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Author Topic: Down the rabbit hole: agency, freedom and fatalism.  (Read 263 times)
LostInAShaftOfSunlight
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« on: 06/05/09 @ 07:03 »

(animated by reading of B. Leiter's "Nietzsche on Morality)

A: N seems to be proffering, or is often interpreted as proffering some kind of doctrine of self creation or responsibility for our own values.  (vague, but will do)

B: N attacks our autonomy and agency. He appeals to physiological facts about us and unconscious motivations as causally primary.  We are not causa sui, and what appear to us to be our choices are the result of unconscious drives and desires playing out inside us:

From Daybreak

Quote
[T]hat one wants to combat the vehemence of a drive at all,
however, does not stand within our own power; nor does the
choice of any particular method; nor does the success or failure
of this method. What is clearly the case is that in this entire
procedure our intellect is only the blind instrument of another
drive, which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is
tormenting us. . .


C: The self or "I" is at least unclear and at worst assumed.
____________________________________________________


Is there any sense at all left for point A given points B and C?

It seems that one of N's goals is to preserve higher types from being corrupted by adopting certain moralities, but what kind of effect could he have given B and C.  How are the free spirits free?

For someone concerned with nihilism (Nietzsche), B and C are pretty bitter pills to swallow (for me!).  I was pretty amazed while reading Leiter's discussion of all this and i've even left out some.

What grounds do we have for adopting or rejecting B and C and where do we go if we accept it (as i'm inclined to do)? 
« Last Edit: 06/05/09 @ 10:12 by LostInAShaftOfSunlight » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: 07/05/09 @ 08:38 »

I suppose the first thing to work out is whether B and C really do undermine A. Firstly, I agree that N seems concerned with self-transformation or 'self-overcoming' as he calls it. Now, you ask, how is this sort of concern with self compatible with B and C - that is, with the idea that, effectively, we have no self?

Well, the first possibility is that self-transformation does not involve a conventional notion of self. Somewhere in BGAE, N proposes a picture of the self as a sort of commonwealth - that is, a sort of society of competing wills or drives. Now, to extend the social metaphor, these drives could form a monarchy, a democracy, a tyranny, and so on. One way of looking at self-overcoming, therefore, is as a form of revolution in this society - either by the imposition of a single drive (restoration of monarchy?) or various drives working together (socialist revolution?). The point is, that even if agency is undermined by fracturing it (competing drives), this does not rule out the possibility of meaningful change. Ultimately, it might even become possible to foster a unified 'I'. (By the way, this notion of the self as consisting of aspects which can be viewed via the metaphor of political constitution begins with Plato's Republic.)

However, as you also point out, N does not just fracture agency, he also undermines it via the notion that these drives are frequently unconscious. Now, this is a different type of problem. The traditional notion of agency is that it begins with a conscious thought, and results in an action. However, as N himself points out, this is an oversimplification, and there is a sense in which willed actions do not spring from a single conscious will. However, because that will is not conscious, does that mean that it is not a part of 'me'?

I think the problem here lies in identification. For instance, imagine that you are next to a road, and a young child wanders out in front of an oncoming car. Without thinking, you dive out and save the child. Now, we might argue that this is just unconscious instinct, but is there anyone who would not want to claim that action as deliberate and willed? Now, take an opposite example: you feel grumpy, and someone comes to talk to you, but you lash out at them with a cutting remark. It might be tempting to say that this was not really 'you', that you didn't really mean it, etc. A psychoanalyst might argue that you were in the grip of an unconscious complex which made you behave irrationally.

The point with the above two examples is that we construct the self via our attitude to our unconscious drives. As N argues, we do something which falls in with our own idea of what we want, and we come to associate that with 'me' and 'conscious action' (and, obviously, the opposite is true). So, we can see N as undermining conscious volition if we stick to the rigid notion that all actions must be conscious to be willed, or we can realise that, actually, ALL actions are, in a sense unconscious in origin. This last point may be too strong a claim, but maybe not: there are even some philosophers now who think that unconscious agency plays a role in conscious mental thought (e.g. problem solving, sudden revelation). However, I think it probably plays a role in most of our thought. We can retain the idea of agency, therefore, even if we relinquish the idea of conscious causation. 
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LostInAShaftOfSunlight
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« Reply #2 on: 29/05/09 @ 03:20 »

Quote
we construct the self via our attitude to our unconscious drives

Who or what is this ‘we’ doing the constructing?  It might just be something else unconscious

Quote
we do something which falls in with our own idea of what we want, and we come to associate that with 'me' and 'conscious action'

Why do we want this?

Quote
we can see N as undermining conscious volition if we stick to the rigid notion that all actions must be conscious to be willed

we can realise that, actually, ALL actions are, in a sense unconscious in origin.

there are even some philosophers now who think that unconscious agency plays a role in conscious mental thought

We can retain the idea of agency, therefore, even if we relinquish the idea of conscious causation.

Keeping our heavily mustached anchor in sight: this is the result that N seems to go for – out with agency!  For me it comes up first in BGE in the ‘thought comes when it wants’.  Continuing on in the corpus, he is pretty scalding in GM 13, writing of the idea of the freely choosing subject:

“no wonder, then, if the entrenched, secretly smouldering emotions of revenge and hatred put this belief (in the subject) to their own use and, in fact, do not defend any belief more passionately than that the strong are free to be weak, and the birds of prey are free to be lambs: – in this way, they gain the right to make the birds of prey responsible for being birds of prey . . ."

He is striving to do away with the idea of conscious agency and so responsibility as negatively applied by ‘weaker’ types to the actions of ‘stronger’ ones, and positively to their own actions. 

Unconscious agency is skeletal compared to the kind of muscular concept we have of self ‘creation’ and (as you put it) meaningful change.  It might be like the unconscious processing that leads to conscious sensation.  It just appears here the way it does.  It's not that meaningful change isn't occuring, just that it doesn't come from where we think it is.  Of course it might just be a 'superficial' change.  There's a man in Bill Maher's Religulous (hilarious...must be seen), who Maher meets in a truck drivers church.  He tells Bill that he used to be a Satanist priest.  Now that is a pretty dramatic contrast.  Admittedly i know nothing about this man, but it is quite possible that very little has really changed about him: the character and strength of his emotions, thinking, ambitions, capacity for effort, habits, friendships, etc., except that now they are excited or organized by (admittedly very!) different things.

N paints a nice picture of this when he writes (in BGE?) that thanks to sciences like physics we’ve had to rethink some of our basic ideas about the world – that table isn’t really solid, but is a cloud of atoms and mostly empty space.  He suggests that the same is true of our ideas of our conscious selves too – we’ll have to re think a lot about what is going on behind the scenes here.

Now, however this works, it has been working all my life and for a very long time in human history.  The question is what effect what I think about the process has on the process: is the direction one way, or is it looped.  How do or can conscious thoughts and experiences effect unconscious drives and desires and patterns?

One of the tensions here in N is this, between the idea of the conscious ‘spectator’ view quoted above, and the active view: another extract from Daybreak (560):

What we are at liberty to do. – One can dispose of one’s drives like a gardener and, though few know it, cultivate the shoots of anger, pity, curiosity, vanity as productively and profitably as a beautiful fruit tree on a trellis; one can do it with the good taste of a gardener and, as it were, in the French or English or Dutch or Chinese fashion; one can also let nature rule and only attend to a little embellishment and tidying up here and there; one can, finally, without paying attention to them at all, let the plants grow up and fight their fight out among themselves – indeed, one can take delight in such a wilderness, and desire precisely this delight, though it gives one some trouble, too. All this we are at liberty to do, but how many know that we are at liberty to do it? Do not the majority not believe in themselves as in complete fully developed facts? Have the great philosophers not put their seal on this prejudice with the doctrine of the unchangeability of character?

Somewhere else is advice on something like 5 or 6 ways to combat a drive where he gives some classical conditioning tips.

And there's the bit in BGE 200,about waging war with oneself.  Yet, here he refers to Caeser and Alcibiades as ‘predestined ones’, and says that the weak and the strong type came from the ‘same causes’, which I take to mean as the same inherent causes.

Quote
the first possibility is that self-transformation does not involve a conventional notion of self.

I can see what you mean here.  I can feel this kind of war in myself at times to:  ‘i'm too lazy... no i work too much...argh! i should quit work and do something 'really meaningful' with my life...forget that, i need to find a way to become rich and stop working for other people...is there a decent movie on?...what is my wife doing?’ and so on. 

For me to posit a seperate self for each of these attitudes is a bit too unconventional and probably useless.  However, i do like the extended social metaphor, and i think this is a manageable way to think of it.  I can observe and collate my tendencies towards certain similar behaviours and attitudes, and maybe restore a monarchy, etc.

The problem in N is trying to relax the rope from the two directions he's pulling it in.  How much and of what kind of agency does he admit of.    The other one is to ask and answer this of ourselves.  How much of me is necessary, ‘predestined’, how much chosen?  How can i answer it?

Quote
However, because that will is not conscious, does that mean that it is not a part of 'me'?

The other interesting tension is his attack on agency and responsibility, and the fact that the highest praise and the severest criticism of individuals occur frequently in his writings (you know, that 'English blockhead', J.S. Mill!).  Solomon tries to resolve this by pointing out that he is not taking a stance on what people do, but deeper than this, what they are.  It's not that just because something is unconscious that it isn't part of me, it may be quite meaningfully me.  That lashing remark you mentioned might tell more about us than we know or want to admit.  But whether or not it's me tells me nothing about whether or not i'm a freely choosing agent.

I think i'm rambling too much now. Time for a pro:

http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=interview_strawson


P.s. Just ignore the Nietzsche pic below (one of yours?).  I tried to put it in the post beside his quoted stuff and obviously failed.  Perhaps we can just get some moustached emoticons?
« Last Edit: 31/05/09 @ 02:36 by LostInAShaftOfSunlight » Logged

Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.
Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #3 on: 29/05/09 @ 21:51 »

I see your post, and my gaze takes it in thoughtfully and with a degree of foreboding, like a Native American scout spying the first white settlers: "This is interesting," his gaze says, "but it is to big a thing to be dealt with now. I must report back to the tribe, and mull over what this means."

[translation: I'm knackered and have to go to bed. I shall answer soon...]
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Gareth Southwell
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« Reply #4 on: 07/06/09 @ 07:00 »

Really interesting post (sorry for the delay in responding) - 'rambling' in a very fruitful way, I think!

I especially like the quote from Daybreak, where N sets out different 'methods' of working with oneself. I think this highlights the problem: the picture we adopt of the self IS ITSELF a method. So, if I think of my self as a monarchy ruled by reason, then this has metaphysical assumptions attached; similarly, if I think of myself as a single Cartesian entity, then this too presupposes a certain view of what exists. Therefore, when we talk of the problem of agency, of unconscious agency, etc., this is really a question of what view of the self we should adopt. But perhaps - and this is the million dollar question - we are free to adopt any number of views, and it is our CHOICE which defines us. This is obviously an existentialist point, and it is one that I shy back from slightly: surely there must be SOMETHING that we are, some 'given'? However, my attitude to this question is what is important, and what defines me. And, if we are free to choose, then why choose determinism? It seems pointlessly self denying, for if we are determined by forces beyond our control, then why fret over the answer?  Wink

I seem to have reduced your long, complex, and interesting post into one paragraph! However, I think the above gets to the gist of the problem: when we ask, "How can I know whether I am free/determined, and to what extent/which parts?", I am essentially adopting a certain view of the world (call it scientific). However, this view already presuppose certain kinds of answers. Cross referencing to another post, perhaps ultimately this type of searching has limits, and at the bottom of the well all we really end up with is poetry and metaphor.

In relation to the Strawson article, I think this illustrates the point nicely. In a sense, I agree with Strawson: we do not have absolute free will as we think we do. However, this "we" (or "I") is a particular view of what exists. So, it seems that at some level, a choice has been made concerning what the self is. So, in one sense, this little "I" is always going to be too small to be responsible for everything, and is subject to all sorts of forces that mean that it can only ever be 'responsible' in a qualified way (i.e. by admitting that even our most conscious and willed actions are not completely 'free' and self determined). However - and this is the big question for me - why need we choose this notion of "I"? The notion of free will and causation is inextricably linked to our notion of self. So, for instance, if we were to expand our notion of self, then our notion of causation would also change - perhaps not so that we could ever achieve the sort of freewill that some would like (i.e. self determination), but certainly so that we do not have to succumb to this picture of the vulnerable little "I" bobbing helplessly on a vast sea of unconscious forces. I think - and I'll leave it here for your response - this is what certain forms of religion do: they expand the notion of self and agency. (Interestingly, Strawson doesn't address this - i.e. the way agency is linked to our notion of self: it is the same "I" and "you" throughout. Obviously, the big problem for practical purposes is how can we be consistent - in cases of criminality, for instance. But, again, a big side topic.)

Yes, that is my picture of Nietzsche - a very old one, actually. I'll see what I can about Nietzsche smileys!


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