Thursday, April 09, 2009


Let's rehearse this business about Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence, again. Here is the passage which I mentioned a couple of years ago. It begins with Ellen Olenska:
Isn't it you who made me give up divorcing - give it up because you showed me how selfish and wicked it was, how one must sacrifice one's self to preserve the dignity of marriage ....And because my family was going to be your family - for May's sake and for yours - I did what you told me, what you proved to me that I ought to do. Ah," she broke out with a sudden laugh, "I've made no secret of having done it for you!"
The silence that followed lay on them with the weight of things final and irrevocable. It seemed to Archer to be crushing him down like his own grave-stone; in all the wide future he saw nothing that would ever lift that load from his heart....

"At least I loved you-" he brought out.

On the other side of the hearth, from the sofa-corner where he supposed that she still crouched, he heard a faint stifled crying like a child's.
[Olenska:]"I felt there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and - unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one with all its golden hands--and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before - and it's better than anything I've known."
At this point, Archer suggests Olenska go out with her friends: "Since you tell me that you’re lonely...."
She smiled a little under her wet lashes. "I shan't be lonely now. I WAS lonely; I WAS afraid. But the emptiness and the darkness are gone; when I turn back into myself now I'm like a child going at night into a room where there's always a light."
This rare opportunity to achieve and manifest character virtues presents itself to Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Olenska takes full advantage of this opportunity, while Archer has only middling success. Only Olenska grasps the opportunity to retain one's happiness in spite of the painful sacrifice required for these virtues. Archer hasn't the foggiest idea of this happiness.

Think of other cases. For example, a woman who realizes in her late 20's that her husband and mother are poor family members, too absorbed by their mild narcissistic and rage disorders to know what love is. Also, the woman has few other really good and intelligent people with whom to make friendships. Nevertheless, this woman resolves to stay with this family because there are children involved who need their mother and father to stay with them. She thus gives up more than a decade of time to living a life which is in large part not good for her and also lonely. She achieves the insight into happiness which Olenska does, and she does what she ought just as well as she. But, no perfect Olenska, she also has days from time to time on which she is Archer.

Gratitude and virtue are a sort of spinal cord of character. Failing the former, the latter is difficult. If you have both of them in spades, you come to a fulfillment of character which is the stuff of self-love, as Olenska discovers but Archer never does.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Charles Taylor on Positive Liberty II

Let's cut the chase. Taylor's essay is about two forms of liberty which, even if they are kinds of positive liberty, are not the kind the reality of which is at issue in political philosophy. The essay is tightly argued enough and it is of interest in the analysis of individual liberty, a topic in metaphysics. But its overall importance to political philosophy was not well enough thought out before the writing. All this about Maginot lines and totalitarianism are meant to make it seem as though the kinds of liberty Taylor argues for are problems for the proponent of liberty and opponent of totalitarianism. But they're not.

There are three candidates for kinds of positive liberty in play:
  1. Freedom from the constraint upon one's actions of impulse desires which make one do what is not what one would prefer to do with full information and full coherence of prudential reasoning.
  2. Freedom from the constraint upon one's actions of mistaken beliefs about what is important to one.
  3. Political mastery, so that no one else is one's master.
Now, #1 and #2 are all well and good. But even if we accept that they are forms of positive liberty, they haven't the slightest tendency to support totalitarianism. #3 can easily be marshaled in support of totalitarianism, as the only solution to it is the General Will or some sort of fascist regime in government. Without that, someone is someone else's master at least to some extent. For unless we all dissolve into the state, some other individuals rule us to some extent.

In fact, #1 and #2 run counter to totalitarianism. It is precisely the state which ought to stay out of the way of the individual, so that he may be left to cultivating his liberty in the sense of #1 and #2. The state is ill-equipped to help you be rid of your impulse desires or to give you self-understanding; and it is dangerous when it is empowered for such a cause. Taylor's essay goes astray in overlooking this possibility and assuming the opposite.

Also, I'm not so sure that #1 and #2 are positive liberty. Taylor says they are the exercise of capacities, rather than the lack of external obstacles to one's actions. Well, they certainly are the lack of certain internal obstacles: rashness, incontinence, weakness of will, and cognitive failures. I don't see how they are capacities. They strike me as two kinds of negative liberty. If negative liberty is the lack of anyone's preventing one from acting, #1 and #2 speak to the special case of the lack of one's own getting in one's way in virtue of one's own vices.

So, the kinds of liberty Taylor uses to support the case for positive liberty and against the foe of totalitarianism are not kinds of positive liberty. Even if they were, they still wouldn't be the kind which we should count in favor of totalitarianism.

UPDATE: Yes, even #3 is arguably a covert form of negative liberty. We'll discuss #3 in the next post. But for the moment take note of the fact that totalitarian and General Will-supporting political viewpoints take one's political mastery to be a goal distinct from the the lack of a master over oneself. The latter is a logical prerequisite to the former but is not the goal whereas the former is. In any event, the genuine proponent of positive liberty desires that the individual melt into the General Will. His concept of #3 isn't a negative one.

UPDATE: Some trivial editing today.

UPDATE (10/22/2009): Bah! I didn't explain what I was driving at clearly enough. In short, #1 and #2 are forms of liberty to which the proponent of liberty is attracted, but they do not even tend to support totalitarianism, while #3 supports totalitarianism but isn't even slightly attractive to the proponent of liberty. Taylor's essay trades upon a blurring of this distinction between #1 and #2, on the one hand, and #3, on the other.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Charles Taylor on Positive Liberty I

First off, just a short note: a point of order. Taylor attributes to the positive liberty skeptic and negative liberty proponent a strategy of denying the reality of positive liberty in order to deny totalitarian political philosophy a premise it needs. He calls this the negative liberty proponent's drawing a "Maginot Line," on the one side of which is the negative liberty which he accepts and the other side the positive liberty which he absolutely denies.

This is pretty close to ridiculous, either on Taylor's part or on the part of any negative liberty proponent who upholds such a strategy. The facts about liberty are what they are independently of whether totalitarian political philosophy is wrong and ought to be refuted. To become confused about this is to relinquish genuine philosophical inquiry and enter into the sham inquiry of the dogmatist. To the extent that Taylor proposes that all negative liberty proponents are dogmatic sham inquirers, his essay suffers.

[Let's rehearse Susan Haack's concepts of the sham inquirer and fake inquirer. The former has a dogma which he will not relinquish under any evidential circumstances, and he lets this bias distort his inquiries and debates by attempting to make the evidence seem to be consistent with his dogma or seem to show that his dogma is true. The fake inquirer, on the other hand, is the sophist who, not caring about truth or falsity and having no dogma, likes to bullshit (as Harry Frankfurt would have called it) by arguing for positions which he doesn't believe to be true and using any rhetoric which will make those positions seem to be true. Neither kind of pseudo-inquirer intends to discover what the evidence shows to be true.]