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Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Other is not a way out - it is an impossible necessity or just a source of ethical noise

I have been having a very interesting discussion with Julio Cabrera, my metaphilosophical guru, from Brasilia about negativity in ethics. He has been putting forward for years now a negative ethics that is presented in several books including one hopefully forthcoming soon in English. He understands negative ethics as an ethics based on the assumption that life itself has no value. He argues that among other things, his ethics entails antinatalism: procreation, as assassination, is ethically bad. This is the centre of my present discussion with him which has taken the form of three texts I concocted and four replies he sent back. (Some of my texts are in previous posts in this blog). I received his last reply more than a week ago and I'm still uncertain about what is going to be my next move. I'm just wondering now about one feature present in his last text that can be more than a detail.

In my previous text I propose a different kind of negative ethics, one based on interruption. Being interrupted means not to value one's being over the Other, over what comes my way to interrupt my endeavors (my agency, my purpose, my aims, my outlook on things). I reckon this includes also one's ethical outlook. This is why interruption is a form of negation. Cabrera agrees. But he thinks there is no ethics in interruption conceived as such. The other, he claims, is not a way out. This is where we reach a strange aporia: ethics vs the other. In his view, no other could interrupt ethically (my) ethical behavior for that would deviate me from ethics; in my view, if I'm not prepared to be interrupted in my ethical outlook, I'm being attached to myself and my ethical outlook is no more than an exercise in self-celebration with no ethical content at all. One could argue that two (radically different) forms of negation are such that they cannot translate one in another - but would that be the case for negative ethics? If so, there is no two (or more) negative ethics because each sees the other as unethical. Plus, on my view, an attachment to one's ethical outlook at any cost is an exercise in affirmation - my ethical life is intrinsically worth living. And, presumably, Cabrera would have my interruption approach to be too lenient on procreation to be a truly negative ethics. So there is no plurality of negative ethics - they eat themselves up both from the point of view of negation and from the point of view of their ethical character.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Perception as hospitality

In a lot of the discussion concerning the content of perceptual experience and the alternatives to what Sellars diagnosed as a myth of the Given, including in positions that try to avoid the myth while intending to claim that there is a content to what the senses deliver (and not only a causal connection with thought, like in Davidson), there is a tacit and important assumption: that the senses grasp in a flash. That is, perception is not a process bounded together with acts of understanding and movements of intentionality but rather the capture (and eventually the co-ordination) of a state of affairs - such as 'x is red'. McDowell's struggles to determine what is the nature of what the senses deliver - conceptualized content in the form of propositions or intuitions that require conceptual abilities - still fail to escape from the flash predicament. He assumes perception is separable in principle from the workings of the understanding - and response-dependence is set apart from any sort of ongoing interaction between the perceiver's capacities and what the perceived item offers. Receptivity is taken to be an instant and not a process. I guess receptivity would be best understood if considered in terms of the more complex and often greatly tortuous process of hospitality.

Last Friday I had a great conversation with Eli while walking with Vrim across the campus of the LSU and drinking chai at its outskirts. He asked me about McDowell, Travis and the Given. I recalled that Levinas (in Autrement qu'être) claims that the Other cannot be simply a consequence of my freedom (of my spontaneity) neither can she be an imposition (an exercise of exculpation). It's interesting that the Sellarsian debate use words associated with offering, demanding and welcoming: given (as in for-given), exculpations, excuses, responses.
Levinas' observation seems to indicate that the Other in perception what is to be received - maybe given but neither imposed nor constructed. What is perceived acts as demanding reception; hospitality is not a flash like a door being opened. A given is not an imposition and not a construction - it is perhaps like a demand. We have explored the idea that perception is like reading - and always an ethical act oriented by a quest of justice. If it is so, it would be attempting to do justice to the (singular) item being perceived. Perception is like reaching some sort of agreement with something singular - an agreement that responds to what is perceived and therefore involves responsibility. Response is itself perhaps best understood in the context of a conversation with the Other, what is perceived is part of a process that is longer than a flash (x is red) and involves what the perceiver takes as important and how the perceived challenges this by demanding something that can fail to fit the perceiver's expectations. As I wrote last year, maybe intuitions speak only in the context of a conversation.

To be present in perception is not to be represented, but to interrupt understanding (sometimes just to corroborate it). Perception sometimes fail because there is not the right effort to make justice to the singularity being perceived. Perception, like hospitality, requires what Derrida calls "a chez soi"- a framework of concepts, a co-ordination of facts where the perceived item can be received. The idea that there is an animation in what is perceived follows from Whitehead's ontology of organism: what is perceived is itself equally an actual entity. However, in a given episode of perception, for Whitehead, the perceived item is only passively present (even though it can perceive by itself in other episodes of perception). If perception is more like a conversation, subjective forms are always part of an ongoing dialogue. What the hospitality model affords is the idea that the animation of what is perceived is something with which we engage in a personal process when we perceive - and a process that is a non-ending quest for justice. Faced like this, perception is always responding to justice more than to truth.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Interruption in agency

The challenge of correlationism can be put like this: how can the other reach me (so to break in an established correlation that seems to be what makes thought and knowledge possible). The challenge is indeed often put this way. It can however be understood in terms of agency: how can the other act through me (make me think or know, for instance, what is not already prefigured in me). The issue of the Great Outdoors can therefore be thought in terms of a general co-existence with the other - how can the other be not only interdependent but also external to me?

Last week, in Jon Cogburn's classes about McDowell's changing views on the deliverances of the senses from Mind and World to "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" through his discussions with Travis, we were trying to understand what exactly was at stake in the talk about exculpations (and excuses as opposed to justifications). McDowell refers in a footnote to a discussion with Zvi Cohen around someone being exculpated from being in a banished place because she was deposited there by a tornado. He writes: "Her arriving there is completely removed from the domain of what she is responsible for; [...] there is a basis for mitigating any sanctions." The given understood as an exculpation provides a response to the world (to the other shown in experience) that is only in accordance with the other is, but is from the other, to draw on the Kantian distinction between acting from duty and acting in accordance with duty (see my post last year about it). If one is only exculpated by her senses, one is in a position of epistemic luck - like, say, the character in Meno that rightly guesses the way to Larissa without having anything but a correct opinion. In other words, the problem with the given is that it affords no knowledge because it affords no (genuine) response - I can entertain the (true) content that "x is red" if this is imposed on me by the functioning of my senses but if perception is not response, it cannot affect me as an agent. The vocabulary that Kant chose to talk about empirical thinking (that of spontaneity and receptivity) reveals that he had agency in mind - in fact, the Kantian approach is to consider knowledge in terms of norms and normative necessity. In a broader sense, he introduced the idea of responsibility into the claims concerning empirical knowledge. It is clearly an issue of how to deal with the other through experience. But then the bite of correlationism was waiting in the corner: yes, knowledge requires genuine agency, but does that mean that it involves interdependence and prevents genuine externality? The trouble is that my agency seems to be exclusively mine (and our agency exclusively ours). In other words, it is easy when agency is brought in to feel as if we're engaging in an episode of frictionless spin in the void.

My idea of interruption is that we can break out of this spell if we pay enough attention to what is involved in a response. To respond is to act but also it is to be affected up to an extent where I'm not only guided by myself (or by ourselves). I take the agent to enjoy some solitude with respect to her own agency - what Levinas attempts to show with his phenomenology of laziness. This is where interruption could take place: the other can genuinely act through me because there is always a gap between me and my agency (me and my being, the existant and her existence). This is the consequence of the hypostasis: I carry my being, my agency, but there's a me isolated from that. This is what could be shown by a phenomenology of interruption: when my agenda and my convictions are challenged by another agent that does not take possession of my capacity to act but rather require me to respond (and therefore to act).

In my recent controversy with Cabrera about anti-natalism and negative ethics, I have argued that there is a negative ethics (an ethics that doesn't ascribe any special value to life) according to which one's being is interrupted by others and what follows is an episode of responsibility where a decision is imposed - one could either change path or ignore what is asked by the other. If one changes one's path, there is an interruption-based negation of one's agenda (and one's conception). Cabrera argues that the other can be heard and requires a response only if she is acting ethically according to my own standards (and there are no other standards I can use here). He agrees that an interruption is a form of negation (to be contrasted with his emphasis on abstention that yields his negative ethics that condemns both killing and procreating advocating abstention as a way to affirm the valuelessness of life) but disagrees that there could be a (negative) ethics based on interruption. He thinks that if the other asks something immoral (that I help murdering or that I help procreating), that interruption is not to be considered on moral grounds. That is, an ethics defined in terms of attending to the other is not ethical enough - at least a provision concerning the morality (on my standards) of what is demanded has to be added. This is an interesting case: I would like to argue that if this provision is added, one is again confined within one's own agenda and conception - one is confined in one's ethical outlook. To be sure, not all demands can be accepted - this is what Derrida calls the infinite responsibility. However, there is no prior way to determine which demand of the other will interrupt my path and make me open the door for if there were, my agenda and conception would be other-proof and therefore I would be confined to my own uninterrupted agency - which could be interdependent and interrelated with everything else but involves no friction with an other. (This is why a metaphysics of subjectivity in Meillassoux's terms cannot step out of the correlation.)