Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Grammar of Morality


It is always an interesting exercise to read things written in the world which in some manner either anticipate  Rosenstock’s grammatical perspective, or could be made immensely more fruitful by the study of same. Philip Gorski, a professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale, has published a review, “Where do morals come from?” -- the book, by Webb Keane,  is entitled Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social History (Princeton, 2015).  The book argues that “the basic structures of human interaction” provide a variety of what he calls “ethical affordances.” This is a fancy term for 2nd and 3rd person perspectives. In other words, grammatical language provides the context for two or more persons to engage in “joint attention,” that is, share interest and activity in something.  “As a linguistic anthropologist, Keane is especially interested in the ethical affordances created by human language,” comments Gorski. Language, he thinks, “probably first evolved as a means of coordinating action, rather than labeling things.”
So far so good. At least we are in the realm of action and social relations. But then academic-speak takes over when Keane “puts particular stress on abstraction and generalization,”  a capacity which can be used “to formulate rules, maxims and codes of behavior.” 

Somehow it is hard for me to picture our cave-man ancestors sitting around formulating rules and codes of behavior.  And  there is nothing that approaches Rosenstock’s striking distinction between formal and informal language, which in my view is the sine que non of any further progress in the field of language. Apparently Keane does acknowledge that most of our repertory of moral response is shaped by emotions, gestures, rituals, etc.  But then these concessions to reality are stated, in Gorski’s review, in the context of a politically-correct discussion of homosexuality and feminism. It seems almost impossible nowadays to escape this kind of harangue disguised as academic reporting. It is especially unfortunate because Gorski’s review, and what I gather of Keane’s book as well, both contain many potential links to Rosenstock’s great insights on language and culture, as described in his book The Origin of Speech.  

The question of reductionism is also hard to avoid. Keane has an interesting fourfold-theory of society, which Gorski describes as:
Gorski comments that “each emerges out of the other.” But then he appears to contradict this, when he says that “contra the current rage for reduction, in which all action is bottom-up, Keane assumes that higher levels can exert ‘downward causation’ on lower ones.”  But how is this possible, if all levels emerge from the lowest one? 
And, dear Reader, what, pray, is once more placed before our minds as an example?  I hate to say it, but it is feminism.  How I amaze, being such an anti-feminist female. Nevertheless I would argue that feminism has virtually nothing to do with ethical transformation, being the result of the propaganda of cultural Marxism, and therefore representing cultural regress. More precisely, to the extent that feminism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which in effect destroyed the home and women's important economic role, it was both needed and understandable. But modern feminism has long since lost its bearings of home and family. It became a pawn in the hands of cultural Marxism--ironically to the furtherance of capitalism and the economization of all of society.
(An aside to the reader: my anti-feminism is based upon my perception that feminism is actually anti-woman, not to mention anti-male and anti-family. It is an ideology for atoms, not for human beings. I am inclined to agree with Ferdinand Lundberg’s remark, in his  Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, that “Psychologically, feminism had a single objective: the achievement of maleness by the female, or the nearest possible approach to it.”  I am a disciple of strong, gentle and confident womanhood. I make this detour for the sake of attempting to mollify the two academic gentlemen, since I would like them both to know of my (generally positive) response to Keane’s book and Gorski’s  review of it.)  

Another example of Keane’s almost-hitting-the-Rosenstockian-target can be found in his “three moments” of the ethical life: “I,” “thou,” and “me.”  Gorski describes these three moments as follows: 

“The ‘I’ moment is unthinking action where consciousness is submerged in doing. The ‘thou’ moment is empathic projection where ego imagines the perspectives of alter. And the ‘me’ moment is critical observation of the self where ego looks at herself through eyes of the generalized other. Perhaps we should also add a fourth moment, a historical moment in which ego considers past actions, interactions, and selves as a prelude to further action. We could call that ‘we.’”  

Ah—the Cross of Reality!—almost. But one is tempted to say that a miss is a good as a mile. Modern self-centeredness intrudes in the doubling of the first person, and there is no inkling of the imperative, the true significance of ‘thou’ or ‘you,’ and indeed the engine and motive-force of all action.  But there is, nevertheless, the seed of the Cross of Reality struggling out of this embryonic confusion, and that much is in itself remarkable.


Note:  see essay, “Speech as Our Matrix: Discovering the Cross of Reality,” by Clinton C. Gardner, to be posted to this blog with the permission of Mr. Gardner. This essay is an excellent introduction to the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. A brief excerpt from Mr. Gardner's essay: 

“. . . the Cross of Reality is not some elaborate metaphysical concept but simply a commonsense way to interpret any experience. In fact, a person who uses common sense already interprets his or her life and history this way, from the four perspectives that the cross shows us. In other words, the cross simply codifies common sense. Unfortunately, huge numbers of people, probably the great majority—be they ideologues, fascists, or communists (all stuck on the “glorious future” front), fundamentalists (stuck on the past front), sentimentalists and pietists (stuck on the subjective front), or even rationalists (stuck on the objective front)—are not guided by common sense.”

Postscript February 22, 2016

I sent email notification of this piece to both Professor Gorski and Professor Keane. Professor Keane sent me back a “Thank you.” I appreciated hearing from him and I began to think that my little piece had done his book an injustice, and I wrote him back

“–Dear Mr. Keane, It was nice of you to write. I did not do justice to your book at all. I ask you to forgive my half-assed effort. I will want to read your book as I believe it contains genuine insights. Kind regards …”

I can see how my reaction against feminism prejudiced my view of his book. Yet in re-reading Gorski’s review,  I see that Gorski cites Keane himself who deployed the model of “feminist consciousness-raising” to describe ethical transformation. In that sense, if I objected to feminism, I objected to something the author of the book himself was promoting. 

We need a new concept for “time decay.” Something like this is used in the vocabulary of atomic explosion, fission, “half-life.” Time decay might be thought of as the disparity between the justification for a creed or an ideology and its lapse into toxic decay. There was a justification for a woman’s movement as a result of the Industrial Revolution, when the home was stripped of its economic function. Am I saying that women belong in the home? Not at all. There was a need for creative thinking about work outside the home, but in such a way to maintain the roles of parents and families. None of this “social thinking” was done. The home was wrecked, children were de-parented or became wards of the state. Are not World Wars one and two the fruit of this social chaos—that and other things?
Quite possibly.[1] 

No doubt I could have done better.  So it was good I apologized. Nevertheless, my reaction had something  good about it as well.  Toxic things need to be fumigated. And there is no good holding on to them when their time is expired. The ability to act and react decisively is given to those for whom “the time presses” –those who perceive the nature of the crisis in which we live.




[1] Rosenstock put the matter somewhat differently in his Out of Revolution (1938) where he speaks of the incoherence of modern knowledge-- history, nature, physics, theology-- "nothing but a breakdown of civilization could be expected from a kingdom so terribly divided against itself.'  Elsewhere, more cogently to my point, he says: "Capitalism can make profits only so long as it can escape the cost of reproducing the political and social order." It is this "reproduction" of the social order that had been the especial province of women, and which modern women have abandoned largely thanks to feminism.

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