requiem for certainty

Archive for April 2010

William James’s Ethics of Faith

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William James’s writings on philosophical ethics are a vexed collection.  Though James’s moral contributions are quite wide in their range, there can be little doubt that most of the attention he has received in these respects has been focused on his work on the ethics of belief, including the infamous essay “The Will to Believe”. (A quick and nonscientific survey of The Philosopher’s Index on April 23, 2010 revealed 91 hits for “Will to Believe” versus 6 hits for “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”, even though most commentators would regard as James’s most sustained contribution to philosophical ethics.)  For the most part, the interpretations and criticisms commonly put forward concerning the ethics of beliefs has tended to treat these writings in an isolated fashion that fails to make connections to James’s other contributions to philosophical ethics.

The standard treatment is unfortunate because what is needed is exactly what we lose by failing to take James seriously on these matters.  Faith, thought James, is much-needed in our world today.  But it something that many of us, myself included, know precious little about.  The causes of this would be difficult to discern.  But the story would probably have something to do with the late-nineteenth century culture wars between voluntaristic religious outlooks and evidentialist scientific outlooks.  The history of the twentieth century shows that science won that war.  Perhaps this was for the better.  But religion (or at least morality in a capacious sense, such that religion would be one species of the wider genus) provided something that science can never muster of its own accord, namely faith in uncertifiable possibility.  If there is no longer a place for traditional religion in our scientific culture, then it would behoove us to make a place for something else by which we might find our way to faith.  For faith is needful now more than ever, as James himself well understood over one hundred years ago.  We live, now more than ever, in a world of immense fragility, threadbare possibility, and thoroughgoing chance.  Finding oneself at home in such a world would be greatly assisted by founding faith within oneself.  Hence the importance of James’s contributions to ethics for us today. Read the rest of this entry »


Written by Colin Koopman

April 26, 2010 at 4:33 am

Michel Foucault’s Ethics of Pleasure

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Today a group of us in the Foucault Research Cluster were discussing some of Foucault’s late interviews and writings on sexuality and pleasure.  Foucault seems to be offering (recommending?) an ethics involving (centered around?) the work of pleasure, the use of pleasure, and the activity of living in and through pleasure.

This prompts in me (and prompted in all of us) a question or series of questions surrounding Foucault’s conception of pleasure and how it is supposed to work in such a fashion as to open us up to the possibilities of transformation.  All I am really left with at this point, though, is a question, rather than any sort of answer.

Michel FoucaultThe main problem we found ourselves facing was conceptualizing the relation between pleasure and transformation in Foucault.  Foucault sometimes seems to present a picture of pleasure as an ‘ethical technique’ which facilitates the ‘ethical telos’ of transformation.  Foucault is interested in pleasure because it helps bring about the transformation of the self (and self relations seem to be the ‘ethical substance’ in these interviews).

Okay, so that sounds great.  But how exactly do pleasures facilitate transformation?  I am, to just put it rather simply, puzzled.

What I definitely like is Foucault’s contrastive conception of pleasure as an alternative to desire.  Desire would be a control-freakish mechanism by which we attempt to fulfill a lack that we find in ourselves.  Pleasure would be a transformative (but how?) mechanism by which we attempt to work on the self in such a way as to open it up to the possibility of taking pleasure in acts and events which would otherwise not strike the self.  Pleasure for Foucault seems to function as a kind of process of receptivity.  It is through pleasure that we are able to receive another into the self.  And this, it seems, is supposed to facilitate transformation.

Written by Colin Koopman

April 14, 2010 at 1:41 am