A Challenge for Ethics and Practical Reason (and why I think Deleuze might help)

If philosophy is not merely an academic subject but a way of life, it is because philosophy can guide our judgments about how to live. In this context, philosophy embodies a distinctive form of practical reason. Practical reason is the capacity to resolve through reflection questions about what to do and how one should conduct one’s life. Thus, practical reason is about action, both the reasons for an action and the legitimate motives that move one to act.

The purpose of taking any action is to change the world or to actively resist change and preserve the status quo. Thus, the elements of practical reason must grasp change properly. In fact, I would argue that there is nothing more important to practical reason than an understanding of change. How will I change the world, why should I do so, and how will my actions change me are the central questions we ask when deliberating about what to do. Thought about change, if it is to be successful, must include thought about how change happens.

Furthermore, when we act, we are almost always acting in a context which demands that we treat persons as distinct individuals. No doubt, we interact with human beings, parents, members of racial categories, people with careers, anger management problems, and preferences for craft beer. But each person is more than a list of qualities. Each person has a distinctive way of navigating the categories they belong to, and they often don’t fit neatly into those categories anyway, so good decision-making requires we consider them as individuals, not instances of a type. (See this post on the importance of grasping individuality.)

Practical reason must also accommodate novelty. Almost any situation we confront will involve some new factor that was not present in similar situations we have handled in the past. Thus, we can’t rely only on habit and precedent to make decisions. How do we categorize this new development? How do we evaluate its importance in light of other contextual features? Neither pre-formulated principles nor traditional qualities of good character will necessarily do a good job of handling novelty. (See this post for more on practical reason and novelty)

And finally, we have since the late 19th century been aware of the importance of the unconscious in explaining human behavior. One doesn’t have to dance to the peculiar stylings of Freud to grant that our motives for acting are largely hidden from us and not amenable to modification via reasoning. So how does practical reason get a grip on the unconscious?

Change, individuality, novelty, and the unconscious are persistent challenges when deciding what to do or how to live. Do we have a concept of practical reason that accommodates these factors?

Throughout the history of philosophy, the most common account of how we think about the world and ourselves is via representations. Representations are mental phenomena—ideas, perceptions, concepts located in a subject of experience–that refer to and form an “image” of objects in an external world. Representations are a “mirror of nature” as Richard Rorty put it. Since Kant’s work in the late 18th Century, perhaps the central issue in philosophy has been how we as subjects of experience and agents of our actions go about constructing these representations. Although, presumably, reality has a structure of its own, Kant argued we can only know that structure via our representations of it. Thus, to account for knowledge, understanding, and our ability to move about in the world, we need to understand how the mind constructs our representation of reality.

These questions about how we form representations are, of course, theoretical rather than practical. But because our actions require that we conceptualize both the world in which we act and ourselves as agents of our actions, we must presuppose some conception of how we form representations. If we presuppose the wrong account of how representations are formed or what the contents of those representations are, our practical decisions may be misguided because they miss something crucial about the reality in which we live. This is especially true of philosophy considered as a way of life. The practical questions about what to do cannot be isolated from theoretical questions about how we conceptualize what to do.

If you have been following the history of recent philosophy over the past 150 years, you know this representational view of the subject/world relation has been under attack. I’m not going to rehearse that history, but I do have reservations about the role representations play in practical reason. Specifically, I have doubts about whether representations can capture change, individuality, novelty, and the unconscious, all of which I argued above are persistent challenges when deciding what to do or how to live.

Why are representations, as conventionally understood, problematic when trying to grasp these features of our practical lives?

On the conventional view of what counts as an object, objects have three basic features. They occupy space and time and thus have extension and duration, and objects have qualities such as the quality of being red, made of plastic, owned by my sister, etc. These qualities, especially those that are essential, constitute the identity of an object. Our representations of objects reflect these basic features. Recognizing and understanding objects via representations is about locating objects in space and time and putting them in their proper categories based on the qualities they exhibit.

Representations of the self are more complex. We can understand ourselves as objects in the world that take up space and have qualities like being 6 ft. tall and hailing from Nebraska. But we also have direct awareness of some of the content of our own experience. We know what we are thinking, feeling, or wanting at least some of time. And we can take that direct awareness as an object of thought via self-reflection and thus form a representation of our ideas, desires, and sensations as well. And it is through these representations that we can come to understand ourselves.

My worry is that representations cannot track change well because representations by necessity have a tendency to presuppose relatively stable unchanging identities. Understanding anything requires that our ideas about what we are trying to understand achieve clarity, which means that their identity must be determinate and unambiguous. The shortest and most efficient route to understanding something that is puzzling is to show that it has features with which we are already familiar. If I’m puzzled by a friend’s unusual burst of anger, the mystery is resolved if I can find a familiar category to explain it. Perhaps he’s hungry or bothered by money worries. When confronted by the unknown, the brain naturally engages in pattern-matching looking for similarities to what we already know. But this inherently conservative predilection for the familiar may cause us to miss features of an anomaly that are unstable and in flux. If we’re constantly striving to make the unfamiliar familiar, we are likely to miss changes that don’t fit a familiar pattern.

Reality is after all unpredictable.

Representations don’t handle genuine novelty or individuality well for similar reasons. Factors of a situation that are novel or radically unique don’t fit well into the ready-made categories that form our representations. Representations consist of general categories but genuinely novel events and unique individual entities will not neatly fit those categories and we risk distorting them if we try to force conformity with what is familiar.

And finally, representations of course by definition cannot directly include non-representational content such as the emanations of the unconscious to which we have no access. Desires and emotions are seldom fully transparent.

If these reservations about the representational view of the mind are legitimate, a view of practical reason that presupposes representationalism will be fundamentally flawed. It will be useful to us only under conditions that are stable and unchanging.

It is for these reasons that I find the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze intriguing. Deleuze had no theory of practical reason and only occasionally and sometimes obtusely discussed ethics. But he develops a metaphysics and epistemology specifically designed as a framework for understanding change, novelty, individuality, and the role of the unconscious, while showing the limitations of a representational theory of mind.

Deleuze is devilishly difficult to understand, i.e. make familiar, but in occasional future posts I will do my best to clarify what I think his contribution to practical reason looks like.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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