Philosophy Captures the Spirit of the Place, Research Time, 11/12/2013

It’s a common idea today that philosophy somehow captures essential features of a culture at that moment in history. At least, that’s one way to interpret a historical period’s most prominent philosophy. The idea begins in Hegel, but I think it gets its most solid workout in Nietzsche’s writing. I remember Hegel having introduced the idea, though the precise explanation how is slipping my mind, as it’s been a long time since I’ve studied the early works of Hegel. (My friend B can probably point me to the exact place in the Phenomenology of Spirit; he seems to have gone full Hegelian.)

Nietzsche's Zarathustra was one of many literary expressions
for his philosophical ideas. I wonder if there are now more
people who think of Nietzsche's Zarathustra than there are
actual Zoroastrians in the world.
Nietzsche, however, took this philosophical idea in an almost literary direction. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is filled with stories and characters whose personalities reflect and critique different aspects of Europe’s culture in the 19th century. Especially in the fourth section of the book, which is literally a gathering of colorful characters as Zarathustra tracks them down one by one. Each character is a narrative version of some idea or philosophy that had taken hold of popular imagination. Zarathustra collects them all until the entire culture of 19th century Europe ends up having a party in his cave-house.

I bring this up because I see Margaret Urban Walker doing the same thing* in Moral Understandings in her chapter discussing key moral ideas in the works of John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and Charles Taylor. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing. It seemed a rather small task simply to critique a few ideas in these men’s works in such a simple way as to squeeze them all into a few pages each. She certainly drops a lot of the conceptual nuances in their overall work. Two of these men have had multiple journals founded practically for the purpose of elaborating and arguing with them. But this is actually another example of the technique I discussed yesterday of a skeptical critique whose positive flipside is based on the reasons why the critique was possible.

* I do sometimes wonder how many people in feminist philosophy I’d anger by pointing out the Nietzschean character of Walker’s work. Nietzsche, thanks to his own misogynist ranting at various points in his corpus, doesn’t endear himself to feminism. Yet here is Walker acknowledging the genealogical conception of her moral philosophical method, and describing philosophies in terms of the characters they depict. I welcome all criticism that comes with a reasonably friendly voice, but I call it like I see it.

Walker latches onto a recurring theme in Rawls’ work, the nature of the life plan, and how a person’s identity is defined in terms of their plan, which Rawls describes in ways implying this plan’s superhuman comprehensiveness. She focusses on Williams’ essay about suicide and his solution to the individual existential question, “Why should I go on living?” with the concept of the life-defining project or career. She discusses Taylor’s historical vision of human myths as revealing that our identities are best understood in terms of a quest after some ideal goal or meaning. 

Then she describes what kind of personality such concepts would create if they were someone’s personal obsessions. So Rawls embodies the character of a bourgeois securely middle-class businessman.** Williams a self-obsessed post-war existentialist desperately hoping for a purpose in life. Taylor a nebbish hunting for an epic existence he’ll never have outside his imagination. None of this is really philosophical criticism in the traditional sense of examining their arguments and trying to disprove them. 

** Remember when those existed? I do too.

Instead, it points to a limit in their methods of doing philosophy. This is the positive aspect of what initially looks like an entirely negative or destructive critique. First, take seriously the idea that philosophy expresses the spirit of its times. Now accept the guiding principle of feminist philosophical criticism that such an expression would rarely be able to encompass all of society; the marginalized would be left out of such a noble, allegedly comprehensive vision, so all such expressions are partial. With these premises, we can understand these concepts of Rawls, Williams, and Taylor as expressions of a worldly perspective.

Their mistake comes not in articulating these perspectives. That’s a fine thing for philosophy to do, to express the spirit of a way of living in the world. Their mistake was in taking the partial insights of these ethical concepts (the life-plan, the devotional project, the quest) for universal accounts of the nature of the human as such or of their culture as a whole. They wrote as if they were comprehending their entire time and society in their concepts, and seemed to believe this was the case. But really, they expressed their place in their time and society. 

That's a fine goal, as many expressions of many places can have conversations about the nature of those places and their relations to each other. Opening those partialities to discussion with each other is called progressive politics: that's the conversational message of Idle No More, for example. But a place that mistakes itself for the world*** ignores those other expressions and inevitably hardens into a destructive cultural conservatism that refuses to change or adapt.

*** We could call this move the universal generalization of a singular expression.

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