P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 137
31st August 2008
I. 'The Case for a Neutral Metaphysical Position' by Peter Jones
II. 'Post-Modernism: What's the Difference?' by Martin Jenkins
III. Review of Alan Soble 'The Philosophy of Sex and Love' by Rachel Browne
Apologies to those who have been waiting longer than usual for this issue of
Philosophy Pathways. I hope that the selection on offer today was worth the
wait. I have a bulging folder of submitted articles, so a new issue of the
e-journal should be out before too long!
The first article today is by Peter Jones, who is taking the Fellowship Award
of the International Society for Philosophers under my supervision. His topic
is one that at first sight might seem hostile to the philosopher's pursuit of
truth: the case for the impossibility of a philosophical theory about the
nature of the world: a metaphysic.
That philosophers have not yet found the definitive theory is generally agreed.
Jones argues for the stronger view that the very idea of such a theory involves
a false assumption. The only truth -- if any truth is to be had -- consists in
a 'neutral' metaphysic which is neither realist or idealist, neither monist nor
pluralist, and so on for every other 'ism' that you can name -- except for one.
A neutral metaphysic turns out to coincide with mysticism.
The idea that there can be no 'theory of everything' is recognizable to
students of contemporary philosophy as one of the expressions of post-modern
thought. Pathways Mentor Martin Jenkins, in his compact but illuminating essay
outlines the main structural features of post-modernism, emphasising its
political importance in rectifying the 'injustice' of theory and the
generalising tendency, creating a space for the recognition of multiple
narratives. Postmodernists would no doubt critique the idea of a neutral
metaphysic as just another attempt at 'totalising', yet there is a paradox here
in that the very attempt to state what post-modernism stands for ends up doing
Finally, as New Orleans empties in anticipation of the 'storm of the century',
Rachel Browne reviews a book by philosopher Alan Soble who as Research
Professor at the University of New Orleans directly experienced the full force
of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 when his home was destroyed. The Philosophy
of Sex and Love is a revised and expanded version of a university text book
first published in 1998. This is Rachel Browne's second review of Soble,
following her review of Pornography, Sex and Feminism for issue 112 of
I. 'THE CASE FOR A NEUTRAL METAPHYSICAL POSITION' BY PETER JONES
Reason in metaphysics, even if it tries, as it professes,
only to gain a priori insight into those laws which are
confirmed by our most common experience, is constantly
being brought to a standstill, and we are obliged again and
again to retrace our steps, as they do not lead us where we
want to go. As to unanimity among its participants, there
is so little of it in metaphysics that it has rather become
an arena that would become especially suited for those who
wish to exercise themselves in mock fights, and where no
combatant has as yet succeeded in gaining even an inch of
ground that he could call his permanent possession.
Critique of Pure Reason
One of the stranger properties of our universe is that it does not seem to
conform to any clearly identifiable metaphysical position. In the 'western' or
'rational' tradition of philosophical investigation, firmly rooted in the
system of philosophy, theology and teachings which was eventually to dominate
medieval western Europe, we have been searching for a metaphysical position
which would be consistent with reason and also account for the facts for more
than two millennia and have not found one.
Yet if the universe is 'reasonable,' in the sense that we ourselves would judge
a correct explanation of it reasonable if we knew and understood it -- as we
must assume would be the case if we are rational philosophers -- then there is
at least one metaphysical scheme which would meet this specification. But where
is it? Why is it so difficult to find?
In the natural sciences we can turn a blind eye to this problem for most
practical purposes. We can simply say that metaphysics has nothing to do with
us. Yet by ignoring this problem we do not make it go away. Once we have buried
our heads in the sand in this way we can build only sand castles. In the natural
sciences we do not yet have a plausible fundamental theory of anything at all,
and we will not have one until we have solved all, or at least most, of the
mysterious paradoxes and riddles that arise for any speculative investigation
of first principles.
Nor do we find a plausible solution for this problem in any common
monotheism. Whitehead notes that Christianity may be fairly characterised as,
'a religion in search of a metaphysic,' and it is almost proudly so. On this
basis we might want to dismiss certain of the Church's teachings as false, but
we cannot dismiss a cosmological doctrine on the grounds that it is
metaphysically flawed while we are unable to show that there is even such a
thing as a logically defensible metaphysical position.
I believe that the difficulty of showing that there is such a position arises
because metaphysics is in fact incapable of producing a positive result. From
the study of it we learn only that all questions about the nature and
properties of the universe as a whole are formally undecidable. The study of
the universe as a whole is predominantly the study of undecidable questions,
and if a question is not undecidable then it is unlikely to be interesting in
metaphysics. All our perennial 'problems of philosophy' can be shown to have
their origin in the undecidability of these questions, or the inability of
metaphysics to produce a positive result. As Paul Davies makes clear in The
Mind of God and The Goldilocks Enigma, many longstanding and seemingly
intractable problems in physics arise from the same source.
Faced with the intransigence of this problem we might conclude that metaphysics
must remain forever what it was for Whitehead, a 'series of footnotes to Plato'.
If we do reach this conclusion we will be in good company. In consciousness
studies, for example, David Chalmers has argued that we must settle for a
nonreductive mind-matter theory, since the more deeply we explore the question,
'Is mind or matter fundamental?' the more clear it becomes that neither answer
is logically defensible. In contemporary physics there is even talk of ex
nihilo creation, so impotent can rationalism seem in the face of the riddles of
There is, however, as we would expect, a solution to this problem: What we
should do is interpret the fact that metaphysics cannot produce a positive
result as the most important result that metaphysics can produce. That is to
say, we would interpret the ongoing failure of metaphysics not as evidence for
an ignoramibus or barrier to knowledge, as we normally do in physics and
philosophy, but as an opportunity, a vital clue for our investigation into the
origin and nature of the universe, an empirical fact from which we might be
able to extrapolate to a logically defensible metaphysical position.
Why do we not usually do this, or try to do it? Why do we not usually take this
naive approach to metaphysics rather than make the issues more complicated? One
reason must be that as soon as we do so we are forced to adopt a neutral
metaphysical position, having eliminated all others from our investigation.
This is not obviously a viable position to take up. It appears to be
paradoxical, absurd, irrational even, not so much a metaphysical position as
the absence of one. How can the answer to the question 'Is Mind or Matter
fundamental?' be no? To take this seemingly naive approach, therefore, is not
to make the issues any less complicated.
Yet it can be argued that the cosmological scheme endorsed by all the world's
principal wisdom traditions is metaphysically neutral. Indeed, a significant
minority of philosophers have made arguments for this seemingly paradoxical
position. Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plotinus, Spinoza, Hegel, Schopenhauer,
Bradley, Schrodinger and George Spencer-Brown would be prominent examples, and
Kant only narrowly avoids endorsing it in the Critique.
2. An Argument from Metaphysics
While metaphysics is a source of frustration for those who believe that
metaphysical questions should be decidable, by the same token it is a source of
reassurance for anybody who believes otherwise. In this latter category would be
the mystics of all ages and cultures. It is because the mystics believe
otherwise that a formal argument can be made for mysticism from metaphysics. It
is old argument, one with which Buddhist philosophers are very familiar. At
first glance it may seem to be straightforward. It can be roughly stated as a
a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.
b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.
c) The universe is metaphysically neutral.
In this skeletal form the argument is less than overwhelming, but its essential
structure can easily be grasped. To examine the relationship of entailment
between these three propositions and to make explicit the background
assumptions without which they would not form a valid argument would be
impossible in a short essay, but I will say a little about the first two,
defining the terms and outlining some of the arguments for their truth, in
order to put this discussion of metaphysical neutralism into some sort of
a) All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible.
There may be some metaphysicians who would object to this first proposition but
I imagine most would not. To me it seems a safer and more philosophically useful
axiom than cogito. It is certainly very difficult to refute it since if it is
false then the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism is nonsense, and nobody has ever
shown this. What may be more objectionable is the idea that positive
metaphysical positions are logically indefensible because they are false, as
they would have to be for a neutral metaphysical position.
This is an obvious inference to make, but if we extrapolate from the
indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions to their falsity then our
view becomes consistent with that of Lao-tsu and the Buddha. Not everyone is
tempted to set out on such an adventure, even if the only alternative is to say
that according to reason it is impossible to determine whether the universe
conforms to any logically defensible metaphysical position, positive or
otherwise; a conclusion which renders philosophy largely a waste of time.
Russell opts for this pessimistic alternative, writing forthrightly in his
Problems of Philosophy, 'Knowledge concerning the world as a whole is not to be
obtained in metaphysics.' But Russell's pessimism was self-inflicted. A
different view of metaphysics is possible. For many philosophers, among them
Russell's colleague George Spencer Brown, (for whose book on mathematics and
metaphysics Russell wrote a glowing endorsement but otherwise seems to have
completely ignored), the indefensibility of positive metaphysical positions is
knowledge concerning the world as a whole, one of the most important truths it
would be possible to establish by reason and logic.
That it is a truth can be determined within metaphysics, with no need for any
appeal to mysticism. Reduced to its essentials a metaphysical question presents
us with a choice between two positive metaphysical positions. The questions, 'Is
Mind or Matter fundamental?' and 'Does the universe reduce to Something or
Nothing?' would be typical. Such questions ask us to decide whether the
universe as a whole is this as opposed to that, has this property as opposed to
that property. There are dozens of such questions we might ask. Is Scepticism
true or false? Is Internalism or Externalism true? Is the universe One or Many?
Is space-time fundamental? Does freewill exist? Do I exist? Does anything exist?
Built into each of these questions is the questioner's expectation of an
unambiguous answer, an expectation which arises in each case from an assumption
that the universe must conform to one of two directly opposed positive
Some questions are metaphysical in character but do not ask us to adopt a
positive metaphysical position. Examples would be: Why are there laws of
nature? Why does anything exist? If God is Good why is there suffering? These
are not exceptions to the rule but second-order questions. They are predicated,
respectively, on the assumption that there are laws of nature, that anything
exists and that suffering is real, and do not directly address first
principles. First-order questions would be: Are there laws of nature? Does
anything exist? Is suffering real? Each of these questions asks us to adopt a
positive metaphysical position.
In the language of Kant, a positive metaphysical position would be a selective
conclusion about the world as a whole. For Kant we cannot reach such a
conclusion in philosophy because we find that all such conclusions are
logically indefensible. Consequently, all questions about the world as a whole
which demand a selective answer are undecidable.
For a positive metaphysical position, then, we would have to ignore Kant and
assume that not all such questions are undecidable. If all of them are
undecidable then our position is logically indefensible. In the philosophical
schemes of Hegel and Bradley, for which the psycho-physical universe would
reduce to a pristine unity free of any hint of duality, a positive metaphysical
position would be any one for which plurality is more than mere appearance. We
can note that for all three philosophers the paradoxes of metaphysics would
arise from a confusion of appearance with reality. In consciousness studies
this view has appeared as 'relative phenomenalism.'
Examples of positive metaphysical positions would be all the common forms of
materialism, idealism, theism, dualism, monism, neutral monism, anomalous
monism, nihilism, realism, solipsism, scepticism and epiphenomenalism. All of
these positions make an explicit or implicit positive claim about the universe
as a whole. In physics and philosophy a theory for which the universe is
assigned fundamental or absolute positive or negative properties will embody a
positive metaphysical position, while in religion, equivalently, a cosmological
doctrine will embody a positive metaphysical position if it is not rigorously
To say that a theory is 'logically indefensible' is to say that it gives rise
to contradictions, that it is logically absurd, that it can be refuted by the
use of Aristotle's three laws of logic and dialectic method. In practical
terms, therefore, one consequence of the truth of the first proposition of our
syllogism would be that wherever a fundamental theory implies a positive
metaphysical position it can be logically refuted.
We need not examine the theory closely, the details will make no difference.
The theory will rest on an assumption that metaphysics can produce a positive
result, that not all selective conclusions about the world are undecidable,
while if we learn anything for sure from the study of metaphysics it is that it
is a zero-sum game, Tic Tac Toe for two ideal reasoners, a game of chess with
the Devil which can at best only end in a stalemate.
The proposition that all positive metaphysical positions are logically
indefensible is unfalsifiable in philosophy. At the same time its truth is
undeniably plausible, for if it is true this would be the simplest explanation
for why metaphysics cannot produce a positive result. If this proposition is
true then it would be unnecessary to interpret a metaphysical question as a
disguised form of the liar paradox or dismiss it as meaningless, two common but
difficult to defend strategies for explaining away the undecidability of such
questions. Metaphysical questions would be meaningful, and they would be
undecidable for the same reason that the question, 'Would two plus two equal
three or five?' is undecidable.
There are few formal proofs of the first proposition for our syllogism, but two
are widely known. Bradley's metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality is one.
Here Bradley systematically refutes all positive metaphysical positions, and
challenges his readers to explore the ramifications of his result. His argument
is a prose form of the proof presented much earlier in verse form by the
second-century Buddhist philosopher-saint Nagarjuna, the most widely studied of
all Buddhist philosophers.
In his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Nagarjuna demonstrates by way a
series of terse reductio arguments that all positive metaphysical positions are
logically indefensible. That is to say, what Zeno of Elea does for some positive
metaphysical positions Nagarjuna does for them all. This proof sets the scene
for his 'theory of emptiness,' which is the philosophical foundation or
expression of Mahayana or 'Greater Vehicle' Buddhism. This is the famous
'Middle Way' doctrine, so named partly because it does not embody a positive
metaphysical position. For the Middle Way doctrine we would have to approach
metaphysical dilemmas as do the professors at the Colleges of Unreason
encountered by the hero of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, who take the view,
'Extremes are alone logical, but they are always absurd; the mean is illogical,
but an illogical mean is better than the sheer absurdity of an extreme.'
The proofs of Bradley and Nagarjuna are made by abduction, the method
recommended by Sherlock Holmes for solving cases involving multiple suspects
and only circumstantial evidence. One by one the suspects are eliminated from
the enquiry and when there is only one left, as there eventually is for Bradley
and Nagarjuna's investigation, then the case is solved. If all positive
metaphysical positions can be ruled out as logically absurd, then the only
metaphysical position it would be rational to adopt is a neutral one. Or, at
least, it would be the only rational position to adopt just so long as it is
not also logically indefensible, and this is why the second premise of our
syllogism is required.
Of course, if a metaphysical position is logically indefensible it need not
follow that it is false. This is one reason why the syllogistic argument above
is not valid as it stands. We usually take it for granted that if a proposition
is false then it will be logically indefensible and that if it is logically
indefensible then it will be false. This is because we usually assume that the
universe is reasonable. We cannot take this for granted, however, or at least
not when everything depends on it. For a valid argument we would have to close
this loophole or add a proviso.
Aristotle spots this problem and in De Interpretatione tells us that whether we
can legitimately apply his three laws of logic to the world, as we must assume
for our syllogism to be of any use, is not something that be known a priori but
is an empirical matter. Nagarjuna expects his readers to take it for granted
that the universe is reasonable, but Bradley tries to persuade us that we must
believe it is, since any attempt to logically prove that it is not would be
self-defeating. This, however, is less than a proof that it is actually is
reasonable, and Aristotle must be right to say that this question cannot be
settled except by empirical means.
It may be possible to logically prove that the best explanation of the universe
would be that it is reasonable, simply by extending our syllogism and employing
the proposition 'The universe is reasonable' as both its initial premise and
final conclusion. But a sceptic could still argue that what appears to be the
best explanation of the universe may not be the correct one. Perhaps in
philosophy the most we can hope for is a proof that it would be unreasonable to
believe that the universe is unreasonable, and in philosophy, apart from a few
proponents of dialethism and mysterianism, we probably all believe this already.
b) A neutral metaphysical position is not logically indefensible.
For a neutral metaphysical position we must eschew all positive metaphysical
positions. There is, therefore, only one such position, for if we deviate even
a fraction from neutrality we abandon it. In this negative way it is possible
to define metaphysical neutralism briefly and precisely, it being quite easy to
say what it is not. It is a lot more difficult to say what it is, but we need
not do this quite yet. All that matters initially, for the sake of the case I
am trying to make here, is that in metaphysics there are powerful reasons for
investigating whether the second proposition of our syllogistic argument is
true or false.
If we can show that it is false, then, as we have seen, while metaphysics may
always be useful as an antidote to dogmatic superstition, as a path to positive
knowledge it would be a dead end. The universe would be incomprehensible in any
rational philosophy, since all possible metaphysical positions would be
refutable. The most we could ever hope for as metaphysicians would be an
immediate revelation or intuition of the truth about 'life the universe and
everything,' and the study of metaphysics is not known to increase the
likelihood of having one of these.
By contrast, if we can show that this second proposition is true, and if the
first is also true, then metaphysics would be a very direct path to knowledge,
for it would be a way of working out that the metaphysical scheme proposed by
the Buddha and Lao-tsu is logically defensible, and that it is the only one
that is. Deciding this second proposition is therefore an immediate and
unavoidable challenge in metaphysics, though it is rarely taken up. We must
take it up, however, once we have acknowledged the indefensibility of positive
Now a neutral position is our only hope, and there is nothing else we can do
but try to show that it is logically defensible. This will be the case
regardless of what a neutral metaphysical position actually is, and whatever it
implies for the origin of consciousness, the background-dependence problem, the
existence of God and so forth.
So, while I must end this essay before making a start on describing what
'metaphysical neutralism' actually is, it may at least show that there are good
reasons for taking the idea of a neutral metaphysical position seriously in
metaphysics and, if it can be shown that the doctrine of mysticism is
metaphysically neutral, for taking mysticism seriously also.
Mysticism is implausible hocus-pocus to many people, a hodge-potch of
incomprehensible competing doctrines, and a lengthy discussion of it would seem
a waste of time. I have great respect for this view since until quite recently
it was mine, and so before moving on to discuss mysticism at greater length one
in particular of a number of loose ends here must be tidied up, namely the claim
that there is not only such a thing as 'the doctrine of mysticism,' but that it
is metaphysically neutral. If this claim cannot be justified then then the case
for a neutral metaphysical position would not quite be sunk, but it would be
(c) Peter Jones 2008
II. 'POST-MODERNISM: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?' BY MARTIN JENKINS
In an article from Rhizomes, Post-Modernism is defined as,
suspicion of metanarratives, foundational assumptions,
totalising theories, utopian ambitions, large
pronouncements of any kind. (My emphasis)
Although a negative definition, Post-Modernism is distinct from Modernism.
Modernism is the philosophical view that holistic, reflexive, identitiarian and
foundational systems of thought can and do accurately mirror or be identical
with the truth of things. The systems of Plato, Aristotle, Scholastic
Philosophical-Theology, German Idealism and Marxism are prime examples of the
'Western rationalist, universalist paradigm' that Post-Modernism has issues
Foundational, Totalising and Utopian
Following the above quote from Rhizomes, I will give a brief overview of the
identified themes of the Foundational, Totalising and the Utopian and their
relation to Post-Modernist thinkers. The latter term has become pejorative
lately with Post-Modernism dismissed in sections of popular culture as
nonsensical verbiage. I hope to dispel this by maintaining that Post-Modernism
does make a difference proffering fecund philosophical and practical insights
in its role as the continuation of the Enlightenment.
Western Philosophy has traditionally constructed systems of knowledge like
buildings. If the foundations are sound then what follows upon them must also
be sound so that the whole built system is founded and secured by strong
foundations. German Idealism exemplifies this by grounding its philosophical
systems on and in a Transcendental Consciousness. Structures of thought from
within the mind ground and provide the basis for knowledge 'out there'; such
categories and concepts provide the certainty for true and correct knowledge
and how to act accordingly in ethics and politics.
Systems like these are Totalising as they seek to exhaustively and definitively
explain all phenomena within one paradigm that stems from the Foundation. They
are therefore self-reflexive.
If human understanding occurs through language and written text, the
'Deconstruction' of text by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) challenges
Foundationalism and its self-reflexivity.
If the Foundationalist approach can be equated to the unique, singular and
correct reading/ meaning of a Text or in other words, the 'presence' of correct
meaning with the text (i.e. Logocentrism) then Derrida has arguably undermined
this. For Derrida a heuristic analysis of the Text reveals ambiguities and
openings for alternative interpretations and readings to arise from the
existing one. The text is thereby deconstructed.
Following on from the insights of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida
maintained that the meaning of words is not determined by denotation; words are
decided by their difference to other words, signs, and signifiers. Tradition
or suppression claims only one network of meaning whereas Derrida's
deconstruction highlights the trace of other meanings from out of the relation
of difference between words etc.
The cardinal concepts of Western Philosophy -- Knowledge, Identity, Truth and
Meaning -- achieve their ascendant status by repressing or downgrading the
infinite possibilities of the text in the quest of Logocentrism: the
Foundational, Total and Final word on things. Derrida's critique -- if accepted
-- undermines this project by removing the very possibility of foundationalism.
This does not entail nihilism or relativism; it entails the possibility of
Philosophies which attempt total explanation manifested as meta-narratives are
to be treated with incredulity. This was the recommendation of Jean-Francois
Lyotard (1926-1998) in his The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
The model of society as a holistic totality became increasingly unfeasible in
the light of an absence of legitimacy for a meta-narrative. The meta-narrative
hoped to account for epistemological legitimacy in all areas of society such as
knowledge, politics and science which were in turn legitimised by it. However,
the link between knowledges etc. and the meta-narrative is not conclusive as
the former can and does differ from the latter thereby undermining a single
representation of the human condition in its totality. Instead of reliance on a
meta-narrative founded on epistemologically dubious grounds, Lyotard calls for
mini-narratives that are contingent and provisional. Many narratives exist --
some in ascendancy others not -- and not a single, holistic one aiming at
infallible total explanation or totality.
Lyotard later develops the theme of mini-narratives (or Language Games a la
Wittgenstein ) and the links between them in The Differend: Phrases In
Dispute. Phrases are organised in Phrase Regimes (Denoting, Questioning,
Humour, Reasoning, Ordering and so on) and present in Genres of Discourse
(Science, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Economics, Politics) which evoke the
being of human beings.
One such Genre or Language Game may be inapplicable to be used in place of
another. There may indeed be no suitable phrase existing to articulate the
difference that arises between them or to articulate the emergence of something
new, something different. Silencing or ignoring difference facilitates a feeling
of injustice which Lyotard terms the Differend. Hence the Differend is the
unstable state of language where that which must be articulated or link the
phrases cannot yet be accomplished. The aim of the philosopher is to:
find new rules for forming and linking phrases that are
able to express the Differend disclosed by the feeling of
The new link(s) between the different phrases and genres is to be respected in
the interest of Justice. Justice is also to be maintained by preventing one
genre burying another and by the creation of new links and phrases when there
is no existing phrase to articulate the new. This openness to the new is
Politics is the threat of the differend. It is not a genre,
it is a multiplicity of genres, the diversity of ends and
par excellence the question of linkage... Everything is
political if politics is the possibility of the Differend
on the occasion of the slightest linkage.
The plurality of Genres of discourse, phrase regimens and their linkages;
openness to the Differend prevents recourse to the arbitrary impositions of a
totalising meta-narrative which manifests injustice in its indifference and
insensitivity to what is different.
Meta-Narratives maintain a view of history wherein, following a significant
event -- Armageddon, the Second Coming, World Communist Revolution, the End of
History -- the ideal becomes the actual. This Teleology or Eschatology has
created how Western thought thinks: thinking of History, thinking of Time and
thinking of the human being as Subject. Michel Foucault (1926-1984) built on
the genealogical and ontological insights of Friedrich Nietzsche to offer a
radical theory of knowledge, of power and their role in the formation of social
identities and resistance to them in the interests of Freedom.
Human beings are immersed into and inscribed with structures of 'knowledge'.
There is no Subject above of and independent of these, only the sites of
inscription from and resistance to discursive regimes of knowledge. Discursive
because they are transmissions of Power. They create the identities and
corresponding normalised practices and prohibitions inscribed into 'subjects'.
The emancipatory project of the Enlightenment is continued in the critical
analyses and challenging of the criteria of truth underpinning discursive
regimes and practices. This is achieved by means of genealogical enquiry about
the events that have led us to constitute ourselves in being what we do, say
and think. It also highlights the possibility of transcending such boundaries
With the emphasis on identities, Foucault introduces a new conception of Power.
Power is everywhere; it does not descend from the top down -- as does what he
terms Juridical Power. Change the state regime and existing configurations of
local discursive regimes continue to operate and change at that level.
Moreover, analyses based on Juridical Power fail to be sensitive in the
accounting of the myriad influences and polyvalent activities of micro power.
Power is multifarious and not mono-causal in its operation. Consequently,
'specific transformations' in the areas such as the relation between the sexes,
perceptions of insanity, criminality and sexuality are preferred; 'global' or
total political programmes for the emancipation of the 'new man' are eschewed.
These have led to the worst and most dangerous political systems. The specific
issues themselves set up the problems to be addressed, they are not prescribed
before hand with reference to utopian global theories. Again, the responses to
events, to issues are not foreclosed but open.
Critical Ontology -- as Foucault terms his activity -- asks: How are we
constituted as subjects of our knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects
who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral
subjects of our own actions? It asks so as to enable action. As Foucault writes:
The Critical Ontology [is] to be concerned as an attitude,
an ethos, a philosophical ethos, a philosophical life in
which the critique of what we are is, at one at one and the
same time, the historical analyses of the limits that are
imposed upon us and an experiment with the possibility of
going beyond them. 
The relevance of Post-Modernism's insights to Foundational, Totalising and
Utopian philosophies is that they prevent the latter's pretensions to Closure.
By means of this short overview of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault, I hope to
have highlighted the theme of the prevention of closure and the openness to the
new. The difference of Post-Modernism is that it prevents Closure.
Closure is Finality and Finality is (assumed) infallibility. Ontologically and
epistemologically, Post-Modernism prevents the doorkeeper of assumed Finality
slamming the door shut in the name of monopoly Truth, whether the door be that
of the University or the Internment camp.
1. Ellen E. Berry and Carol Siegal Rhizomes, Newness and the Condition of our
Postmodernity: Editorial and Dialogue Number 1. Spring 2000
2. For more on this see both:
J.G. Fichte The Science of Knowledge Cambridge University Press 1982
Frederick Copleston A History of Western Philosophy: 7 German Philosophy
3. Texts by Jacques Derrida are many. See for instance:
Writing and Difference Routledge 2001
Of Grammatology John Hopkins University Press 1998
4. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) maintained that language is composed of
differential elements or signifiers. Meaning is not denotative of an
independent world 'out there'; meaning is derived from the difference between
Ferdinand de Saussure General Course In Linguistics Fontana 1977
Johnathan Culler Saussure Fontana 1985
5. Jean Francois Lyotard The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
Manchester University Press 1995
---- The Differend: Phrases In Dispute University of Minnesota Press 1989
6. The later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) moves away from
locating meaning in logical atomism to that of use. The former located meaning
in a world that is a totality of facts and not things. What is the case is the
existence of states of affairs. States of affairs are combinations of objects,
objects are simple. Facts relate to objects and propositions make 'pictures'
about them. Picture articulated in language must possess the same logical
structure as a fact.
The later Wittgenstein held this as too reductive. Meaning is found in the
multifarious uses of language governed by acknowledged rules just as a game of
cards is governed by rules. Hence Language Games. See:
Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Routledge 1961
---- Philosophical Investigations 2nd Ed Blackwell 1958
7. P. 61 Simon Malpas Jean Francois Lyotard Routledge 2003
8. P. 138-9. The Differend. Op. cit. above
9. Friedrich Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morality Hackett 1998
For Foucault's application and development of genealogy see:
Michel Foucault The Birth of the Clinic Routledge 2003
---- Discipline And Punish The Birth of the Prison Penguin 1991
---- Madness And Civilisation Routledge 2001
---- The History Of Sexuality Vol 1: The Will to Knowledge Penguin 1998
---- ---- Vol II. The Use of Pleasure Penguin 1992
---- ---- Vol III. The Care of the Self Penguin 1990
10. Michel Foucault 'What Is Enlightenment?' A Foucault Reader, Ed. Paul
Rabinow. Penguin 1991
(c) Martin Jenkins 2009
III. REVIEW OF ALAN SOBLE 'THE PHILOSOPHY OF SEX AND LOVE' BY RACHEL BROWNE
The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Introduction
Paragon House 2008
As far as I know philosophy of sex and love is little known in the UK and the
most quoted English philosopher is Roger Scruton. Apart from that one
remarkable exception, however, this is a strictly American discipline -- at
least so it appears to Soble, who has taught the subject widely.
So in case readers of Pathways have not as yet got interested in the philosophy
of sex, I thought I would write another review (following my review of Alan
Soble 'Pornography, Sex and Feminism' in Philosophy Pathways Issue 112, 21
November 2005). This time it is on Soble's introductory textbook, aimed at
undergraduates in the subject, and so is accessible to all, with a
The first section provides some background on the historical perspective,
covering ancient writings such as Plato and, briefly, the Bible, though the
philosophy of sex and love starts to become more interesting in the medieval
period, with Aquinas and Augustine. In this period the scholastics discussed
the extremely abstract but attractive problem of whether 'if Adam and Eve
hadn't fallen would they have had sexual relations?' and 'what would it have
been like if there had been pre-Lapsarian sex?' (p.24).
When Soble moves on to the Modern Philosophers we learn about Descartes, Kant,
Hobbes and Kierkegaard. Soble is characteristically amusing and describes as
'sinister' Hobbes' view that in having sex 'we want to please the other person
because doing so confirms our own sexual prowess' (p. 32). As the book moves on
to the 20th century and contemporary philosophy we, unavoidably, read about
Freud, and Thomas Nagel's influential 1969 paper 'Sexual Perversion' which can
be found in his book Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979).
This textbook isn't confined to philosophy. We are informed of work of legal
scholars, opinions of theologians, Popes, feminists and the work of the
American Psychiatric Association.
However, most of the book covers detailed analytical arguments in contemporary
philosophy of sex and love.
It was apparently Nagel's paper which provoked so many responses that it
created a substantial new topic in philosophy. Many conceptual questions have
emerged since then, such as, 'What is unique about sexual activity?' In 'love
and sexual relationships, unlike eating out or playing tennis, we are
physically and psychologically vulnerable to another's words and touches.' Why
is this? (p.7) Or 'What makes an act sexual? A touch on the arm might be a
friendly pat, an assault, or sexual' (p.4).
Nagel's paper does not specifically address the nature of love, but questions
on this have arisen such as 'How did erotic heterosexuality, procreation,
marriage and love become intertwined in social practices and our personal
desires and behaviours?' (Soble's answer is that there is no such entwinement),
and 'are there essential elements to love, such as exclusivity, constancy and
reciprocity? (p.191) or 'is the lover irreplaceable?' (p.132).
It is not clear there are reasons for analysing love except to further
understanding but conceptual analysis of the nature of sexual activity is
necessary if we are to have any idea, for example, of what 'perversion' or
'adultery' are. We might just want to know if Clinton had sex with Lewinsky or
not (Clinton seemed to know: 'I did not have sexual relations with that
woman'), but even this depends on what sort of definition we settle for. A
narrow definition of sexual activity leads to an enormous amount of sexual
activity as open to being described as perverted -- but it also follows that a
lot of sexual activity can be taken to be non-adulterous. So there isn't a
clear answer to the Clinton question.
While discussing rigid views on this, Soble himself seems Wittgensteinian and
accepts the more modern idea of fuzzy concepts. He doesn't seem to hold out
much hope for definitions so we might have to accept, as with much philosophy,
that this is just interesting in itself. There is an extraordinary amount of
analysis on the nature of love in this book, all of the 'if X loves Y, can he
love Z' variety, because so much has been written on this subject, that this
seems to be shorthand. All of us will have a view on each of these analyses.
Soble doesn't express views, as this is a textbook, but he seems liberal. He
even feels that we might have to accept circularity -- and why not if it is
true, though historically a logical crime? The philosopher Alan Goldman is
quoted as claiming that 'Sexual desire is desire for contact with another
person's body and for the pleasure which such contact produces' Soble points
out the circularity of 'sexual desire is desire for contact that produces
sexual pleasure' (p. 54), but he doesn't criticise it. Another philosopher,
Jerome Shaffer, is said to have argued that 'sexual desire is distinguished as
sexual by being accompanied by sexual excitement and arousal' (p. 56). This
isn't circular if it is also held that sexual arousal pertains to genital
areas, but Soble points out that this fails as a definition of sexual activity
as the mouth and rectum are not considered genital areas but can still cause
Not only does Soble find that conceptual analysis is not likely to lead to firm
definitions, but he argues that there is no firm boundary between conceptual
analysis and normative analysis. If we cannot clarify the sex act, our moral
judgements on adultery and perversion don't have a strong foundation. Some
argue that our judgements on sexual activities are culturally determined to an
extent, but Soble finds it difficult to see that actual sexual activities vary
culturally, but on the contrary that there seems something fundamental and
universal about the act even if we can't define it.
We are told of those who think culture is a determinant and sometimes it rings
true, even in the case of love. Economic, social, and psychological factors
(among others) are said to constrain our ability to carry out multiples loves,
although it seems psychological factors are most important in love when Soble
quotes Richard Brown (p.64) as claiming that love requires an amount of
interest and attention that must be concentrated rather than widely spread.
Some of the more opinionated considerations of sex, those from a non-analytical
point of view, sound bizarre. At least I was surprised to find there are
'defenders of intergenerational sex'. Even more alarmingly, Soble cites Pat
Califia, a 'controversial writer on sexuality', who claims that 'Children might
be able to consent to sexual activity the same way they are able to consent...
to what they eat, wear, or what movie they watch.' Soble raises the question
whether consent to engaging in sexual activity is on a par with deciding what
to wear, but is otherwise unjudgemental, even though this controversial view is
not consistent with current cultural values.
Yet just as many would be challenged by the view proposed by Robin Morgan, that
'Rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated
by the woman, out of her own genuine affection and desire'. Soble dryly
elucidates Morgan's premises showing (perhaps tongue in cheek) respect for such
Another feminist writer, Adrienne Rich, holds that since the woman, as mother,
is the first love object for both men and women, homosexuality doesn't need
explanation. Rather heterosexual women need to be explained. Why would you
transfer a source of emotional caring from one gender to another?
It should not really be surprising, though it is, that Nagel's paper along with
the rise of the feminism movement gave rise to this vast -- and often strange --
Soble himself is extremely down to earth on sex and love. He agrees that 'they
[sex and love] can be enormously important.' 'Yet some writers exaggerate'
(p.9). 'The American secular philosopher Robert Nozick opined that sex is
'metaphysical exploration, knowing the body and person of another as a map or
microcosm of the very deepest reality, a clue to its nature and purpose' and
that the bioethicist Timothy Murphy claims that sex 'is a rich and fertile
language for discovering and articulating the meaning of human life'' (p. 9-10).
At the other end of the spectrum there is religious and conservative hostility
to sex. Even so, there seems wide agreement that if we are not to treat others
as objects, something more than mere consent is required, so that sex can be
moral. It seems to be suggested that this is love.
Love, of course, is a difficult concept to grasp. If you are not to treat
another as an object but to treat someone as an end in themself and sex is a
desire to please the other rather than a manifestation of lust, then conceptual
arguments bring in elements such as benevolence and concern for the other. This
hardly catches what we mean by love, so stronger criteria for something's being
love are brought in such as constancy, exclusivity and reciprocity. Soble
presents the arguments and finds fault with all of them.
There are so many arguments in this book, considered and rejected, that readers
might question the value of the philosophy of sex and love, but these are
important aspects of our lives so it is nearly impossible for the reader not to
get caught up in one's own thoughts about these issues.
When Soble ventures into the realm of philosophy of ordinary language, it
becomes disappointing that he doesn't make more of this, especially given that
analysis seems to have produced nothing positive. For instance, on philosophy
of language as use, he says that on a 'strict' definition of constancy in love
this means love lasts forever (or until the loved one dies) which isn't
obviously true at all as it is admitted that constancy could be less than that,
but Soble points out that the strict constancy definition can be employed
if a person's emotion toward another ends, it had never
been love, despite the person's protests to the contrary...
Something was wrong with the emotion; it did not measure up
to genuine love... but it can also be used defensively: if
the emotion ends, it had not been love, and this relieves
the person of the burden' of having to what lovers do
Another example, on love, is when we say of someone 'she only married him for
his money'. Soble says 'the 'only' is revealing' as if 'people never had a wide
variety of purposes in marrying' (p.207).
This is an essential textbook, but philosophy of language doesn't seem to be
essential in the philosophy of sex yet. Soble might remedy this.
(c) Rachel Browne 2008
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