The Problem of Ordinary Words, Research Time, 10/12/2013

In order to communicate complex and nuanced philosophical concepts, we must speak human languages. This is a very unfortunate situation which many of us in the philosophical community have, over the years, tried to overcome or at least sneak around. You see, the words of language have a terrible ambiguity that prevent the kind of rigorous interpretation that a creative philosopher wants her ideas to have. The creator of a new and interesting idea has to express it in the language that was lying around before she thought of it. So instead of starting a new conversation in the discipline about the nuances and details of a new idea, she has to defend her idea from people who misinterpret it.

I started my morning by contributing to a Facebook conversation with my friends B and T about Ray Brassier’s reading of Gilles Deleuze. Now, I haven’t read Brassier’s book where he discusses this, and this isn’t even what this post is actually about. But if T’s summary is accurate (and he usually is), then Brassier misreads Deleuze as a vitalist of the old-fashioned trope. This is actually a common mistake: Jane Bennett did something similar in her book Vibrant Matter, though she mostly concentrated on trying a new way to revive the old-fashioned vitalism anyway. 

But because Deleuze adopted some language from vitalist scientists to make his point, he’s always subject to an over-simplified misinterpretation along these lines. They were all he had to work with at the time, and he was trying to create a new vocabulary for a very new approach to ontology. Nonetheless, when your ideas are pushing the limits of existing words and ideas, and you only have an existing storehouse of words and ideas to draw from, the extent to which you actually can visibly push is restricted. Creative philosophers fight the limits of language.

This is actually a post more inspired by a similar problem Margaret Urban Walker faced. As she develops her moral empiricism of mapping relations of responsibility, she develops a new ethical concept of integrity. Integrity, for Walker, is a person’s capacity to take responsibility for people and situations around her. Ethically, it’s the virtue of reliability, the ability to make promises or follow through on them. Coming from my intellectual history, I find this point in common with Nietzsche: someone who overcomes resentment puts making and following through on promises at paramount ethical importance. To make a valid promise expresses our noblest virtue yet. Integrity in this sense is the central condition of moral relations, the ability to generate social links of mutual responsibility.

No, the punk band Integrity isn't the type of integrity
Walker is talking about either.
Then she has to spend the rest of the chapter arguing against more conventional conceptions of integrity, or at least concepts of integrity that other philosophers, reading her previous work, have misinterpreted her as having or said she got wrong.* The argument she spends the most time fighting is position that the oppressed and poor can have no integrity. This is actually a serious critique because a common way to drive people to activism on behalf of the very poor or culturally/economically oppressed is to discuss how such treatment robs people of their personal integrity. This conception takes integrity to be the human status of having escaped a hardscrabble existence. When we can escape the cycle of questing for nothing beyond basic survival, then we have established our integrity as humans. 

* Imagine Margaret Urban Walker is giving a talk where she discusses this concept of integrity and its importance for her empirical method of tracing responsibilities among people in the world. Then during question period, someone says, “You’re wrong about what integrity is! Integrity is this!” and then gives some boring dictionary definition of the word, like being in good condition, or structural integrity. This completely misses the point of philosophy in general, which is coming up with new ways to understand the world, not just falling back on tired old platitudes. I used to be very annoyed at this habit of mediocre philosophical critique; now hearing it just makes me laugh. 

That concept of integrity is based on the fundamental distinction of humanity from nature; natural creatures struggle for survival. We’ve achieved human integrity (here synonymous with exclusive dignity) because our society and technology has let us rise above such petty concerns as having to worry about survival. I disagree with this for complex reasons in my ecological philosophy that delegitimizes a categorical separation of humanity from nature. 

Walker disagrees because that definition of integrity delegitimizes the moral characters of poor and oppressed people. Thinking of integrity as a dignity that poverty destroys removes people from the moral community simply because they’re not part of the affluent community. She also links this concept of human integrity to the demonization of the poor by Tory-style politics. When you conceive of people leading a hardscrabble existence as having left the moral community, then you can easily interpret the poor as immoral. The animalistic struggle for existence has robbed the poor of their moral compass: they have become lazy, conniving slobs with no eye to contribute to society, only to get fat on their government benefits. 

This isn’t really a logically valid argument, but it is politically effective enough to show that it is widely believed. I’ve met far too many middle-class people over the years who think that the poor and unemployed get too many benefits, because it means they don’t have incentive to work once their basic needs are covered by government assistance. I don’t think I have to say that Walker opposes the ideas associated with this concept of integrity.

But then she does something that amazed me again. After defending her own novel concept of integrity, she says that the integrity-as-dignity concept offers some ideas to help her own integrity-as-capacity-for-responsibility concept. Specifically, there can be social and political situations where a person can be so oppressed, so reduced to desperate scrabbling for the basic conditions of life, that they are unable to form relationships of mutual responsibility at all. In other words, they are so broken by poverty and oppressive structures that they can’t operate in society anymore.

Even in the institution of slavery, there was enough room for
virtuous behaviour and mutual responsibility that we can
find ways to make Oscar bait films out of its history and
Walker discusses institutionalized slavery as her primary example of this state. And one could also make a case for homelessness as another example. But these social states, as horrible as they are, aren’t as bad as can be. A slave finds a moral community in the society of other slaves, a respite from their horrifying existence that, while vulnerable to oppressor intervention as when family members were sold to different plantations, can function. The modern urban homeless have such a community as well in other homeless people and the activists, church, charity, and government employees whose job it is to help them.

I think the only kind of institution where any possibility of moral community and mutual responsibility is destroyed is the death camp. Just as I discussed when I was exploring Arendt last month, the very possibility of society is broken down as people are isolated from each other in the rigor of mechanized murder. It isn’t becoming animal-like that destroys a moral community, but being rendered into a pest to be exterminated and experimented upon. And the institutionalization of shattering moral responsibility by having the prisoners themselves operate the gas chambers. One can’t form moral responsibilities for people when you know that you’ll be forced to gas them. In all other situations, humanity can be responsible, ethical, and virtuous.

It’s to our detriment that humanity was finally able to invent a system that destroyed the possibility of virtue itself. 


  1. Have you ever read Donna Haraway? She has one of my favourite responses to this problem I've ever read.

    Realising the issues and concepts she's trying to discuss simply cannot be conveyed through the English vocabulary as it currently exists, she comes up with a genius solution.

    She creates her own.

    1. Haraway is one of my unfortunate gaps in feminist theory/ies, though I now have a pdf of Simians, Cyborgs, and Women on my iPad to read over my Xmas vacation. Have you got a citation where she gets up to the invention?

    2. The book where she *really* gets into this, and for my money her best book overall, is Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience though there's a bit of that in When Species Meet IIRC as well.

      Once you master that, maybe we can talk about Avital Ronell, who goes the next step and totally redefines *writing* and *ideas* :-)