I realize I havn’t written in a while, but now that the school year has begun, I hope to post more often. I’m happily settled in Toronto, in a PhD program, living in an awesome house. Also, I feel that I have a lot of friends in Toronto now, something that is a welcome change from generally feeling alianated in the past. However, this blog shouldn’t generally be about my personal exploits, but rather about topical philosophical issues. As such, it seems like a good time to reflect on the state of my academic exploits.
Beginning a PhD program after having been in graduate school already for 3 years is a time for new beginnings. Although I have a significant background in Heidegger, it’s not neccesarily what I want to write my dissertation on . Therefore, I’m trying to expand my horizons. This term I’m taking courses in Virtue Ethics and on Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Virtue Ethics is roughly a return to an Aristotelian way of doing ethics because of shortcomings which neither deontology nor consequentialism can overcome. I’m unconvinced by most of these “shortcomings” such as moral schizophrenia, and the supposed unpleasantness of anyone “perfectly moral” by either deontic or consequentialist standards. I should write a post specifically on this issue, and perhaps I shall. For me, the crucial critique of deontic and consequentialist morality concerns those moralities qua impositions of external standards. In other words, Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity in Geneology of Morals and elsewhere. To get this clear, it’s worth drawing a clear schema of what Nietzsche’s critique is in GM.
Like usual, most things people say about Nietzsche (and any other worthwhile philosopher) are either gross misstatements or the precise opposite of what he says. Take the “rejection of Christianity” for example, it might be generally said on the street or in a Coffee shop that Nietzsche rejects Christianity and endorses a morality of “nobility” and strength. This isn’t exactly the opposite of the truth, but its close. In fact, Nietzsche criticizes Christianity for imposing on us an arbitrary and external moral standard, but praises it for making that standard absolute – Nietzsche is in fact opposed to the contingency of the Nobleman’s actions (who acts from himself, but always differently, heteronomously). So, for Nietzsche Christianity is good insofar as it is absolute, but a failure insofar as it imposes a moral standard from outside – and noble morality is good insofar as it affirms the rightness of actions from within but a failure insofar as that very inner confirmation makes morality a matter of pure contingency.
So, how does Virtue Ethics respond to the critique of morality as external standard? By placing the emphasis not on law, legality, what is “morally permissible”, but on “Virtues” – inner habits, which can be cultivated, and which in turn encourage us to do good. The habit forming aspect of V.E. can be understood as an attempt to keep the physis like character of moral action from becoming utterly contingent, but it still leaves the problem, how do we know which virtues are good, which should we cultivate? The obvious answer as a Heideggarian is those virtues which are appropriate to the human being, to its essence, which is nothing permanent, nor nothing contingent either. Perhaps Leibniz’s notion of drive as neither passive nor active is a model for understanding this.
As for the Aristotle class, I am responding to Heidegger’s demand that we leave his class and study Aristotle for 10 to 15 years, (which I plan to do also in the V. E. class by re reading Nichomachean ethics). So, if there is a question for my study this term it is: What does Aristotle have to say to us today? What does Aristotle’s retrieve of ancient Greek dasein light up for us about a) the nature of retrieve b) the nature of philosophy c) the possibilities for thinking, and retrieve today? The background question remains – What is the other beginning? How does Aristotle bear on the first beginning both has retrieving it and opening up its possibilities, taken up in “metaphysics”? And finally, what is “metaphysics”, perhaps the question I can address most specifically in a class on Aristotle’s “metaphysics”, what is metaphysics? Is the other beginning a departure or a repetition of metaphysics? What is the dangorous character of metaphysics (the tyranny of eidos over physis) which is to be “overcome” in the Other Beginning?
And (again), finally, the pragmatic question, is it possible to write a dissertation on Heidegger, the other beginning, and Aristotle? And if so, what would such a dissertation have to say about “ethics”, virtue or otherwise? Heidegger does after all say that “virtue ethics” concerns Greek dasein, and cannot be offered as an “alternative” to deontic or utilitarian accounts.