I Have Never Seen a True Universal, A History Boy, 12/12/2013

Some incidents that are otherwise utterly trivial stick in your minds. Some turn of phrase or remarkable juxtaposition of objects makes an ordinary moment a pivotal moment in your memory, something that you can still recall years later, but that no one else ever bothers remembering. I think that way about the question, “But what about the universal?”

When I was at Memorial University, the philosophy department had a class for its grad students to which anyone could show up. It was a public lecture series by its faculty members and the occasional guest where the enrolled students could conduct a seminar in conversation with the faculty member, and write a paper responding as a peer to the presentation. It’s a brilliant idea, and another wonderful way Memorial’s philosophy department levelled the hierarchy between professors and students. The year I took the class, my thesis supervisor Dr S presented a paper that didn’t have anything to do with my topic at all. It was about the role of the a priori, that which can be known through definition alone, in modern philosophy of language. It featured quite a lot of Kripke, but I don’t remember much else of the seminar except my colleague G’s question, “But what about the universal?”

There was a notion in philosophy that was universal to the discipline until the Analytic revolution: what was a priori true was universal. What was known through empirical investigation (a posteriori) was always subject to doubt or limitation. But knowledge arrived through pure reason’s deduction from definitions (a priori) was universally true. G asked what for him, a Descartes scholar, was a pertinent and important question: If the philosophy of language took the meanings of words to be contingent, then the a priori wasn’t universal anymore, just deductions from definitions that could have been otherwise. G wasn’t okay with that, but I was, and I’m even more okay with it today.

I tell this story to make a point about moral empiricism, treating morality as itself a contingent factor of human biological and social evolution. In this context, the essence of moral concepts are discovered through genealogy: a combination of historical and philosophical investigation and reasoning. We examine the conditions in which a moral concept develops, understanding cultural contexts as best we can, trace how it has changed while operating in the flux of social change and relations, and systematizing that flux. That’s how we understand human morality in a genealogical philosophy.

Margaret Urban Walker has an argument in disguise against the accusation that this is cultural relativism. She considers the standard philosophical trope that the ancient Greeks believed that women were naturally suited to their subservient position. In particular, she examines this through Bernard Williams’ article extrapolating the universal ancient Greek understanding of the nature of women from Aristotle’s works. There’s one surefire way to test whether a subservient position is natural or otherwise voluntary: look at the patterns of force and coercion in a society keeping people in that subservience. You don’t need to force people into roles to which they’re naturally suited or for which they volunteer. If the structures of your society constitute conditions were people of a particular type have no choice but to accept a subservient role, then you have a system of oppression on your hands. 

Claims to moral universality seem only to leave some
people out of consideration, rendering them inaudible and
invisible. Not even in the cool, sci-fi way either.
The argument against cultural relativism comes not only in looking at the social structures that forced ancient Greek women of the citizen class into subservient positions. It’s also a simple matter of finding exceptions. Williams, and too many people who practice philosophy, think of “Ancient Greece” as a unified creature with a single cultural set of norms from which there were no exceptions. He characterizes all people of ancient Greece as sharing this morality that accepted slavery with distaste, but held that women were naturally and necessarily subservient. Then Walker finds an exception in Plato: in his otherwise near-totalitarian vision of The Republic, all gender norms are thrown out the window. People’s social roles are defined by a rigid class structure, but females and males in each class are equals within it. 

There is a cliché that the exception proves the rule. This idea is nonsense. The exception only proves that the rule must be enforced against possible opposition, not that it is truly universal. Indeed, genealogical techniques of examining moralities frequently discover networks of force and exceptions from apparently-established norms. The universal seems to be nowhere in human moral understanding, indeed, almost inappropriate for the venue of moral reasoning.

I’ve come to distrust claims to universality over the years, when it comes to the human sciences. Every such claim that I’ve come across in the history of thought always has exceptions bubbling up contrary to its determination. Or else the universality of this moral belief turns out to be enforced by coercive social structures; the absolutely perfect way things are and always have been faces dissatisfied rebels out to overthrow those social habits and institutions. 

Whenever a claim to universality exists, it turns out that there are exceptions, examples left out of the sweep of a generalization. Because the generalization is taken to be universal, the exceptions drop away from visibility in society. Walker makes an important point about the social nature of human identity. We can only have a functional identity if that identity is acknowledged. Socially, it isn’t a scream of rage if the moral habits of the people around you prevent anyone from hearing it, or from it even being audible. This is how oppression works most of the time. 

There is a universal claim about the social validity of a person or a set of concerns. The claim is taken so much for granted, so intuitively obvious, that it is habitually accepted as true. But there are people who are different from that condition of validity. They exist, they are people, but they are already exceptions from the social order. They’re background noise, at most. I have yet to meet a claim in moral thinking that doesn’t leave this remainder of people who, no matter how hard they scream, are silent because everyone around them has been trained to treat their voices as noise.

When I hear the question, “What about the universal?” my response now is, “Yeah, what the fuck about it?”

1 comment:

  1. I wonder, though, if we're not taking opposition to oppression to be a universal, on what grounds can we possibly criticise the "force and coercion in a society keeping people in that subservience" from outside that society?