Friday, February 10, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

My thinking has been shifting lately in ways that are important, but hard to articulate, most likely in part because I'm still shifting. Let me start with some relevant quotes:
"My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul." -Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

"A method of purification: to pray to God, not only in secret as far as men are concerned, but with the thought that God does not exist.
      "Piety with regard to the dead: to do everything for what does not exist." -Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

"But when God has become as full of significance as the treasure is for the miser, we have to tell ourselves insistently that he does not exist. We must experience the fact that we love him, even if he does not exist." -Weil, Gravity and Grace

"The only philosophy that can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption....beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters." -Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Sec. 153 (Finale)

"Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God." -Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (last paragraph)
The middle three (Weil and Adorno) have most recently been on my mind; I then recognized a connection with Wittgenstein's remark about soul, and that Sartre's last paragraph of his famous essay (which has come to be my favorite paragraph from it) is also part of the story.

My ethical sympathies--e.g. my recent interest in virtues such as humility and patience--are certainly "religious," and I have a great respect for serious religious thought, and perhaps tend toward a kind of mysticism--but nothing in any way specific or theistic (in metaphysical terms). I'm coming to find at times that terms like "soul" and "God" are exactly the right terms to invoke--that God knows if anyone does, and that, as Socrates put it, one should care foremost about the state of one's soul. But my finding them this way is about using the right language to express a point; it is not a "metaphysical" discovery but rather, as it were, an ethical one.

Weil's remarks are particularly striking since she did believe in God (I assume). But she clearly thinks that a certain kind of "believing in" is a distraction and a false consolation. I just recently decided to start reading Adorno, and lucked into the line above by flipping randomly to the last page. At any rate, I think what all these passages are driving at is the idea that there are ways of orienting ourselves with regard to, and situating our lives and thoughts within, certain religious concepts, for which the significance is not a matter of taking on the metaphysical commitments normally associated with invoking those concepts.

Perhaps that's what people mean by "fictionalism." (I read Kalderon's book on moral fictionalism, or meant to read it, back when I was working on my dissertation, but it didn't leave any mark on me. I found, at that time, Blackburn's "quasi-realism" unsatisfying.) But, as in the title of this post, my sense is that what's going on isn't captured by the notion of a fiction. But I haven't figured out what does capture it. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that these concepts capture, or appeal to, the mysteries of life, to what is hidden or ineffable (or just very hard to eff, or what can only be effed at the cost of feeling that our expressions remain tentative, incomplete, and unsatisfactory)--to the depth behind the actionable surface of moral discourse, the thought and inner struggles that go on "behind the scenes" but which are ethical in character (even if of little interest to consequentialists, for example). These things are not fictions and they are not myths. But the concepts which seem to touch on them are those which are themselves mysterious. As a result, the way I would use the terms I mentioned above will not be satisfying to skeptics (who will think that such language is dispensable) or to "believers" (who will think that I have no right to this language unless I "believe in"). The trick, then, is to get away with it, which means making clear that the use of such language need not be "metaphysical." (Does that make any sense?)


  1. For what it's worth, I think it makes a lot of sense (although I don't mean to suggest that what you're working hard to express is a piece of cake to understand). It's a hard trick to pull off, but I don't think you're alone in wanting to do so.

  2. Thanks. I thought, too, about that book you'd blogged about that claims that talk of God is expression of "love of a God of love," and I'd read that NDPR review of it, too, and found it in some ways curious. Maybe I should look at that book. (And I also need to read some John Whitaker and DZ Phillips probably. I saw Whitaker in Nashville in November, and he has some interesting "Wittgensteinian" (it seemed to me) ideas about religious language...he edited a book of essays in honor of Phillips.)

  3. Phillips, I think, would be a very good person to read, although I don't know his work well enough to be able to point you to anything specific (shame on me). Rhees, too, I would think, unless you've already read everything of his. Although perhaps what you want is an atheist version of that kind of work. I don't know if such a thing exists. I remember finding Peter Byrne's book "Kant on God" very interesting in this connection (and someone else on Kant, too, maybe Paul Guyer). Supposedly Kant was, at least roughly speaking, an atheist who believed in sticking to religious language by the end of his life.

  4. have you ever read jay bernstein's book on adorno's ethics? i'm not sure about the fit between this talk about fictionalism and such, but my guess is that you would find it stimulating. especially the last chapter on 'ethical modernism', as a way of getting a semi-detachable sense of the stuff without wading through the very heavy detail work in the earlier chapters.

  5. I haven't read that, j. Thanks for the tip!