Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Waxing and Waning (Gaita)

I just recently learned of (and quickly obtained and read) Raimond Gaita's collection of essays After Romulus, each of which reflects on something to do with his book Romulus, My Father. I think it is all very much worth reading if (a) you've read Romulus and (b) are interested in Gaita's philosophy. The essay on the process of bring the book to film was, if nothing else, a good reminder for me to see the film (which I did, and it is beautiful and sad).

I've been meaning to post something about a couple remarks in the essays that stood out to me, but I think now I'll stick with just this one. In the final essay, "An Unassuageable Longing," Gaita writes about his mother, in part to address her seeming lack of character in comparison with his father. [Their relationship and struggles are rather too complicated to summarize here.] He suspects that she and his father did not understand each other, and that on her side, "She didn't understand the conception of morality that made me say that, like Socrates, my father would prefer to suffer evil than to do it" (186). He emphasizes that this attitude is rare and seems strange to many (my comment: recall what Socrates says about this in Crito), and so his mother's failure to understand this about his father is not the result of some special moral failure on her part. Then he says this, which is what struck me:
But even someone who takes the Socratic perspective has only occasionally a full understanding of what is revealed to him from it. His sense of the reality of good and evil waxes and wanes. (186-7)
This surprised me, and I scrawled "hm..." in the margin, but I continue to reflect on this and whether I understand this. One might first wonder how Gaita can know this--unless one assumes that he has internalized the same moral outlook as his father, which is of course plausible. But then it seems surprising that a person who had the kind of moral seriousness as his father (although informed also by what Gaita describes in this book and in Romulus, My Father as "compassionate fatalism"), would have a sense of the reality of good and evil that waxes and wanes.

Perhaps this has something to do with Socrates' thought that evil is always the result of ignorance. For if one emphasizes the ignorance, then one might be led to think that "real" evil does not exist, only ignorance that has latched onto a false sense of what is good. But then one confronts some terrible action and then evil seems again quite real and in need of serious resistance.

I have come to connect these remarks to a kind of waxing and waning that occurs in my own thought that stems from moving back and forth between taking seriously notions about the ultimate groundlessness of our values and the deep impression that there is value in the world--that life is sacred and beautiful and so forth. Between gazing at the sky on a clear night and being struck by how small and fleeting our lives are, and how silly so many of our concerns, and gazing at the same sky and, like Wittgenstein, wondering at the existence of the whole world (and in doing so, finding it good). But I am not sure that I know what a "full understanding" of all of this would amount to. That both aspects are "real" (or revelatory) and that the tension between them is not one that can ever be eliminated or dissolved?


  1. First, thanks. This is a wonderful post.

    You say: “it seems surprising that a person who had the kind of moral seriousness as [Gaita’s] father […] would have a sense of the reality of good and evil that waxes and wanes.”

    There are here, I think, two separate contrasts—one that Gaita is making (I haven’t yet read the book, so I’m going only by the quotation you supplied), and another that you are making. Gaita’s contrast, I think, is between full and partial understanding or appreciation of a moral insight. Your contrast—much more interesting—is between two aspects in which things, looked at in a certain way, can appear: the aspect of absolute significance and the aspect of complete meaninglessness. – I’m not sure I understand how these two contrasts connect for you, if they do. That is, I’m not sure how Gaita’s concern is a doorway to yours.

    One way of reading the quotation from what Gaita is as talking of the fact that even though we may come to appreciate—or be struck—by the truth of Socrates claim about suffering and doing evil, the practical consequences of that may not by that appreciation become clear to us, or they may only become partly clear, or gradually clear. That would lead to one way of making Gaita’s contrast. But your question is very different—and it pertains to your contrast. You talk of something like fully appreciating the fact that things (e.g. what is revealed by the night sky) may have two very different aspects. – Can you say what you mean here by “full understanding”? What is the opposite of “full” here? Is it “partial”? And what is less than full understanding?

    Also, are you connecting what you call “the groundlessness of our values” to seeing things under the aspect of meaninglessness?

  2. Thanks, Reshef. I think I did mean to connect the sense of groundlessness to the "aspect of meaninglessness" but that is, of course, contentious at best (and sloppy thinking at worst). It's the sense that our categories and concerns are at once both deeply unreal and unimportant. Of course, some anti-realists (like Blackburn) would say that I'm just screwed up by a presumption that values are only important if they are "real," and I really need to get that looked at.

    Perhaps a "full understanding" would be working out what is (and isn't) to be made of the two aspects, what under each aspect is revelatory and what is just a projection of my own (good or bad) moods. But there is perhaps always something yet to be worked out.

    A similar notion on which I've been meditating is Iris Murdoch's contention that the good man sees "the pointlessness of virtue."

  3. Sure, the connection between the sense of groundlessness and the "aspect of meaninglessness" is contentious. But who cares? It is DEEP. The connection between unreality and unimportance, and reality and importance, is an important one to explore. I take it that this is the connection between metaphysics and morals. Murdoch again.

    I should mention in this context a connection that I think I can see to your previous post. God too has this double aspect—of existence and non-existence. I put my two cents here: Perhaps there is even some sense in which to make a connection between the groundlessness of values and the aspect of absolute significance.

    About Blackburn’s diagnosis: I’m not sure how useful it is. On the one hand, it seems useful in calling attention to the connection between reality and importance. But then instead of examining what ‘real’ may come to in different cases, it seems to keep working with a very rough and unexamined distinction between the real and the unreal. Anyway, what you do seems to me to bypass Blackburn’s concern in the sense that it examines (rather than assumes) what sense or senses reality and unreality has in connection with moral values. – Is this a fair characterization?

    You distinguish between what is revelatory and what is just a projection of moods. It sounds to me as if you are concerned with keeping ethics apart from psychology (as Frege was concerned with keeping logic apart from psychology). Is this right? If so, is there a special difficulty in this case? Or is the distinction between the psychological and what is not psychological take a different shape in the moral case?

  4. Skipping the question about Blackburn (sorry), to the last paragraph above: I don't think I'd say I want to isolate ethics from psychology, but I'm wary (as came up before) of interpretations of "ought implies can" that leave too little room for positing and striving toward ethical ideals (even if only a saint, if anyone, reaches them). On the mood stuff: I mainly mean that there's a difference between looking at the vastness of space and thinking that everything is meaningless because I've been bickering with my wife (and so am in a bad mood) and being struck by that thought because of what the sky presents to me (under one of the aspects from which I can view it). Since in the latter case I'm not necessarily in any particular mood, I'm left unsure what the "right" response to such revelations would be. Hence, some of the puzzlement in my post.