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Fr. 629

May 19, 2015

In philosophy, answers to “what” questions of this sort most often seek to isolate formal characteristics common to all instances of the entity to be defined. For x to be an instance of y, x must bear universal characteristics A, B and C. These stand as formal a priori characteristics. Notable examples of such questions include “what is knowledge?”, central to contemporary epistemology, and the important literature that this question has spawned.

Insofar as pragmatism, holism and epistemic nominalism call into question just such definitions, one can see here a limit to the definitions and endeavors of this kind.  Indeed, the characteristics relevant to identifying persons and personhood will vary greatly in virtue of context and situation. So, asking largescale questions of technological innovations, as the question does, is in some respect wrongheaded. Naturally, the way forward lies in asking more targeted questions and deploying smaller-scale notions in more precise contexts.

Accordingly, one should instead ask to what extent person and personhood are defined in terms of biological, genetic and psychological factors. Is there anything within person and personhood which lies beyond the jurisdiction of such factors? This question requires still further precision but can be provisionally addressed from the perspective of an older line of inquiry found in classical and contemporary discussions alike of character. Environment and genetics, nature and nature: how do these interact to account for character?

If one grants that genetics cannot entirely account for environmental factors, then broader reductionist strategies cannot be maintained. For environmental factors call for a different sort of reckoning than the genetic, more comprehensive in scope. Supposing that one were to provide a thoroughgoing account from a biological and genetic perspective, a comprehensive account of environmental factors which exhausted such considerations would still be further required. The methodology of just such an account is difficult to envision at this stage, even within the field of psychology, where experiments center on particular problems and components and eschew, at least in the beginning, an overall view.

Supposing further that environmental factors and their linkage in a comprehensive psychological account themselves do not exhaust the presentation of person and personhood or that the variability of these factors resists explanatory accounts, one must likely postulate, if not a soft explanatory gap, at least the possibility of facing a non-empirical object. Whether this be conceived under the aspect of the Meadian I as source of impulses, an underlying or instinctive subjectivity, or, less dramatically, the many-sided complexity of individuality, the challenge posed is clear: how far can empirical factors define a non-empirical object? (This challenge is further compounded by the dilemmas surrounding identification and definition required by Claim 3, which depends on a rigid epistemological scheme trading on outdated metaphors of classical epistemology.) Again, the need to constrict still further the context makes itself felt, in order to understand better what is at stake in the present formulation of person and personhood.


Fr. 628

May 18, 2015

In a post published five years ago, one blogger makes note of the top ten philosophical issues for the 21st century, as elaborated in the 200th episode of “Philosopher Talk”. Of particular interest to those areas most often broached here are issues 3, 4, 9 and 10. To each of these issues will have been dedicated a short reflection in hopes of teasing out precisely what is at stake therein.

After having treated 3, 9 and 10 in the past year, we shall finish the four-part series this week with 3, stated as follows:

3. What is a person? With the rise of cloning, designer babies, and drugs that can alter one’s personality, enhance one’s memory, or make one smarter, we may be forced to rethink the very idea of human person. What exactly is a human person, when every aspect of our biological and genetic and psychological make-up can be manipulated at will? What, if any, part of a person is fixed and unchanging?

The wording of the question “What is a person?” presumes that there is an answer of general or universal extension, which can be given to this question. Further attention should first be given to the particular claims forming the question’s background.

1. With the rise of cloning, designer babies, and drugs that can alter one’s personality, enhance one’s memory, or make one smarter, we may be forced to rethink the very idea of a human person.

a. New technologies affect body and mind, i.e. organic composition or current arrangements and relations.

b. Current arrangements and relations of body and mind are, at least partly, constitutive of person and personhood as presently conceived.

c. New technology affects person and personhood.

2. What exactly is a human person, when every aspect of our biological and genetic and psychological make-up can be manipulated at will?

a. Person and personhood are partly defined by contemporary understanding of arrangements of biological, genetic and psychological factors.

b. These factors can be more or less manipulated at will and, by extension, made subject to one’s wishes.

c. Person and personhood can be more or less manipulated at will and, by extension, made subject to one’s wishes.

3. What, if any, part of a person is fixed and unchanging?

a. One identifies that which is partly unchanging and fixed.

b. One identifies traits of person and personhood.

c. Person and personhood are partly unchanging and fixed.

What problems might arise in this presentation of person and personhood?

I: It either overestimates the extent of future changes to organic make-up or underestimates the scope of past changes to that same make-up.

II: It contends that a person or personhood can be identified and defined, either completely or incompletely.

III: Person and personhood are ambiguous objects, stranded somewhere between the empirical and non-empirical.

To bring these back to the basic claims, Claim 1 goes somewhat untouched by objections (I-III). Certainly, a selective reading of (I) might call into question subclaim 1b.) (the possibility of affecting personhood) but its primary target remains Claim 2 (the extent to which personhood is affected). While (I) targets Claim 2, (II-III) take aim at Claim 3 in particular. Still, this mapping of claims and objections merits closer examination.

The overestimation clause of (I) is inadmissible from the moment that one grants even limited connection and interaction, on one hand, between organism, environment and character and, on the other, speech, thought and deed. This comes out all the more strongly when the above are viewed as instantiated networks of causal relations, for causal relations fall precisely under the sort of deterministic processes suggested in the presentation. In contrast, it is important to take seriously the underestimation clause as evolutionary and societal changes of the past may have had an impact on underlying conceptions of person and personhood comparable to those brought on by advances in contemporary technology. Regardless, it seems prudent to consider ongoing developments through a lens that is neither overly revolutionary nor conservative.

(III) poses larger problems in that the question concerns mostly empirical aspects of an object that resists merely empirical definition. Certainly, it would be unwise to postulate an explanatory gap from the beginning, but even the most complicated models and algorithms currently available encounter difficulties in accounting for the various factors that enter into the instantiated network that is person and personhood. The question remains a question precisely because one feels that, in spite of so many organic or environmental changes, some elements of person and personhood are left intact or not directly affected by said changes. In short, one might see in such intuition the unarticulated belief that something either escapes or resists deterministic processes.

(II) constitutes perhaps the largest objection to the question and follows in part from (III) for identification and definition require an object which is at least partly unambiguous, available or responsive to inquiry. The question then becomes how much and by what measure the object must be unambiguous, available and responsive for definition. Insofar as the “how much” presents itself as a distinction of degree, this first prong will prove a fruitless philosophical exercise. Indeed, the second stands as the more interesting of the two. By what measure is a definition good? More simply, what constitutes a good definition?


May 15, 2015

In the tree with leafy branch and bough, you can reasonably see the negative spacing of a lung, as if some malady had grown to fill its passages and hardened and then the dying organ been cut away to leave behind that which did the lung in. So you see in the woods so many failed lungs.

Fr. 627

May 14, 2015

Pour un discours normalisé ou anormal: Kant face à Stout, Stout face à Kant

Dans “Réponse à la question: Qu’est-ce que les Lumières?”, Kant se donne pour tâche de garantir “la plus inoffensive de toutes les libertés, celle de faire publiquement usage de sa raison en toutes choses” et, par là même, de fonder le progrès des lumières dans un discours public de type normalisé. La démarche de Kant se révèle normalisante dans la mesure où elle “rend commensurable toute contribution au discours dans un domaine” (Jeffrey Stout, Ethics After Babel, p. 294): dans l’usage public, tout interlocuteur part d’un vocabulaire épuré, “à titre de savant”, pour s’adresser à un public de “lecteurs” de sorte que tout autre interlocuteur peut accepter les raisons du premier, peu importe sa fonction dans la société. Une telle normalisation des conditions de pratiques discursives peut-elle réellement faire progresser la société humaine comme le prétend Kant? Certes, un discours normalisé rend compte de la fragmentation de l’autorité et du bien commun dans la société moderne. Mais il résiste à l’effort de certains interlocuteurs, peu satisfaits de ses prétentions libérales fondationnalistes, d’y apporter de nouveaux éléments justificatifs issus non pas des usages publics de la raison mais de ceux dits “privés”. Car, pour des interlocuteurs tels que Jeffrey Stout, la discussion qui fait réellement progresser la société cosmopolite passe par l’écoute, “l’interaction conversationnelle” et la critique improvisée dans un “discours anormal” (idem.). À force de vouloir fonder les critères du débat en avance, on le rendrait en même temps stérile. Si cela constitue une critique forte d’un discours normalisé kantien dont les principes sont fondationnalistes, il n’exclut nullement un discours normalisé kantien de type non-fondationnaliste. Il suffirait de supposer une raison pratique et un discours modaux, modérés et sensibles aux particularités des interlocuteurs, selon lesquels l’usage public consiste à proposer des raisons qui pourraient être adoptées de façon cohérente par tout interlocuteur dans le domaine en question (cf. Towards justice and virtue, Onora O’Neill). Dans cet optique modal, l’usage public résiste-il mieux ou finit-il par se rapprocher de ses critiques, plus qu’on ne le soupçonne?

Travelogue D9

May 13, 2015

With the museum’s closing, I found myself back outside in the wind and before the city lots still mustered for review. To the left or west, I peered through the fence, solid concrete base topped with concrete railings and plastic orange latticework where railings had gone missing. Into the distance stretched a string of gravel molds compacted by machinery and molded to resemble, perhaps unintentionally, a slumbering race of tortoises cast off from the “Species” section of the Confluence’s permanent exhibit. I could only admire this false nature and look about other museum castoffs.

As it turns out, castoffs of one sort or another are never far off in the city, and so I found myself, perhaps an hour later, faced with a cluster of sinks and one toilet lying about near a square a few minutes from the flat. Industry, like false nature, has a way of accumulating and piles up, slow but relentless. Were I to come back even a few short weeks later, I would undoubtedly find cabinets and pipes and pots joined with this porcelain company. Given enough time, I might have mistaken this square for the ruins of Bruegel’s Fire allegory.

Once in the flat, I turned my attention again to one wall to which I had already devoted considerable time and mental energy.  For the owner had seen fit to hang physical maps on the wall of our rented flat, of Europe and Asia, all of which had resulted in my remarking to myself several times how little chance entered into the future of a city. For all had been set out beforehand by its location. Given a nucleus, further elements came to accrete about it.

So it was that Vienna sprang from a single point in the gap between the Alps and the Carpathians (represented here by thick black brushwork) along the Danube. Bereft of elevation, Poland awaited its fate on a plain too small by half while Moscow condensed at the center of a vast European plain, bounded by four mountain ranges (Caucasus, Carpathian, Scandinavian Alps and Urals, more black strokes).

Yet the map resisted me in other ways, such as when I tried to piece together the reason for which the circles identifying major cities appeared in either red or blue with no apparent rhyme or reason: Madrid, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow in red; London, Hamburg, Leningrad in blue. Whether the groupings owed to political affiliation, elevation above sea level, seaway access, or population remains unclear, even upon scanning the photos which I took. Perhaps a good map hides as much as it gives away.

Fr. 626

May 12, 2015

Indeed, the most striking conclusion that the author draws concerns the person’s commitment or other to “radical honesty”. In short, such a term encapsulates the idea that the person should manifest internalized ideals and inward life in all thoughts, speech, and deeds so as to live a fully authentic life. Of course, such a lifestyle swiftly runs into problems on a very practical level. Take the case of:

a guy who grew up in a family committed to “radical honesty.” It’s what it sounds like: telling people what you think all the time with no filter. The guy was describing how he had trouble in romantic relationships because (my words, not his), he just never shut up about whatever he was feeling at every moment. Radical Narcissism, really. And he explained how he’s only now, as a 30-something-year-old man, beginning to understand that there’s value in what psychologists call “theory of mind”: the ability to understand that other people have feelings and perspectives.

Very simply, honesty comes at the price of others’ feelings. The idea of a zero-sum game perhaps summarizes their interrelation: the maximization of one comes always at the expense of the other. Accordingly, a third notion enters on the scene, that of respect.

Honesty and authenticity are complicated. Am I being dishonest if I don’t blurt out to the woman sitting across from me on the subway as I write this: “I think your sunglasses look ridiculous!” Well, kinda. But I’m also respecting her right to sit there and read whatever she’s reading without being accosted by my opinion.

This raises a question, hardly new in itself: at what point must the person limit her manifestation of authenticity as regards others? In some sense, we have done little more than reword a classical liberal question in which authenticity has now come to stand in for exercise of individual freedom. Yet talk of authenticity should not be cast aside because it treads familiar ground. Rather, it proves all the more interesting for it in that it maps out an analogy between concrete individuality (in the narrow sense that we have defined elsewhere) and legal subjectivity (also defined elsewhere). In other words, individual and subject stand not as opposed terms here but as complements: personal history and universal rights can play in the same terrain.

The writer’s closing remarks bring this analogy out still further when they posit the importance of negotiation:

Every relationship (with bosses, with lovers, with the general public) is a negotiation. We negotiate a sense of an authentic self against the feelings and needs of the other person for the unique benefits the relationship brings us both. It’s cold, but it’s true. Where we run into trouble, especially in love and work, is when we stop asking ourselves: Is anyone getting a really raw deal here?

For negotiation is most often carried out between two parties intent on delineating the limits of their rights and rights-claims. Here, negotiation takes place at a more intimate level, one in which the person’s concrete history as a discrete individual is inextricably bound up, and we can see just how much individual has to gain from engaging both topics and forums previously left to subject alone. Self as subject and self as individual are equally integral to our interaction with others. Such awareness is the interest of bringing a philosophical account back around to the everyday.

Fr. 625

May 11, 2015

We have devoted considerable time in this space to discussing notions of self and individuality. Despite this, talk has strayed from more everyday notions of the latter into a more philosophically inclined discussion of the ways in which talk of self and individual do and should function in public discourse and political discussion. With that in mind, we will attempt briefly to show in what ways this approach maps onto or interacts with more everyday talk.

Consider, for example, the following post from Big Think on the notions of authenticity and honesty. The writer gets at authenticity in somewhat roundabout fashion, as follows:

There’s a lot of talk in psychology these days, for example, about the importance of “authenticity,” and businesses are frantically striving to build the reality or the illusion of authenticity into their workplaces for fear of losing talented millennials, to whom (surveys and turnover stats show), authenticity is important. It is hopeless perhaps to attempt to define what being authentic really means. For the purposes of psychology, [maybe dig up an instrument here or talk to Maria Konnikova], the subjective feeling of authenticity must suffice. If you feel like you’re basically allowed to be your (mostly) complete self, rather than being contorted into unnatural knots trying to serve some external ideal, it’s all good.

In general, the article distinguishes internal from external ideals and identifies authenticity with a form of correspondence between a person’s thoughts, speech, and deeds and internal ideals. Presumably, these ideals are internal insofar as, broadly speaking, the person holds these up to herself as ideals rather than some external authority. Yet it is simple enough to see how talk of this kind can obscure the provenance of those views and principles which most hold sway over our lives. For few enough of these are wholly or even mainly of our devising, being cut from the cloth of our social word or taken wholesale from some domain or other complete with its own internal goods.

This is not, however, to suggest that internal ideals do not exist. Simply, the article’s portrayal of “internal” as key to authenticity can mislead without further qualification. Perhaps, distinguishing “internalized” from “external” ideals might prove more sound when it comes to sorting one out from the other.

Strikingly, discussion of “internal” as opposed to external highlights another potentially misleading understanding of authenticity with regards to self. When the article speaks of being “allowed to be your complete self”, it trades on a substantive view of self, namely an extant self at the bottom of a person’s thoughts, speech and deeds. In short, a person has a self, which that person should try to incarnate equally in everyday life. This view begs the question when it leaves unanswered (and certainly beyond the scope of the article’s original intentions) why authenticity or correspondence to an underlying self ought to be cultivated.

Certainly, the writer draws attention to the sense of discomfort that accompanies a lack of correspondence between self and life, i.e. between internalized ideals and (outward) thoughts, speech and deeds.

It is really painful to have to pretend against your will to be something you’re not. I imagine strippers, porn actors, and prostitutes (with the possible exception of the rare variety who claim to feel empowered by these professions) experience this kind of dissociative state to an exponentially higher degree than the rest of us, but in every profession and every relationship it’s there to some degree: the question of how much honesty you’re allowed to get away with, and how much dishonesty you’re willing to take.

The affective disorders which this dissociation between self and outward activities suggests are not to be taken lightly or cast aside as mere millenialisms. If this dissociation resists explication in cognitive terms of the sort to which the empirical sciences aspire, the fact remains that it makes itself felt and must be accepted, at least provisionally, at face value, pending further enquiry. That said, it is perhaps more interesting to consider the consequences which follow from this understanding of self and authenticity.


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