Saturday, March 22, 2008

Behind the Curtain

An important turning-point in my intellectual life occurred while I was washing dishes and listening to music - a combination, I might add, that is a reliable generator of good ideas. In this instance, I was standing at the sink in the kitchen of our apartment in New Hampshire, listening to Laurie Anderson's Big Science CD. It was, if memory serves, 1997.

I had been wrapping up work on one draft of my first book, casting around for a new direction for my research. I was a-jumble with vague hints and half-formed indications, nothing much to go on.

Then, in the track called "Born, Never Asked," a single question set up some kind of resonance, and I knew what I should do next.

In that track - not a song, really - Anderson describes a room full of people, "all kinds." The only things they have in common are that that happen to have arrived at "more or less the same time" and that they are all asking themselves, "What is behind that curtain?"

(The allegory is obvious enough: the world, those of us who happen to be here, who were born without ever having been asked, etc.)

She follows this with: "You were born, and so you're free."

Thus was I launched into my investigation of human freedom as a new approach to the questions of environmental ethics, following on from my skepticism regarding claims to know what nature is and what nature wants (back there, behind the curtain).

So this semester I'm teaching modern philosophy and, as part of my ongoing investigation of human freedom, reading Hegel. I keep coming back to the metaphor of the curtain.

For early modern philosophers, particularly the rationalists, there was no curtain. There was only the gossamer veil of consciousness, like a projection screen on which all that is important is made plainly evident. For Descartes, it was God who guaranteed that anything he perceived clearly and distinctly must be true, God who assured him there isn't anything untoward going on back there.

Poor old Locke, the most naive of empiricists, seemed blithely unaware that there could be anything back there that wasn't evident up here, though he had the decency to note when he was fudging: substance is that something "I know not what" in which qualities inhere.

Then comes Hume, with his mitigated skepticism: we can be familiar only with what is in consciousness while the "secret springs and principles" of nature remain hidden from us. Worse, that familiarity really is only familiarity: we connect ideas and events and moral judgments together only by a kind of warm glow of fulfilled expectation rather than by any sort of logical necessity.

Then comes Kant, with his distinction between phenomena and noumena. Unlike Hume, Kant finds necessity in our experience of phenomena, but only because the mind puts it there in constructing experience. For that very reason, we can claim no knowledge of noumena - things as they really, really, truly are.

However, Kant leaves open the possibility that we can think our own freedom as part of the noumenal realm, and the possibility that we can hope the world really, really, truly is put together to help us to be good and to reward us when we succeed. Back there, behind the curtain, God is smiling up on the good and frowning upon the bad. Still, we can't really claim to know any of this.

Kant's successors weren't satisfied with this. They looked for ways to unify phenomena and noumena, nature and freedom, and to claim knowledge of their unity. Schelling asserted the unity. Hegel belabored it.

Hegel's one trick, that he uses again, and again, and again, and again in tiresome repetition, is to have consciousness rip aside the curtain to discover . . . itself, looking back. That's kind of exciting at first, but it gets really old, really fast. He keeps doing this trick until, he thinks, there are no more curtains to rip aside: self-consciousness that is conscious of its own self-consciousness can rest content in its own consciousness of itself . . . or something like that.

But Nietzsche is waiting in the wings, with his warning that we'd be better off if we didn't rip aside that last curtain, because we really wouldn't like - and in fact could not live in the face of - what we'd find behind it.

For myself, I'm much more interested in the room itself, all of the people who happen to be here now, and all of those who are on their way.

It's getting awfully warm in here . . .

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