Sunday, June 23, 2013

Aikin and Talisse on Jamesian Ethics

I just saw the back-and-forth on this point in the just-published William James Studies. WOW. I cannot remember the last time I saw such fist-a-cuffs at that level of intensity. Ya know, I'm going to be honest and go with my gut rather than we weighed-down by the usual academic politically-correct talk. By default, I'm hesistant to accept the position of a person who jumps right into name-calling, especially after I recently published a response to that person's essay accusing them of doing the same thing on another topic. So, I will keep back-tracking the conversation, and you can follow along to see who's hurling the most mud. Hint: it's mostly one side.


  1. I'm now reading back quite a few issues ... wow a lot has been written in the back and forth. It looks like Aikin and Talisse are doing the same thing I criticized Aikin for concerning pragmatism and phenomenology: interpretting the texts and arguments very selectively to such an extent that the "reading" more reflects intepretative biases than the actual words of the text. And, while doing so, make pointed arguments while somehow not seeing the obvious counter-arguments. I really do like Harvey Cormier's response to them, in part because he realizes that the standard counter-argument will work and goes with it. Why is that good? Because any Americanist recognizes that it is one of the standard counters (appeal to experience or risk Platonism, in the words of the article), and if another scholar falls to it, then the counter is doubly devastating because no scholar should commit such a simple mistake.

    That said, it does seem that Aikin and Talisse have a point: what about moral skepticism? However, I am deeply confused. Do they not see that James--and Cormier is obviously aware of this--is just running with the moral lessons of Hume, Mill, Rousseau, etc. up to James and Dewey on the fact that de facto "every desire creates an obligation." Since then, the crux of the question has been on the relation of the de facto to the de jure, since merely having a desire does not prima facie make it morally right. Or to put it another way, we simply cannot sever descriptive ethics from normative ethics except tentatively and provisionally, because as Rorty put it we always "see by our own lights." To think otherwise is to think we can "skyhook" ourselves out of our bodies, history, etc., to use another Rortyism. Finally, I see in Talisse and Aikin's argumentation the same thing I've seen elsewhere from them, though more pronounced in Aikin: they are writing and apparently thinking like analytic philosophers. That means that they are using verbiage, holding premises, describe traditional terms, according to external standards rather than what James or pragmatism meant. This is prima facie a terrible mistake, and is worse because I do not see a bridging of these traditional analytic notions with pragmatist ones, which is the *proper* first step in doing cross-tradition work. In fact, arguments without doing that run the risk of being specious, and anyone can read my response to Aikin for a very, very specific example. (I can send it to those who don't have access to the Catholic Philosophical Quarterly: for example, he gets the definition of the terms experience, phenomenology, naturalism, etc. wrong, which is suprising.)

  2. Talisse and Aikin, here's why Prof. Cormier calls you Platonists:

    "Again, tyranny is a moral evil regardless of the psychology of the tyrant, the populace, or even those who judge the circumstances."

    On what grounds can you make that claim without, in some way, invoking a Platonic criterion? This is the point of most empiricist responses to rationalism, and much English-speaking philosophy tries to solve the problem by denying the reality of moral value, or tries to make a claim to universal/absolute moral value and then erases the method and subjectivity used to make that claim. It's philosophy by erasure, since the only way to *claim* such absolutes is by erasure. It may be true aside from the claim, but the absolute, complete truth if it exists is silent.

  3. This gets back to my criticisms of commonly held views of pragmatic ethics--since I promised Carl Sachs I would mention it. I've spent a lot of time and ink criticizing the common notion that Deweyan pragmatism's meliorism is driven by science (cf Theory of Valuation); that is, that science and its application to human concerns in Dewey's sense will create ever better and better values.

    Nope. That's trading in a skyhook for an infinite escalator. Since "better and better" is always evaluated in some specific context that limits the horizon of any evaluative judgment, there is no necessity that improvement may occur since the evaluation is only relative to present horizons. Or as Rorty said, even Nazis can be pragmatists. Hence, much of my work has been a deep dive into how that is both possible and unavoidable, as I discussed in my Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society article on (moral) imagination. AMong other things, pragmatism faces a problem of memory. Memory may allow us to extend momentary horizons so that we can evaluate with a long view. We need to talk about memory and hermeneutics a lot more than we do.


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