“Where Are We Now?”



“Where Are We Now?”

Since my last column, I’ve been preoccupied with the long-shot nomination of me, by a kind colleague, to give the John Dewey lecture at the American Philosophical Association. That’s the lecture underscoring the link between the speaker’s philosophical thought and her life.

What was and is the link between one’s work and one’s life? There must be a correlation. Even if one’s activity is just whittling down a stick, the whittler does that in some way correlated with the way she does other things — hence with her life. There’s no getting around the fascination of these questions.

Moreover, philosophical work is not just whittling (though it may look as trivial as that sometimes). If I learned anything from Hegel, it’s that the life options we have as private persons are provided and framed by the parameters of our culture. The boundaries of the culture can be traced in terms of what it permits, advises, or forbids.

What lies beyond those boundaries? Silence. Where silence is enjoined, the culture tells us, don’t go there. The old cartographers drew

Here be dragons.”

on the westerly side of their maps.

What were the boundaries of thought for me, beyond which lay “dragons”? And what boundaries mapped out the territory for most philosophers?   Might there be a single philosophical map on which we could locate our respective habitats?

Quite apart from the outcome of this nomination, the question itself sizzles, for me. What was I thinking, from essay to essay, to book to book, to the further essays? And what was I doing, while I was thinking?

As for the other philosophers, the surface problem they presented for me was tunefully expressed by the young Marlene Dietrich in a western movie called “Destry Rides Again,” where she plays a dance hall girl. With smiling, accented assurance, she sings,

“See what the boys in the back room will have,

And I’ll have some of the same.”

What were the boys in philosophy’s back room having? And would I too have to choke it down – or else get out of the dance hall?

In philosophy, as I was entering the field, the major divisions seemed geographical. There were the Continentals on the European side of the channel and then there was the Anglo-sphere, from the U.K.’s Outer Hebrides, to North America, to Australia and New Zealand, wherever philosophers wrote in English. The late David Stove defined Continentals as those for whom “Deep called to Deep.” For Stove, this was not a compliment. It was a complaint, that their obscurity was deliberate – that it masked a conceptual muddle or worse. For me, the Continentals were busy with life’s real dilemmas – I didn’t think they were frauds — but I was wary of being manipulated by staged obscurity and tended to chum with the Anglos who at least demanded clarity.

Clarity seems easier to demand than to get, as it turns out. The philosophers who launched the movement called “Analytic philosophy,” at the start of the twentieth century, wanted to put an end to a certain type of murk, known as British Idealism.   The nineteenth-century Idealists supposed that everything was so interrelated as to be, finally, only One Thing: Absolute Spirit. What seems to have provided the glue for this Oneness was overblown rhetoric that proved easy enough to puncture. The critic had only to point out, commonsensically, that in everyday experience, things were distinct from one another and therefore all was not really One.

When it came to putting something new in place of the hyperbolic One, it would have to be something quite clear. At first, sensory experience appeared to be the clearest and most distinct of starting points. If they could be translated into logical terms and connectives, one might see how reality could be fully grasped in the sorts of mathematical formulae that form segments of scientific theories.

However, it turned out that no one-to-one correlation could reliably be found between discrete sensations and their translations in symbolic terms. Once again, unclarity threatened! But perhaps clusters of observations could substitute for isolated sensations? No, there were theoretical entities (like subatomic particles for instance) that couldn’t readily be mapped onto observations of any kind. In fact, it turned out that there was also a plethora of unstated assumptions behind any program of research into observable entities.

So, one had to conceive of scientific work more contextually, and at that point the search for clarity – in the sense of crisp, discrete, isolated entities that might be fixed once and for all by the right description had to … well, what did it have to do? At the present writing, that’s still being discussed. But meanwhile, Analytic philosophy has turned out to be an exploration of the many contexts in which meaningful discourse has its life.

What was I doing while all this was going on? I was looking for the zones of silence where expressive life had been choked off, and trying to see if any those zones could be, or should be, opened up to meaningful speech. I’ll mention just one, in an article I wrote called “Feminism Without Contradictions.”

What factors silenced women?   First, the obvious ones. Women are not generally as strong as men. They are easier to rape. They can get pregnant. Not even the most militant feminists have called for all-female militias. So, if they want to secure protection for themselves and their offspring, they won’t want to scare the men off. Need I go on?

Now, what about feminism? How promising is the cure it offers? Feminism can define sex differences as social constructs till it’s blue in the face. In real life, as opposed to theoretical life, women know better. A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle? I seriously doubt that. I don’t have a woman friend who believes that. The traditional woman flattered the men, in order to get and hold them and prevent harm to themselves. Does feminism offer a way for the new woman to refrain from this sort of flattery that silences her real thoughts and feelings?

I’m not so sure. If one speaks only in the jargon of a militant ideology, then one is still confined to borrowed thoughts and feelings. Ideological phrases are not original. They are not precisely one’s own. If they are not “what the boys in the back room will have,” they are what the girls in the back room will have, and is that so much better?

This is serious. We are talking about the liberation of half the human race — and thus of all the human race — since men and women are certainly bound up with one another.

One of the zones of silence that my articles persistently criticize and try to open up is the doctrine of the unconscious. Its influence extends across the Analytic/Continental divide in philosophy.   By “doctrine of the unconscious,” I mean the assumption, common to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud and their many, recent successors: that the fundaments of human motivation lie in a layer of the psyche in principle unreachable by the person whose psyche it is – and this unreachable psychic layer is a hotbed of utterly amoral impulses.

What’s wrong with that? Well, for one thing, it allows any manipulator to claim that what he wants is what she really wants! Since the motivations that he claims to discern in her are unconscious, how can she be believed when she denies what he boldly asserts about her? She’s not in a position to say what she thinks, or what she truly wants, because “everyone knows” that she is not the expert — she is the last person to know – what’s in her own psyche!

When the college orientation leader demands that she overcome her “inhibitions,” her counter-claim (that she is entitled to keep her desires to herself, that they are her business and not the business of the group or its leader) — has no standing. The programmer already knows what she wants and intends. It’s in her unconscious!

Most of the variants of feminism today internalize the claims that authentic motivation is largely unconscious.   Ladies!





About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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