Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Albert Schweitzer and the Death of Civilization (2 of 3)

  photo schweitzer.jpg


In this paper I use MLA styloe of oot notes with end notes (page numbers are in parenthetical inserts EN are superscript)

"...the ethical ideas on which civilization rests have been wandering about the world, poverty-stricken and homeless..."
I was inspired to re-publish this essay by discussion on  Secular Outpost by KIeith Parsons about"what do we now" that the election is over,k his argument is that truth is in danger, the social concept of truth is being destroyed by the political process.blog because the argument it makes is that civilization is dead; civilization is not freeways and in-door plumbing but the ethical concepts that foster a civilized attitude toward life. Keith Person's talking about saving the concept of truth made me think of this.

"Ethics and Civilization," Part II of The Philosophy, is a survey of Western ethical thought (Socrates to Schweitzer himself). The survey of ethical thinking is crucial because, in Schweitzer's view, civilization is primarily an ethical matter, thus, he must explain its failure in terms of an ethical failure in Western thought. Throughout Western history, but especially in the 19th century, thinkers had tried to ground their ethical axioms in metaphysical systems, or in an understanding of the workings of the world. But, axioms based on these principles never succeeded in achieving any sort of consensus, or withered away with the systems upon which they were based. A mere understanding of the world fails to connect the axiom to any principle of grounding, and stems from the failure to achieve a metaphysical system. Metaphysical systems, however, only succeed in creating a dualism; subjecting experience of life to knowledge of the world, or abstractions which subjugate reality to the dictates of the system. Thinkers such as Hegel and Fichte tied ethical thinking to their systems so closely that, in Schweitzer's view, when those systems collapsed, ethical theory went with them (3).

Fichte, Hegel, and other philosophers, who for all their criticism of rationalism, paid homage to its ethical ideals, attempted to establish a similar ethical and optimistic view of things by speculative methods, that is by logical metaphysical discussion of pure being and its developing into a universe...doing violence to reality in the interest of their theory of the universe...Since that time the ethical ideas on which civilization rests have been wandering about the world, poverty-stricken and homeless...The age of philosophical dogmatism had come definitely to an end, and after that nothing was recognized as truth except the science which described reality. Complete theories of the universe no longer appeared as fixed stars; they were regarded as resting on hypothesis, and ranked no higher than comets (4).

(103). When the idealist systems collapsed and their ethical valuations went with them, the resulting vacuum was filled by the only metaphysical system still standing, that of scientific reductionism.

There were attempts at constructing a "scientific" ethics, biological and sociological.These attempts Schweitzer denounces as absurd, "there is no such thing as a scientific system of ethics, there can only be a thinking one." Thus, Western thought was left with an outlook which was pessimistic in relation to understanding anything beyond the mere physical workings of the world. For Schweitzer, this attempt at constructing "biological ethics" is symptomatic of the cynical approach of modernity itself.

Though pessimistic, modernity garbs itself in the disguise of optimism; a hallow, empty technological optimism based purely on control of the material conditions of life and a relationship to "things," (96-97). It is a pessimistic view because it gives up on an understanding of life, and despairs of knowing anything save the mundane aspects of control within the immediate material world. It substitutes instead, mere manipulation for actual understanding, "information" for real knowledge, and buying power for freedom. The false optimism of modernity is the essence of one-dimensionality. The result is the notion of civilization which we know today, the technical production of civilization's infrastructure, the world of "modern convenience," the thing Gilligan and the cast-aways wanted to get back to when they spoke of "getting back to civilization." In this sense the 1939 world's fair mentality, which predicted the brightest future for humanity based on technological fixes for everyone, was the most pessimistic view in human history. The view of civilization which seeks domination over nature is, in reality, a counterfeit notion of civilization, one which wearies the happy persona of material convenience and prosperity over a nature mired in despair.

Just as civilization is primarily ethical, so Schweitzer argues that the state of ethical theory in his day reflected the pessimistic roots underlying the er zots notion of civilization. What he had reference to, in 1923, was the rise of "emotivism" with G.E. Moore, at the turn of the century. Emotivism tried to rid ethics of its "emotive" aspects and to replace them with "scientific" ethics. One of the emotive aspects being replaced was the concept of morality. Schweitzer had also seen the early rise of linguistic analysis. In the decades that followed the publication of the Philosophy, the linguistic analysis of Year and Dewey brought in a purely descriptive form of ethical theory; normative ethics were dismissed as "outmoded." The situation today has not changed radically since the emergence of the descriptive trend. While there are normative ethics being done, especially in areas such as medical ethics, animal rights, and feminist ethics, and while many ethicists still try to ground their axioms in one principle or another (reason, nature, etc.) there is no common consensus. Then, there are the Derridians, who feel that any sort of grounding principle is, a priori, impossible and even oppressive. The pessimism of the Derridians and the "negative" side of postmodernism is a logical conclusion to that of modernity. Postmodernism, for good or for ill (and it is both) stems largely from a disillusionment with modernity. This pessimism is reflected in Derridian based versions of postmodern ethical theory.

The works of Richard Rorty are a prime example of this pessimism. Like Schweitzer, Rorty is disenchanted with metaphysical idealism. Rorty wants to present the notion of a "liberal utopia" free from the cruelty of the past; ethical, open, and democratic, and based, not upon the logocentric clap-trap of the past, but upon a Derridian reading of social need. He determines that since there are too many good descriptions of the world, and since no one of them can gain leverage enough to be privileged as truth, there is no truth.17 Since there is no truth, there is no telos to move toward. Therefore, one should simply mouth the bromides of the community while holding fast in one's heart the realization that all ethical values are false. Values are merely metaphors for lack of truth; or for the desires and will of the community. No thought is given to the nature of the community, to its justice, or lack there of.18 When confronted with the charge that he is merely relativizing ethical judgements, he answers: "...My strategy will be to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections are phrased look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head on" (when the subject is saying something Rorty likes, it becomes "she--" obsessively).19 While he does stipulate that the beliefs of his "utopia" would be fostered by "free and open encounters" and that cruelty would be abolished, (along with religion of course) he also stipulates that "what comes to be believed" in the community would define the nature of truth.20 While this is no different from the current socially constructed reality, in which "truth" is "what has come to be believed," Rorty puts a spin on it which takes his "utopia" a step further into barbarism. "To see one's language, one's conscience, one's morality, and one's highest hopes as contingent products, as literalizations of what once were accidentally produced metaphors..." defines truth seeking in the "liberal utopia."21 In this context he is not simply speaking of being open minded, he is talking about giving away our most cherished self-definitions and sense of personal telos.

Rorty's views, while not intended to be representative of the current state of ethical theory, seems to be symptomatic of modernity's one-dimensional thinking. First, he closes the realm of discourse around the social project, maintaining his "liberal utopia," to the point that all truth and value is a mere function of the desires of "the community" (whatever that is). Secondly, he states that in his utopia no one would compare competing values to determine their moral worth, because, after changing the "vocabulary" "there will be no way to rise above the culture, language and institutions, and practices one has adopted and view all these as on a par with all the others."22 (Italics mine). Presumably, this means limiting discourse to the immediate localized community, with no reference to a larger tradition, since truth is merely the metaphor of communal desires, and no larger tradition posses anything we need in the way of "truth;" in other words, what Marcuse calls "a closed realm of discourse," the basic condition of one-dimensional society.23 Moreover, Rorty goes on to quote Donald Davidson as saying that one cannot look beyond language and culture.24 Rorty bends this quotation out of context, to imply that there is no need to compare competing values, because all values are mired in the same social constructs (therefore, capitalism is socialism, black is white, good is evil, ect.).Of course, Davidson is speaking of the necessity of language to thought (no intentionality of the speaker--Derrida's argument in Speech and Phenomina), while Rorty is speaking of imposing a particular social agenda through the manipulation of his vocabulary--which amounts to little more than a subtle Orwellian manipulation of thought, which is then defined as "free exchange" because it occurs within Rorty's blessed community. And what of the nature of the community, what if it is a fascistic community? No doubt, after the advent of "Rortyspeak" that will no longer be a danger.25

Schweitzer offers an alternative to such cynicism, one that is heavily dominated by three influences: Nietzsche, Schoupenhouer,26 and the 18th century philosophes. While he was a Christian theologian, he is able to embrace such a strange collection of interests because his theology represents the best in an otherwise problematic revisionary tradition, that of 19th century German liberalism.27 Thus, he combines the life-affirmations of Neitzsche with the ego purging of Schopenhauer. He jettisons the Dimonic fury of Neitzsche, and the life-escaping tendencies of Schopenhauer. Thus, in a sense, he creates a positive and selfless Nietzschian Ubermenche.28 From the 18th century he takes a love of reason as framed by a love of nature (nature=reason, "natural light") which is the cornerstone of an elemental thinking that results in his own "nature mysticism."29

But, the philosophical outlooks which he struggles against are Hegelian idealism and scientific reductionism. Schweitzer loved science, and undertook some scientific study in his youth (he did become a doctor). What he opposed, however, was the fragmentation of science into a reductionistic attitude which ignored a global philosophical view, and which reduced the experience of human being to mere description of the world. For Schweitzer, ethical thinking must proceed in an "elemental way," from "life-view" to "world view "(221-235). "Dr. Schweitzer himself defines worldview (`Weltanschauung') as the sum-total of the thoughts which the community or the individual think about the nature and purpose of the universe and about the place and destiny of...[humanity] in the world."30 While he embraces the search for a weltanschauung, he is concerned that world view be predicated upon "life view" rather than upon a theory of knowledge. The mistake he finds again and again in Western thought, as with Hegel and the idealists, is to try and base too much upon epistemology and metaphysics. World view is given in life-view. But, Western thought has tried to work things the other way around, to predicate a view of life on the metaphysical structures of its world-view. (75-77). The subjugation of life-view to Weltanschauung creates several problems for ethical thinking, and for civlization.To predicate the view of life (that is, one's understanding of his/her own life, its purpose and goals, in relation to the context or his/her life-world) upon a metaphysical world-view, is to impose preconceived categories upon reality.

Even though he never used the term "phenomenology," he demonstrates a phenomenological attitude, which can be seen in the development of his understanding of religious experience which eschews abstraction and systematizing, and proceeds from an attempt to allow the phenomena to suggest their own categories out of the experience of human being in concert with nature. "The Essence of Being, the Absolute, The Spirit of the Universe [Hegelian] and all similar expressions denote nothing actual but something conceived in abstractions which for that reason is also absolutely unimaginable. The only Being is that which manifests itself in Phenomena" (4). Schweitzer's ethical thinking was derived from this sense of "phenomenological oppression" of the "will to live." Knowledge derived from the will to live is rooted in our experience as human being, and thus should allow reality as we perceive it to dictate the categories of thought to us. "My knowledge of the world is a knowledge from outside, and remains forever incomplete. The knowledge derived from my will-to-live is direct, and takes me back to the mysterious movements of life as it is in itself" (282). In order to avoid the mistakes of idealist systems, ethical thinking must "not lapse into abstract thinking, but must remain elemental, understanding self-devotion to every form of living being with which it can come into relation" (307). Schweitzer's "elemental thinking," proceeds from one's own inward experience of the will-to-live, turned outward toward a "reverence for life." The term "will-to-live," which is a Schpenhaurian term, sounds as though it refers only to the struggle of an organism for its own survival, but, even though it is rooted in this notion, Schweitzer turns it outward, toward concern with the survival of others. It is an optimistic and intuitive (pre-cognative, pre-given) sense that life is important, has meaning, and can be approached through goodwill, toward the betterment of all life.

The will-to-live prompts an attitude of affirmation of all life, through an immediate organic connection (280). The will-to-live can remain on the level of struggle for survival, in a pessimistic outlook, but it can also be taken to a higher level through the recognition of life in the midst of all life. He rejects as arbitrary first principles such as Descartes' Cognito, but instead, grounds his ethics in an "immediate" and "comprehensive" fact of consciousness, "which says, `I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live.' This is not an ingenious dogmatic formula. Day by day, and hour by hour, I live and move in it...Ethics consists in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do to my own" (309). Thus, in order to turn outward toward others the urge to protect the will-to-live, Schweitzer does not resort to some means of abstract logical or metaphysical first principle, but he begins with an organic sense of reality. There is an urge to protect life, there is compassion toward others, these are pre-given, pre-cognitive realizations. When we do start to think about them, however, they form the basis of a morality. "There we have given us that basic principle of the moral which is a necessity of thought; it is good to maintain and encourage life, it is bad to destroy life or to obstruct it," (Ibid.).

The seeds of reverence for life must be cultivated, as they grow through society, by means of civilization. In so doing, the civilizing tendencies of reverence for life levin the culture, through a higher application of life-affirmation. Since protection of life involves a desire for the individual to flourish, quality of life must be protected as well. The highest quality of life involves freedom, and the opportunity of the individual to be fulfilled. Thus, reverence for life is expanded to form the basis of a social philosophy. It promulgates values beyond those of mere survive, such as peace, freedom, and social justice: Schweitzer was perhaps the first philosopher to support a philosophical basis for animal rights, and he castigates all of Western philosophy for not "taking animals seriously."31 He supported a reverence for nature, which furnishes the basis for an ecological outlook, and he saw domination of nature as the product of the counterfeit notion of civilization (333).32 Finally, he denounced the thinking of his time which saw people of color as less than fully human and fully deserving of all the rights of humanity. Schweitzer understood this failure to overcome the bigotry of the past as the result of civlization's demise, (The Decay, 32). He argues that civilization is not merely the privilege of an elite, and that the masses do not exist simply to provide the elite with the obtainment of their goals. Through a progressive approach to reverence for life the principles of the highest quality of life and human dignity are extended to all people (335).33 Thus, Schweitzer's social agenda culminates in reverence for life as the basis for solidarity with the poor and the worker, and perhaps an approach to some form of social democracy (he does hint at this, but does not spell it out) (Ibid.).

The immediate connecting link between an ethics of life-affirmation and a social agenda is the "outmoded" twin combination of civilization and "progress." This is a dangerous pair. In Schwetizer's day it had come to mean tearing down the natural world and imposing mechanical and human-structures upon all of life; these terms, "civilization" and "progress" came to justify everything from the exploitation of the worker, to the ecological devastation of urban sprawl. These twin values are the bain of the ecology movement, and they are the epitome of everything Schweitzer was against, but of course, not the way he uses the terms! It should be clear by now what he meant by "civilization;" the ethical content of the struggle to improve life on every level, form physical survive, to artistic freedom and moral excellence. The links from life-affirmation, to civilization, to social agenda run like so: life affirmation equals affirmation of quality of life for others, the struggle to improve and obtain such quality creates the affects of civilization, and civilization itself secures the goal of a social agenda because it is, part and parcel, the building of a way of life in which the values of human dignity, freedom, etc. are being cultivated. These values are being cultivated, or we do not have civilization. They are cultivated through the exercise of civilization upon culture, both in its popular and "higher" forms. Schweitzer is saying, if we have civilization, and we are aware of what it means, we are working on making things better for people; "making things better" includes not only housing and jobs, but also voting rights and political involvement, as well as symphony orchestras and artistic exhibitions, because these improve the quality of life, and they are expressions of our search to come to terms with our human being.

Progress in the Schweitzerian sense means, not flush-toilets or imperialistic expansion of markets, In the 19th century, progress came to be conceived of as a rumbling fright train which ploughed under everything anyone could care about, as it moved inexorably toward some undefined, lofty, abstract goal; in the film version of H.G. Wells' Things to Come, the tortured denizens of a "Buck Rodgers" style future utopia howl "how long must we endure this progress? Wont you let mankind rest?" (this is just before the first manned trip to the moon is made in a giant bullet fired from an enormous cannon--supposedly in the 21st century). Progress came to be seen as a rationalization for the bad effects of development, when woods are destroyed for the sake of freeways, "well, that's progress, you can't fight progress." "Progress," in Schweitzer's view, is not an inevitable march toward some ill-defined state of affairs which no one wants and which makes everything "perfect" by making life unlivable. As Simone Weil point out, the image of progress which views its inevitability as economic expansion comes, not from an ideal, but from the necessity of expanding economic production, which is itself necessitated by the need to constantly diversify production and therefore labor.34 Economic expansion is confused with civilization because it involves expanding the infrastructure of civilization, which is all that is left of the concept after reductionism. The infrastructure of civilization [the er zots civilization--material production] is a necessity, a practical result of organized living conditions, but it must be thought of only as one means of mediating the concept of civilization, not a substitute for the thing itself, and it must be curtailed to accommodate nature. Nor was Schweitzer trying to lay out a grand theory of history, his use of the term "progress" does not imply an inevitable telos, no "footprints of God in the sands of time."

Progress was, for Schweitzer, the development of an understanding of life-affirmation which constantly seeks to expand the concept and work out its meaning on a higher level [i.e., as we move from the rudimentary level of physical survival, to the "spiritual" level, freedom, artistic expression, and making these things part of our world view and available to everyone--we are making "progress"]. Schweitzer believed that the organic connection of this elemental thinking, the basis in experience of life-affirmation, was a more solid foundation than had been attempted in Western thought since the enlightenment. He defines progress in civilization as "supremacy of reason over the dispositions of men" in the struggle for life. By that, of course, he means moral supremacy, not megalomaniacal control (the Decay, 41). He admits that the relative progress we accrue in the struggle to survive over the conditions of nature brings with it also disadvantages of putting us at odds with nature (Ibid.). The "supremacy of reason"35 is the ability of life-affirmation to mitigate conflict and to secure peace, (Ibid.).

Schweitzer mediates his view of reason with a realization about its shortcomings. Like the early 19th century romantic opposition to the Aufklarung and to rationalism "we can see...the world dominated by a barren intellectualism, convictions governed by mere utility, a shallow optimism,...in a great deal of the opposition which it offered rationalism, the reaction of the early 19th century was right..."(Decay, 78). As we are children of both romanticism and the enlightenment, we still view rationalism as arid, and from the enlightenment, we cling to a shallow optimism based upon our understanding and manipulation of the physical world. Rationalism, for Schweitzer, was not the stolid enterprise the romantics made it out to be, but it had to be tempered with life-view. Rationalism, for Schweitzer, must involve a passionate living out of insights gained from the phenomenological attitude of live-view amid a rational framework of world view.36 An appropriate image for Schweitzer's notion of the failure of rationalism might be taken from Goethe's Faust, part II, where the workmen set to building an earthly paradise with picks and shovels. They set out to build a new world with primitive tools which were little better than anything previously known. Like those workmen, rationalism laid a good foundation with the first implements it found, but when it became apparent that the task was too great, and a finer set of tools was needed, it refused to seek anything else. Rationalism purported to interpret the world based purely on reason alone, yet it refused to venture into any territory beyond that which could be established by its own procedures and assumptions. When confronted with an avalanche of questions it couldn't answer, rationalism became overwhelmed and gave way to escape into romanticism and then idealism (Decay, 80).

part 3

1 comment:

sgttomas said...

"In this sense the 1939 world's fair mentality, which predicted the brightest future for humanity based on technological fixes for everyone, was the most pessimistic view in human history. The view of civilization which seeks domination over nature is, in reality, a counterfeit notion of civilization, one which wearies the happy persona of material convenience and prosperity over a nature mired in despair."

....is truth.