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PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS electronic journal


P H I L O S O P H Y   P A T H W A Y S                   ISSN 2043-0728

Issue number 153
28th May 2010


I. 'The Metaphysics of Consciousness and the Purview of Science: A
Response to Fahey' by Richard Grego

II. 'Vico. Joyce. Beckett. Yeats' by Tony Fahey

III. 'Alan Gewirth's PGC: An Analysis of Central Issues Associated
With the Principle of Generic Consistency' by John M. Ramirez



We kick off with a response from Richard Grego, Associate Professor
at Daytona State College, to Anthony Fahey's article in the last
issue, 'Philosophy, Science and Consciousness'. Has Fahey been overly
sanguine about the prospects for a neurophysiological theory of
consciousness? After considering two varieties of mind-body dualism,
Grego goes on to describe what some would regard as a more likely
possibility, that conscious states supervene on, but are in principle
irreducible to physical states.

Tony Fahey has meanwhile written a second article, 'Vico. Joyce.
Beckett. Yeats' which looks at the influence of Giambattista Vico on
these three important 20th century authors. In the section on Yeats,
he offers valuable insight into Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming'.
According to the Greek philosopher Empedocles, the universe goes
through a double cycle, from chaos to unity under the influence of
Love, and then back from unity to chaos under the influence of
Strife, an idea which influenced Vico in his account of human
history. The chilling thought behind the idea of a 'second coming' is
that, as the first coming offered the promise of Love, so the second
heralds the triumph of Strife.

John Ramirez is an online publisher and also a philosophy graduate
student. His article on Alan Gewirth's moral theory, based on his MA
thesis research, examines Gewirth's 'Principle of Generic
Consistency' (PGC) which claims to be an important improvement on
Kant's Categorical Imperative. As Ramirez explains, Kant's approach
faces a chronic problem with specifying the level of generalization
when formulating a moral principle, which Gewirth claims to have
finally overcome with his PGC.

Geoffrey Klempner




In his recent Philosophy Pathways essay, 'Philosophy, Science and
Consciousness', (April 2010) Dr. Tony Fahey cogently and persuasively
discusses the dynamics of consciousness with respect to current
neurobiological and evolutionary theory. He describes how conscious
experience is caused by, an epiphenomenon of, or perhaps reducible
to, neurobiological brain-states that are themselves the product of
evolutionary development via genetic natural selection. He concludes
that, since 'strong evidence' from the physical sciences indicate
that 'Consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon as a result of
the evolution of mental development', then 'those who remain
convinced that ideas, religious or otherwise, derive from some
transcendent realm... must be prepared to eschew these beliefs in
favor of science'.

However, although Fahey's argument is quite compelling in many
respects, his conclusion is not warranted by his factual claims.
Moreover, his factual claims are also largely unwarranted. The
supposed 'strong evidence' for a neurobiological-based consciousness
does not exist -- at least not to an extent that justifies his
conclusion. Like so many contemporary thinkers who are deeply
impressed with the prolific possibilities offered by neuroscience,
Fahey seems to over-estimate its prospects for a comprehensive
explanation of human consciousness.

Even more significantly, by viewing science as the paradigmatic
arbiter of epistemological legitimacy ('where scientific discoveries
expose weaknesses in long-held traditional beliefs, these beliefs
should be abandoned and scientific discoveries should be embraced'),
and by suggesting that metaphysical speculations on consciousness
which do not conform to the scientific paradigm should be rejected
for this reason, Fahey subjects philosophical inquiry to a kind of
cultural-epistemological bias: Simply assuming that current western
scientific standards of knowledge and reality automatically enjoy a
privileged status -- against which all knowledge-claims must be
measured in order to pass the test of legitimacy.

I conclude by suggesting that Fahey's reasoning in this connection
runs contrary to his assertion in this essay and elsewhere that
philosophy must remain intellectually egalitarian, open-minded, and
vigilantly skeptical of all worldviews. I suggest further that in
order to avoid the kind of dogmatism and mindless fundamentalism that
Fahey rightly rejects, philosophers should view the scientific
paradigm generally, and neuroscience specifically, as one of many
equally valid possible theoretical frameworks (whether religious or
otherwise) within which to appreciate the depth and richness of
conscious life, rather than viewing neurobiology and evolutionary
theory as the only legitimate modes for understanding the nature of
and basis for consciousness.

 Fahey's Discussion of Consciousness and Biology

Fahey defines consciousness as 'a particular state of subjective
sentient awareness' -- the 'self-evident' kind of pure experience
that is 'species-specific to homo sapiens'. It is the primordial and
precognitive mental 'essence' that underwrites the possibility for
self-awareness, thinking, and all other activities that are a
function of conscious experience. Consciousness is also the
neurobiological product of evolutionary development. As human beings
evolved via natural selection, consciousness somehow emerged as a
higher-order brain state via increasing neural complexity in the
prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Fahey cites neuroscientists Crick and Koch, philosopher John Searle,
and biologist Richard Dawkins, among others, in support of the view
that 'consciousness is a property of the human brain' (Crick/ Koch)
and a 'neurobiological phenomenon' (Searle) resulting from Darwinian
natural selection. Even spiritual/ religious impulses -- like other
basic features of consciousness such as 'intentionality',
'equilibrity', and 'reciprocal altruism' -- can be reduced to
neurological features that developed as survival-enhancing mechanisms
through natural selection. He concludes that, as a relatively
temporary physiological function of evolution, consciousness may,
along with humanity itself, one day lose its survival-value, become
obsolete, and disappear.

Philosophers should now face-up to the fact that 'strong evidence'
from science for this conception of consciousness has effectively
invalidated any transcendent, extra-physical, or super-natural
conception of consciousness. Open-minded philosophers should 'measure
their views against the discoveries of science', 'eschew'
religious-transcendent 'beliefs in favor of science', and defer to
the 'discoveries that science has made in this area'.

 'Strong Evidence'?

While Fahey's discussion is lucid and compelling, it nonetheless
overstates the scientific case for a simple reduction of
consciousness to neurobiology -- either that consciousness is
identical to brain states, or that consciousness is an epiphenomenon
of the brain, or that consciousness is causally dependent upon the
brain. The origin and nature of consciousness, as all philosophers
and scientists agree, remains the famous (or infamous) 'hard problem'
for contemporary science. Although imaginative theories exist about
how empirical evidence might someday be found for a
neurologically-based explanation of consciousness, no current
evidence or theory has yielded anything close to such an explanation.
Crick and Koch (1990, 2005) referenced by Fahey, have proposed that
neural oscillation in the cerebral cortex or properties of the
claustrum might be responsible for unified conscious perception.
Edelman and Tononi (2000) hypothesize that clusters of integrated
neurons communicate within the thalmocortical system in a way that
gives rise to conscious apperception. And renowned physicists like
Penrose (1993) and Stapp (1996) have respectively conjectured that
quantum properties of the brain's neurons may induce conscious
experience via wave-function collapse at the quantum level or via the
super-position of action templates.

While space-limitations prevent more specific elucidation of these
theories, all brain-based theories of consciousness share one
consistent characteristic: As cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman

     The theories so far proposed by scientists are, at best,
     hints about where to look for a genuine scientific theory.
     None of them remotely approaches the minimal explanatory
     power, qualitative precision, or novel predictive capacity
     expected from a genuine scientific theory...In short, the
     scientific study of consciousness is in the embarrassing
     position of having no scientific theory of consciousness.
     (Hoffman, 2008, 90)
Though, as Fahey mentions, John Searle assumes a neurobiological
basis of consciousness, Searle readily admits that this assumption is
not based upon any empirical proof from the biological sciences, but
rather upon his expectation that such proof is forth-coming. (1984,
2004). Similarly, Crick and Koch have been careful to qualify their
speculations about the relation between consciousness and the brain.
'The most difficult aspect of consciousness is the so called 'hard
problem',Crick writes, 'No one has produced any plausible explanation
as to how the experience of the redness of red could arise from
actions of the brain.' (Crick, 2003,

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz goes even further in undermining
confidence in a bio-physical basis for consciousness. Drawing on his
own research in collaboration with David Chalmers and Henry Stapp, he
not only claims that the essence of consciousness is non-physical, but
that it actually exerts a Cartesian-type causal influence over the
bio-physical brain -- exactly the reverse of the
neurobiological-based theory. 'Our conscious thoughts and volitions
enter into the causal structure of nature and... override the
mechanical aspects of cerebral processes'. (Schwartz, 2002, 319)

In a similar vein, Hoffman suggests that philosophers and scientists
would be better-off discarding their fruitless search for a
neurobiological-based consciousness in favor of a transcendent,
non-physical consciousness from which physical reality -- including
the physical brain itself -- emerges! (Hoffman, 2008) And physicist
Paul Davies has concluded that, far from showing that consciousness
is an emergent property of the physical brain, scientific discoveries
indicate that a non-physical 'conscious awareness' is intrinsic to the
creation and fabric of the physical universe (Davies, 2000).

Thus, the claim that the sciences have produced convincing (or even
'strong') evidence for a neurobiological based consciousness --
evidence that excludes other possibilities for the origins of
consciousness -- seems overly optimistic at best. The progress made
by the physical sciences and neuroscience have been remarkable, and
further research on consciousness in this area promises to yield some
definitive findings. However, Fahey's assertion that, 'consciousness
is not some kind of mysterious entity that evades all forms of
scientific analysis, but a biological phenomenon that is the result
of... evolution', is not supported by current empirical evidence --
let alone definitive proof -- from science. The contention by Searle
and others that science will certainly find such proof sometime in
the future is testimony to their confidence in the possibilities of
science, but it is not a scientific argument.

Thus Fahey's claim that evidence for consciousness as a
'neurobiological phenomenon' is now so strong that philosophers
should abandon other theories, appears to be untenable. And even if
we concur with Fahey that if other views on this issue conflict with
those of science, then we must defer to science, we still have
insufficient reason to believe the neurobiological theory, since
neuroscience has been ineffectual in supplying evidence for this

 The Metaphysics of Consciousness and the Limits of Science

Perhaps most significantly, even if a neurobiological explanation for
consciousness was definitively established (as it certainly may one
day be), this would still not justify the claim (made popular by
Richard Dawkins, and suggested here by Fahey) that neuroscience
offers the sole or exclusive explanation on this issue and that all
other explanations must therefore be false. The notion that science
being true renders other systems of thought false, presents a 'false
dichotomy' that stultifies free thought and open inquiry. Science
being effective within its own paradigm does not invalidate other
paradigms or modes of understanding (religious or otherwise) that
may, in fact, be true simultaneously. Just because the assumptions
and methods of science automatically rule out the very possibility of
science conceiving a non-physical, transcendent or immeasurable
dimension of experience -- which is precisely what conscious
experience seems to be -- this does not mean (as some in the
scientific community have gone so far as to say) that such experience
does not exist. It only means that the scientific paradigm is
incapable of understanding it sufficiently, and that other paradigms
(perhaps religious or spiritual) may be better-suited to the task.

The neurobiological theory of consciousness is an important one and
is understandably endorsed by contemporary science, which is perhaps
the predominant paradigm shaping the culture and worldview of western
civilization. Fahey provides a compelling description of this theory.
As an accomplished scholar in the sociology and history of
worldviews, he also advocates a profoundly liberal, egalitarian, and
pluralistic approach to the task of philosophical inquiry. He
insightfully writes,

     When a body claims that its philosophy has the monopoly on
     other worldviews, it cannot be placed under the rubric of
     philosophy -- it is dogma. ... philosophy is not love of 'a
     truth' or some 'particular approach to wisdom', but a love
     of truth and wisdom. However, this wisdom or truth cannot
     be pre-packaged or pre-wrapped as one 'ism' or other,
     rather it involves the courage and preparedness to engage
     with, to challenge, and to expand the boundaries of one's
     own knowledge and experience'
     (2010, http://www.tonyfahey.com)
This sentiment ought to apply to all fields of thought -- religious
and scientific. Fahey's insistence that philosophers must use science
as a privileged standard by which to measure the relative merit of
competing claims regarding the origins and nature of consciousness is
not in keeping with the spirit of open-minded philosophical inquiry
that he espouses. Fahey is correct to state that philosophers should
not ignore the findings of science, but neither should philosophy
arbitrarily privilege the worldview of science over others on this,
or any, question.

According all worldviews consideration in regard to the still open
and mysterious question of consciousness, and acknowledging the
possibility that many views -- even seemly contradictory or
paradoxical ones -- may be true simultaneously, would do justice to
the complexity and depth of this question, and to the spirit of Dr.
Fahey's philosophical vision.


Crick F., Koch C. (1990) 'Toward a Neurobiological Theory of
Consciousness'. Seminars in the Neurosciences, 2, 263-275

________ (2005) 'What is the Function of the Claustrum? .
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 360., 1271-1279

Davies P. (1992) 'The Mind of God: the Scientific Basis for a
Rational World'. New York: Simon & Schuster

Edelman G., Tononi G. (2000) 'A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter
Becomes Imagination' New York: Basic Books

Fahey T. (2010) 'Philosophy, Science, and Consciousness' Philosophy
Pathways Journal 152. April.

Hoffman, D. (2008) 'Conscious Realism and the Mind-Body Problem' Mind
& Matter. Vol 6 87-121

Penrose R. (1994) 'Shadows of the Mind'. Oxford: University Press

Schwartz. J (2002) 'The Mind, The Brain, and the Power of Mental
Force'. New York: Harper Collins

Searle J. (1984) 'Minds, Brains, and Science' Cambridge: Harvard
University Press

________ (2004) 'Freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on Free will,
Language, and Political Power' New York: Columbia University Press

Stapp H. (1996) 'The Hard Problem: A Quantum Approach' Journal of
Consciousness Studies. 3, 194-261

(c) Richard Grego 2010

E-mail: GregoR@daytonastate.edu

Dr Richard Grego
Associate Professor
Department of Social/ Behavioral Sciences
Daytona State College




Although Giambattista Vico's work made little impact during his own
lifetime, decades after his death his history of philosophy has been
admired and developed by, and has had a profound influence on, many
subsequent writers and thinkers -- amongst whom can be counted, James
Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and William Butler Yeats. Notwithstanding this
influence Vico has remained peripheral figure to the philosophical
and literary canons. The ambition of this paper is to discuss and to
salute the influence of the philosophy of Giambattista Vico on the
works of these Irish writers.

 James Joyce

James Joyce was first taken by the corso-ricorso philosophy of
Giambattista Vico whilst living in Trieste.[1] Indeed, so taken was
Joyce with the Italian philosopher's work that he claimed that that
his imagination grew whenever he read Vico. Richard Ellman, Joyce's
biographer, reports that Joyce maintained that Vico's theory

     ... had amply demonstrated itself in his [own] life, and
     quite possibly he saw himself as having begun [with] a fear
     a of God, then basking in family and personal pride, and,
     finally, dispossessed, discovering a sufficient value in
     the ordinary and unassuming.[2]
In letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver on 21 May 1926 Joyce himself wrote,

     I do not know if Vico has been translated. I would not pay
     over much attention to these theories, beyond using them
     for all they are worth, but they have gradually forced
     themselves on me through circumstances of my own life.[3]
Samuel Beckett, in his first ever published work, 'Dante... Bruno.
Vico.. Joyce'[4], also draws attention to Vico's influence on Joyce,
where, following a lengthy description of Vico's New Science, he

     This social and historical cyclical classification is
     clearly adapted by Mr Joyce as a structural convenience --
     or inconvenience... By structural I do not only mean a bold
     outward division, a bare skeleton for the housing of
     material. I mean the endless substantial variation on these
     three beats, and interior intertwining of these three themes
     into a decoration of arabesques -- decoration and more than
Beckett goes on to explain how Finnegans Wake follows the Vichean
structure, starting with the first institution, religion -- 'a mass
of dark shadow'; then 'the love game of children', which corresponds
to Vico's second institution, marriage and the heroic age. The third
part of Wake is passed in sleep, that is, burial and the age of men.
And finally, in part four the day begins again -- ricorso. William
York Tindall in his A Reader's Guide to Joyce, also reminds us that
'Joyce called up the system of Giambattista Vico... who found history
cyclical'.[6] In Finnegans Wake, says Tindall, '[t]he creative father,
the quarrelling sons, and the renovating mother of Earwicker's
household fit this [Vico's] pattern nicely -- or, rather, Vico's
pattern nicely fits Earwicker's family process'.[7] And, quoting from
Finnegans Wake, Tindall draws our attention to a passage which reads:
'The Vico road goes round and round to meet where terms begin'.[8]

James Joyce, then, read New Science and discovered a paradigm that
could be adapted and modified to his own historical schema. The sheer
range and depth of Vico's work presented him with a ready-to-hand
literary, philosophical, and historical space within which he could
create his own 'monomyth'.[9] For example, in Finnegans Wake the
giant, Tim Finnegan (representing the bestioni, or savage giants, of
Vico's age of gods), dies after falling from a ladder (as a child a
similar accident had brought Vico to the edge of death), he is
succeeded by the heroic patriarch Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, or HCE
(the age of heroes), who, in turn, is succeeded by his very human twin
sons, Shem and Shaun in an age which inevitably turns to chaos, which
is, of course, a prelude to the ricorso.

Like Vico's New Science, Finnegans Wake is divided into four large
parts which represent the age of gods, the age of heroes, the age of
men, and the period of renewal. Within these four parts are seventeen
chapters, each of which corresponds to on of Vico's ages. Chapter one,
'The Fall of Man' centres on primitive and religious age. The second
chapter, based on Vico's 'heroic age' deals with the conflict which
arises between Tim Finnegan and Shem, otherwise known as 'The Cad'.
Shem is the name of one of Noah's sons,[10] who Vico argues, after
the Flood rejected his father's religion to wander in the forests of
the earth. Chapter three, from Vico's 'age of men', is entitled
'Gossips and the Knocking at the Gate' and concerns the sin and fall
of its central character Earwicker. In chapter four, Vico's ricorso,
HCE becomes a fox and is hunted by the pack. Every fourth chapter, in
turn, ends with Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), who, as the principle of
renewal, must preside over each ricorso. It is she who, after HCE's
demise (dissolution), protects his grave, and she who will reawaken

Joyce explicitly acknowledges his debt to Vico for the elaborate
structure of Ulysses in the complicated schema of a 'Work in
Progress' he sent to Carlo Linati in September 1920, and in another
he later sent to Stuart Gilbert.[12] According to these schemata,
episodes Telemachus and Calypso correspond with Vico's 'age of the
gods' in that the language is theocratic and the focus is religion;
the Nestor and Lotus Eaters episodes coincide with New Science's 'age
of heroes' in which the language is theocratic and the protagonists
aristocratic (heroic), while episodes Proteus and Hades deal with the
'age of men' in which the language is democratic, wisdom is
sympathetic, and ricorso inevitable.[13]

Michael Seidel, in his Epic Geography, James Joyce's Ulysses,
confirms Joyce's use of Vichean ideas when he draws attention to the
bodily language of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses when he says,

     A powerful description of the bodily world of nature that
     may have influenced Joyce's vision of Molly Bloom and Anna
     Livia appears in Giambattista Vico's New Science. In his
     second book, Poetic Wisdom, Vico considers what he calls
     Poetic Cosmography. He writes of the linguistic progress
     from one visual form to another, from geographical contours
     of the earth to the curves of a woman's body. Language
     accommodates the shapes of nature.[14]
Thus, not only does Joyce follow Vico by attributing characteristics
of animate substances to physical objects (as in the case of the
first poets), but he also in the use expressions of physical objects
as metaphors for the human body and its parts. For example, in
Ulysses, Seidel explains, 'Molly Bloom, born on Gibraltar, builds her
narration on the rotating rock of her own body' (ibid.), and in
Finnegans Wake Anna Livia Plurabelle is not only 'body, woman, [and]
wife',[15] but also a metaphor for the River Liffey.

 Samuel Beckett

We have already seen how, in his essay 'Dante... Bruno.Vico.. Joyce',
Samuel Beckett goes to some lengths to summarise Vico's New Science
and to show this work was taken by Joyce as a structure for his 'Work
in Progress'.[16] However, one can go further than to say that
Beckett's interest in Vico was not simply to explain his influence on
Joyce, and argue that in his own work it is also possible to see how
Beckett may have borrowed from the Italian philosopher to present us
with a vision of a postmodern and post-nuclear world -- a world which
bears a striking resemblance to Vico's period of dissolution.

For Giambattista Vico mythical gods and heroes such as Jove or
Hercules were not simply literary devices 'employed to impress in
coded form the teachings of philosophers on such subjects as ethics,
physics, or politics',[17] nor did he hold that they were once real
men upon whom these myths were built. Rather, for Vico, these 'poetic
characters' were concrete manifestations of abstract ideas.[18] That
is, they represented true 'examples of a primitive, concrete,
anthropomorphic mode of thought'.[19] In other words, these myths
represent, in poetic form, the customs and beliefs of the primitive
communities. In Endgame, we see that in the same way that Vico's
theological poets used poetic characters to represent the customs,
behaviour and beliefs of real people at a particular place and time
in the ideal eternal history of humankind, so too does Samuel Beckett
employ the same method to represent the nature, customs, and behaviour
of human beings in the post-atomic age.

For Vico, the history of humankind is not lineal: it is not a process
in which each phase succeeds the other in a gradual but ever improving
progression from the primitive to the sophisticated, but a cyclical
process which inevitably terminates in chaos before returning to its
original state -- at which stage the cycle begins again. The
beginning of the end, that is, the point or phase in history where
regression begins, says Vico, is during the age of men. In this age,
which begins with such faith in the power of reason to know and
control not only the natural world, but also the self, religion is
gradually replaced by secularism and communal responsibility by
egotism. During this period societies become fragmented and, in time,
people develop a sense of isolation, alienation, and fear. In short,
the age moves inevitably towards a state of chaos and dissolution.

In his play Endgame, and in his novel Molloy, it is possible to argue
that Samuel Beckett presents us with such a concept of the state of
affairs of men. For example, in Endgame, which Keith Hopper tells us
is Beckett's 'favourite play',[20] Beckett creates a stage set that
resembles a skull-like room. In this room only one person has the
ability to move, and even this ability is restricted. This set, then,
can be interpreted as representative of a post-atomic world which is
so empty that human beings seem 'like a monstrous intrusion'.[21]
That is, Beckett presents a scene in which the protagonists, Hamm,
Clov, Nag, and Nell, are not only isolated from the world, but also,
for the most part, from each other. In other words, in their world
they have been reduced to exist in a state of fear and alienation --
a state of chaos.

By concentrating his gaze primarily on the interplay between Clov and
Hamm, an interplay in which the protagonists represent two opposing
kings during the 'endgame' in the game of chess, each countering the
other's moves, neither gaining sufficient advantage to make that
final incisive move that would allow one to gain mastery over the
other, Beckett draws attention to the sense of fear and anxiety that,
for Vico, is an integral part of the human condition during this
period of dissolution. The depth of feeling of anguish is reflected
in Hamm's fear that, ultimately, Clov may abandon him -- an anguish
which is compounded by the fact that Clov may find within himself the
strength to make a life for himself outside. For even in their present
state, with Nell and Nag, there remains the, albeit dying, fragments
of a community. For Clov the feelings of anxiety and loneliness
manifest themselves in the gnawing fear that outside the room there
is nothing but a void. These feelings represent Beckett's critique of
Cartesianism, for, as Keith Hopper explains,

     [Beckett]... was notoriously sceptical about the claims of
     rationality as an all-governing discourse. He had himself
     after careful study rejected the account of human existence
     given by the Western philosophical tradition, especially as
     it based itself on Descartes, who had asserted cogito, ergo
     sum: I think, therefore I am.[22]
Thus, we see that, like Vico, Beckett held that the Cartesian concept
of a reasoning homunculi which contemplates a priori 'clear and
distinct ideas' is erroneous (Vico would say that it was a
'conceit'). The world of Endgame, then, can be interpreted as a
metaphor for a world in which the ideal eternal history of humankind
is reaching its nadir -- that stage just before it finally dissolves
and religion is reborn from the ashes of the age reason. Describing
this phase of the corso-ricorso, Vico says,

     When people suffer from a fatal civil malady... [l]ike
     beasts [they]... are accustomed to think of nothing but
     their personal advantage, and are prone to irritability, or
     rather pride, so that they are fitted with bestial rage and
     resentment at the least provocation. Although their bodies
     are densely crowded together, their intentions and desires
     are separated. Like wild beasts, no two or three of them
     agree, because each pursues his own pleasure or caprice.[23]
In Endgame, Beckett, echoing Vico, presents us with such a scenario:
an age in which the aged and infirm (Nag and Nell) have become little
more than living corpses whose continuing existence is both an
irritation and an inconvenience to others. An age too when human
beings succumb to a Hamm and Clov mentality and engage in petty,
whimsical, and self-gratifying mind games in which each attempts to
gain control over the other. And an age in which the acts of violence
and injustice perpetrated by 'men of reason' surpass even those of the
giants of antiquity. As Vico explains, in such an age '[t]his
barbarism of calculation turns such people into beasts even more
savage than did the primitive barbarism of the senses'.[24] Thus,
like the 'poetical characters' created by Vico's theological poets,
Beckett's protagonists do not express coded philosophical or
pedagogical messages, nor do they attempt to represent people as
mythical heroes, rather they are 'empirical illustrations' of
'philosophical abstractions',[25] that is, they are concrete modes of
thought which represent the consensus (what Vico calls the sensus
communis) of particular people, in a particular place, and at a
particular time, in the ever evolving and revolving history of

In the first part of his novel, Molloy, Beckett presents us a
protagonist -- a 'poetical character' -- whose life can be
interpreted as representative of a pattern which follows the Vichean
corso-ricorso. From the very outset we see how Beckett, mirroring the
Vichean theological poet struggling to emerge from the age of
bestioni, portrays his protagonist, Molloy, as a person whose
movements are not only constrained by the fact that he has a stiff
leg, but also by the threatening and primitive nature of those within
whom he comes contact: by the police who harry him for resting his
bicycle in a public place; by the mob who try to kill him when he
accidentally runs over and kills a dog with his bicycle, and by the
dog's lady owner, who rescues him from the mob but smothers him with
claustrophobic concern. Molloy, who has been driven by some silent
force (Vico calls this force 'divine providence') to give up the
slothful comfort of his rock in order to search for his mother
continues to follow the Vichean pattern when, after some time spent
in a cave (he has not yet managed to fully emerge from the primitive
state), he moves to a forest where he slays an innocent woodcutter.
Here we become aware of Beckett's use of the seasons as metaphors for
Vico's different ages when Molloy, whose early phase must have taken
place in winter, emerges from the forest just as spring, the age of
heroes, begins.

In the second part of the novel Molloy moves to the next phase in the
Vichean historical cycle when the protagonist enters into a
slave-master relationship with the tyrant Moran. The third age, the
age of democracy, is represented by the more equitable balance of
power that arises between lord and slave when Moran loses the use of
his legs. The fourth stage, the dissolution into chaos, is
represented by Moran's entry into the woods where he too assaults a
stranger before, eventually, reaching home, which by now is in
disarray or chaos.

In Molloy, then, we see that Vico's argument that mythical heroes are
credible concrete images created by theological poets is also made by
Beckett who creates his own poetic characters in his protagonists,
Molloy and Moran. In this novel Beckett shows that, while his focus
is confined to the experiences of individual men, the writer/ poet is
privileged to gather the experiences of many people, and select from
them those elements or characteristics which he/ she best judges
represent the poetic character most appealing to his/ her audience.
In Vichean terms this means that the poet takes those characteristics
which represent the spontaneous or unreflected judgements of the
sensus communis of the people and embodies them in a single hero/
character. Thus, the poet/ writer is a conduit, or a prism, through
which the consensus of the majority is refracted, refined and
reflected back to the people. In this way, we see that, for Beckett,
as it is for Vico, the poet/ writer is the true chronicler of
history. That is, through poetic characterisation the poet/ writer
follows the birth, rise, and demise that, inevitably, all human life
must follow. Molloy, like Homer, says Beckett, is not a historical
individual but an idea: a poetic image created from characteristics
which are common to all men. In short, for Beckett, as it is for
Vico, the poetic hero is everyone, and no one.

 William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats came to Vico by way of a series of lectures
given by Douglas Ainslie on Benedetto Croce's Aesthetic. In 1924 he
read and annotated R.G. Collingwood's translation of Croce's
Philosophy of Giambattista Vico, and in 1930 as an introduction to
his Swift play 'The Words upon the Window Pane', he wrote an essay
drawing on the parallel and contrast between Vico's New Science and
Swift's Discourse of the Contents and Dissensions between the Nobles
and the Commons in Athens and Rome; and in 1938 he wrote in his On
the boiler: 'Vico was the first modern philosopher to discover in his
own mind, and in the European past, all human destiny'.[26] Since
Yeats went to such lengths to extol the virtues of Vico's storia
ideale eterna, it is not surprising that much of the influence of
Vico's cyclical theory can be identified in his work. For example in
'The Second Coming' he writes,

     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
     The falcon cannot hear the falconer
     Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.[27]

Here we see that, for Yeats, the falcon (humankind) has become so
removed from the falconer (God) that everything is in chaos. In 'The
Gyres' Yeats writes, 'Empedocles has thrown all things about'.[28]
Empedocles was a Geek philosopher and poet (c. 493 BCE) who rejected
the notion of a single basic substance. According to the Greek
philosopher, Love (Philotes) and Strife (Neikos) are rival cosmic
powers, each in constant conflict with the other and each dominating
at one time or another as the balance of power constantly shifts.
Empedocles (like Vico) also held that the nature of man was primarily
weak and that the only way to salvation was knowledge, or science. In
his A Vision, first published in 1926 and revised in 1937, Yeats
describes his historical process as a pair of expanding gyres. The
two cones are contraries, or antinomies, (Empedocles' 'Love and
Strife') which interact simultaneously, at any one time there is a
tendency towards the primary or antithetical, but as this tendency
increases its opposite is also apparent. Each phase represents a 2000
year cycle, the end of which ends in chaos, and during which humankind
awaits the 'second coming' of Christ. Like Vico, Yeats sees social and
political chaos as a transitional period in the endless cycle of world
history; that is, as a phase in the eternal ideal history of humankind.


Because of the predominance of Cartesianism during Vico's lifetime
his New Science sank, almost without a trace, until, nearly a century
after his death, it was salvaged by the French thinkers, Jules
Michelet and Auguste Comte. Amongst others whose work owes much to
Vico are: Benedetto Croce, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fyodor
Dostoyevsky, Karl Marx, R. G. Collingwood, and, more recently, Salman
Rushdie and A.S. Byatt. When one adds to this impressive list the
names of those upon whom this paper is based, it seems puzzling that
one who has contributed so much to so many remains such a peripheral
figure in the Western philosophical and literary canon.


1. Ellman, Richard: Ulysses on the Liffey. (London: Faber and Faber
Limited. 1972) p. 52

2. ibid.

3. Gilbert, Gilbert: Letters of James Joyce. (London: Faber and
Faber, 1957)

4. the dots between the names signify the number of centuries between
the different authors

5. Beckett, Samuel: Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic
Fragment (London: John Calder Publishers Ltd. 1983)

6. Tindall, William York: A Reader's Guide to James Joyce (London:
Thames and Hudson. 1959) p.244

7. ibid.

8. ibid., p. 452

9. Joyce, James: Finnegans Wake (London: The Viking Press. 1939) p.

10. Vico, Giambattista: New Science trans. by David Marsh with
introduction by Anthony Grafton (London: Penguin Books, 1999), paras,

11. see Tindall Op.cit. (ibid., pp, 269-272)

12. see Ellman. Op.cit. (ibid., pp 58/ 59 and 178-183)-

13. ibid.

14. Seidal, Michael: Epic Geography. James Joyce's Ulysses
(Princeton, New Jersey: University Press, 1976) p. 41

15. ibid.

16. see Beckett. Op.cit. (ibid., p. 19)

17. Burke, Peter: Vico (Oxford, New York, Toronto: Oxford University
Press, 1985) p, 19

18. see ibid.

19. ibid.

20. Hopper, Keith: 'Samuel Beckett: Working Through the Media'
(Dublin, Dublin City University, 1998), 11-10.

21. Alvarez, Al: Beckett. Second Edition (London, Fontana, 1992) p,

22. Hopper. Op.cit. (ibid., 10-9)

23. Vico. Op.cit. (ibid., para, 1106)

24. ibid.

25. see Beckett. Op.cit. (ibid.)

26. see Fisch, M.H in The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico, trans.
by M.H.Fisch & T. Goddard Bergin (Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 1975), p. 98/ 9/ ,.

27. Yeats, William Butler: W.B.Yeats. Selected Poetry, ed. Timothy
Webb (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p124.

28. Yeats. Op.cit.(ibid., p. 124)

(c) Anthony Fahey 2010

E-mail: fahey.anthony@gmail.com

Web site: http://www.tonyfahey.com

[For more on Giambattista Vico see Anthony Fahey's book Vico's Road
to Postmodernism (2009). Publication details can be found on the
Pathways Features Page




In the world of philosophy (in particular the discipline of ethics or
morality), there are two schools of thought. The first is comprised of
members who believe that all things in the universe can be laid out as
a series of theories capable of being proven by the scientific method.
For this paper's purpose, this position will be referred to as the
'Rationalist' school of thought. The second school of thought is made
of members who believe that only a certain number of issues or
phenomena in nature can be explained by the scientific method with
100% certainty, school of 'Skepticism.' The Rationalist and Skeptical
schools of thought both have varied 'philosophical genres' that
prescribe to either thought.

Alan Gewirth's Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC) is what
philosophers would call a Rationalist theory. Gewirth's claim is that
his principle is an axiom that can be used to derive all moral
concepts. According to Gewirth the PGC, like all other axioms, can be
proven to be 'true' (true meaning absolute and real in the
metaphysical and physical senses).

The purpose of this paper is to examine central issues associated
with the PGC. The paper will look at the theory and its proof as well
as alternative theories.


To understand basic concepts of the thesis, I have laid this
foundation for this essay's arguments. First a look at the Principle
of Generic Consistency (PGC) itself:

The PGC is a moral theory developed by Dr. Alan Gewirth, the
importance of which is Gewirth's claim that his theory is a universal
axiom from which all other moral principles are derived. The PGC is
not only the 'birthplace' of all other moral principles, but itself
cannot be derived from any other theory or principle. The PGC's
authority comes from a logical proof which W.D. Hudson outlines in
his essay 'The 'Is/Ought' Problem Resolved?' (Regis 1984, 108-127)
According to Hudson, the PGC's logical argument takes the form of:

     1. I do x for purpose E.
     2. E is good.
     3. My freedom and well-being are good as good is the
     necessary conditions of all my actions.
     4. I have a right to freedom and well-being.
     5. All other agents ought to refrain from interfering with
     my freedom and well-being.
     6. All prospective, purposive agents have the right to
     freedom and well-being.
     7. I ought to refrain from interfering with the freedom and
     well-being of all prospective, purposive agents.
According to Gewirth, the PGC's logical proof is a demonstration of
the rational set of 'events' that take place when a person faces a
moral dilemma. Gewirth concludes that all sane and rational people,
on the 'pain' of self contradiction, must adhere to the logical
conclusion demonstrated in the proof. There are two exceptions --
children and the mentally ill.

The PGC states, 'Act in accord with the generic rights of your
recipients as well as of yourself' (Gewirth 1978, 135). Many of
Gewirth's peers have pointed to the similarity between the PGC and
the Golden Rule. Gewirth has conceded the similarities between the
Golden Rule and his PGC but maintains that the PGC is an independent
principle, one which he describes as Egalitarian Universalist
(Gewirth 1978, 140) and the supreme principle of morality (Gewirth
1978, 145).

Even though the PGC has gained a wide acceptance from certain members
of the law community and from libertarians, there have been several
detractors in the academic community. The majority of the issues
brought up against the PGC revolve around Gewirth's claim that the
PGC is the supreme principle, while others cite the principle's
incompleteness it lack of necessity.

In the following section we will look at the historical foundation of
the PGC and the basis for research into discovering a unifying theory
or supreme principle of morality.

 Basis for the PGC

Gewirth, in Reason and Morality, presented three reasons or
'justifications' for the PGC. These justifications (Gewirth 1978,
135) are the 'Authoritative Question,' the 'Distributive Question'
and the 'Substantive Question.' Gewirth further proposes in Reason
and Morality that the confusion that exists in the field of morality
comes from not tackling these justifications. Gewirth put forth that
his theory (PGC) will satisfy all three central questions of moral
philosophy and, in so doing, put to rest the authoritative,
distributive and substantive issues surrounding all of the PGC's
predecessors. What, exactly, are the three central questions though?
For clarity, let's define each one:

 The Question of Authority asks why anyone should be moral, especially
when the moral act conflicts with one's own interest. The Authority
Question brings to light the need for some rational explanation for
moral obligation or, as in Gewirth's proposal, a Supreme Moral
Principle based on pure reason with a logical demonstration.

 The Distributive Question asks whose responsibility is it to bear the
moral obligation. The Distributive Question brings to light the
various philosophical answers to the question of who should receive
the benefit of moral acts, the individual or institution. Gewirth's
answer to that question was the PGC.

 The Substantive Question presents the need for a defined system that
decides which 'interests' have more weight: Do political obligations
have more weight the military ones; does your neighbor's moral
interest have priority over yours? All substantive questions,
according to Gewirth, could be answered with a unifying principle
which would define the criteria for moral obligation; Gewirth
proposed his PGC to be this unifying principle (Gewirth 1978, 140).

Gewirth's motives went beyond answering the three central questions
in morality. Gewirth borrowed extensively from various philosophers;
in the second part of this section we will look at one of Gewirth's
moral theories, for which he owes a great deal to Immanuel Kant's
'Categorical Imperatives.'

 Categorical Imperatives

Gewirth's reasoning behind his research into a single universal
principle of morality was to satisfy the three central questions of
morality, but his research was based on earlier philosophical works,
primarily Immanuel Kant.

The parallels between Kant's moral system and Gewirth's PGC have been
noted by Gewirth and others. Edward Regis, Jr., wrote in his
introduction to Gewirth's 'Ethical Rationalism Critical Essays'
(Regis 1984, 4) that the centerpiece of Gewirth's system is the
Principle of Generic Consistency. The PGC states, 'Act in accord with
the generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself.' This
principle, as stated before, has obvious affinities to the Golden
Rule, Kant's one supreme categorical imperative.

One of the obstacles Gewirth's critics have presented is the PGC's
lack of need since it had all been said and done when Kant first
introduced the Golden Rule. Gewirth, in his introduction of the PGC
to the philosophic community, dedicated two sections to proving the
PGC's necessity as one both formal and material (Gewirth 1978,
150-170). Gewirth contends in his material section that the PGC
differs from the Golden Rule on several points. Gewirth's calls the
Golden Rule the 'principle of appetitive-reciprocal consistency'
(Gewirth 1978, 169), the main difference between the PGC and PARC
(the Golden Rule) being that the PARC does not specify what sorts of
'rights or duties' are owed to the moral agent.

Gewirth writes in Reason and Morality that, as already noted, an
important difference from the Golden Rule is, whereas the PGC focuses
on what the agent necessarily values or wants with regard to how he is
to be treated, the Golden Rule leaves it open to the agent to describe
his actions at differing levels of generality. Gewirth goes on to
describe how these 'generalities' could take shape. 'He (the moral
agent) would want other persons to ply him with gin; he would want
other persons to give him a certain drink... hence he ought to give
them the same.' Gewirth concludes the thought with adding, '... but
which level of generality is the right one? Different answers may
yield extremely unpalatable results, as where a sadomasochist holds
that he ought to inflict pain and suffering on other persons because
he would want them to inflict pain and suffering on him' (Gewirth
1978, 169). Gewirth's solution to the logical loophole in Kant's
supreme categorical imperative is to specify what duties or rights
are owed to and expected from the moral agent, specifically generic
rights, which Gewirth defined as, '...rights to the necessary
conditions of agency, freedom and well-being' (Gewirth 1978, 69).

In summary, Gewirth's reasoning behind developing the PGC was to put
to rest the three nagging central questions in moral philosophy while
simultaneously producing a new criterion in moral philosophy. How
successful Gewirth was in his desire to evolve moral philosophy is up
to speculation. In the next section we will look further at obstacles
facing the PGC, specifically two rival theories -- Moral Relativism
and Utilitarianism.

 The PGC and Alternate Moralities

This section will introduce two alternate moral theories representing
opposing views to those in found in Gewirth's PGC. Gewirth, in his
thesis Reason and Morality, also dedicated a great deal of attention
to the alternate theories discussed in this section. Utilitarianism
and Relativism are two moral theories which Gewirth 'takes on' in
Reason and Morality. The reasoning behind the 'attacks' is not solely
because of the two theories' popularity but also because both offer a
sharp contrast from Gewirth's own PGC.


Utilitarianism is mentioned throughout Gewirth's introduction to the
PGC; it was one of the alternate moral theories Gewirth used for
comparison purposes. Utilitarianism is a 'Consequentialist' moral
theory based on the Principle of Utility. In philosophical terms,
Utility refers to the amount of 'happiness' or level of
'satisfaction' a person or group has. Utilitarianism of the John
Stuart Mill variety (the classic form of Utilitarianism Gewirth
referred to in Reason and Morality) calls for the greatest amount of
happiness for the greatest amount of people; Utilitarianism can be
viewed as a quantitative solution to the distribution issue in
morality. Utilitarianism in the classic form can be either Act or
Rule Utilitarianism.

The issue Gewirth has with Utilitarianism is the need for variant
methods of applying the Principle of Utility, as in either Rule or
Act. Gewirth believes that since the Principle of Utility has to have
more than one method of application, there must be a crack in its
rigor; Gewirth states in Reason and Morality, 'The applications of
the Principle of Utility, whether in act- or in rule-utilitarianism,
are only aggregative: they consist simply in maximizing utility...
This maximizing must be maintained with no independent concern for
distributive considerations; hence, the requirements of distributive
justice may be violated.'

Gewirth goes on to point to the virtues and superior results that
come about when applying the PGC instead of the Principle of Utility
under the same parameters. Gewirth continues in Reason and Morality,
'The applications of the PGC, on the other hand, are of several
different kinds, by virtue of the complexity of the PGC itself. But
they put central emphasis on distributive considerations, on equality
between agent and recipient with regard to the rights of freedom and
well being.' It seems that Gewirth purposes that the PGC is more
ideal then the Principle of Utility based on a consistency factor; he
goes on to mention, 'A further difference is that the logical basis of
the Principle of Utility itself and hence of its various applications
is left indeterminate... applications of the PGC, on the other hand,
reflect throughout its inherently rational structure.'

There are critics to Gewirth's claim of the PGC's theoretical
supremacy over the Principle of Utility. D.D. Raphael points to
Gewirth's solution to the conflict of interests between agents and
recipients as leaving something of a gap (Regis 1984, 95) and being
no better the Utilitarian solution.

Gewirth's response to this criticism is to point to his set of three
criteria that could be used to solve any conflict when applying the
PGC. Those criteria, in order of importance, are: Prevention or
Removal of Inconsistency, Degrees of Necessity for Action and
Institutional Requirements. Gewirth contends that the three criteria
he introduced would resolve all conflicts arising with the
application of the PGC but not with the Principle of Utility.


If Gewirth's PGC could have an inversion it would be Moral
Relativism. A meta-ethical position, Moral Relativism is divided into
two forms, Individual and Cultural Relativism. Gewirth, in his
introduction of the PGC, mentions and criticizes Individual
Relativism's followers (and those of other naturalistic theories).
Individual Relativism is a moral principle based on the idea that
individual or agents have their own view of what is good based on
'objects' of their desire or need.

Gewirth contends in Reason and Morality (Gewirth 1978, 159) that 'A
closely related difficulty is that of relativism. Since different
agents have different and even conflicting purposes, not all their
objects can be good, and such naturalistic definitions provide no way
of deciding among them.' Gewirth's answer to this moral dilemma is the
PGC's dialectical method or logical proof. Gewirth states, 'The use of
the dialectically necessary method has enabled me to avoid these
difficulties' (Gewirth 1978, 160). In general, the PGC allows for an
agent to seek whatever 'objects' of his or her desire, without
creating the conflict found in Relativism of any form, since the
logical structure of the PGC demands that agent to recognize that the
recipients and other possible agents also have the same right.

Gewirth's PGC has faced many attacks, but the members of the
philosophical community who are proponents of Naturalistic
(Relativist) theories and those who promote the Principle of Utility
have been the most vocal. In years to come, the debate will no doubt
continue with members of the Relativist and Utilitarian communities
not just seeking new developments for their theories but also taking
aim at the idea of a unifying moral principle.


Gewirth's PGC, which could be described as Normative and
Deontological but which Gewirth describes as an
Egalitarian-Universalist moral principle, is a major development in
Rationalist philosophy. Gewirth's attempt to create a truly
Universalist moral axiom, one complete with logical proof, is as an
important discovery as any other theoretical find in the 20th
century. The PGC's critics have even given credit to Gewirth's
dialectical method.

The circumstances that surround moral philosophy have given Gewirth's
PGC a steep hill to climb. The moral debate between 'Naturalists',
Rationalists, Contemporary Skeptics and Institutionalists rages on
and on. There are experts in the field of moral philosophy who
question Gewirth's intentions with regard to his development of the
PGC, pointing to similar principles found in earlier theories;
Gewirth, in his introduction of the PGC, made attempts to satisfy any
questions on the need and originality of his theory. Gewirth points to
the three central questions in morality as the root cause to the
confusion in moral philosophy and points to the need for a truly
Rationalist litmus test for moral principles. Gewirth's response to
both issues was the PGC, which not only answered the three central
questions but is based on a dialectically necessary method.

Gewirth' work has gained popularity among Jurists and Rationalists in
the United States, being cited in law journals including the Georgia
Law Review in 1979. Gewirth's PGC, with its claim of supremacy over
all other moral principles, will remain a hot and debated topic in
the field of philosophy.

 Works Cited

Carson, Thomas L., and Paul K. Moser. Moral Relativism: A Reader.
London: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Fieser, James PhD. 'The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ethics.'
http://www.iep.utm.edu. 2006.

Gewirth, Alan. Reason and Morality. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1978.

Hudson, W.D. 'The 'Is-Ought' Problem Resolved?' In Gewirth's Ethical
Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by
Edward Regis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated
and Analyzed by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1964.

Levy, Neil. Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction. London: Oneworld
Publications, 2002.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Company, 1979.

Oderberg, David S. Moral Theory a Non-Consequentialist Approach.
Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Raphael, D.D. 'Rights and Conflicts.' In Gewirth's Ethical
Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by
Edward Regis, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Regis, Edward Jr. 'Introduction.' In Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism:
Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth, edited by Edward Regis,
Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and
Dissertations 5th ed. Chicago, London The University of Chicago Press
Fifth edition, 1987

(c) John M. Ramirez 2010

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