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September 13, 2009


Appropriations posting

I finished a slow reading of “A Theory of Value,” by J. David Velleman (Ethics 118, April 2008), which was very rewarding. I feel that Velleman will be a central resource for me; I look forward to reading more of his work (which I’ve had for some time; and received his new book, How We Get Along [Cambridge UP, 2009], a set of lectures, last week).

“A Theory of Value” depends on a general sense of practical reason that is constituted by a conception of the “intelligibility” of an intention, intelligibility being an all-things-considered holism toward what one is all-in-all doing presently (relative to one’s life Project, I would add), in light of which one acts appropriately. Appropriateness is relative to intelligibility. Intelligibility is, in turn, relative to one’s individuality, as a matter of individuation (degree of cultivation), sense of the world generally (in which one is committed), and idiosyncrasy.

The first words of his essay turn out to be a capsule of his view: “Value is what something has when it is valuable, and being valuable is just being appropriate to value.” Being appropriate is relative to an at-least-implicit “standard of intelligibility” whereby something is preferred.

As the intelligibility of a response is more closely tied to our individual characters, the response is susceptible to more specific guidance from a personal standard of correctness; as the intelligibility of a response is more closely tied to our shared nature and practices, the response is susceptible to more specific guidance from an interpersonal standard; and as sensibilities can be more or less intelligible in themselves, the standard of intelligibility in relation to them can be better or worse standards....Practical reason therefore favors cultivating appreciative responses to things that belong to general kinds.
Those kinds would be what we might call high values, such as humanistic values (including “moral” values) and highly-admirable values of character, artistic values, political values, etc.

“Practical” reason, for Velleman, is not functionalistic reason, an aspect that all reasonable action includes. Practical reason gives valuable intent to a behavior relative to the intelligibility of one's self understanding. Holism of intelligibility is an implicature of one’s life, with which one’s self identity is entwined. Being “practical” is a matter of one’s invested habitation.
I grant that there is a sense of the term ‘practical reasoning’ that means “practically useful reasoning,” like the sense of ‘practical shoes’ that means “practically useful shoes.”...But I am using the term ‘practical reasoning’ in the sense....[of] reasoning that defines the realm of the practical rather than reasoning that has a function within that realm.
That “realm,” I would argue (in accord with Velleman), is one’s engaged life, led by its prevailing purpose: growth of marriage and family, growth of career, completing a prevailing project, etc.

September 07, 2009

writing in good conscience

Appropriations posting

One doesn’t theorize ethical life in order to learn how to live (unless you’re Woody Allen). No, one theorizes ethical life, normally, in order to get an academic promotion (joke). Also, it’s good for orienting one’s teaching of related topics (in which your work can be part of the syllabus), good for conference attendence (which is good for your CV), and something to share with friends.

Seriously, though, one theorizes in order to contribute to advancement of some area of inquiry (or, if you’re lucky, start a new area). But the advance can be very slow in the humanities (quite contrary to the sciences). You write a paper one year (year Y), circulate it, publish it in a journal with a lead time of a year or more (Y+2), get comment some years later, and get odd emails ever after (like Y+5) from recent readers long after you’ve forgotten about it and moved on. Important articles can sit for years before getting important response. And important response to important response, another few years. The conversation, the discourse might belong to Time, more than to a given conference discussion or contiguous issues of a journal.

Copp and Sobel in “Morality and Virtue” (2004) are responding to works written relatively recently: 2001, 1999. But their author-subjects are responding to others decades earlier. The path of inquiry “lives” across decades. Foot was working directly in light of Elizabeth Anscombe, who was working in the ‘50s, and Anscombe was noted for resurrecting a venue of inquiry (virtue ethics) from decades earlier, centuries earlier, that had been considerd closed. The presence of The Question of virtue ethics really does belong to historical time. I find Copp and Sobel’s discussion important, relative to interest in virtue ethics. Perhaps the lack of serious response to it says something about that importance: that virtue ethics was put back into the history of what is properly left behind.

Anyway, the historical locus belongs to textuality purely. The so-called Conversation of Humanity gravitates textual vines in its Time, for those who keep things alive.

So, to ask: In what way does something conceptual exist?, one is looking at a hermeneutical condition and a living mind. We may refer to the same text, but the hermeneutical condition will almost guarantee that no two persons read it the same way (probably not even similarly). We quote in good form and have our interpretations, but easily it can seem that different texts are being read.

Values and norms are kept alive (or not) by our lives. Or they wait in texts, for those who read. Their reality floats through some nebulous phenomenology of distributed understandings, practically (one hopes), if not theoretically, distributed among those who do keep in mind or intend to bring back to mind something on a shelf, in a catalog, etc.

Then there is the writing. One writes in an academic register as if, by that idiom, doing something transcendent and permanent, as if writing to Time. Logical form loves to pretend to ontic atomism (“essentialism,” it’s called now; no one would suggest interest in logical atomism). One’s categories might have more than neighborhood merit (the discursive register might become a legacy).

“Let me begin by focusing on capability. Then, I’ll do a routine on developmental excellence, and you’ll be thrilled by my dance on individuation and flourishing. We will avoid assessing the admirability of my character in order to dispassionately thematize admiration. I will teach life, valuing eductions of flourishing. We will witness a lovely ethic of care, for and in the human interest. That prefaces my artful flourishing, though you will wonder how it could be appropriate.”

Writing in good conscience, to the appreciative other—the bored other? the critical other?—you are projected, you are my project, at least implicity, empathically presumed, fairly presumed, such that the text is really an interpersonal space, ideally an intimate one, even though I don’t name you.