Ethics Without Philosophy: Wittgenstein and the Moral Life

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Emersonian perfectionism appears again sharply distinct from perfectionism in the everyday sense of the word: whereas a perfectionist, say, in singing may realistically hope to attain perfect pitch through rigorous practice, such a notion of absolute perfection makes no sense in perfectionist ethics. At each particular moment the self experiences not only a particular perspective into the world, but the world as it were in its entirety, so far as the world appears to the self.

In a way, this is a logical consequence of the ethical notion of the endless perfectibility of each particular moment. Perfectibility confronts us as an endless task, the same one over and over again: that each moment be perfect. Thus the Emersonian perfectionist has only one goal, to manage to live on amidst the goallessness of life itself; when each moment of life is already complete in itself, there are no reasons for aspiring after goals transcendent to life itself.

One possible answer would be that there is no closed list of characteristics, let alone premises, arguments or conclusions, that would make up the outlook of Emersonian perfectionism; indeed, as Cavell himself repeatedly insists, his stripe of perfectionism is open to revision Cavell ; Another line of answer might set out from the view that Emersonian perfectionism is not a fictional model of how we might theoretically construe our being a self in the world; rather, it amounts to a description of the fundamental aspects of our existence that cannot be done away with.

Furthermore, Emersonian perfectionism itself toys with the notion of utopia, another fictional world towards which our being in the real world aspires after, thus indirectly amounting to something more than a mere description.


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In a word, no purely realistic description of our being a self in the world is possible; any description is also a utopia, an expression of an ideal. At any rate, he seems to consider his version of moral perfectionism of such decisive importance that any moral theory must take it into account. He considers the focus of perfectionism on the everyday quality of human life to be more primary than the various factors esteemed in competing moral theories.


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For Cavell, the latter question deserves a place in any moral theory, and he notes the pertinence of the matter in the long history of philosophy Cavell 62; 11, Such a call for critical self-scrutiny perhaps partly explains why Cavell sees perfectionism not as an ethical theory but as a precondition for ethics to begin with. A certain responsiveness transcending specific allegiances to morally charged ways of prioritizing certain things over others is needed before an authentic ethical life becomes possible in the first place.

Cavell appears to think, indeed, that our obligations towards ourselves are in some important ways more fundamental than those towards others; thus truthfulness towards oneself unveils itself as perhaps the most essential single feature of perfectionism Cavell 1. Thus somewhere along the lines of the Hegelian understanding of the fundamental reciprocity of human recognition, we might insist that our being self-conscious subjects is not possible in the first place without a mirroring relationship with another self-consciousness.

It must not be forgotten, indeed, that besides being a positive outlook on life, Cavellian perfectionism diagnoses some of the most persistent threats before our journey for self-realization: the looming adulthood cynicism, our internal resistance to change, the inescapable fear of being ashamed of our own condition and frailty, and the leveling tendency of human society and culture.


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  • But the pain delivers a promise. Emerson calls on us at once to try and appropriate as much as possible in the world, yet use the resources provided by the world and our own private lives to fashion a revolution, not a mere remaking of the existent order. Indeed, the impulse for genuine culture is often stronger than the imperatives of society, and if society threatens to suffocate human culture, we must turn against society.

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    Lord will learn to appreciate only after losing her way in the course of the film. Cavell wraps his perfectionist reading of Emerson around the following passages I quote at somewhat greater length than he does, to make the context of the text plain :.

    Ethics without philosophy : Wittgenstein and the moral life

    All that Shakspeare [ sic ] says of the king, yonder slip of a boy that reads in the corner feels to be true of himself. We sympathize in the great moments of history, in the great discoveries, the great resistances, the great prosperities of men; — because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded.

    We have the same interest in condition and character. We honor the rich, because they have externally the freedom, power, and grace which we feel to be proper to man, proper to us. So all that is said of the wise man by Stoic, or oriental or modern essayist, describes to each reader his own idea, describes his unattained but attainable self.

    CW 2 hist , 5. History and philosophy are not written for the mere leisure of collecting facts about our past; rather, they provide representative examples of what we might do in a similar situation; thus the great events of history take place, in the Emersonian hyperbole, for us. Perhaps one difference between Socratic midwifery and Emersonian exemplarity would be that Emerson has no qualms about speaking of himself, while Socrates was more insistent on drawing out only that which is implicit in his addressees.

    The first is the quintessential Emersonian ideal of representativeness , a position multifarious enough to carry connotations both private and political. Thus a person becomes representative for and of others not by virtue of the mere fact that she has been chosen to speak for others through a democratic decision-making process, but only on the precondition that she discovers her own voice in and ever after the process.

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    Cavell seems to think, indeed, that we are all educations for one another; in each one of you there is something further and foreign for me to yet attain and become familiar with, as if we were all invitations for each other to something greater than our current selves Cavell 9. In his Emersonian perfectionism, Cavell is impressively perceptive in drawing attention to theme, yet he could have been more attentive in appealing to the various passages where Emerson underscores the importance of not only friendship but also love.

    The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of His and Mine ceases.

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    His is mine. Let me now turn to my concluding section with an eye on elucidating perfectionism with the help of related discussions by other authors. In conversation, Cavell has no trouble acknowledging that he is not interested in a scholarly reading of Emerson; while the confession is admirable in its honesty, perhaps even conferring him a certain degree of freedom in what he has to say on the essayist, it must be taken as an invitation to further scholarly work that it is.

    Is it an ethico-ontological theory on the fundaments of ethical conduct in the world, or perhaps a synthetic interpretation of versatile themes not only in philosophical but also literary texts, or both of these in equal terms? Murdoch is a reasonable exemplar for comparison not only because Cavell himself mentions her book as one of the related discussions in his introductory notes to lectures on perfectionism, but also because the more general bearings of her book stand in an intriguing relation to the perfectionist endeavors of Cavell.

    But in the Cavellian framework, such a resistance easily lands in a contradiction, since the very project of trying to ground ethics in something more fundamental than conventional moral philosophy easily turns into an ethico-ontological project. Here one must be careful to keep Emersonian and standard versions of moral perfectionism apart: while it is obvious that moral perfectionism has a long tradition, the ties of Emersonian perfectionism to the history of philosophy are more complicated. While introducing the reader to Emersonian perfectionism, mapping out its intellectual background, Cavell presents a list of works containing related ideas; the list is open to revision, and among many of the works listed only a small portion, say, one chapter or just a few passages, pertain to perfectionism Cavell In addition to philosophers, there are works by psychologists, prosaists, poets, as well as two movies.

    This leads me back to the initial motivation behind Emersonian perfectionism: we seek to find in philosophy a way of addressing ethical matters so as to make their urgency and pertinence fully visible to non-philosophers and non-specialists as well as to philosophers. What speaks to us most profoundly ethically, may not be ethics in the customary sense of the word.

    In striving to introduce weighty moral questions into philosophical discussions, Cavell takes part, in an Emersonian spirit, in the classical quest for the good life with the help of philosophy. It is intriguing to note how such a thematics figures in versatile authors, while perhaps not being one of the key concerns of classical philosophers.

    It is one of the unique merits of Emersonian moral perfectionism that it brings to the fore the dilemma between the self and the other, without suggesting that caring for my soul would in any way contradict my caring for the Other. Bates S. Eldridge ed. Bloom H. Cavell S. A Book of Essays.

    Wittgenstein & Ethics

    Conant J. Schacht ed. Cukor G. Diamond C. Eliot T. Emerson R. Spiller et al. Goethe J. Goodman R. Hegel G. Miller, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Heidegger M. Macquarrie and E.

    Wittgenstein and the Moral Life

    Hurka T. Ibsen H. James W. Kateb G. Kaufmann W. Translated as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Kuusela O. Laugier S. Levinas E. Hand, Oxford, Blackwell.

    James Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy Wittgenstein and the Moral Life - AbeBooks

    Mulhall S. Murdoch I. Large, Studies in Practical Philosophy , 1 1 , , Neiman A. Nietzsche F. Rawls J. Saito N. Stievermann J. Van Cromphout G.

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