values. I began to read the world around me in the terms that others created. I began to step outside of myself and try and see others as having equal, sometimes greater, yet very different claims. This is not quite the same as sympathy or empathy; it is a "meta" belief wherein my awareness of other's values allows me to put aside my own values and essentially ask others where their happiness comes from. I cannot live there, for that would be to lose myself, but I certainly must visit and visit regularly.

A large measure of human culture and art, and I should include practical philosophy as well as politics and economics, is concerned with how we are to negotiate the boundary of the inner and the outer, how we are to understand it, if and when we are to fight or love it, if we are to transform it, overturn it or defend the status quo and on what grounds and so on.

Sometime during the past decade I became familiar with the thought and scholarship of one George Kateb. He is really one of the few philosopher/academics who, as odd as it is to say in what is essentially an aporetic tradition, seems to give more correct answers to some important questions. He works in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau and thus could be called a kind of individualist, and yet - and this is most important - he rejects all appeals to conservatism and tradition. Kateb's individualism is of a most responsible kind. He is sui generis: he rejects communitarian and utilitarian infringements upon individual conscience and liberty, while at the same time he upholds the strongest sense of social responsibility. It is the rare thinker or intellectual who can do both and moreover offer a theory of both.

His most recent book is called Human Dignity and it is a beautiful work of prose, easily one of the best works of non-fiction in the past decade. I should like to use my forty-fifth birthday to do briefly review it. However, I am not sure review is quite the word since I really only have time, space, and, more importantly, energies to summarize in a brief note and offer examples from this work.

George Kateb's aim in the entire book is to defend and define what it is in us or about us that makes us human - in the spiritual and non-reductive sense of that label - and to describe, if only in part, what about our humanity makes us special on this planet. This last project will doubtless not always endear Kateb to anti-"speciesist" egalitarians, yet I feel that Kateb is onto something most important when I think of that fact that no other living creature composes a Beethoven's Ninth, enters couples' counseling, or negotiates at Camp David. One lengthy passage reveals the quality and character of Kateb's prose:

"A uniquely human trait, self-consciousness is potentially but not actually possessed by all human beings, whereas consciousness is actually possessed by all the living who function. To be a self-conscious person is to be conscious of oneself as a self, as a person who can think about many things, but also about himself or herself. A person can arrive at a self-conception. But the process is not automatic, and cultural conditions - say, tribal life or village life - may discourage it or be so rigorous in in suppression of the sense of self that many people would find it strange to imagine what it means to have a self-conception. They know themselves through a group, and the group knows itself through its differences from other groups. Without a self-conception, we are tends to take the place of I am, in most of the transactions of life. Some choices might be left free, and particular members of a group might stand out because they perform exceptional deeds. In larger hierarchical societies where human rights are not recognized, self-consciousness is actually consciousness of oneself as a member of this class or caste rather than that one. Such consciousness is quite compatible with individual egotism, but the ego is defined by reference to membership. One cannot imagine oneself separately from membership. But in a society in which people have a sense of individual human rights and the state recognizes and respects those rights, a particular self-consciousness will develop; the ego will grow in a certain direction. One feels special not because one has what others lack, or has a rank higher than others, but because one has has what everyone is entitled to have, just by being human." 
Readers should note that this is an argument reminiscent of Kateb in his Patriotism and Other Mistakes, in which he regards patriotism itself as immoral, in part for its violation of the individual in the name of group pride and identity. It is this part of Kateb that places him at odds with both the Left and Right on our current political spectrum. His belief in unearned human dignity makes him automatically opposed to all conservatism and libertarianism because if we have innate unearned human dignity then we are entitled to certain things without having to appeal for them at best or beg for them at worst as in, say, health care or food (to say nothing of nutrition). His remarks about group identity might put him at odds with a Left that wants to speak on behalf of suppressed or repressed group identities as groups rather than as lone individuals. But Kateb is ultimately making an ontological argument as is clear from this passage:

"Human life at any time and all through time is ultimately incomprehensible. this incomprehensibility is testimony to human stature, perverse as that may sound. Human stature is not so great as to have the capacity to take the measure of human stature. Humanity is too much to be encompassed; it is indefinitely large in its actuality, past and present, and unpredictable in the future. In contrast objective knowledge of nature, which has no inwardness is easier on the talented mind despite formidable obstacles, than understanding human life which is governed by human inwardness."

Starting from the tradition of Emerson, with its respect for infinite mystery and finite intellect  it comes as no surprise that Kateb is skeptical and at times hostile to attempts to make scientific explanations of who we are as the only acceptable explanations. Kateb is not hostile to science as such, but rather to all forms of tyranny: an attitude of regarding us as mere matter or, however more noble, as just a natural object or life form among others on this planet - in a word, anti-humanism - is an attitude that has similar problems in intellectual life as tyranny does in social and political life. Kateb is a critic of evolutionary biological accounts of the human being that aim to replace other accounts. Like Thomas Nagel, he manages to maintain a strictly secular even agnostic foundation while still insisting upon a spiritualistic definition of our humanity. He agrees with the scientific conclusions of evolution but also agrees with the worries of those religionists who feel that those conclusions are insufficient and are partly bereft:

"Against evolutionary psychology in particular, we can say that it is a category mistake, indeed a serious blunder, to say that on any given occasion, a person't motive, mediated as it is by mind, is unconsciously determined by evolutionary inheritance. No human motive is reducible to a natural cause. Human self-description is not a superstructure of superstition."

"Against neuroscience I want to say that when a section of the brain lights up on a scanning device, as, say, the person is listening to music, we learn nothing interesting about the person's experience of the music or the music itself."

Kateb might be seen as going too far here in the eyes of many, especially with the popularity of bestselling non-fiction books concerning our brains on music, yet I would still maintain that Kateb's old fashioned argument might be more properly thought of as an argument on behalf of the humanities itself as an equal though separate companion to the sciences. And Kateb has much to say in the latter chapters of the book on what art is and how best to evaluate it.

Throughout the book Kateb wrestles with the tension between fairness and justice on the one hand and excellence and reward for unique effort on the other. Kateb also makes the rather unfashionable claim in this age of Nature awareness, that we are not wholly natural beings, but in part artificial, subject to cultural innovation and diversity. George Kateb is unafraid to take commonsensical intuitions (say, our sense of being somehow free in making choices, as not merely beholden to nature or tradition alone, our sense that we can trust at least some of our senses) seriously as having objective truth. He is not hypnotized into a skepticism about our perceptions by the apparent success of scientific assaults upon those perceptions. In this sense George Kateb is, as he admits on other occasions, trying to take a democratic approach to life in the wider sense of the word democratic than the political sense. Though he is labelled a political philosopher, Kateb wants to restore the value of that which resides outside of our roles as citizens, the value of that which is separate from roles as such.

I cannot recommend Human Dignity highly enough. Though it is ostensibly a work of non-fiction philosophy it reads as beautifully as poetry or prose. Its subject is nothing less that the state and status of our humanity itself.

Human Dignity by George Kateb The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2011

1 comment:

  1. "Against neuroscience I want to say that when a section of the brain lights up on a scanning device, as, say, the person is listening to music, we learn nothing interesting about the person's experience of the music or the music itself."

    Seems it would make sense to ask research subjects to write out their impressions of a piece of music while they're listening and hooked up to the scanning device, and then see how the brain is affected. Would give a fuller picture.

    Anyway, I agree with Kateb's perspective that each of us is worthy of respect and dignity. I would however extend this to all other life forms as well.