What was Nietzsche doing?

I enjoyed guest-teaching a course on Leo Strauss last evening that enrolls an extraordinary group of students. Deeply steeped in political philosophy–and especially Nietzsche–they are able to cite Nietzschean texts by heart, with references.

I had assigned a selection from Will to Power for this session because, in my early work (and even in a roman-a-clef), I presented Strauss as thoroughly Nietszchean. As we discussed the earlier philosopher, I asked–without premeditation–what we think he was up to. Was Nietzsche …

  1. A therapist
  2. A political actor
  3. An artist
  4. A philosopher with views
  5. A scholar

Any forced-choice question about a major thinker is reductive, but I recommend this one to provoke conversation.

Students provided some alternatives that were not on my impromptu list, such as “a recruiter of philosophers.” For what it’s worth, I would choose c. (an artist), while recognizing that a. and e. are also true, to a degree. I am not so sure that Nietzsche was political, in even the loosest sense of that word; in other words, I am skeptical that he wrote to change society. And I don’t think he had philosophical views, in the standard way, because his core doctrines were meant to be self-refuting. I think that Nietzsche wrote to create beautiful, original, and formally fascinating works, in which the author is also a character.

See also: Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems

Recently, hearing a distinguished technologist talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI), I recognized a familiar style. People in a given technical field realize that they face an ethical issue. They turn to the relevant academic discipline (philosophy), and they think that they discern a set of available ethical “systems.” These options include at least utilitarianism and Kantianism/deontology. They apply each system to the issue at hand and explore its apparent conclusions. The various systems seem to disagree about at least some cases, and the analysts conclude that ethical questions are hard and unresolved and that people who happen to start from different premises will probably reach different conclusions. The last slide of the PowerPoint is a head-scratcher about the difficulty of ethical reasoning.

I suspect that these “systems” look authoritative because they have been discussed in vast numbers of peer-reviewed publications. If you want to mention deontology, you can cite Kant (1788) and innumerable subsequent works. For utilitarianism, you have Bentham (1789) and its successors. (See Stahl 2021 as just one example.) In a technocratic world, this form of authority seems weighty. You are not just expressing a personal opinion if you can mention a book that has thousands of citations.

The mental model behind this kind of analysis also resembles technical forms of reasoning. The various philosophical systems are seen as very general and internally consistent premises that generate conclusions algorithmically. Ethics is treated as a Normal Science.

To be fully satisfactory, a system’s premises should apply to all cases. Trolley-problems and similar thought-experiments are fascinating because they suggest that the general premises of different systems conflict in select cases. Different algorithms yield different results. The methodological assumption is that analyzing such exotic thought-experiments should clarify principles that will then apply universally. Since this method doesn’t seem to have succeeded (yet), the analyst is entitled to conclude that ethics is unresolved. Hence the last slide of the presentation is about not knowing what to do.

It is often acknowledged that there are more than two or three ethical views for which we can provide fancy citations. What about Thomism, Stoicism, Marxism (of various flavors), feminism, the Five Precepts of Buddhism, Confucianism, African “Sage Philosophy” as explored by H. Odera Oruka (1990), deep ecology, Nietzsche, Levinas, etc. etc.? The notion that there are two or three available systems has a specific history in secular, 20th-century, Anglophone philosophy departments, and it was always controversial even there.

Then again, when people extend the list of available philosophies, often they reach even more relativist conclusions. If “systems” from distant times and places disagree, then surely there can be no right answers. Now the PowerPoint really ends with a head-scratcher.

But in order to conduct this kind of analysis, one must assume that very general premises should apply across all relevant cases. In other words, the appropriate units of analysis are broad generalizations. It is either right or wrong that we should maximize aggregate welfare or that we should treat people as ends rather than means.

One of the leading systems, deontology, may not purport to generate guidance about specific cases. In the Shadow of God (2022) Michael Rosen gives an up-to-date argument that Kant did not intend for his principles to answer questions of applied ethics. If that’s true, then it’s a bit odd to treat utilitarianism and Kantianism as rival “systems.” Utilitarianism might even be the only available philosophy that can really work like an algorithm, and only in some of its forms.

If you are a particularist, you believe that generalizations are not the appropriate units of analysis. What is right or wrong is the specific act, not the generalization. Most people aren’t true particularists, but many are somewhat leery of pure abstraction. We presume that general ethical statements can have some validity and value but that generalizations rarely settle particular cases.

I like Jonathan Dancy’s aesthetic analogy: the best object of judgment is a painting, not a feature (like a splotch of red paint) that recurs in many paintings. Aesthetic judgment is holistic, and the whole is the work of art. Likewise, ethical judgment is often about a whole ethical situation that has many features, not about each feature taken abstractly.

One irony is that applied ethics derives its authority from the academic discipline of philosophy, yet not very many current philosophy professors apply ethical “systems” to cases. I think that approach comes most naturally to technologists who expect reasoning to be algorithmic, whereas philosophers are often humanists who prefer close readings and thick-description.

The applied ethics that I admire most is much more attentive to the empirical and pragmatic details of specific cases, much more closely engaged with the dilemmas of practitioners, more focused on real situations instead of thought-experiments, and more open to normative insights from a range of sources (literature, history, folklore …). It aims to address problems, not to provoke skepticism. And it accepts responsibility for its own consequences.

My favorite applied ethicists work in the world (almost always with collaborators) and are willing to reflect on whether the outcomes are good or bad. Their final PowerPoint slide says: “This is what we’re building, what we hope to accomplish, and why. What do you think about it?”

See also why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics; how we use Kant today; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life.

Cephalus

I am so lucky: near the finish line
With no tragedies. My three sons are fine.
I may never have to open the door
To wrenching news or the grim stench of war.

I sleep all right these days, now that lust is less
A master, and guilt, that dogged hunter,
Lets me burrow in a secret shelter
Where I tell myself I deserve success.

When I heard Socrates had come down here,
I sent a boy to stop him. My knees are such
I cannot walk uphill to Athens much.
I hate to miss the clever talk, and I fear
The wise and famous will forget Cephalus.

It was like old times; we quoted lovely lines.
But I knew he'd start to press: “What do you mean,
Cephalus? Doesn't that come in different kinds?”
The more we examine hope, the more hope declines.
I left Socrates to my son, exited the scene,
And, wearing my silly wreath, resumed my place,
Performing prayers in the marketplace.

Cf. Plato, Republic 331d: “‘Very well,’ said Cephalus, ‘I will turn the whole argument over to you. For now is the time when I must take charge of the sacrifices.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Aren’t I, Polemarchus, the heir to everything you have?’ ‘Certainly,’ he laughed, and he went at once to the sacrifices.” See also: Pindar on hope; philosophy and self-help; shelter

The Vuslat Foundation and Generous Listening

The Vuslat Foundation has opened a public website as generouslistening.org. At the Tisch College of Civic Life, we are one of their partners, as you can tell from the description of a conference that we co-organized and held at Tufts last year (a symposium on “Generous Listening in Organizations“); a blog post by my colleague James Fisher about Quaker dialogues in West Africa; and other references on their site.

The Foundation also does much work on their own or with other partners, including remarkable support-groups for women displaced by the earthquakes in Southeast Turkey in 2023.

I come to this partnership as someone who has studied political deliberation–for instance, as a co-editor (with John Gastil) of the Deliberative Democracy Handbook. SInce the late 1900s, public deliberation has been a movement of theorists and practitioners, but it is rooted in much older ideas about politics that have typically emphasized speech, communication, persuasion, and rhetoric–as both virtues and threats.

The Vuslat Foundation has helped me to shift my focus from one side of the exchange to the other–from speaking to listening. Of course, these acts always go together (even when they are metaphors for written speech, signs, or gestures). It is hardly a novel insight that communication requires at least two people. But I have benefitted from thinking more about the listening side.

First, there’s an ethical imperative. Listening well (“generously,” in the language that the Vuslat Foundation has developed) is an important virtue. Using one’s voice well is also virtuous, and sometimes even obligatory, but the need to be a good listener seems especially compelling.

Second, we can think about listening holistically. One aspect is listening to other people in deliberations, but we also listen to ourselves, to animals, waves, or the wind, to human soundscapes, to near-silence, perhaps to the divine, and to those who are long dead. I have found it useful to think of civic listening as just one kind of listening.

Third, I am taken by the “interactionist” theory of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, which has helped me make sense of some of my own data–in forthcoming articles. To summarize their model crudely, imagine two or more people discussing what to do. When individuals speak, they tend to use motivated reasoning: inventing justifications for what they already want to believe, sometimes for bad reasons, such as self-interested bias. But when they listen to other people offer reasons, they are relatively good at assessing whether these points are valid, and they may change their minds. Mercier and Sperber offer an evolutionary explanation that suggests that highly social and verbal primates would develop the ability to make arguments to advance their own interests, but also the ability to assess others’ arguments in order to make good collective judgments.

Mercier and Sperber never suggest that listening always goes well. We can certainly listen selectively and exhibit bad motives when we select whom and what to listen to. But their theory suggests that we can improve individual skills and conditions for listening–perhaps more easily than we can improve speaking.

Finally, listening has spiritual (or at least psychotherapeutic) benefits that have been recognized and developed in many traditions. Although we can also gain spiritually from communicating well, the listening side is especially relevant to meditative practices of all kinds.

See also: how intuitions relate to reasons: a social approach; an agenda for R&D for democracy; “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”; ‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism; “The Listeners“; “Midlife“.

philosophy and self-help

I recommend Kieran Setiya’s article “Is Philosophy Self-Help?” in The Point. Setiya has written serious philosophy that I have found helpful psychologically, and he has looked at the self-help business, starting with Samuel Smiles’ 1859 bestseller, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct.

Based partly on his article, I would emphasize these differences:

  1. Self-help tries to meet the desires of the reader–usually but not invariably for happiness. In contrast, philosophy asks what the reader should desire. Personal happiness is one possible answer, but that is debatable in philosophy.
  2. Self-help tries to serve the reader, addressing that person’s specific needs, values, and tastes. Philosophy asks whether human beings in general should pursue certain values. Some philosophers have given pluralist responses, emphasizing that individuals or cultures may or should hold different values. But such pluralism is, again, controversial in philosophy and would require a defense. As Setiya notes, “For Aristotle, the nature you should perfect is not your individual potential, but an objective human nature whose ideal expression lies in theoretical contemplation of the cosmos.”
  3. Self-help influences individuals’ thoughts and choices. For some philosophers (e.g., Emerson) one’s self is the best topic, but for others, it’s essential to think about society and institutions, and possibly even to sacrifice oneself for them.

I’m in a reading group on Plato’s Republic, and all three differences between self-help and philosophy are already evident in the very first pages. Cephalus is presented as an old man who is happy. He has taken advice from Pindar and Simonides, whom he treats as self-help gurus. He has learned from them that he’s better off now that his appetites for sex and other desires have diminished. He derives serenity from reflecting on his own virtue.

Socrates is a threat to Cephalus’ happiness (and I am open to the possibility that Plato sees him as a menace). Socrates will not take Cephalus’ subjective beliefs for granted; he challenges the definition of justice that Cephalus has found in Simonides. He thereby demonstrates that Cephalus has drawn serenity from an unfounded belief in his own rightness.

Further, we know that Cephalus’ sons Polemarchus and Lysias (who are present in the dialogue) will later be selected to be two of the first ten victims of the Thirty Tyrants– Lysias narrowly escaping; Polemarchus suffering death. They will be singled out because, like Cephalus, they are wealthy resident aliens, not citizens. So we can see that Cephalus’ happiness is contingent on the accident that the city has chosen to treat him well. He should be thinking about how to secure justice for the community.

On the other hand, one might think that Cephalus is lucky not to get a full dose of Socrates. He leaves just before Socrates begins to critically analyze his beliefs, heading off to watch a civic/religious festival instead. I can read the portrait of Cephalus as elegiac: he fortunately lived a happy life to its conclusion before his happiness could be wrecked by either philosophy or politics.

See also: Pindar on hope; Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; etc.

Pindar on hope

Cephalus says: “For if, looking at his own life, [an old man] identifies many wrong acts, then he often awakens from his sleep, as children do, in fear and bad hopes, but if he observes no injustice in himself, then pleasant hope is always nearby as a good caregiver, as Pindar says–for he puts it gracefully, Socrates, when he says of a person who gets through life justly and piously:

Sweetness in the heart,
Fosterer and elder-carer:
Hope, the best pilot of the thought
Of oft-twisted mortals

Cephalus adds: “Oh, how wonderfully well he says that …”

But then Socrates breaks the mood by asking what justice is, making Cephalus–a contented old man–wonder whether he has ever really known it.

If I read the Pindar verses correctly, the two main words in the second line refer to the care (respectively) of children and the elderly. Indeed, the course of a human life is a prevalent theme at the beginning of The Republic, from which I have taken this passage (331a). At the very outset, Socrates, an older adult, is physically stopped on the road by a “child,”* who has been sent by an old man, Cephalus. One of the attractions that Socrates is promised, if he agrees to stay, is an opportunity for dialogue with “young men” (328a). But Socrates asks Cephalus to report on what it’s like to be old.

Although The Republic is about justice, the entree to that discussion is the question of how to age well. A major question is why one should have to think about justice at all, and an answer suggested here is that knowing justice allows one to have hope in old age. One irony is that Cephalus is happy because he only thinks he knows justice; a second irony is that Cephalus’ sons will later be cruelly treated by the unjust. In both respects, his hope may be misplaced.

*I drafted this post while preparing for a reading group discussion, and a colleague with infinitely better Greek than mine said that this use of the word pais is unspecific about age. Here, it’s a patronizing word for slave. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 54. (The quoted verse is denoted Pindar Frag. 214, Loeb. Translations are mine.)

choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; different kinds of social models; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

Lea Ypi, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

Lea Ypi is a political theorist who has written a prize-winning memoir entitled Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (Norton, 2021). You don’t have to be interested in political theory, philosophy–or any academic discipline–to enjoy and benefit from this book. It is an engrossing story about coming of age during an extraordinary time and in an unusual household composed of vivid characters. For the most part, the vantage point is that of a child or adolescent. The plot is compelling, and I don’t want to give that away. I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists.

It is, however, no secret that Ypi is now an influential leftwing public intellectual who was born in the extremely communist state of Albania and experienced the collapse of that regime when she was a young teenager. One might ask whether she is highly critical of capitalism today because of her formative experiences during a disastrous “transition” to a market economy. Likewise, one might ask whether other people have been anti-communist because they experienced Stalin, or Albania’s Enver Hoxha.

I think Ypi’s answer would be: Yes. Our “biographies” (a fraught word under the Albanian communist system) do shape what we think. Jailing or shooting potential critics was evil, but the Party was not foolish to distrust people whose formative experiences would lean them to anti-Communism. Our circumstances shape us.

The next question might be whether knowing that someone holds a view because of personal experiences invalidates that view. For example, should we discount Ypi’s current politics because she was influenced by extreme circumstances at a formative moment?

Here, her answer would be: No. Our fate is to live at specific times in history. The best we can do is to critically assess the world that we find and work with others to improve it. This is “politics,” in the best sense of that word. It is also “freedom.” To be free is to bring your individual experiences into a consequential public debate with other people who are different from you. That is dangerous or even impossible under a dictatorship, but it is also difficult in contexts like the contemporary European Union, where there is “no politics left, only policy” (p. 227).

If Ypi holds a general political/economic theory, it’s not in her memoir. In fact, she says that she was planning to write a “philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and Socialist traditions” (which sounds like an attempted synthesis), but “when I started writing, ideas turned into people–the people who made me who I am.” She adds: “They loved and fought each other; they had different conceptions of themselves, and of their obligations. They were, as Marx writes, the product of social relations for which they were not responsible, but they still tried to rise above them” (p. 263).

This passage is about as abstract as this book gets. Otherwise, it is about specific people, including the narrator. But the whole memoir conveys the idea that freedom is “trying to rise above” current injustices while treating other human beings as responsible individuals with perspectives of their own.

The epigraph is a quotation from Rosa Luxemburg: “Human beings do not make history of their own free will. But they make history nevertheless.” Ypi vividly and empathetically depicts people who are not free–and who cannot see the truth objectively or independently–but who still strive to make the world better. That is her definition of freedom.

See also: Arendt, freedom, Trump; Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agent; don’t confuse bias and judgment; some notes on identity from a civic perspective academic freedom for individuals and for groups; and a case for liberalism.

Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness

I began blogging on this site on Jan 8, 2003: 21 years ago. I’ve posted more than 4,000 times so far.

To celebrate last year’s 20th anniversary, I selected about 70 posts on a general theme: whether and how to pursue happiness. I edited and organized those posts so that the juxtapositions intrigued and pleased me.

Some entries are short philosophical essays, usually responding to a quotation from a classic work. Some respond instead to literary texts, especially poems. Some are translations; a few offer original verse. The entries are meant to relate to each other, but the transitions are loose and suggestive.

I used the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism as a scaffold for the whole work, even as some of the entries explicitly challenge some of those theses. The text is meant to represent gradually increasing wisdom and equanimity. Unfortunately, that arc does not describe the real me. I didn’t write the entries in the order they appear. Ethical or spiritual growth is a literary conceit, not an autobiographical report.

I did not seek to publish Cuttings 1.0, because I saw it as a work in progress. As planned, I am now celebrating 21 years of blogging by issuing version 2.0. I have added and subtracted substantial amounts of material and reorganized and edited the whole text to produce this new version. I plan to do the same again in the future.

You could download a PDF version of Cuttings 2.0, click to view a Google doc version, or download an .epub version, which requires an e-reader like iBook or Kindle and provides the best experience. If you want an .epub version emailed to a regular email address or directly to a Kindle, please enter that address here.

The new cover art, which is in the public domain, is a still life by the Master of the Vanitas Texts, ca. 1650. I chose it because it illustrates “cuttings” from both plants and texts. Although those snipped things are now dead, we might coax them to regenerate.

As always, comments–including critical ones–are appreciated and are really the best reward.

(By the way, this anniversary might be an appropriate moment to advertise that you can subscribe to this blog as a weekly email, just like a Substack, or follow it on Mastodon, Threads, BlueSky, or Twitter.)

‘every thing that lives is holy’: Blake’s radical relativism

Perhaps each species has a different “umwelt,” a unique enveloping environment that is experienced and influenced by the organism’s sensory organs and nervous system. In that case, reality is not one connected thing, but rather everything that you can I could possibly experience and describe, plus the many other universes that are “enacted” (Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991) by other species–those known and unknown to us, existent and yet to be.

Reflecting on such radical unknowability may have spiritual implications, which have been explored in different ways by Dogen (1200-1253 CE), Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. (See “thinking both sides of the limits of human cognition.”)

William Blake presents a relevant discussion in his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). Oothoon–a female figure, described as “the soft soul of America”–invokes the radical diversity of animal experiences, “as different as their forms and as their joys.” She implies that the consciousness of the chicken, pigeon and bee are fundamentally different. She uses such examples to pose a question about our own consciousness:

Ask the blind worm the secrets of the grave, and why her spires 
Love to curl round the bones of death; and ask the rav’nous snake 
Where she gets poison; and the wing’d eagle why he loves the sun 
And then tell me the thoughts of man, that have been hid of old.

Blake, Selected Poems, Penguin Classics (p. 63). 

I am not sure whether she is inviting us to imagine the experience of eagles and worms, or whether she assumes this would be impossible. Later, she exclaims, “How can one joy absorb another? are not different joys / Holy, eternal, infinite! and each joy is a Love” (p. 65).

This is a plea for appreciating fundamental diversity. She uses it to ask the person she loves, Theotormon, to accept her for who she is.

Blake had been exploring arguments for empathy. In his poem The French Revolution (1791), the pro-republican Duke of Orleans says to his reactionary peers:

But go, merciless man! enter into the infinite labyrinth of another's brain 
Ere thou measure the circle that he shall run. Go, thou cold recluse, into the fires
Of another's high flaming rich bosom, and return unconsum'd, and write laws.
If thou canst not do this, doubt thy theories, learn to consider all men as thy equals,
Thy brethren, and not as thy foot or thy hand, unless thou first fearest to hurt them.

Blake may not endorse Orleans’ belief that one can actually enter others’ brains. I am not sure whether he thinks such radical empathy is virtuous or impossible. Either premise could be the basis for appreciating everyone’s uniqueness.

Bromion is a (very bad) male character in the Daughters of Albion. He replies to Oothoon by acknowledging that there are many

... trees[,] beasts and birds unknown: 
Unknown, not unpercievd, spread in the infinite microscope, 
In places yet unvisited by the voyager and in worlds 
Over another kind of seas, and in atmospheres unknown (p. 64). 

Bromion then poses a series of questions about whether there are different wars, sorrows, and joys for these creatures. I think his answer is No:

And is there not one law for both the lion and the ox? 
And is there not eternal fire, and eternal chains? 
To bind the phantoms of existence from eternal life? (p. 65)

Here Bromion explicitly contradicts an aphorism from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (1790)– “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression” (p. 58)–which makes me suspect that Blake is against Bromion’s view.

The third speaker in The Daughters of Albion is Theotormon. He asks Oothoon to share what she knows of the world, “so that [he] might traverse times & spaces far remote.” But he is not sure what this will do for him:

Where goest thou O thought! to what remote land is thy flight? 
If thou returnest to the present moment of affliction 
Wilt thou bring comforts on thy wings, and dews and honey and balm; 
Or poison From the desart wilds, from the eyes of the envier?’ (p. 64). 

Theotormon is worried that empathy might cause envy or other harms. But Oothoon is sure that any experience of a consciousness other than one’s own is beneficial. She concludes the poem: “Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!’ (p. 68). Theotormon sits silently while the other daughters of Albion “echo back her sighs.”

See also: civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; compassion, not sympathy; Gillray and Blake; and “you should be the pupil of everyone all the time”