On objective love
One thing I hope that last week’s readings and discussion can do for us is to awaken our minds to the love that weaves through the world and surrounds and envelops us in its invisible filaments. If I can recognize this love, even if I first see it only as it is shared between others and not me, it can dawn on me that love exists regardless of whether I happen to be experiencing it as an emotion in any given moment. Then I can live in such a way that fosters the conditions in which I may come to more fully participate this love that I know exists.
Thank you for submitting your reflection for this week, which was a delight to read. One reason that I appreciate Symposium is because it describes how we may become “philosophers” in the sense of “ones who seek wisdom into love.” It encourages us to start with the manifestations of love that are most familiar to us and then strive to expand our comprehension hence to greater forms so that we can ascend, by degrees, to greater vision. Diotima’s “ladder of love” describes this ascent. She observes that a powerful way to expand the scope of our participation in love is to recognize that, for all of the manifestations of love that I experience, there are also ones that I do not but which those around me do and thus which nevertheless exist despite that I am initially blind to them. Through this recognition, I can awaken to the fact that I “live and move and have my being” in a great atmosphere of love that consists in all the invisible connections that draws beings together in the universe.
I especially appreciated the clarity by which you presented both the thesis and the antithesis and then sought to reconcile them. You concluded that:
“Understanding how the act of giving elicits positive feelings for the giver, and the effects it would have that benefit the lover seem to be points that keep me thinking this way [i.e. love is ineluctably selfish].”
I think it is a very important point and it should lead us to be wary of premature declarations of altruism. At the same time, would you derive positive feelings from acting kindly towards someone that you did not already love? In some way, the primary argument for selfishness seems to presuppose the very thing it is attempting to disprove. What do you think of this?
On the philosophy of science and the possibility of “objective knowledge”
As I think this through, the notion of “purely objective” knowledge increasingly strikes me as a chimera or something of a contradiction in terms. As you have suggested, “subjectivity” seems like something of a transcendental condition for all scientific inquiry in the first place. I have in mind both:
(1) the mysterious inspiration and the value judgment inherent in hypothesis-formation together with the ineluctable need for a conscious observer and knower to provide the “occasion” for knowledge. We should really wonder whether it is a sensible proposition to imagine knowledge without a knower. Imagine, hypothetically, the perfect “theory of everything” written in some kind of formal notation/hieroglyphics/symbols that no one was capable of understanding and yet on display for everyone: what would this promise in respect to scientific progress? Clearly, it represents potential knowledge at best, which could only become actual knowledge through being known/understood by a knower. If it was already knowledge without being understood, science would have no reason to exist because the scenario above describes the de facto manner in which we encounter the world already.
The secret of existence is already on display before us, in some sense, in the phenomenal world only we don’t understand what we see yet. It wouldn’t make sense to think that science is discovering things in some other world than the one we live in. For the same reason, the one we live in must evince the theories of science or else those theories need to be replaced. We might say, for instance, “but the world doesn’t look like what General Relativity describes,” to which the necessarily reply would be “and what do you suppose the world that General Relativity describes would look like?”
The scientific enterprise consists in elaborating theories and conceptual relations between phenomena which, when those theories are successful, reveal to us that they were already manifest and yet they remained unrecognised. They are written in the hieroglyphs of phenomenal nature and we only come to understand by degrees. Think, for instance, of how the sunrise would have appeared to a person before the Copernican theory was accepted. The answer is of course, both “just the same way it appeared afterwards” and also “entirely different to the way it now appears.” The difference consists in a coherent conceptual apprehension of what is already arrayed before the senses. The Copernican theory is not the final word on the subject and nor, probably, is General Relativity, for that matter. Still, I think they provides helpful examples of the principle that is at stake.
(2) The fundamental “desire to know” (cf. the first line in Aristotle’s Metaphysics) that seems, at least in an ideal condition, to impel all scientific inquiry as such. Desire strikes me as a subjective (i.e. contingent on a subject) phenomenon that cannot be recreated in purely objective terms.
On “the whoring” of science
I will not pretend to offer a pat answer to such a profound question but it does occur to me that any time a scientist qua scientist advocates particular policies, he or she is abusing the office of scientist for the reasons that we have established. That being said, as we have also established, nothing is more congenial to human nature to care about things so as scientist qua human being, advocating for particular policies is unavoidable and I don’t think we would wish to avoid it even if we could. Unfortunately, this distinction is almost never made explicit and I am afraid we may see the consequences already today with the phenomenon of “distrust of science.” The only solution that occurs to me lies in increasing “philosophy-of-scientific literacy” amongst the public on one hand and demanding transparency and explicitness of expression from practicing scientists on the other. I wonder if you have further thoughts on this.
On “nature” as “essence”
“Thomas Aquinas described nature as a basic good. Nature was created by God therefore, it had good purpose.”
It is correct to distinguish “nature” in the medieval sense from its typical modern usage. We have a vestige of what the likes of Aquinas would have meant by the term when we use nature in the sense of “essence.” For instance, if I pose a question like “what is the nature of ethics?” I am not inquiring after flora and fauna and geology but rather I am asking about the crux of the term’s meaning. The key to enter into the world-view of the medieval philosophers is to conceive of everything that exists as an image or icon of essences that were spoken into existence by the Logos of God. In principle, like Wendy said, everything bears a direct relation to the ultimate good, both in its origin and its end. This was sometimes called “procession” from God and “reversion” toward God and symbolized by the Greek letters Α (alpha) and Ω (omega). Ethics, in its fundamental sense, consists in harmonizing our existential lives with our essential ones as human beings wrought in imago Dei which is, “in the image of God.”
Regarding the discussion of love: you described a hypothetical scenario in which, in a pair of lovers, one party loved in a selfless fashion but the other did not reciprocate. I failed to grasp how this scenario alone could cast doubt on the possibility for selfless love. If anything, it affirms it through the selfless disposition of one party. I could construe an argument against selfless love along the following lines, however: the lover who seemed to be loving selflessly was in fact subject to an unconscious desire for the pleasure that being in love is wont to bring. In this way, the love would masquerade under the pretense of selflessness but it would, in actual fact, have been impelled by the ulterior motive of personal enjoyment. What do you think of this? One problem I see with the argument is that it relies entirely on evidence that is purely speculative. To say “she says she is in love for the other’s sake but in fact she is subject to unconscious motives” shunts any evidence for that claim away from where it can be verified since it is outside of anyone’s experience. As a rule, I think it is much better to take people at their word rather than incessantly psychoanalyzing their motives, but perhaps I am naïve. What do you think of this?
Regarding the monk: In The Brothers Karamazov, the speaker is referring to Orthodox Christian monks. In the United States today, it is very uncommon to encounter Christian monks. This is probably the reason you first associated the term with Buddhism. The reasons that it is uncommon to encounter Christian monks are several. Perhaps the most significant of which are (1) the predominance of Protestant denominations of Christianity in the United States (Martin Luther’s Protestant Revolution challenged the monastic tradition) and (2) the exaltation of economics as the primary locus of value in human life that American culture has typified. This is related to the characterization of monks that you came across which described them as “sluggards and impudent beggars.” Evidently, if the activities of a monastic are measured exclusively according to their contribution to the GDP, then they will be judged worthless. But it begs the question of whether economic utility is the only thing of value in human life. It probably goes without saying that, from the monks’ perspective, the exclusive emphasis on worldly riches is a cult of Satan (or Mammon). I wonder if you have any thoughts about this.
On the Hellenes: The term is a synonym for “Greeks.” In fact, “Greece” is a term derived from the Roman name for the Hellenes. The Greeks themselves do not refer to themselves with this name. They call themselves something much closer to “Hellenes.” “Greece” is Ἑλλάς in ancient Greek, which is pronounced like “Hellas.”
Finally, I love the words “idolater” and “descant.” It touches on the ineffable mystery of personal taste, but some words are more pleasing to the tongue and to the mind than others. The worst word I know of is “pulchritude.” It is, in a horrible case of phonetic irony, derived from a Latin word for “beauty.” Pulchritudo has a synonym that is much more agreeable: bellituto. The name “Isabella” is usually interpreted as a Latinized form of the Hebrew name “Elizabeth”, but the root of the word bellitudo is an alternative derivation. Bella also means “beautiful” in Spanish, though it means “wars” in Latin. Maybe they are less different than they seem, as the figure of Helen of Troy would seem to attest.
Steiner on freedom and the arguments of the philosophers
Steiner offers what you described as a representative view of a number of his contemporaries who deny the existence of freedom. They argue on the basis that a person does what she wants/desires but she cannot want/desire what she wants/desires. Thus, these philosophers argue that we are compelled by our desires to carry out the course of action that they dictate to us.
Steiner believes he can refute this argument by differentiating (a) those actions that we undertake on the basis of desires that have come upon us, as it were, from (b) those actions that we undertake on the basis of motives that we have determined through thinking. In the latter case, our motive for action was established from out of our own minds-selves-souls and the desire to carry it out flows naturally from our recognition that it is good. This is the inverse of acting on behalf of an unconscious desire because in that case, the desire comes first and compels our motive to identify with its satisfaction.