In examining my previous question on internalism and externalism I’ve been trying to explore a powerful but complex and difficult answer: that this question is expressed in the very history of Western philosophy.
Lately I’ve slowly been making my way through Philosophy and Freedom, a collection of essays by and about the neglected Canadian Hegelian philosopher James Doull (rhymes with towel). Doull, like Socrates or George Herbert Mead, never published a book during his lifetime; his reputation derives almost entirely from being spread by his students and their students, mostly through the classics department at Dalhousie University and the great-books program at its affiliated University of King’s College. (I myself know Doull’s work only because a lifelong friend of mine is one of Doull’s “grand-pupils,” a devoted student of Doull’s students at Dalhousie and King’s.)
Doull’s work is difficult, both in the density of its prose and in the wide range of the texts it expects familiarity with – the chapter on ancient Greece covers not only philosophy but the full range of history, tragedy and comedy, viewing their scope all together through a Hegelian philosophical lens. Moreover, because Doull’s concerns are so wide-ranging, a study of his work does not immediately repay the reader with direct application to particular philosophical questions and problems. If ever there was a big-picture thinker it is this man, at least when it comes to Western philosophical traditions.
And yet studying Doull closely has ultimately paid off for me in thinking about the big question I’ve addressed above. I realize that this question of ethical motivation has, in its way, been central to Western philosophical tradition, not merely in the works of individual thinkers but through its history. Not all of what follows is said directly in Doull’s work, but it is inspired by it, and I think it is faithful to his spirit based on conversations with Doullian friends.
I’ve seen the point now particularly with reference to the book of Ecclesiastes, which Doull refers to and which I recently taught in my intro religion class at Stonehill. Ecclesiastes paints a picture of the world that differs greatly from more familiar books of the Hebrew Bible. The very message of the book of Exodus, for example, seems to be that God acts in history, that his presence in our lives is real and palpable, working his miracle everywhere one turns, bringing about cosmic justice for his chosen people if not others. Ecclesiastes, by contrast, gives us a remote and distant God, in a world where the wicked triumph and the unjust perish. There isn’t even an afterlife for the expectation of justice; all the dead go to sheol, “the grave” where they know nothing. It’s a moving text, and one which seems to fit the experience of our post-Darwinian age where God’s very existence seems questionable at best.
And yet. In the midst of this God-bereft world, where there is no justice and no reward for virtue, Ecclesiastes repeatedly tells us: “fear God and keep his commandments.” It seems, in its way, to be the paradigm of ethical externalism. One wants to ask: why? No reward awaits us for keeping God’s commandments, in this world or the next. And the approach to knowledge, if relatively untheorized, is similarly externalist: the truth is out there in God, whether we know it or not.
A couple centuries before this, Doull notes, the Sophists had innovated by presenting the opposite, internalist, position. Man is the measure of all things; everything, ethical and epistemological, is up to us. But this view runs into the problems I have addressed in recent posts about truth and contradiction. If we have no standards beyond our existing motivations, we have no grounds on which to change others’ behaviour, or our own.
For Doull, it is Aristotle who first resolves this problem, above all in the theory of eudaimonia – a human flourishing constituted by both virtue and happiness. But Doull agrees with the points Alasdair MacIntyre regularly makes about Aristotle – that this flourishing was embedded in the political context of the Greek polis, a community formed around shared ethical standards and practices. When the polis degenerated into a large and impersonal empire, virtue could no longer count on reward; so virtue and happiness became separated in the Stoics and Epicureans, who would define happiness entirely in terms of virtue (the Stoics) or vice versa (the Epicureans). But for both of them, as for Aristotle, internalism and externalism (in the sense of my previous post) remain united: our own motivations and the absolute ethical principle end up taking us to the same place. They could make this move because, unlike Aristotle, they dismissed the importance of external goods: our internal states were all that mattered. Sure, virtue doesn’t get you a public reward, but it gets you the internal state of undisturbed peace.
But the Stoics and Epicureans are in tension not only with each other – is virtue or happiness really the more important one? – but with the world itself. Our virtue is often lacking in spite of our best efforts of will, not enough to make us really happy; and some virtues (like friendship) seem constituted by external conditions that make them possible. This is part of the criticism that Martha Nussbaum has recently made of these Hellenistic thinkers, on quasi-Aristotelian grounds; but historically, the figure who made the point stick, on quite different grounds, was (Saint) Augustine – with help from the Jewish worldview that gave rise to Ecclesiastes.
Augustine accepts what seems like the commonsense view that virtue and happiness are not analytically equivalent. He notes that in this world, so full of suffering and misfortune, virtue is not rewarded with happiness; but further, neither real virtue nor real happiness can be adequately reached in this world, where humans are frail enough that they fall far short of the virtue and happiness they seek. Augustine’s solution is to put it all off into the next world, a world for which we can hope after death.
I haven’t yet been able to follow Doull’s story past this point. Which is something of a shame, for there’s an obvious problem with the resolution in Augustine’s time: we have no more evidence to believe in an afterlife of reward than we have to believe the virtuous are rewarded in this life. Wishful thinking is not an adequate basis on which to build a life. Neither is Pascal’s Wager, the argument that we should believe in God and follow his law just in case there is an afterlife; for it could just as easily be that the afterlife rewards vice. (MacIntyre in God, Philosophy, Universities goes so far as to say he doesn’t think Pascal himself believed the wager was a good argument.)
What appeals to me in all of this is a spirit that, in at least one respect, seems the opposite of analytic philosophy as normally practised. One could call Doull’s work synthetic philosophy: rather than cutting ideas up into ever smaller pieces, he puts them together. It’s an approach that I suspect leads ultimately to conclusions that are both truer and more satisfying. This isn’t to bash analytic philosophy or say there’s no place for it; but I do welcome a view that takes this larger scope.