humanistic versus technical philosophy

My two good friends from as early as kindergarten, the brothers Marcus and Jason Stanley, are guest-blogging with Brian Leiter. Lately, they have considered the very question that I have been writing about lately as I try to finish my current book-in-progress: the distinction (if there is one) between humanistic and technical philosopy.

My expertise, to the extent that I have any, is strictly limited to moral and political questions. In those fields of philosophy, there are not two distinct camps, the humanists versus the technical analysts. But there are two poles in a continuum. The same continuum defined moral philosophy in the Renaissance, when humanists (writers and teachers who practiced the studia humanitatis) challenged the highly technical Scholastics, who saw philosophy as a science. I believe that we should move closer to the humanistic pole today, reviving certain aspects of Renaissance humanism. [Warning: The rest of this post is long, because I’ve pasted a section from my book into it.]

“Technical” moral philosophy resembles medieval scholasticism in several important respects. First, technical ethicists (like the Scholastics) usually analyze raw materials that come from outside of contemporary academic philosophy. For the most part, they analyze intuitions–i.e., the judgments and opinions of contemporary people, especially those who are socially and culturally similar to the author–or canonical doctrines from the past, such as Kantianism and utilitarianism. Philosophers strive to make these raw materials more consistent and clear and reject any aspects that prove fatally contradictory.

In my view, however, philosophy is unsatisfactory if all it does is to analyze exogenous data, whether modern intuitions or doctrines from the past. The best moral philosophy has been synthetic and generative rather than merely analytical. Philosophers have proposed new and challenging moral ideas. Today, analytical moral philosophers sometimes achieve novel results by applying canonical doctrines in new ways. (For instance, Peter Singer showed that certain forms of utilitarianism bar the exploitation of animals.) At least as often, they debunk received moral opinions by showing that these ideas cannot be stated in highly clear and consistent language. But we need moral opinions, even if we cannot state them in perfectly clear and mutually consistent ways. Indeed, clarity and consistency are easily overrated. We are better off wrestling with a set of incompatible, partial, but demanding truths, rather than retaining only the ones the fit comfortably together. In any event, it is unlikely that our store of canonical theories and conventional judgments is satisfactory, even once analyzed and made consistent. To renew its traditional role, philosophy must generate and defend moral ideas, rather than merely refine or reject existing ones.

Second, technical ethical philosophy is ahistorical. Philosophers are, of course, aware that cultural change occurs. Yet their efforts to refine and restate pre-modern philosophy often resemble Aquinas?s reconstruction of Aristotle. For instance, a ?reconstructionist? reading of Kant?s moral theory does not ask what Kant meant to say. He was a pietist from eighteenth-century Riga who held many superannuated beliefs that need not concern us. Rather, the point is to develop a true doctrine by retaining and clarifying persuasive aspects of Kant?s writing while jettisoning the rest. This was exactly the Scholastics? approach to Aristotle.

Again, I think this is a largely misguided method for moral philosophy. It may make sense in other fields. For example, Strawson wrote: ?When I allude to the system of Leibniz, I will scarcely be troubled if the doctrines I discuss are not at each point identical with the historical doctrines espoused by the philosopher called Leibniz.? Leibniz was simply a good aide for Strawson as he considered metaphysics. However, the raw materials of moral analysis?the intuitions of the present and the philosophical doctrines of the past?are always reflections of local circumstances. They arise because of people?s experiences in the world, including the representations and stories that they have found persuasive. Moral ideas are never self-evident, axiomatic, or self-justifying, although they may appear self-evident to people who have narrow horizons. Nor are moral ideas and judgments self-contained: they always assume and imply numerous other ideas. Philosophers should treat intuitions and philosophical theories as cultural phenomena that must be understood before they can be judged?and that can only be understood in context.

Third, the style of analytic philosophy is third-person exposition. There is no reason to wonder whether the author whose name appears on the title page actually holds the views that are described, as unambiguously as possible, in the contents. Nor is there much reason to wonder about the context, audience, or motivation of the work. To learn that the author has a hidden agenda or fails to follow his own moral advice is merely to engage in gossip; the value of a book lies exclusively in its arguments. Note, however, that this was not true of some of the best moral philosophy of the past, in which questions of irony, intention, and context were complex and essential.

Finally, “technical” moral philosophy adopts an implicitly superior position vis-?-vis the narrative arts, such as history and fiction. These arts generate stories; moral philosophy decides whether the judgments and intuitions supported by such stories are correct. The superiority of moral theory was more explicit and uncontroversial in the Middle Ages. Then, most writers described the various disciplines not as independent ways of thinking, but as parts of an overall hierarchy of knowledge. For instance, theorists constructed many rival lists of the ?seven liberal arts,? but all lists described a progression from the elementary disciplines of the trivium (from which we derive the word ?trivial?) to the advanced sciences of the quadrivium. Some theorists placed moral philosophy and theology in the quadrivium; others saw them as higher pursuits than all seven of the liberal arts. But consistently, medieval theorists assumed a progression from grammar and rhetoric toward philosophy. The former disciplines were simply tools for communicating truth (or falsehoods). They were taught by exposing students to Latin stories and speeches. Students were expected to master grammar and rhetoric early, so that they could proceed to study truth as revealed by philosophy and theology. These disciplines, in turn, were abstract and encyclopedic, not concrete or based in narrative.

Renaissance humanism ultimately undermined the medieval system. We sometimes think of it as a new set of philosophical doctrines about the dignity and value of human beings. On this view, Pico della Mirandola?s Oration on the Dignity of Man is central text. But Pico was neither original nor highly influential. His ideas would have been broadly familiar a century earlier, although he knew more Greek and wrote better classical Latin than his medieval predecessors. He was part of a philosophical tradition that continued for at least the next century?mystical, eclectic (in the original sense), and speculative?but he had little to do with ?humanism.?

A better way to understand humanism is as a revolt of the trivium. The first people to call themselves ?humanists? were independent tutors who provided advanced undergraduates with instruction in grammar and rhetoric. They taught what they called the studia humanitatis on the side, while the university?s formal curriculum emphasized logic and theology. Parents paid for this ?humanistic? instruction because they wanted their sons to learn eloquence to succeed at court or in the law. Humanist pedagogy consisted of reading and imitating ancient narrative authors, with attention to style and form, plot and character.

The truly innovative and representative works of renaissance humanist philosophy do not consistently endorse the dignity of human beings. If they have anything in common, it is not any doctrine, but rather a similarity of form. Many are ?literary? texts that are explicitly concerned with character, context, voice, irony, and plot. In each case, the role of philosophical argumentation is itself a theme. Thus, for example, Thomas More?s Utopia contains a blueprint of a society, complete with arguments for why that polity is ideal. In this respect, it resembles Rawls? Theory of Justice. However (just as in Plato?s Republic) the account of an excellent society is set in a complex and deliberate literary and rhetorical frame. The narrator, also an Englishman named ?Thomas More,? is visiting Flanders on a mission for his king. He meets a friend and colleague named Peter Giles, who is talking ?by accident? with an old and somewhat ragged man whom More takes for a sailor. ??But you are much mistaken,? said Giles, ?for he has not sailed as a seaman, but as a traveler, or rather a philosopher.?? (He is later described as a ?friend of Plato?). This man?s name turns out to be Raphael Hytholday, and he relates how he had debated economics with a lawyer in the very household in which More had been raised: that of Cardinal John Morton. The scene retold by Hythloday involves not only his opponent (the lawyer) and the even-handed Cardinal, but also an incompetent jester who speaks truths, and a hot-tempered friar.

More is so impressed with Hythloday?s recollected arguments that he tries to persuade the wise traveler to become a counselor to princes?as More is. Hythloday responds that his advice, based on philosophical arguments and experience, would be so radical that no one would pay him any attention; so he prefers a private life (the opposite of More?s). Several times in the course of this discussion, Hythloday alludes to a superior society that he had visited called Utopia (No Place). The character Thomas More doubts Hythloday?s philosophical position?which is an attack on private property?but he seems to recognize that the concrete existence of a real superior to modern England might be persuasive. Thus he ?earnestly begs? Hythloday to ?describe that island very particularly to us.? There follows Hythloday?s description of Utopia.

The Praise of Folly is a book by More?s friend Erasmus. (In fact, the Latin title, Encomium Moriae, could be translated as ?Praise of More,? an inside joke.) It is a speech by Folly eulogizing herself. Self-praise is always foolish, and anything that fools say is the opposite of wise; so one might assume that every claim that comes out of her mouth is the precise reverse of the truth. Thus, for example, when Folly calls scholastic theologians her servants and praises them for interpreting scripture and history as illustrations of abstract truths?without concern for literal details or authorial intentions?it seems clear that this is Erasmus? attack on those methods. However, Folly is extraordinarily learned (if fallible); and some of her arguments resemble those that Erasmus made elsewhere under his own name, for instance, his critique of monastic orders. She even quotes and compliments him.

Finally, consider Machiavelli?s Prince. This book looks like a treatise on government, an argument in favor of tyranny. But it is also a letter written by the exiled and recently tortured author to a particular prince at a particular moment. Therefore, some readers have long suspected that Machiavelli was deeply ironic. As Rousseau wrote: ?Machiavelli was a proper man and a good citizen; but, being attached to the court of the Medici, he could not help veiling his love of liberty in the midst of his country?s oppression. The choice of his detestable hero, Caesar Borgia, clearly enough shows his hidden aim.? This may not be an accurate theory of Machiavelli?s motives, but the fact remains that ?Machiavelli? is a character in the Prince, living in particular historical circumstances, writing with particular motives, and not necessarily identical to the author. It is possible that he is as much of a fool as Folly?or Hythloday, or Erasmus, or More.

Each of these works invites us to ask whether the author agrees with the doctrines that are expressed inside its complex narrative frame. There is a layer of ambiguity that violates the modern (or Scholastic) philosopher?s preference for clarity. We cannot paraphrase a humanistic work without losing its significance, whereas a modern philosophical argument is supposed to be subject to restatement and summary. In order to assess the intended purpose of these books?which is only one of several questions we might pursue in interpreting them?we must explore the immediate context in which they were written. For instance, Machiavelli?s real relationship with the Medici is relevant to interpreting The Prince.

I believe that the humanists meant something very serious by adopting the forms that they did. They assumed that philosophical arguments were important, but not universally binding. Moral arguments were appropriate to particular people in particular settings. They were always partial truths, because other people, differently situated, could legitimately hold and believe different values. This did not mean that ethics was a matter of individual preference and taste. But readers always had to ask whether the reasons and conclusions of any speaker were relevant to them. This question required a holistic judgment of the circumstances described in the text and those of the reader. Since all the circumstances had to be considered together, humanist authors described settings, personalities, and even facial expressions as well as arguments.

Humanists derived all of these literary devices from classical philosophy. They were able to do so because they paid attention to the literary qualities of texts by Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch, their favorite moral philosophers. Whereas a Scholastic reader would consider a doctrine of Plato (probably via a medieval Islamic treatise), the humanists debated the character of Socrates, his rhetorical figures, and his behavior under various concrete circumstances. Since their greatest books made use of dramatic irony, it seems likely that they treated Plato?s dialogues, too, as possibly ironic.

Today, moral philosophy could take at least four forms if it became more of a humanistic discipline. First, philosophers could tell stories with moral themes. Fashioning plausible and moving fiction is a special skill not often possessed by people who are also good at philosophical analysis, although Iris Murdoch, Rebecca Goldstein, and a few others have shown that this combination remains possible. In any case, philosophers have another option, which is to write true stories in order to highlight moral themes. A philosopher?s version of a narrative would be distinctive. Compared to historians and novelists, philosophers are more explicitly concerned with moral analysis and more likely to put theoretical arguments in the mouths of characters; but they can still write concrete and particular narratives. An extraordinary example is Susan Brison?s autobiographical Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self.

Second, philosophers could closely read fictional and historical stories and legal testimony in order to elucidate moral themes. A fine example of a philosopher?s close, sensitive, and original narrative interpretation is Richard Rorty?s chapter entitled ?The Barber of Kasbeam: Nabokov on Cruelty.? Rorty uncovers a subtle but moving subtext in Lolita and uses it to illustrate the theme of moral obliviousness, which (in turn) motivates his form of liberalism.

A moral philosopher who reads narratives ought to borrow some methods and concerns from the other humanistic disciplines. Thus, for example, Rorty rightly considers ?literary? issues such as point-of-view, style, and irony, as well as ?historical? issues such as context and audience. At a more practical, everyday level, professional interpreters ought to read their texts in the original languages (whenever possible) and trace allusions and other intertextual references. Whereas a conventional modern work of analytical philosophy is meant to be self-contained, narratives almost always incorporate other stories ?by reference.?

On the other hand, moral philosophers need not simply replicate the methods of literary critics and historians. Critics examine single works or combinations of texts that share common authorship, genre, or provenance. They often (and appropriately) investigate matters that have little bearing on moral judgment. Historians study periods, traditions, or communities?and, like critics, they often investigate non-moral questions as well as moral ones. In contrast, moral philosophers should look for common moral themes, not only in literary texts and episodes from the past, but also in legal testimony, contemporary newspaper accounts, and hypothetical cases. Furthermore, moral philosophers have a comparative advantage when they analyze the explicitly theoretical statements that literary and historical characters and narrators often make. While these statements and arguments should be understood in the context of the overall genre and purpose of the works in which they appear, they should also be analyzed?a task that philosophers can perform especially well.

A third approach to ?humanistic? moral philosophy is to look for patterns and developments in the history of ideas. For example, in After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre tells a story about the progressive loss of teleology?of a sense that human life aims toward some knowable end?in Europe after the Middle Ages. More modestly, Seyla Benhabib once showed that classical liberals, despite their claim to reason a priori from the state of nature, actually drew a line between the public and private spheres that mirrored the traditional distinctions between male and female work-roles. MacIntyre and Benhabib both practice genealogical criticism, arguing that widely shared assumptions are based on suspect moves made at particular points in the past.

Finally, philosophers who are humanists can help to recover attitudes and frames of reference from past or distant places that challenge widespread current assumptions. Clifford Geertz writes, ?The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding their sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said.? Anthropologists are very good at this, as are historians and critics; but sometimes it takes a philosopher, steeped in the distinctions of moral theory, to recognize the hidden moral assumptions of a distant time or place. An example is the concept of ?moral luck??incompatible with both Christian and liberal thought?that Bernard Williams discovered in Greek tragedy. It is possible to describe moral luck as a doctrine: We are not in control of our moral condition, but can be made better or worse by chance. However, I find it much more fruitful to see moral luck as a theme, a tendency in particular circumstances for individuals to become better or worse by sheer luck. Williams? analysis of moral luck does not prove that it is a correct theory (which would imply, in turn, that Kantian and Christian ethics are fundamentally mistaken). In fact, the contrast between Greek notions of moral luck and modern ethics seems fairly intractable. But Williams performed a major service in revealing a lost theme.

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  • Jason Stanley


    It is a very good idea to consider ethics along the “humanist” vs. “technical” divide. If anything like your moral particularism is correct (as advocated in your book on the topic), then one would expect a more humanist normative ethics to be more enlightening. I didn’t discuss the contrast within ethics, precisely because I think this is a case in which I’m not sure which kind of approach is more helpful. I can read Judith Jarvis Thomson on abortion and recognize it as brilliant philosophy, but I also recognize the need for a different way of practicing moral theory.

    In contrast, as you point out, I don’t think any kind of particularist view of (e.g.) metaphysics is going to be illuminating (or even what that would mean).