A Natural Philosopher, Willy Nilly.

This post is a brief musing on parts of Brann, Eva. 2014. Un-Willing. An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo it. Paul Dry Books. Philadelphia. 367pp. This is a fine book, like all of her writings. It is also worth listening to her discuss it on the podcast, Partially Examined Life. This attempt to summarize her rich argument, based on extensive reading and reflection, cannot do it justice, but it serves my own train of thought.

Not a lot of this was registering with me, possibly as a result of my reading it mainly in bed, just before I was going to sleep. Then I read, probably for the second or third time, chapter XI, section D, Self: Subject. Brann sets up a contrast between two pairs of terms, I/soul and self/subject. I/soul is the ancient pair: I, a being looking on a world by virtue of my soul, which apprehends physical things and immaterial things through faculties such as sensation or intellection. We can abstract or intuit the essential nature of the things that we encounter in this world, and whether it is at bottom purely material or ideal or undefinable, it is still one and the same for all souls. Moreover, souls can act in and upon this world and communicate with other souls.

Since Descartes, the pair Self: Subject has emerged, as the inner life of the mind has become the focus, and what was in some way accepted as a mirror-like reflection of the outer world and even the reflection of the soul itself, open to philosophic examination as the inner landscape of our experience, becomes highly problematic. Descartes asks how a thinking substance can connect to an extended substance with which it has nothing in common. Kant analyzes how the subject makes an orderly world out of an influx of sensation. The modern consensus seems to be that in some way, my self creates a world out of whatever inputs it receives, not passively, but selectively. If this is true of the outer world, the other, it also applies to the inner: self-consciousness becomes a major topic of inquiry.

So my question is this: why does this shift in philosophical perspective seem to occur right at the time, and even coming from the same minds, as the great expansion of objective understanding of the world, in which it is confirmed that through mathematics and experimentation, we can establish laws that govern the appearances? Why, at the very time when we have a clearer, more rigorous grasp of the world we are in, when we can look at it in all its unfolding necessity, are we more doubtful than ever whether there is any truth? No wonder we have culture wars. On one side, we seem to have Baconian science saying, of course we can make our own world, but to do so we have to know the exact and rigorous rules that govern the materials we make it out of. On the other hand, we have philosophers and social scientists telling us that the rules themselves are of our own making.

Plainly this is at work in battles over issues like the definition of marriage. It seems my Catholic friends want to have both fixed nature (God made us man and woman for the fixed purpose of procreation) and a conserved culture (you ought not redefine an institution that has served society for a long time) on their side. The supporters of the expansive definition, that marriage is between any two persons who are of age and not already married to another, argue both that nature, when closely examined, has no such clearly demarcated binary gender, that cultural norms ought to reflect what most people’s views are today and that people ought to be allowed to make of their lives what they want. Thus we have conflicting definitions of liberty: 1. freedom from constraints other than what nature and the law impose, the one from God and the other through a fixed constitutional process, and 2. Justice Kennedy’s opening statement that our freedom is to make ourselves what we wish to become, a “constitutional right to define and express their identity,” like the rule of the abbey in Gargantua: do what you will, or rather, be what you will.

As Miss Brann explains very carefully in her book, this modern view is generally accompanied by a great emphasis on the idea of the will, in both its merely burdensome form (the individual’s need for will power to tame our own willfullness – a paradox) and also its truly pernicious form (under the name of the general will, impelling whole nations to atrocious acts). She recommends that we try to live in a way that sets the will in its place, as the process of formulating rational courses of action and putting them into effect, when circumstances demand that we act decisively. This is in part the view of the great Scholastic, Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers. For the most part, however, she feels we can do without the will, substituting for it a kind of openness to experience accompanied by reflection and the pursuit of a quietly well-ordered existence.

In my excursions into natural philosophy (the old name for biology) I am decidedly in line with the ancients and Bacon, in the sense that I am sure I am discovering, and not inventing the natural world. I gaze upon an ever-changing nature that nevertheless follows fixed laws, which don’t change when I change my ideas. I can get it wrong, but there is truth out there to be discovered. On the other hand, I feel very much that my choice of object of study and the exact questions that I try to answer, are of my own making, though certainly influenced by my society. But even here, the direction of my activity is also influenced by the ancient view, as summed up in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, that the life of contemplation is the best. In that sense, I do not see myself as doing what I will, but as doing what is good.

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