Some years ago I was suffering from serious depression. To try and cure myself, I embarked on a study of perfume. Perfume, I thought, would help me “live in the moment” because it was the most transient and illusory of all art forms. And it did alleviate depression. I fondly remember the many hours I spent sniffing at Sephora and writing rapturous reviews on perfume blogs. My wife bought me a home perfumery kit called “The Perfumer’s Apprentice” which contained vials filled with two dozen of the raw ingredients commonly used in perfumes. I have to admit, I have a terrible nose, and would have been a rubbish perfumer. But studying these raw ingredients did help me recognise and name some of the aromatic “notes” I perceived, or thought I perceived, in the perfumes I sampled. Being able to detect and differentiate between these notes opened up a whole new world of sensual pleasure of which I had been completely unaware.
That is the power of naming. When something has a name, it pops out of the faceless crowd. When I learned the names for the various aromas, I could distinguish them within the beautiful bouquet of a perfume, all of which had been heretofore, completely invisible to me, a mere “pleasant smell.” The great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a similar epiphany when he read a book on the classification of clouds called, On the Modifications of Clouds, &c. After reading the book, Goethe felt profoundly altered by his new ability to recognise and name the various types of cloud formations. He began writing fan mail to the scientist who had written the book, Luke Howard. These letters were filled with evocative poems depicting different types of clouds: stratus, cirrus, cumulous:
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
Radiolab has a fascinating episode on the colour “blue,” which ancient civilisations had no word for. Homer’s works are filled with references to various colours, but no mention of the colour blue. His is not a “beautiful blue sea,” but a “wine dark sea.” The word “blue” was only invented once mankind learned to artificially create the colour, a colour which was very difficult for ancient peoples to manufacture. One scientist decided to test this strange fact out on her young daughter. As she taught her daughter all the colours, she was careful to avoid naming the colour blue. Together they would take walks and she would test her daughter on all the colours they saw around them. After a few months of this, she finally pointed up at the sky and said, “what colour is that?” The daughter looked confused. She couldn’t understand the question. There was no colour up in the sky. Without a word for it, there was nothing there to recognise!
Adam in the Garden
Of all the gifts God gave Adam and Eve in the garden, perhaps His most precious and transformative was the ability to name things. “So Adam gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” I’ve blogged before about feral children who are raised by animals and never learn to speak. It’s almost as if they are an entirely different species, behaving like animals: focused on food and physical survival, displaying the same kind of wild innocence and intellectual limitation that great apes display when they are introduced into the human world. Even when great care is taken to rehabilitate them, they sometimes never learn to speak a language or behave in any kind of normal way in society. In a very real way, humankind’s transformation from beast to man was made possible by the ability to name things, and without that, there is not much left of us that is still human.
But naming things is not simply a way to facilitate communication. Naming is an act of creation. The colour blue was literally absent from the eyes of the ancients, until they had created their own version of it. Then they recognised in God’s creation, something that resembled their own creation. Part of being “created in the image of God” is that, like the Gods, we have the ability to bring things forth out of the chaos of creation by naming them.
Additionally, naming is the first step in the process of “having dominion” over the earth. We frequently hear accusations of “labelling” here on the bloggernacle: you are either “conservative,” “liberal,” “orthodox,”etc. When you label something, you exercise a kind of dominion over it. Our minds recreate the world we see around us, but everything we see in our mind has little labels attached to it. These labels are an additional act of creation. They take the object we see and enhance or distort it, according to the label. The world we see around us is not the real world. It is a world enhanced by the constant photoshopping of our mind. We then treat other people, not as they are, but as we are, or as we see them, which will always be a distortion of their true identity.
Google has an algorithm which helps computers recognise the objects images it comes across. But our uniquely human ability to name things is so complicated that today’s computers struggle to identify objects as a human would. There is a whole new form of art called Inceptionism which uses the algorithm’s imperfections to create surreal new images. It makes you wonder how the world might look to someone without any of the names, labels and symbols we unconsciously project upon everything we see. How would it look to an animal, or to a God? Or most importantly of all, how are we distorting the world we see around us through the imperfections in our own cultural “algorithms.” What do we see as ugly, or beautiful, or frightening, or horrific, which may not actually be so at all?
“In The Beginning Was The Word”
I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, so I won’t venture too far into the etymology of “the word” or “logos” in the original Greek. But I find there is great resonance with idea of “God as Word” in LDS theology. The LDS God is an organiser. He doesn’t create the world ex nihilo, but organises it out of existing elements. Theologian Marvin R. Vincent wrote of the “logos” from John 1:1
“the primitive meaning of which is to lay: then, to pick out, gather, pick up: hence to gather or put words together, and so, to speak. Hence “logos” is, first of all, a collecting or collection both of things in the mind, and of words by which they are expressed.”
When we name something, we bring it forth from the chaos and disorder of the universe, like God separating the light from the darkness. It is an act of creation AND an act of dominion. We become co-creators with God in the new worlds we bring forth in our minds.
“I Hate Botany But I Love Flowers”
There is a well known but unattributed quote that goes: “I hate botany but I love flowers. I hate theology but I love religion.” This quote highlights the drawbacks of naming. A botanist might miss some of the overall beauty in a flower when he can name every one of it’s component parts. A theologian might become distracted by the minutia of theology and miss out on the beautiful mystery of faith. But I question whether this is really true. My experience with perfume taught me that when I learned the names of the various aromas in a perfume, my experience of the perfume was exponentially enriched. I believe this would certainly be true for a botanist and a theologian as well. The more we know and name, the richer our experience of life becomes.
- Do you agree that naming the things we see enhances our experience of them?
- Or do you “hate botany but love flowers?” Does too much naming take away some sense of mystery?
- Do you agree that “labelling” is a way of exercising dominion over something, a practice that can be used for both good and evil?
Names are useful to be able to talk about things and describe things, and I can understand that where there is no name for something it may is likely much more difficult to comprehend something. I am reminded of a very brief course I took at school in my VI form, on linguistics. One thing mentioned was the lack of words for different colours in some languages, in some cases equating more to light and dark than a specific colour. I also read an article some time ago about numbers and counting, looking at the mathematical understanding in particular cultures, where the ‘numbers’ spoken equated to ‘much’ or ‘little’ to describe quantity of something being shared between members of the group. It also spoke about the dangers of misunderstanding the meaning in translation – a failure to grasp the meaning of the words in an earlier study had resulted in a false assumption of the nature of the mathematical understanding, something along those lines. I tend to favour more words rather than less in attempting to really dig down into experience, but we are still limited in sharing experience in that our grasp and understanding of the nuance of the words chosen is unlikely to be the same as the person to whom we are communicating, the differences being greater across cultures than they would be within, and also greater across time as the meanings and usage of the words change. So there is the danger that we come to think that we understand something more than we really do.
I hate being labelled, and prefer to define myself on my own terms. It irks me to be told I am this, that or the other. It does feel confining, and I tend to push against that.
Very interesting and I will go listen to the radiolab podcast.
Your closing statement about “I hate botany but I love flowers. I hate theology but I love religion” stuck out to me. I am sick of trying to even figure out what is doctrine vs. a teaching vs. a policy vs. a mans opinion vs. God’s will or dictate. It is a huge mess. But I love when people love each other and help each other. So I am trying to focus on the latter as I can’t seem to make heads or tails out of the former.
Hedgehog, what I get from your comment is this whole other dimension of naming, which is that different languages give us pre-constructed sets of names for things, with have their own built-in understandings and conceptualisations. The language we are given dictates the way in which we will perceive and interpret the world. I agree that “more is more” and the more words and languages we know, the more finely we can nuance our understanding of reality.
Happy Hubby, I think there is a difference between the narrow-minded theology that seeks to pin down and label things: teaching vs. policy vs. God’s will, etc. and a theology that is expansive and ever growing. That kind of expansive theology is more like Jewish Midrash, which adds and gives ever deeper dimensions to the text by “improving” and expanding upon stories, multiplying their meanings and symbols, finding resonances and relishing the questions and contradictions.
Fundamentalist theology is the opposite of the true spirit of “naming.” It’s purpose is to constantly limit the scope of exploration by imposing boundaries, clearly defined labels, and black and white judgements. If this is the kind of theology that you are referring too, of course you would “hate” it and seek a more expansive theology that embraces questions and seeks ever more refined nuances.
Deeper understanding leads to deeper enjoyment.
Learning about a composer and the circumstances surrounding a piece of classical music makes it easier to enjoy. A rudimentary knowledge of an instrument makes it easier to appreciate the virtuoso’s skill.
My experience in the outdoors is enriched by having a better understanding of nature. They’re not trees, but firs, pines, and spruces. The limber pine that grows twisted and flat among the lichen-covered rocks at the timberline is different than the majestic Douglas fir that grows on the valley floor.
Even the desert becomes more intimate when one can separate sagebrush from rabbit brush, recognize Indian paintbrush and arrowleaf balsamroot. Understand the smudge of green that follows the streambed is a mix of willows, cottonwood, and Russian olive.
I don’t know their latin names, or their their altitude, water and soil requirements. To me, that’s the ethos of “hate ecology, love the outdoors.” But cultivating my eye for detail, the soul of an artist, does indeed lift my spirit and increase my enjoyment.
The use of words, names, theories and descriptions has changed over time. Names used to situate somebody or something within their morally ascribed place within society. It included rights, duties, professions, purposes, direction, genealogies, etc. Modern, objectivist types of names and descriptions, by contrast, have banned all such teleology and meaning, for better or for worse. All names must be totally arbitrary (to allow for freedom from moral ascription) and all descriptions must be universal (to allow for instrumental prediction and control). In this way, the moral dominion that names used to express over people and things became replaced by instrumental, amoral domination of brute power.
A lot of times naming merely gives the illusion that we have more control and understanding than we actually do. Consider the case of genetics. In the 19th century people would talk about “the gene for X” (ee still do this colloquially). Now that we have a much better grasp on human development we see that different traits are caused by a whole bunch of different DNA segments and different hormones and that each DNA segment and hormone causes a whole bunch of different traits. Within this many to many relationship, where are the “genes” supposed to be? In a very real and important sense, genes do not exist.
The same can be said (Dennett argues) about consciousness. The word is used to point to so many different functions and phenomena that there simply is no one thing that can account for them all. There is no one thing that we can point to and say “that right there is consciousness”. The same thing almost certainly goes for “rights”, “reason”, “science”, “capitalism”, “virtue”, etc.
Of course, seeing this ambiguity as a serious problem is itself a cultural product. Scholastics and other premodern theorists did not attempt to objectify persons or society in order to analyze “how they objectively are”, but instead used very morally idealized models of society and people. To dismiss these value laden descriptions are totally inaccurate and therefore useless would be a mistake. These models were much more descriptions of how a society praises and condemns people within it rather than a description of what actually motivates each and every person. It wasn’t until Machiavelli and Hobbes that the latter replaced the former…..
The reasons why Machiavelli and Hobbes made this shift is very relevant to OP since they mark an enormous shift in how we name and describe both persons and things. Machiavelli wrote The Discourses largely in the scholastic style in that he prescribed humanist virtues of civic republicanism for his mostly aristocratic readers. The Prince, by contrast, was written for a prince that had no higher obligation to king or country and was thus an objectivist and instrumental instruction manual for how absolutism could work if the civic humanism of The Discourses failed.
This set the stage for Hobbes’ account of human nature in Leviathan. He says virtue, faith and morals (those of both Christianity and civic humanism) are, one and all, causes of violence and civil war since different people have different morals. He thus seeks a *universal* description of how people – all people – just are in order to organize society around the lowest common denominators of self-interest, pleasure and pain rather than any higher ideals of virtue or faith. He thus replaces all ideals and moral praise/condemnation with the pure objectivist instrumentality of self-interest, fear, power and (most importantly) the contract.
In this way, modern names and descriptions came to be specifically aimed at the instrumental control (at the top of the hierarchy) and tolerance of as much non-violent wickedness and baseness as possible (at the bottom of the hierarchy), rather than the direction of morality and virtue. Plainly put, whereas society had been structured around maximizing righteousness over wickedness, modern society become structured around maximizing pleasure over pain regardless of any higher, moral evaluation of these pleasures and pains. Utilitarianism would later become the epitome of how this modern conception lends itself to calculation and instrumental control.
Jeff, you’ve lost me, but I’d like to understand. I really wish I’d studied philosophy. Could you give me a simple example of a word or idea whose meaning has changed in the modern world so as to be “free from moral ascription?” And how is amorality an expression of “brute power” as you say? It would seem to me to be the opposite. Morality is power, amorality is flaccid. I don’t see a lack of morality in modern society, just a shift in the type of morality, as explained by Jonathan Haight.
This is a really interesting piece. It seems to me that naming can both create (or at least, make one aware of its existence, as in the color blue in your example) and destroy (by reducing something into a label). It’s clear that language organizes how we think. That’s why words matter so much in discourse. It can even explain, to some extent, cultural differences between peoples speaking different languages. I’m looking forward to Jeff G giving examples so I can flesh out what he said.
This is a great essay!
Here goes nothing….
Within the premodern cosmos, everything and every person was assigned a place within a metaphysical hierarchy that determined what moral roles they or it ought to play in this world. Think of how much we talk about being “firstborn”, whereas the order of birth is almost totally meaningless to us now. These ascribed roles and moral rights, duties and status (both those of people and objects) were unequally assigned by birth, tradition or higher authorities.
Thus, power relations were largely predetermined but also constrained by moral duties. My lord has certain duties to me and I also have non-identical duties toward him. The non-identical nature of these rights and duties is absolutely essential to OP, since naming a relationship one thing rather than another determined what rights, duties and purposes a person or object had. Consider a person who’s last name is “Smith” or “Miller” or the fact that a wife took on the Husband’s name, or how a Brit is dubbed by a new name upon being knighted, or how a Frenchman would gain a “de” to their name or a German would gain a “von” in their name. All these names designated duties, rights, stewardships and purposes over which these people and objects had little, if any choice.
The way that the equality of rights was achieved was by stripping people and objects of their traditional and moral duties. The disenchantment of the world just was to strip people and objects of their traditional meaning and purposes. This forced names to become largely arbitrary in nature, since a universal name would be useless and a parochial name was linked to these non-identical duties that modernity sought to dissolve. In this way, an equality of rights was bought at the price of dissolving all duties toward one another. This was the reduction of as much qualitative difference to that of quantitative difference.
For example, a noble did exercise unequal moral rights over his serfs, but he also had unequal duties toward them. One example would be that peasants had a traditional right to the lords wood during the winter. The equality of rights combined with private property totally destroyed this moral relationship. The peasants no longer had any right to the lords wood or residence on his property. Equality and freedom for the serf meant, in many cases, the freedom and equality to go starve or freeze to death wherever one pleases. In the 19th century, theft of wood was by far and away the most prosecuted crime in all of Germany.
In this way, the unequal moral duties that had structured power relations were simply transformed into non-moral power relations of the market power and state enforced legality. A factory/land owner didn’t owe his workers anything at all since an unemployed person who is willing to work for less is “equal” and interchangeable with one who needs more in order to feed his family. In other words “I have the money, so you’ll do what I say if you want some” replaced, “I am your lord and you have a traditional duty to me.” The power relations of parochial morality were simply replaced with the power relations of universal legality and money.
Indeed, the modern objectivism and instrumentality went all the way with this including both persons and objects. People – all people – became quantifiable resources to be used however we wanted, so long as they allowed other to use them in return. The dollars spend on wages are totally interchangeable with dollars spend on raw capital or raw materials. “Freedom” meant that the owner had no moral obligation whatsoever to his employees, nor the employees to the owner. If either party didn’t like it, they were totally free to go work, freeze or starve elsewhere.
All names and descriptions were leveled to a lowest common denominator in order to make them universal, interchangeable and thus more useful as mere instruments. There were no higher purposes, no higher duties, no higher lords. Nothing was more sacred than anything else. A name no longer marked a permanent relationship of reciprocal rights and duties or immutable meaning and purpose, since the only responsibilities were those of ownership and contract, both of which could be transferred as soon as they became unprofitable.
Market exchange and contracts were the means by which people agree to use each other for their own self-interested ends and the morality of those ends was totally beside the question. How a lord used his firewood was his “private” affair that had nothing to do with the freezing masses. All that mattered was the quantity of work hours or profits that he could extract from these people for that firewood. What defines a person was their quantifiable productivity, profitability and assets Quantification presupposes qualitative uniformity and standardization. The parochial relationships that used to be picked out by a name had lost all their moral meaning in order to transform all objects and all people into mere means or technology. (Imagine using the temple to turn a profit by renting it out for high school proms! Or selling family heirlooms on ebay!)
Again, this point applies not only to people, but to objects as well. Premoderns had defined and understood objects in terms of their meaning and purpose – how sacred the object was an where it lay within the great chain of being. Modernity profaned everything – all things could and should be analyzed and quantified thus turning them into mere resources to be used for any purpose, high or low.
Consider the BoM passage where “all things denote there is a God.” A modern reads this as saying that all things are evidence for or proof of a God. A premodern, by contrast, did not place much faith in empirical evidence as proof for anything at all. Rather, the observable world was there to illustrate the meaning and purpose that a God that all people already knew was there had in store for us.
By insisting upon seeing the entire world in universal terms, the modern transforms everything into mere matter in mathematical motion without any parochial meaning, higher purpose, moral duty or sacredness. Meaning is whatever function we can “achieve” with an object rather than a purpose that is traditionally, morally and thus collectively “ascribed” to it.
(The thinkers that I’ve blended into this rant include de Tocqueville, Marx, Weber, Heidegger and Aristotle who all stood in ambivalent opposition to the disenchantment of the social and natural world wrought by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Galileo.)
Long story short, modernity turns everybody and everything into inventory where it’s name has no more meaning than an SKU number and has no higher purpose than its profitability.
Webers word for this was “disenchantment”. Adorno and Horkheimer called in “commodification”. Lukacs called it “reification “.
Nicely said Jeff.
Hans Freyer put forward a sort radical conservative theory of meaning that I think you’d be interested in. Here’s a extended quote from “Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism”:
“Could a society not agree on some ultimate purpose and a system of institutions and symbols through which to embody such a purpose? Could such a purpose not be freely and rationally chosen, based on universal, rational standards? Could man not create such a rational and universal culture de novo? This had in large part been the project of the political theory of the Enlightenment and of its liberal and socialist successors. Freyer’s response to all of these questions was negative. His skepticism was a product of the central premises of his radical conservative social theory, namely the connection between meaning, tradition, and particularity…
“Each objective cultural form embodies some meaning that it had for its creator, a meaning of which later men are to some degree aware. But in appropriating the cultural form of their own use later men give it a differing interpretation, one commensurate with the needs of their own lives. They ‘reinterpret’ it by superimposing this new meaning upon the old object. Yet they also retain some awareness of the older meaning of the object. Thus a cultural object from the past, reinterpreted and reappropriated time and again by succeeding generations, acquires multiple meanings. This addition of meanings to cultural forms gives them a greater ‘weight’ than forms created de novo by contemporary life. Stated less metaphorically, cultural forms acquire greater emotional resonance for the present by virtue of their multiple past associations and connotations. Through tradition – the reappropriation of past culture – contemporary life thus acquires some historical ‘weight,’ some continuity with the past that gives ‘depth’ to the culture of the present and enhances social stability.
“This theory of tradition is distinct from ‘traditionalism,’ belief that things ought always to be done as they have been in the past. ‘Traditionalism’ is grounded in the assumption that the most essential aspects of existence remain the same over time. Freyer’s theory of tradition is premised upon the opposite – and characteristically modern – historicist assumption that fundamental change predominates in human history. Freyer’s historicist, lebensphilosophische theory of tradition is dynamic, based on the need to actively reappropriate the culture of the past for present purposes, which inevitably involves its partial reinterpretation.” (p. 94-95)
I’m not totally sure what I think of this theory, but given the positions that you’ve defended, I thought that you might find some interesting points worth taking from it. It also helps illustrate how cosmopolitan modernity threatened premodern sources of meaning which some people (especially Germans) tried to recover.
” Think of how much we talk about being “firstborn”, whereas the order of birth is almost totally meaningless to us now…”
In the west perhaps… My husband is the firstborn son in his Japanese family. That does result in particular position and responsibilities within his family. Indeed, in Japanese he is addressed as older brother by both his mother and younger brothers. The middle brother was the first to marry, whilst my husband was serving his mission and was required to seek my husband’s permission (which he granted) to marry first.
It is also not quite true to imagine that all those in position due to birth don’t feel the weight of that responsibility, even if the names or titles themselves may no longer carry quite the same moral weight in the eyes of many. I could point to HM the Queen, but also this makes interesting reading (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-37029915) in describing the responsibilities and constraints of the late Duke of Westminster.
Thanks for that info Jeff. I’m also somewhat partial to the enchanted medieval view with its great chain of being. I think what you are saying was well summed up by Victor Hugo when he wrote: “The Renaissance was a sunset everyone mistook for a sunrise.”
However, I think the modern world of equal rights does not dissolve the great chain of being. Rather, it situates it within the potentialities of each individual. In the pre-modern world Jung’s archetypes (king, servant, magician, warrior, etc.) all these archetypes were clearly quarantined in the body of an individual with one, particular set role that was unvarying and could never change. There was a king, he was born a king, and that was his destiny. There was a servant, and he would always be a servant.
But in the modern world, “Every man is a king” as Stanley Kowalsky exclaimed. Every man is also a servant. We see all the ancient archetypes manifest in each person, and we all act out the archetypes at different times of our lives. The right to property makes us all kings, but we are also servants to the collective rights of others as determined by the State. The ubiquitous leisure and prosperity of the modern world gives us the chance to act out other archetypes, the warrior archetype through sports, or the wanderer archetype through travel. Goethe’s enchantment with clouds, which came through the new understandings and categorisations of science, replaced the reverence for the Gothic Cathedral, with a reverence for the wonders of the universe, which enchant moderns to a greater and greater extent, the further our telescopes reach into the vast distances of space.
For me, the modern world is a world of enchantment and wonder beyond anything pre-moderns could possibly compete with. And we have a correspondingly large vocabulary to interpret it. We have not lost the roles of king and servant. We continue to play out these archetypal roles within ourselves.
Nate, I’m not sure if you’re missing or simply disagreeing with the point.
The main argument is that universality is that which destroys meaning since all meaning is parochial in nature. Thus, universal liberty destroys meaning. Universal equality destroys meaning. Universal laws of science destroy meaning. And so on.
Thus, a universal individualism that transforms the great chain of being into a ladder destroys meaning – reducing it to “utility”. But so do the progressive attempts at re-making the chain into a massive key ring where each of us keys is equally and universally hooked to a massive, all-powerful, centralized state.
Under the great chain of being, by contrast, each person has specific rights and specific duties toward specific people *and not others*. If any person is in trouble, we all know exactly who is supposed to help them, etc. It is this non-universality that gives meaning to each person’s name, position and status.
No doubt, you disagree with this very strong claim, I just wasn’t sure if I had made the claim very clear.
Jeff I’m not sure I follow your argument about how universality destroys meaning, and that meaning is parochial in nature. I would say that meaning = utility, or I can’t see how utility is a bad thing.
The book The Beginning of Infinity discusses parochialism and universality in depth, analysing what Deutsch calls a “jump to universality,” which happens when mankind invents something or comes up with an idea which suddenly has universal application, for example, the digital 0s and 1s of computer technology, which Deutsch posits have universal and infinite reach. Another example of a jump to universality was going from pictographic letters to phonetic letters. Each of these jumps corresponds to a dramatic leap forward in human progress. But it seems you take a dim view of progress, which you might lump in with utility, as being “less” than true meaning.
You should read the book, just so I could enjoy seeing you tear it apart in your blog.
Hahahaha. That had me laughing good. 🙂
The argument isn’t that utility is necessarily a bad thing, but…
Basically, most of these objections boil down to a rejection of modern attempt to reduce all meaning and obligation to the individual. Each individual must have some meanings and purposes that are external to them – in other words, they are “ascribed” – if their lives are ever to have a meaning or purpose that is “higher” to them. Utility denies that there is any meaning or purpose higher than the individual’s arbitrary whims and desires.
1) Utility is measured with respect to some end – and some ends are better than others. Thus, some forms are utility are VERY bad (consider how “efficiently” the Nazi’s were able to industrialize genocide).
2) Utility is not an obligation or duty. Premodern meaning assigned obligations and duties to various people/objects with respect to some other, limited group of people/objects. Such duties had precious little to do with their utility to individuals.
3) Utility is merely a semi-useful fiction – an attempt to give the illusion of universality to what moderns otherwise dismiss as arbitrary. They tried to reduce all cultural/traditional/religious obligations and duties to individual preference, choice and achievement, which is then reduced to the universal maximization of utility. In is in this sense that Margaret Thatcher could say, more or less, “I don’t believe in collective groups, I only believe in individuals.” The Benthamite idea that we can maximize the “collective utility” by simply summing up all individual utilities is almost entirely meaningless.
4) Similarly, utility is an attempt to substitute ascribed meaning and purpose with individual usefulness. To use my earlier example, to understand the temple in terms of its utility and all the various things that we can accomplish with such a pretty building is to totally miss the point. People who want to audit tithing are also missing the point. In the OT people would take their best economic asset and literally burn it on the alter. One would have to strain very hard to find the utility maximization in this.
5) Kant’s categorical imperative was meant as an explicit rejection of generalizing utility to people. He insisted the people treat each other as ends in themselves, whereas modern utilitarianism was teaching them to treat each other as useful means to each individual’s own ends. His aesthetic theory elaborated on this even further by blocking the reduction of meaning in objects to their utility… But Kant was hardly a premodern.
6) Utility was explicitly meant to serve ideological purposes in that whereas premodern economies had been structured around reciprocal (albeit usually unequal) charity, the modern proponents of individual utility actively sought to structure the economy around self-interested exchange. Reciprocal charity is based in your ascribed position, rights and needs – what other people think we should have – whereas self-interested exchange is based around the achieved maximization of utility – what each person wants themselves to have.
7) Modern economics also interprets utility as that which satisfies “demand”, but what is demand? Is all demand as good as any other? Is there no qualitative difference between needs and wants? Between righteous wants and unrighteous wants? Economists actively refuse to answer this question (at best, they go with whatever definition is most “useful”) by lumping it altogether under the label “utility”…. which is exactly why conservatives get so offended.
Austrian economists try to say that demand is a measure of “felt uneasiness” that supply “alleviates”. This, however, is a rather obvious euphemism: while it doesn’t deny that there is bad demand (addiction, etc.), it actively leads us to assume that any demand is prima facie good. A premodern, by contrast, could say that demand is a measure of “felt temptation”. It is important to note that this interpretation changes nothing whatsoever within the quantitative economic models. The only difference is that, while it doesn’t deny that many temptations are good (for sustenance, shelter, etc.), it actively leads us to assume that demand is prima facie suspect.
Jeff, some good points. I think having some kind of transcendent authorities or morals is an essential dimension of being. But I don’t think that modern life has stripped mankind of ALL transcendence and morals. The authorities and morals have changed, that’s all. You can reverence the king, or the Bible, or you can reverence the Constitution or science. Those are also transcendent authorities. Modern liberals conform to a remarkably cohesive set of transcendent moral ideals and principles. And even though those principles involve equal rights, etc., the reverence and commitment they give to them has nothing to do with simply following their own individual heathenish desires. Their reverence for equal rights is an expression of deep, transcendent morality, something they would sacrifice their life to defend.
It’s true in a way that every man walketh after the image of his own God, but can they be blamed, when no God has come forward to make Himself known? (Mormonism doesn’t count, because for the vast majority of people on the planet, God has simply made Mormonism a big, ugly, polygamous stumblingblock.) But people still seek a God to worship, and when they find one, they will offer great sacrifices and devotion to that God.
Yes there is a lot of individualism in modern society, but after a certain amount of that, people get depressed and seek something transcendent. In 2008, 35 million people participated in live webinars with Eckhart Tolle. You could dismiss Tolle as simply another person walking after the image of his own God, but, in the absence of a God who parts Red Seas and sends manna from heaven, Tolle finds transcendence in his own search for God. Once he finds it, it becomes his transcendent authority, and he will make great sacrifices to It, and he becomes a prophet for the new God.
I’m enjoying the philosophy discussion.