The Social Construction Gap

If you are reading this, it’s fair to assume you are familiar with the term “social construct”.  You are, after all, alive post-2016 and on the internet (unless this has been compiled into Krampus’ Greatest Hits: A Book of Wonderful Sagacity and published to worldwide acclaim, which I’m sure will happen any day now).  Though society has evidently been constructing things for as long as society has existed, the term “social construct” did not come into vogue until the last half of the 20th century.  I won’t bother with the history of it; rather, I just want to point out that, as a formal concept, it is rather young.  It should therefore be little surprise that the meaning of “social construct” is pretty poorly understood–especially since the concept is intrinsically incoherent.

At the heart of this poor understanding is a radical divide: that is, a divide between nature and culture, or between biology and society, if you prefer.  The former pairing–nature (a broader term) and biology (a narrower one)–is recognized as important and, in a certain sense, “infallible”, but also considered stupid and clumsy.  That is, biology is what it is and actively seeking to change it carries a taboo (and for good reason–but more on that some other time).  Meanwhile, society appears sophisticated, “rational”, but often cruel, oppressive, and evil.  Biology is often believed an unconscious influence or even determinant on the structuring of society–sometimes to the point that it is responsible for the evil and cruelty of those social constructs.  At other times, society is believed to have “corrected for”–or at least to be capable–the “mistakes” or “clumsiness” of the biological.

Among the oddities surrounding this divide is that it appeared before anyone successfully made sense of it, and, point of fact, no one really has made sense of it yet.  Some intellectuals noticed that nature and biology form one kind of thing, and culture and society (or perhaps, even more ambiguously, “psychology”) form another kind of thing, and the two were pushed apart until we could figure out what to do with them.  We still haven’t figured much out, however, and I’m afraid we’re actually getting farther away from figuring it out, too: mostly because they should not have been pushed apart in the first place, and now people are carrying on as though this is the normal, proper state of things.

The idea of the “social construct”, as commonly understood today, has followed from the forced separation of nature and culture: that is, social constructs are understood to be concepts or institutions (i.e., patterns of practice and organization) which exist solely on the basis of human mental activity and formed discursively through social interactions.  Often, these constructs are imbued with moral normativity.  In other words, the construct establishes a standard or acceptable set of behaviors; anything outside of them is considered bad.  This seems quite sensible, given the premises–after all, biology and nature present no moral codes, but we have such codes, and if they don’t come from nature, then they must come from society.

Practices such as marriage and its traditionally attendant attributes–monogamous, heterosexual, child-bearing and rearing oriented–are often considered as examples of social constructs, and as ones having morally normative weight.  Within that, in particular, we can focus on monogamy, a normative concept currently under some scrutiny and facing opposition from certain quarters, which will be used throughout this essay as a particular example.

Disclaimers

First, I’ll be quite honest: I am a man and I am wholeheartedly pro-monogamy.  It is a practice I consider a part of the highest ideal of a loving relationship.  In recent opposition to monogamy, I do feel threatened–as would anyone, I think, who finds his or her ideal being argued against; it is something in which I believe, and in which I would like others to believe.

Second, the impetus for this article is the work of Carrie Jenkins.  In particular, I have in mind her article “Modal Monogamy” (I know she has written a lengthier book, and I intend to address it more fully and thus more fairly at some point).  Carrie is a clear, persuasive writer.  I follow her on Twitter and from what I’ve seen, I quite like her candor, her thoughts on mental health and academia, and on academia in general.  But I think she’s wrong in her work, and I think it a fruitful exercise (if nothing else) for me to explain why.  For starters, she tries to bridge the gap between the biological and the social–but as we’ll see, that gap is an abyss, and no bridge is strong enough to span it.

The arbitrary hypothesis

Typically attending the claim that a traditional or conventional position of moral normativity is nothing other than the product of social construction is the implication that this normative construction is oppressive, and therefore bad, and, since it is moreover arbitrary, it is also legitimate to supplant.  The first claim, that the norm oppresses, requires a view of human nature that centers around negative freedom as essential: namely, that radical autonomous independence from external constraints forms the core of what makes someone human, and any activity contrary to this–except in service of the preservation of another’s autonomy–constitutes oppression.  Good actions are actions that promote the ability of individuals to exercise their autonomy; oppressive actions are, by contrast, evil.  Because all but the most basic of norms entail some degree or another of constraint, sooner or later, they all come to be seen as oppressive.  I will challenge the validity of the oppressive-claim in the next section.

In the meanwhile, I want to note an inconsistency between the first claim, that normative constructions are oppressive, and the second, that they are arbitrary.  That is, if a social construct is entirely arbitrary, it seems absurd to claim that it is oppressive.  If whatever is being oppressed has a claim not to be oppressed, then the social construct must be something bad; which is to say that in whatever realm the social construct is operating, it cannot truly be arbitrary because it is itself in conflict with something normative, unless, of course, the claim not to be oppressed is itself equally arbitrary.

Bosch_bigButtStuff
Shit gets real weird.

In order for something to be arbitrary, or to be performed arbitrarily, it must have no inherent relativity to anything else.  That something could exist in an arbitrary fashion is a very dubious proposition–for everything, insofar as it is, seems also to be in relation to other things.  For an action to be performed in an arbitrary fashion, the act must be severed from its ordinary context; for actions, too, insofar as they exist, exist in relation.  But human beings do have the ability to artificially, within extreme limitations, impose barriers between an act and its relatives: as when a dictator arbitrarily decides to burn down the impoverished parts of his city to expand the beautiful and wealthy–this is not entirely arbitrary, but is arbitrary in the sense that it severs its relations to the proper ordination of ruling.

So let us take the supposed social construct with normative ruling highlighted earlier, monogamy, and consider what it would mean to say that this is arbitrary: that, against the proper ordination of sexual relationships, some group or force–likely the ubiquitous bogeyman, patriarchy–has imposed on the social order this rule or law.  One could argue that this imposition stems ultimately from a biological male drive to protect its progeny, or from a kind of “selfish instinct”.  Conversely, one could argue–as some have–that females possess a biological drive to polyamory, to increase their chances of reproduction and to always choose the best mate possible.  [Point of fact: anisogamic reproduction has typically fostered, in mammal species, male promiscuity and female selectivity.]

That the terms “biological drive” and “instinct” are virtual nonsense–to the point that even when clearly defined, which is rare, they possess no actual significance to real forces in nature–seems not to bother many who employ them.  Rather, they serve as “explanatory principles”, said in the pejorative sense, by which I mean unknowns presumed as unquestionable “first principles” invoked to bring an end to a discussion.

At any rate, the supposed arbitrariness of the monogamous norm is based on the premise that the male biological urge is, for no good reason, given formalized preference over the female.  Although, if we turned this around the other way, it would be equally arbitrary.  If an arbitrary patriarchal imposition is oppressive to the biological impulse of the female, the converse “matriarchal” imposition would be oppressive to the biological impulse of the male.

Of course, those who are arguing against monogamy are not actually arguing for anything matriarchal–polyamorists are not specifically interested, as near as I can tell, in procreating with a multitude of partners (and it would not be great for the gene pool, in the long run, if they did).  The real interest is in sex with a multitude of partners, and sex which is severed from any reproductive associations–which desire seems not to be related to this supposed biological impulse, which, in evolutionary terms, serves the continuation of the species.

This is a common sleight of hand for social constructionists: claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and point to some biological basis as justification for an alternative social construction–which it turns out is equally arbitrary and oppressive–which biological basis has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm.

Foundations and morality

So what is a social construct?  Let’s start with what it isn’t: an arbitrary concept or institution on which a group of old white men sat around a table and developed as a tool for oppressing women and non-whites.  Nor is it a habituated thought or idea which human brains have co-incidentally evolved to create for themselves to make sense of otherwise irrational experience–the “survival mechanism” thesis (in fact, I would say very few human concepts are of this sort; it would be extremely inefficient, evolutionarily speaking–nor is efficiency the sole criteria of “good” or “better”, in this case).

Okay: so why is it a social construct?  That is, what exactly is being “built” or “constructed”?  The immediate implication in the term is that the result is something artificial, which is something that would not come to be in the way that it is on its own; intervention is required, and specifically intervention which reorganizes things other than how they would normally be.  Implicit is a notion of violence–not physical damage, necessarily, but forcing things against their nature.  A skyscraper does not organically grow, but its materials must be forced, re-shaped, welded, altered again and again, and balanced against one another, in order to stand: this process is construction.

Alright: so why is it a social construct?  In order for something to be social, it requires the co-operative interaction of a plurality of individuals.  Even war requires some co-operation (slaughter is not a social activity), albeit a very hostile kind.  The plurality has to be engaged in something common.

Well then: what is the social construct?  An artificial concept or institution co-operatively forced into existence by a plurality of individuals.  We can only accept the existence of social constructs if we already accept that society exists as something separate from biology; that is, social constructs appear valid only if we allow as normal the divide between nature and culture.  Why should this be the case?  Why should the separation of the two be the default position?  As aforementioned, there are different results from the two–but, here’s the counter-hypothesis: society is natural.

That is, society may deviate from nature, it may oppose nature, or it may cohere with nature, enhance nature; but its root is nature itself.  Human beings are naturally social–it is an inexorable ordination of our biological, physical, corporeal being that we exist in relation to other humans.  That things produced socially would all be constructs and therefore artificial presupposes that there are no natural ways of conceptual or institutional social production.

For this reason, I prefer the term “social constitution”, as “constitution” is a broader term than “construction”–it can mean either natural or artificial.  Moreover, social constitution, as a process of developing concepts or institutions within society, has a continuity with the individual process of ideation whereby we develop our individual conceptual frameworks, the key difference being the making-public of these concepts by species-specifically human linguistic communication; but I think, there, I am wandering a bit outside of the pre-defined boundaries of this essay.

Following from the separation of biology and society, and the relegation of all norms to social constructs, is that morality falls in the gap–or, as it really appears here, the abyss.  If moral norms are entirely the product of human intervention, then they really are arbitrary, whether they are based on biological facts or not–after all, the biological facts instill no preference in us, except, perhaps, to favor the ones that favor us.  If, on the other hand, moral norms at the very least can revolve around an understanding of the natural, then we can find a non-arbitrary basis for judging our practices right or wrong.  That is, normativity cannot reduce to the strictly biological, but it can develop in coherence with the natural.

Love and monogamy

In her book, What Love Is and What It Could Be, Jenkins defines “romantic love” as “ancient biological machinery embodying a modern social role” (p.82)–and here it is, specifically, that I think she tries to bridge the abysmal gap between the mistakenly-separated nature and culture–suggesting that we have an evolutionarily-instigated impulse to pursue sexual intimacy (as a reward system to promote procreation) which has been transmogrified through societal structures into something else.  It is this “something else” which is at issue, being a supposed social construct.

In her article, “Modal Monogamy”, Jenkins argues against the concept that “dyadic exclusivity” (i.e., two and only two people exclusively involved with one another) is essential to a romantic love relationship (“modal monogamy”–that the only possible love relationship is metaphysically constituted by such a dyadic exclusive romantic love).  Central to her thesis is the concept of “romantic love” as “(at least in part) a socially constructed kind”.

In short: Jenkins’ argument against normative monogamy depends upon her concept of romantic love, and her concept of romantic love depends upon the divide between society/culture and the biological/natural.  Consequently, given my position that there exists no such divide (except by an artificial separation of the kind the scholastics called a distinctio rationis, subsequently and mistakenly presumed to be a distinctio realis), I have to oppose her definition of “romantic love.”

To describe this phenomenon, with which we are all familiar as a feeling, as a social construct fulfilling a primordial biological impulse is, to be frank, silly.  It rests upon some notion of the “natural human”, a pre-societal, pre-cultural being of which we have nothing but the scarcest knowledge (since such a being is, by its very definition, pre-historical, and of which therefore we have only forensic and no semantic indications) as well as a notion of culture and society as things which are artificial and wholly separate from whatever is natural.

Rather than try to deconstruct the feeling of romantic love into separate and mechanistic biological and societal causes, let’s examine the phenomenon itself: that is, what is the feeling itself?  Succinctly described, all “love” has as its core a desire for union with the beloved.  We are pained when that feeling is frustrated and pleased when the feeling is satisfied (unless, of course, the expectation was exaggerated beyond the reality, in which case we are disappointed).  This is true of the love we have for a piece of pecan pie (attended by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course) as it is for a pet, as it is for a human being.

Obviously, however, the kind of union differs for each object.  I do not want to eat my pet, and I do not want to have sex with pecan pie (and anyone who does is not really seeking sex, but masturbation, which is a different thing altogether).  Identifying the kind of union that we want in romantic love will go a long way to helping us understand what romantic love really is–and why and how monogamy is a legitimate moral norm.

[Incidentally, there is a weird inversion which occurs in Jenkins’ “Modal Monogamy” article, in which she points out–correctly–that many people base their modal monogamous belief on (or conflate it with) a moral monogamous belief.  It seems quite clear to me that whatever one’s moral position on monogamy, it ought to stem from its ontological status, not vice versa.  But I’ll spare you all the digression into an Aristotelian/Thomistic investigation of act and potency… sorta…]

Two kinds of union are patently desired in romantic love: sexual and emotional.  To some extent, the emotional often seems more important: sexual union tends to result in relatively short-lived pleasure, whereas the emotional pleasure of an intimate relationship tends to last much longer, and to be more pervasive in one’s life.  But there is also a third kind of union, which we tend to do a poor job of recognizing, which is union in thought.  It is uncomfortable when we discover that our romantic partners–intended or actual–have beliefs which oppose our own, or want things in life which we do not.  While we do not want to be of literally one mind, we do want to be headed in the same direction.  Our beliefs and our desires orient the trajectory of our lives (to at least some extent), and having different trajectories means that, sooner or later, the union will dissolve.  A failure to attain union in thought results quite often in a separation at both the emotional and the physical levels.

None of this, of course, proves that monogamy is a metaphysical necessity to the feelings of romantic love.  It is unquestionable that someone can simultaneously desire unity with a plurality of individuals at all three levels.  What is questionable, however, is whether someone can successfully accomplish such unity with a plurality of individuals.

I think the answer is “no”.  You can certainly have strong emotional attachments, sexual attraction, and even conceptual unity, with a plurality of individuals.  But the conceptual unity has to be broad, and therefore is generic; the emotional and the sexual unity, if with a plurality of individuals, is inescapably fragmentary.  That is, if I am sexually and emotionally involved with more than one person, none of those people are receiving the fullness of my sexual or emotional self.  The unity is only partial, and being incomplete is metaphysically inferior to being complete.

In other words, to take a phrase from Karol Wojtyla, I think that romantic love requires a “total gift of self.”  If someone I love is having or acting on desires for someone other than myself, then a part of her is not being given, and the union is incomplete; and vice versa.

So while it is absolutely true that there is no metaphysical necessity behind monogamy, and that the normativity of monogamy is a socially-constituted institution, it deserves to be a norm because it directs us towards a better fulfillment of our natural desire for complete union.  And before anyone objects, “Ah, but my desires cannot be fulfilled by sexual/emotional/intellectual union with just any one person”, that is absolutely true–but they also cannot be fulfilled by a thousand sexual, emotional, or intellectual partners.  Desire is by its nature indeterminate, general, and open to always more and other.  You can always want something more or something other than what you have–especially if your desires are not subordinated to the belief that you can have a more perfect union through monogamy.

Shitting Bull

I said above that social constructionists commonly claim that what is socially constructed is arbitrary, oppressive, and subsequently point to some biological basis, as justification for an alternative social construction, that has no actual connection to the newly-proposed paradigm.  A problem with this is that the social constructionist thereby provides a false but seemingly legitimating claim, which then becomes adopted and part of the conceptual framework for individuals and social groups.  Because it is presumed as normal that culture is one thing and biology another, and that there are no real or essential connections between the two–such that we can establish non-arbitrary norms–we start to believe some real bullshit.

And if we’re going to stop believing in the bullshit, that means we need to understand that culture comes from nature, and can either cohere with it or contradict it–and if we want our culture to be coherent with our nature (presuming that being coherent is superior to being incoherent), we need to understand what human nature really is.  Which ultimately entails understanding how we understand–not an easy task and something really difficult to communicate.  But at any rate, until this monumental undertaking can be accomplished, we can probably help ourselves in the meanwhile by closing the mental gap between the biological and the social, rather than trying, with great but foolhardy earnest intentions, to bridge it; for all our social constructions ultimately crumble into the abyss.

An Incoherent Imperative

Philosophy is not an empirical discipline and it cannot be conducted as such.  Though it may make use of empirical observations, and although many philosophers insist upon an empirical origin of our knowledge, the process of philosophical reasoning itself is not contained within the boundaries of an empirical nor an empiriometric methodology.   In point of fact, empiricism without the context of philosophy is an incoherent approach to understanding anything.

Among the most important of philosophy’s lessons is that the more we know, the more we realize that we do not know.  True comprehension is an elusive goal; and, yet, today, an arrogant presumption about the extent and profundity of human understanding is taken up in every quarter.  It cannot be doubted that the amount of information available far exceeds what was held by previous generations, but to confuse this information with knowledge (a habit), let alone understanding (an act), is to confuse the severed parts with the whole.  A pile of information no more makes understanding than a clump of atoms makes a human being.

The notion that empirical science will provide knowledge of any kind, therefore, seems rather misguided; for the empiriometric method provides us the means to gathering information, but not to incorporating it into the narratives whereby that information is made meaningful.  It is ironic that Western civilization purchased the means to improved information access and collection at the cost of the means to understand it.  This is especially true in questions of morality: what is revealed by empiriometric inquiries can be manipulated to fit whatever narrative, promoting or denigrating whichever agenda, and therefore gives us no foundation for saying what is right or wrong.

So how are we to reconcile the discoveries of science with our moral sentiments?  Of foremost importance is that we insist upon an approach to morality which makes of it something other than mere sentiment.  Empathy, like all feelings, follows the determinations of cultural contextualization.  That someone might feel empathy for another human being, or at least act with sympathy, in an idealized transcendence of distinctions of gender, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, and so on, is not a given.  The hows and whys of our positive and negative affections are indeterminate and open to nigh infinite degrees of alteration.

That said, I think it prudent to respond to three claims recently made by Brian Boutwell on Quillette.com:

1) We do not need specific versions of empirical realities to exist in order to realize that we’re all capable of suffering, that the properties of our central nervous system equip us to feel sorrow and anguish. We already have every reason we ever needed to advocate fairness and decency.

I do not mean to belittle a fellow academic, but this first sentence–and I promise you, it is not improved by context–is downright silly.  While Boutwell is doubtlessly trying to say that we do not need an empirical proof of equality to demonstrate our universal capacity for suffering, that universal capacity is itself a kind of equality shown by empirical evidence.  In other words, the claim is that we do not need an empirical account because we have an empirical account.

The second sentence is a more sophisticated piece of sophistry.  Everyone likes pleasure and no one likes pain (except those fun individuals who derive pleasure from pain; and even then, the pain is liked only because the derived pleasure outweighs the pain).   But this preferentiality gives us no reason, as such.  Why should the universal capacity for suffering be sufficient reason to advocate fairness and decency?  The statement resounds with the philosophies of the Enlightenment–Mill, in particular, comes to mind–but the classical liberalism theory of natural human rights rests always either on a belief in empirically-discerned nature (discerned, at least, in outline), or on a belief in the divine granting of human rights; or, in the counter-Enlightenment, solely upon social convention.

2) My hero Charles Darwin, by all accounts a good and decent man, stole from us the idea that we are products of special creation, made in the image of a loving god. We were clumsily assembled piecemeal by an emotionless process of selection. And yet, our worth—the worth of all human beings—is not diminished one iota because of it.

botticelli-aquinas
“I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Anyone who thinks that the Darwinian theory of evolution undermines belief in a divine creation does not understand the idea of creation as presented in any of its more intelligent articulations.  You might as well say that the Big Bang disproves that there could be a God (Fr. Lemaitre would disagree with you on that, I’m sure).  I am quite certain, at any rate, that Thomas Aquinas–who admitted that the eternal motion of the celestial spheres was merely an account which saved the appearances, and not a certitude at all–would tell you that the how of a divine generation of human beings, of whom the image and likeness of the divine consists essentially in species-specific human intelligence, is of little importance.

 

At any rate, the idea that our worth is not diminished by discarding the belief that human beings are of a special divine provenance sounds like boastful posturing.  As aforementioned, the classical liberal belief of the Enlightenment in human rights requires either that they be divinely granted or grounded in nature.  Otherwise, we must turn to a contractarian position, in which social agreement alone grants us this “worth”.  The dangers of such a turn should be quite evident; society is fickle, and the culture by which any society is united, malleable, open to perversion every hour of every day.

3) We should be united in the idea that nothing in science will overturn the imperative to treat all individuals as sentient creatures capable of feeling great happiness, and also great suffering. We do not need the natural world to exist in a certain way in order to ensure the moral worth of all creatures who inhabit it.

At this point, I must say–as a graduate professor of mine often would–that I’m confused.  I am pretty certain that either the contradiction has come full circle or a really unjustified and extraordinarily dangerous claim has been.  In the first case, Boutwell is saying that because the natural world exists a certain way we do not need the natural world to exist a certain way; because we exist with a capacity for “feeling great happiness” and “great suffering”, by nature, we do not need–what?  An equal capacity for such feelings?  (Then, I ask, why is it that people should be treated equally if their capacities are unequal?)  Or perhaps I am missing something?

Or perhaps it is the second case: that Boutwell is saying we designate human beings equally worthy and thus deserving of fair and decent treatment out of a pure volition.  That we should be nice to one another because we want to; or because we fear what will happen to us if we do not.  If the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is the fear that failure to do so might result in our being victimized in turn, then Glaucon and Adeimantus would like to sell you Thrasymachus’ house.  If, contrariwise, the only reason to advocate for fairness and equality is that we want to, that seems no stronger a reason than to advocate for survival of the fittest, for right of the strongest.

If we divide nature from culture (as do counter-Enlightenment figures, and which divide grows organically out of the philosophical presuppositions of Enlightenment figures, as well), and place the value of human life–and all the consequent considerations of a moral kind–squarely in the realm of culture, we cannot be surprised when there develop certain cultural perspectives which attack our own.  For culture stands on no firm, timeless, or cognition-independent grounds, but begins anew in the cognitive life of every human individual.

Perhaps what it needs is less sentiment, such as permeates Boutwell’s piece, and more reason; a reason granted not by empiriometric science, but by philosophical inquiry.  Perhaps if we want to understand what makes human beings worthy of being treated with dignity, we should try looking for a way to make the empirical meaningful.

The Tortured Rhetoric of Postgenderism

Or, What’s Wrong with Social Constructionism

The theory of social constructionism appears in two primary forms: weak and strong.  Weak theories include both nominalist, anti-normative theories–those that are more or less in continuity with David Hume–as well as many varieties of emergentism, in which social realities are founded upon but can develop independently of cognition-independent realities.  Nominalist weak constructionism denies any natural organization possible between the cognition-independent (and essentially unknowable) realities and the cognition-dependent constructs formed through cognitive acts, especially those agreed upon socially.  Emergentist theories recognize a possible continuity between the cognition-dependent and cognition-independent.  Strong forms, in contrast, propose societies or social interactions themselves constitute the behaviors, identities, and traits that belong to individuals; whatever is considered reality depends entirely on the society.

Each form of social constructionism places the onus of reality on the communal psychological subjectivity of individual persons.  This places it in contrast to so-called “realist” theories, which do the inverse.

Many arguments of social constructionists stand in opposition what has been purportedly constructed.  Frequently, the claims militate against traditional norms concerning gender and sexuality.  Thus, both a trait or property (gender) and a behavior or disposition (sexual desires and action) are both considered, to varying degrees by varying theories, to be the products of a social construction, rather than an ordinance grounded by action or states of being independent of human cognition or consideration.

It follows from adopting or acquiescing to such a viewpoint that the conceptual products of social construction bear, when opposed to personal, individualized lived experience, a mark of inauthenticity and therefore relative invalidity.  The socially-constructed, so the argument goes, forms an edifice merely arbitrary and artificial, albeit deeply-ingrained in our behaviors and ways of thinking, and therefore constitutes a framework inapplicable to the authentic, real, and “natural” feelings of the individual when found to be in opposition.  Normative categories therefore operate as engines of oppression.  A struggle ensues to develop non-normative terminological designations for majority genders and sexual orientations.

Historically, social constructionism fits within the broader category of ultramodernism (or post-structuralism)–that is, what today often goes about falsely guised in a self-professed postmodern cloak, but which really does no more than carry a hidden modernism (as a philosophical identity) to further conclusions.  Derrida and Deleuze, Foucault and Fromm, Lacan and Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, Marcuse and Badiou: each influences, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, the present-day social constructionism; further back, they themselves are rooted in Sartre, in (a bad reading of) Heidegger and Husserl.  To truly understand the development of social constructionism requires understanding each of these thinkers–a claim few of us can really make in earnest (certainly not myself).

Social influence and natural entities weave a complex web in human experience.  Attaining a genuine comprehensive perspective on the whole of our lives requires intelligently and coherently accounting for both–the task of a true postmodernism (a topic for another day).  Many traditional naturalist theories are justly criticized for invalidating human experiences irreducible to natural, cognition-independent principles.  The traditionalist ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Lacan and Adorno and Habermas, Heidegger, and Husserl, among others, for they possess valuable insight.

Conversely, social constructionism, especially of the strong variety, is to be faulted for attempting to invalidate human experiences dependent upon, developed from, or grounded in those cognition-independent principles.  The ultramodernists ought to read, study, and attempt to understand Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, among others, for they too possess real truths about human nature and action.

However, both sides continue to minimize, ignore, or outright deny an element essential to the wholeness of every human person.  This mutual deprecation serves ideological advancement, rather than the pursuit of truth.  If I am being honest, of the two, I find social constructionism the less-excusable.  Often, it devolves into outright contradictory nonsense.

Gender, Feeling, and Reason

To demonstrate this, let us pretend we have a young individual experiencing body dysphoria, whom we will call Marktha.  Marktha is born into a biologically-male body, having an XY chromosome pairing and male genitalia.  Reaching adolescence, Marktha’s body will undergo a dramatic increase in testosterone production.  Yet Marktha does not “feel” like a boy, like a male.  Marktha’s personal, internal, subjective sense is that Marktha is a girl, a female.  Therefore, Marktha is designated transgender: born with male biology, but possessing a female identity.

Contrariwise, we have Mary: born with female biology and possessing female identity.  She is designated cisgender.  Mary will further be labelled “advantaged”, because she has this coherence of biology and identity.  Poor Marktha, on the other hand, who really does suffer, has an incoherence which renders her life one of confusion and angst.

Marktha and Mary end up going to the same university, where they take a class in gender studies.  Their professor, Dr. Amorfia, tells them that gender is a purely social construct, developed along gender roles, wherein male-bodied individuals perform certain tasks, including the oppression of both female-bodied and female-identifying but non-bodied individuals (broadly, effeminate male-bodied individuals).  Because of this oppression, gender remains entrenched in its socially-determined categorizations for millennia.  But now we know better: there is no such thing as “gender”, there are only “gender-identities”.  Marktha feels a sense of relief.  Mary feels nothing, partially because she’s a cold bitch, but also because she has no distinct sense of “gender identity” in opposition to biological gender.  She nods in agreement nonetheless, because everyone else is nodding in agreement.

Marktha now identifies openly as female, despite continued male biology.  Surgical options and hormone treatments are explored; hope is held out that, one day, Marktha and others will be able to have full transformation possibilities, so as to experience every biological aspect of being female.

Mary, meanwhile, takes a class in philosophy where she learns about Rene Descartes and the idea of body-spirit dualism, wherein the person is split into a body, less properly identifiable with the self, and a spirit or mind, which is the person proper.  She does not see the connection, and the professor, Dr. Krampus, spends his evenings sighing for humanity into a large glass of good Irish whiskey.

One day, Mary and Marktha are walking together towards a lecture to be given by Dr. Amorfia.  Marktha has started transformation, started “presenting as female.”  So far this entails wearing make-up and more feminine-styled clothing, along with a more feminine hair-style.  Marktha is nervous about some of the looks received, but nevertheless happy to be living outwardly, bodily, in accord with a felt female identity, and expresses this to Mary.  Mary takes a long, silent pause, and says, “I’m glad you feel that way… but isn’t everything you’re doing just a conformity to socially-constructed standards of femininity?”

“I guess so,” Marktha replies after an equally long silence, “but soon I’ll start physically transitioning.  I can’t imagine anything making me happier.”

Mary smiled at her friend and changed the topic.  What she was really thinking, though, was “I thought the body didn’t matter for gender.  I thought ‘feeling’ like a woman made someone a woman.  Maybe I should have paid more attention in class.”  By a curious coincidence, Dr. Krampus, walking about twenty feet behind, was thinking just the same thing about Mary.  What grade did he give her again?  A begrudging, pity C+?

All three entered the lecture.  Dr. Amorfia was at her very sharpest.  She eviscerated the patriarchy and its continued oppression of all non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual persons.  Normativity was metaphorically bashed with every blunt object she could find.  Her audience was rapt by her passion, her articulate attacks, needling every weak point of traditions and conservatism she could identify.  She cited studies.  She discussed the variety of presentations in secondary biological sex characteristics as evidence of emerging biological gender fluidity.  She pointed to no one in the crowd, she told them that their identities could not be defined by social convention or biological impositions.  She didn’t even use visual aids.  She didn’t need to.  PowerPoint is a phallogocentric symbol of supposed male-superiority anyway.

Marktha’s face exuded joy, listening to Dr. Amorfia’s verbal Blitzkrieg on the norms of oppression.  Every feeling that had nestled deep in Marktha’s heart, for years and years, was affirmed.  Mary’s face, meanwhile, was contorted with the strain of listening while simultaneously trying to figure something out, to figure out, perhaps, what she had missed in class.  Dr. Krampus face was a mix of bored amusement and cynicism, but he usually looks like that.

The lecture ended.  A crowd gathered around Dr. Amorfia, congratulating her.  Marktha fawned.  Mary stood by, a tortured look on her face.  Seeing this, Dr. Amorfia, passing by on her way to a dinner given on the university’s dime, and who remembered Mary’s final paper as exemplary, asked if her former student had a question.

“Yeah… well, I guess… I mean… if gender is just a social construct, then what does it really mean to be a woman?”

Dr. Amorfia took a quick breath and unleashed her prepared response: “No one can tell you what it ‘means’ to be anything, to have any identity, but you yourself.  You are what you feel yourself to be.  What it means to be a ‘woman’ for you is not necessarily what it means for me to be a ‘woman’, or Marktha, or anyone.  We each define our own ‘womanhood’.  See chapter four in my latest book.”  Smiling benevolently, she twinkled her fingers in a difficult-to-decipher show of something or other (solidarity? condescension? Parkinson’s?) and continued on to her accolades.  Marktha followed.  Mary stood still, her face contorted even further.

Slowly, she walked back towards her dorm, confused.  Did she “feel” like a woman?  What does it mean to feel like a woman?  Had she ever felt like a man?  Had she ever defined her own ‘womanhood’?  She liked to be thought of as pretty, and to wear things that made her feel pretty.  She liked it when guys would flirt with her, and act protective over her.  But those all fell within the aspects of a gender role Dr. Amorfia had identified as socially constructed.  They were arbitrary, and, moreover, results of the patriarchical, oppressive norms.  What is an identity?  What constitutes an identity?  What does it mean to “feel” one’s identity?

Continuing her slow walk, deep in thought, she suddenly noticed voices coming from around the corner.  Dr. Krampus was talking with a couple male students.  “Boy’s club”, she thought, instinctively.  Then she listened more closely.

“No, I can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman,” Dr. Krampus said, half laughing.  “But that doesn’t restrict me from telling you what I think it means.  If you want to find the poisonous seed of intellectual rot, there it is: thinking that meaning is wholly dependent upon lived experience, upon feeling.  If that’s the case, we can’t talk about anything with anyone, at all, because every lived experience, every feeling, is irreducibly subjective, personal.  ‘Meaning’ has to be public; it has to be something that we can articulate, or else it isn’t what we mean by ‘meaning’.”

“But,” one of the students interjected, “how can you tell me what something means to me?”

vitruvian_man“I can’t,” Dr. Krampus replied.  “But I can tell you that what something means to you is not what something means in itself.  That’s what we call ‘being wrong.’  You could say that ‘being a man’ means, to you, ‘nothing other than feeling like a man’.  That feeling might be a real part of what it means to be a man, though the intelligible articulation of what belongs to that feeling is a much harder statement to make.  I would argue, however, that simply feeling like a man no more makes you a man than feeling like a rhinoceros gives you a horn.  Defining identities in terms of feelings is the absolute worst kind of unintelligent dualism.  Feelings are a subrational category, while definition is a rational process.”

Mary scowled as words from Dr. Amorfia’s class reverberated in her mind: “Reason, reason, reason!  That’s all the patriarchy wants to reduce everything to.  It is a tyranny of reason.  The patriarchy’s reasons will tell you that you have to have their children, cook their meals, clean their homes; that you have to look pretty while they go out and do the real work.  Do not listen to their reason; listen to your feelings!”

“What do you mean, professor?” another student asked, “I mean, by a ‘rational process.'”

“There’s no short and simple answer to that question,” Krampus answered.  “But the easiest way to describe reason is through language.  Think about the moments of most intense feeling, as a way of contrast.  Someone in intense agony does not say, ‘By Jove, I have lost a limb and the pain is really quite intense, like having every nerve ending dipped into the fires of hell.’  He screams, inarticulate, animal, wordless pain.  Similarly, when a guy has an orgasm, he doesn’t say, ‘Wow, this bodily sensation is most pleasurable; I sure am enjoying this sexual activity.’  He goes, ‘Uuuuuunnnnnggggghhhhaaaaaahhhhh.’  Later on, when the feelings are not so intense, rational articulation enters back into the picture, and he can describe his sensations–but not in the moment.  Reason is the means by which we provide an intelligible, public, accessible account of our experiences; the means by which we transcend our subjectivity.  Which entails that the things about which we reason have a meaning which is not purely and irreducibly subjective, but which can be shared, talked about, understood by others.  Meaning encompasses feeling; but it doesn’t work the other way around.”

Mary was torn: she hadn’t enjoyed Dr. Krampus’ class, certainly not like she had Dr. Amorfia’s.  Also the jerk gave her a C.  But she found herself thinking, days afterward, about what she had overheard.  Dr. Krampus had made sense.

Marktha, incidentally, had been arrested for violently assaulting a teenage boy who disparaged Marktha’s appearance.  The teenage boy should have been more attentive to the fact that, despite the skirt, Marktha was 6’3″ and quite muscular.

Postscript

Treating gender and sexuality as purely social constructs produces incoherent nonsense.  There are undoubtedly, inevitably, unarguably aspects which arise through social constitution.  Much of what belongs to traditional gender roles does indeed have a degree of arbitrariness; but much, while dependent upon social agreement (conscious or not), nevertheless has a basis in biology, in what exists independently of society.  The biologically male are stronger, faster, and larger.  This makes them superior at many physical tasks.  Watch American Ninja Warrior, or its Japanese originator, Sasuke, if you doubt me.

Can we acknowledge physical, bodily realities, through a system of reasoning, while abdicating the psychological, the subjective, the personal, to a tyrannical congeries of feeling?  Can we really claim true logical coherence when we speak in such tortured, contradictory tones?

Sex in a Vacuum

Offering thoughts concerning the nature of sex over the internet–other than “do whatever feels good”, “5 tips to make her scream”, “mastering the female orgasm”, or something along such lines–sometimes seems like standing on the street corner and telling people about the Hellfire and Eternal, Everlasting Damnation awaiting them if they fail to change their awful, sinful ways.  Whether or not we have actually ever listened to what things the street preacher might have to say, we are already tired of hearing them–without ever actually having heard them.  Being told what is “right” and what is “wrong” with regards to sexual behavior infringes upon the same supposed personal sovereignty at stake when someone tells us what beliefs we ought to hold concerning matters of religious conviction.  Sex and religion are personal matters of opinion and preference, and nobody’s business but our own–so anyone publicly preaching against what we hold comes across as a crazed, bigoted, ideologically imperialist ass.

So it is at the risk of being categorized with the crazy street preachers that I write and publish this commentary; though my focus falls not upon “right” and “wrong”, but rather “good” and “bad”, giving not a moral commentary based upon belief in revelation, but rather the provision of a philosophical perspective on something often philosophically neglected.

The Principle of Pleasure
What if We Admitted to Children That Sex Is Primarily About Pleasure?” by Alice Dreger, 16 May 2014

Though over two years old, this article just recently attracted my attention.  The majority is constituted by anecdotes concerning Dreger’s unrelenting directness in discussing sex with her son.  She and her partner are uncompromisingly forthright in answering all of his questions, for the sake of educating him, with a seeming scientific detachment.  It occurs as a shock to her when, explaining the meaning of “accidental pregnancy”, she realizes that she had not yet conveyed to her son that sex is most often pursued for the sake of pleasure, and not procreation.

Consequently–given, at least, the limited exposure to the conversation with her son presented in the article–she goes on to muddy the waters: Dreger points out to her son that the pleasurable sensations which accompany sexual behavior are part of an evolutionary drive to procreate, and then posits that the primary reason people pursue sex is not for the sake of procreation, but for pleasure.  In other words, she divorces the conscious reason from the subconscious drive.

That is: procreation is the reason that sex has evolved into a pleasurable activity; but pleasure is the reason that sex is had.  On her analysis, pleasure is (from a biological standpoint) for the sake of procreation.  But most often people have sex for the sake of pleasure and not procreation.  A cultural development arises, artificial birth control, whereby the two can be easily separated.  Culture becomes systematically opposed to nature, to the biological.  The pursuit of sex remains grounded in a biological urge, but its practice becomes culturally detached from the reason for that urge.

In the final paragraph, Dreger writes: “How funny that we can’t bring ourselves to tell our children the most fundamental truth about sex, that most of the time we have sex, we have it for pleasure.”  She adds that the single act of sex  responsible for the birth of her son has brought her pleasure for years, touchingly sentimental but perhaps unintentionally implying that the sole or primary purpose of children is to provide oneself with pleasure.

A subtle chasm underlies the verbal veneer Dreger lays over her article: ostensibly united, the scientific detachment of an “objective” sexual education and the intimate psychological subjectivization of its purpose in the sensations of pleasure stand schismatically opposed.  Hers is not an uncommon opinion or position held–precariously held though it is.  It is a position which attempts subjugation of the so-called “objective” realities of biological constitution to the attainment of pleasure according to the psychological subjectivity of the individual person: a position characteristic of many having received a higher education; a position which finds its archetypal character in Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov.

The Meaninglessness of Sex’s Meaninglessness
The Meaning of Sex“, Marty Klein [Commentary on this article is very selective of necessity; the number of disputable claims is an analytical nightmare.  That said, the weakest points–basic faults of logical reasoning–are ignored, and the strongest arguments–weak though they are–taken up for consideration]

What is the meaning of sex?  Intrinsically, Klein asserts, it has none.  Whatever meaning it has been given stems from cultural or personal imposition; the natural, physical, corporeal action itself maintains no connection to the rationales proferred by speculative thought.  In consequence the only “meaning” which can be ascribed to sex is the purely contingent evaluation of the act which emerges post facto.

“Most people need sex to have [intrinsic] meaning because the alternative is too frightening: having sex in an existential vacuum. Sex without [intrinsic] meaning would require participants to float freely in sexual experience, rather than being snugly anchored in a cognitive framework, an explanation.”

Fear motivates ascription of an intrinsic and therefore universal, “objective”, rather than emergent, contingent, subjective, meaning to sex.  A “cognitive framework, an explanation” gives a snug anchoring, safety.  Could we not say, on just the opposite, that fear motivates the banishment of sex to the purely subjective?  That, dispensing with all standards for justifying one’s sexual behavior is itself an attempt at justification motivated by fear of being rejected, stigmatized?  What is  more fearful: the impossibility of being moral or the possibility of being morally wrong.

The accusation of fearfulness Klein levels at “sexually repressive institutions” rings of dime-store existentialism and the cheap trick of small-minded propagandists: when one cannot argue with the opposition, invent an underlying fear or weakness as their true motivation.  Seeking a “cognitive framework, an explanation” is not cowardice, but the inverse; to shrug and justify behavior “because I like it” is not an act of courage, but is to quit; not to live fully in accord with human inclination, but to repress its most distinctive characteristic, the ability (and desire) to have explanations at all.

Claiming that there no justification exists for sexual preference or behavior is claiming that all preference and behavior is (in principle) justified (and only circumstantially to be prevented or altered, such as in the case that one’s inclinations result in harm to another).  Disavowing the possibility of justification itself justifies.  Klein can only attempt to dispel with explanation by means of explanation.

“So is sex meaningless? Yes and no. It is meaningless in the objective or philosophic sense. But, for better or worse, it is meaningful on the personal, experiential level.”

The separation of “objective” and “personal”, of “philosophic” from “experiential”; the chasm hidden beneath the surface of Dreger’s piece Klein leaves naked.  Positing that something has personally, subjectively, experientially meaning and yet no meaning visible to an “objective” or “philosophic” perspective escapes any but the most vapid of analyses.  “Meaning” by its very nature is “objective” (i.e., accessible to intellectual consideration); the domain of meaning belongs to philosophical inquiry.  I may not have the insight to say what meaning someone else has found in sexual behavior, inasmuch as they have not shared it; but I can say that sexual behavior has this or that meaning.

Two threads weave through Klein’s article: one, the presumption that pleasure–reductively ascribed to the corporeal mechanism–is the central aspect of sexuality; two, the plurality of means whereby people find pleasure in sex disproves the existence of hierarchical “better” and “worse” ways to have sex.  These two threads stem from the common spool of sexual decontextualization.  In other words, sex does not ever occur in an existential vacuum, except in the abstraction of discussion.  To treat sex through such abstraction is not to treat of sex, but to treat, poorly, of one’s abstract conceptualization of sex.

What Is, What Was, What Will Be

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
-T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, first of the Four Quartets.

The two articles here considered, Dreger’s and Klein’s, present a common opposition of nature and culture, wherein the goal of culture is to overcome the obstacles nature objects into our pursuit of pleasure.  Martin Heidegger–especially in his later works, such as the 1947 “Letter on ‘Humanism'” and 1953 “Question Concerning Technology”, though elements appear as early as his 1925 lecture on Plato’s Sophist and again in the 1939 lecture on φύσις (nature) in Aristotle–described this attitude towards nature as “technological thinking”: a kind of thinking concerned not with understanding what things really are, with gaining true knowledge or insight, but discovering what things are only insofar as they may be used in accord with some predetermined plan of our own devising.

The opposition of nature and culture, and the attempt of culture to dominate nature, as well as the separation of the cultural from the natural as intrinsically opposed forces, are not only epistemically unjustifiable positions, but positions which undermine coherent understanding of the human being.  The end result is one of human fragmentation.

Dreger, admirably though misguidedly, appears to be seeking something like unity.  Her piece desires a coherent account of sex and its place in human life.  The difficulty is that, in saying sex is primarily about pleasure, she makes a teleological (ends-guided/oriented) claim.  To speak of the end of an act, or a kind of act, requires an account of the contextual whole.

Klein, by contrast, removes sex from the integral context of human life and displaces it into a meaningless void.  His pretense at postmodernism ultimately succeeds only in being ultramodernism.

letusgothenyouandi
“Let us go then, you and I…”

Is human life itself meaningless–is all meaning invented, fabricated; the product of experience re-shaped into whatever we decide we ought to give it?  Could one aspect–particularly one so integral, central, both biologically and personally as sex–be itself alone meaningless within a meaningful whole?  My answer to these questions is no; I have explained why in other posts (“Why We Struggle with Meaning”, “Why We Know reality”, “Why Belief Matters”, among others–in a sense, all of my posts strive to answer these questions).

Rather, meaning is discovered through experience and subsequently interpreted.  Those interpretations may be good or bad, accurate or inaccurate; but not “right” or “wrong” as “completely correct” or “completely incorrect”, as a black and white, yes or no, binary system.

We do not, for instance, create pleasure for ourselves.  Rather, pleasure becomes known through the experience of an activity found pleasurable; pleasure is a consequence of action.  The pleasure of sex–at its most intense, a pleasure which submerges our capacity for structured, rational thinking under waves of arousal and satisfaction–is experienced, to be sure; we discover its meaning through rational reflection.  If our sexual behavior habitually engaged makes us less capable of rational thinking, we should find that our pleasures are misguided in reflection, as does any activity which lessens our humanity.

Who and what we are does indeed derive from our experiences; but among those experiences is that of being human, with a human nature; an experience which does not consist in a given moment of given biological limitations, but which permeates the entirety of our existence.  We are bound by an intimate, inescapable connection between who we are, who we were, and who we will be.  If we want to understand sex, therefore, as when we want to understand anything within human life, it must be placed not within the vacuum of abstraction, but within the living context of the whole.

 

Love, Idiots, and False Dichotomies

My attention was caught by two recent articles: one, by a professor of psychology on Quillette.com, responding to another, from a philosopher writing for the New York Times. Both are on the topic of marriage, and both are wrongheaded. So rather than my usual “assigned reading” of “Why Something or Another”, today I am grading some essays.

Pessimism for Everybody

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person“, by Alain de Botton, 28 May 2016.

De Botton’s essay starts with a claim: we marry the wrong person primarily because we know neither ourselves nor the other. Consequently, “Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.” That the hope may be ill-founded, de Botton goes on to assert, is no reason to abandon the marital project, for the hope itself is ill-conceived. In other words, we marry today primarily out of the attempt to preserve good feelings, entering what he calls a “marriage of feeling”.

This romantic endeavor is one he considers delusional; no person can be an everlasting source of pleasantness, and so “Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.” In short, we should pursue the person with whom we can tolerably get along on a daily basis; we should lower our expectations; that no matter who we marry, we are marrying the wrong person, because the “right” person, as fashioned in our romantic expectations, does not exist.

The entirety of de Botton’s article is undermined by a singular deep flaw: namely, that it fails even to indicate, let alone prove or argue for, what the purpose of marriage is or ought to be. This enormous presumption leaves any thoughtful reader saying, “Why would I want marriage if it produces, at best, middling contentment or mediocrity? If the best it can provide is ‘not being shitty’, I probably don’t want marriage.”

A soft nihilism underlies de Botton’s pessimism: “There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness.” There is a partial truth here. For if we try to fill ourselves through a relationship with another human being, we will find only that the void in our heart of hearts runs deeper than we’d previously seen. But simply because it does not fulfill every aspect of our lives does not mean that the joy and happiness achieved in and through a good relationship is worthless, or meaningless, or not to be pursued.

Grade: D+

This singular deep flaw, however, looks good compared to what we find in the other article.

Making You “Happy” by Keeping You Stupid

Forget de Botton’s Advice — Why Lower Expectations Won’t Help Your Marriage“, by Noam Shpancer, 29 June 2016

Shpancer, after summarizing de Botton’s article, strikes at the “explanatory architecture”, which he calls “familiarly Freudian” of de Botton’s position: a sound issue to critique (though not, as I see it, the fundamental problem). Unfortunately, this is possibly the last sound argument Shpancer makes in the rest of his article.

Unlike de Botton, Shpancer does indicate a purpose to marriage, by identifying the “marriage candidate” as someone “who will help us create the kind of life we can enjoy and value”. Similarly, he says that aiming high in marriage means “looking for a compatible person with whom we can share intimacy, enjoy sex, build enduring trust, and find acceptance despite our mutual failings”.

I have never had any personal interaction or problem with Noam Shpancer. But this is precisely the kind of inane self-help, pop-psychology, fuzzy warm-feeling bullshit which I hold responsible for a large percentage of Western idiocy today. None of these phrases–“the kind of life we can enjoy and value”, “share intimacy”, “build enduring trust”, “find acceptance”–say anything meaningful. Rather, they convey sensations of comfort and pleasure, dancing goalposts and no framework for a humanly-fulfilling life.

Indeed, at the core of my objection to Shpancer’s article is the wholesale capitulation he makes to feeling. As he writes, “you don’t have to be a deep thinker to recognize the profound upside of good love. Even on casual introspection, most people realize correctly that feeling-based relationships are at the core of whatever strength, hope, and meaning they manage to summon in the world.”

Let me break this down. First, I am sure that all but the most shallow of thinkers recognize “the profound upside of good love.” Who does not enjoy and desire the sensation of being loved? At the same time, I am also sure that most thinkers, shallow or deep (or somewhere in between), would have a difficult time giving a defense for why good love has a profound upside, or explaining how it is achieved, or how to prevent it going wrong, or even to explain why it is important to the flourishing of life.

Second, I agree that most people probably do think feeling-based relationships “are at the core of whatever strength, hope, and meaning they manage to summon in the world.” I do not agree, however, that this is correct. Feeling-based relationships are as ephemeral as the feelings, and feelings come and go rather quickly, left to their own devices. Reasoning about what is good for us, instead, is the responsible means for shaping, directing, and guiding our feelings. And so whatever strength, hope, and meaning we manage to summon in the world, must be summoned from the world, by our use of reason; otherwise, we are simply lashing out–perhaps in violent rage, perhaps in unbridled lust, perhaps in response to being appreciated; but merely lashing out, in a subhuman manner, nonetheless.

Shpancer further suggests that self-knowledge in fulfilling lives or loves is unnecessary. He supports this suggestion with what I can only characterize as a thoughtless analogy: namely, that you don’t need to know how your brain works to use it well.

Absolutely true. But if you want to fix your brain, or improve your brain, you probably should know how it works. The old line about the concert violinist having no idea how to make a violin doesn’t apply. The violinist doesn’t need to know how to make a violin because someone else can do that for him.

Who is going to make you into a good, responsible, well-formed human individual capable of entering into a good, fruitful, loving relationship? No one but yourself, especially in our “modern ethos of individual freedom and agency.” Who is going to give you the fortitude, the temperance, and the prudence necessary? No one but yourself. Without self-knowledge–which is not only a grasp of your own tendencies, predilections, and desires, but of your innate fundamental human nature–you cannot and do not understand what is good for you; you cannot reason intelligently about what things out there you ought to seek.

Without self-knowledge, you are not fully human.

gnothi-seauton

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, “know thyself”, one of the maxims written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

Grade: F

The False Dichotomy

At root of both articles’ faults is the poor conception of marriage. De Botton makes little-to-no claim as to marriage’s purpose and Shpancer appeals to vague pop-psychobabble about feelings. What results is a false dichotomy: the philosopher claims that marriage is best entered in a spirit of compromise, and the psychologist claims that it is best seen as a means to enjoying and valuing one’s life (whatever that means).

On the one hand, there is something worthwhile in de Botton’s suggestion. As human beings, we can conceive of ideals: perfect images, perfect goals, perfect happiness. Unfortunately, the material, physical world in which we live does not adhere to these perfect ideals. Things around us are fragile, mutable, constantly undergoing change through the endless alteration of relations. Recognizing that things, including our relationships and the people in them, will not remain forever the same is essential to continuing those relationships.

On the other hand, to view acceptance of those changes as resignation to at least some unpleasantness or disappointment is defeatism of the worst kind. Should we not look at the shifting dynamics of our relationships as mean to something better? While relationships can be excellent or terrible, none are perfect, because they are built on flawed, faulty individuals. Instead of viewing our relationships as sad attempts which will never fulfill our ideals, instead of resigning ourselves to accepting imperfect significant others, we should look at our relationships with them as means to mutual pursuit of something more perfect.

Shpancer is therefore right to criticize de Botton for “lowering expectations” and the pessimistic philosophy of marital compromise. He is wrong, however, to hold to a laissez-faire marketplace of feelings as the only viable alternative. De Botton wants to lower your expectations; Shpancer wants to debase your humanity.

Love in the Valley of Tears

Anyone who grew up in a practicing Catholic household likely prayed the Rosary. One of the prayers said at the end is the “Hail Holy Queen” (or Salve Regina), the words of which form a desperate plea:

Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy;
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Regardless of one’s opinion of religious prayer, the poetic imagery is haunting. Human beings, cast out of paradise through sin, implore aid from the mother of mercy: “to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” It strikes me that part of Catholicism’s enduring appeal is its recognition of life’s misery; a misery that sublunary love cannot fully abate.

Even love is accompanied by tears of sorrow.

Holding otherwise is pathetically clinging to a pretense known to be false. Sorrow exists in love, amidst it and sometimes even because of it. Sorrow is unpleasant, and so we avoid it. But sorrow, unsought, serves a purpose. It gives us reason to reach out to those we love, to bring them closer; it provides us means for our relationships to strengthen.

Love cannot be separated from vulnerability, because love requires a unity with the beloved: unity with his or her sufferings, pains, and faults. Both de Botton and Shpancer would save us from the wounds wrought by love’s vulnerability; but both do so at the expensive of love’s unity. De Botton would have us expect a mediocre unity at best, and Shpancer would have us seek the unity fit only to a lesser animal.

No. To love another human being truly means to seek unity with them not only in shared intimacy, sex, trust, and acceptance, but in reason, in purpose, and in sorrow. To love another human being means that you seek his or her good as though it is your own: it pervades your life, not just here, not just now, not just in this or that moment, but completely.

Anything less…

magritte-les_amants