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4 Ethical Experience, Ethical Subjectivity S I M O N C R I T C H L E Y Ethical Experience For me, philosophy does not begin, as ancient tradition related by Aristotle contends, in an experience of wonder (thaumazein) at the fact that things (nature, the world, the universe) are, but rather with the indeterminate but palpable sense that something desired has not been fulfilled, that a fantastic effort has failed. One feels that things are not, or at least not the way we expected or hoped they might be. Philosophy begins in disappointment . Although there might well be precursors, I see this as a specifically modern conception of philosophy. To give it a name and date, one could say that it is a conception of philosophy that follows from Immanuel Kant’s Copernican turn, namely, that the great metaphysical dream of the soul moving frictionless toward knowledge of itself, thingsin -themselves, and God is just that, a dream. Absolute knowledge or a direct ontology of things as they are is decisively beyond the ken of fallible , finite creatures such as ourselves. An insistent theme of my work is that human beings are exceedingly limited creatures, a mere vapor or virus can destroy us. As Blaise Pascal said, we are the weakest reed in nature and this fact requires an acknowledgment that is very reluctantly given. Our culture is endlessly beset with Promethean myths of overcoming the human condition, whether through the fantasy of artificial intelligence or through contemporary delusions about cloning and genetic manipulation. We seem to have enormous difficulty in accepting our limitedness, our finiteness, and this failure is a cause, in my view, of much tragedy. PAGE 51 51 ................. 16993$ $CH4 09-11-08 09:39:51 PS One could give an entire taxonomy of disappointment, but the two forms of disappointment that concern me most urgently in my work are religious and political. These forms of disappointment are not entirely separable and continually leak into one another. Indeed, ethical and religious categories are rightly difficult to distinguish at times, and in discussions of ethics we often have recourse to religious categories, whether Christian, Judaic, or something else. The experience of religious disappointment provokes the potentially abyssal question, If the legitimating theological structures and religious belief systems in which people like us believed are no longer believable, if, to coin a phrase, God is dead, then what becomes of the question of the meaning of life? It is this question that provokes the visit of what Friedrich Nietzsche refers to as the uncanniest of guests: nihilism. Nihilism is the breakdown of the order of meaning, where all that we previously imagined as a divine, transcendent basis for moral valuation has become meaningless . Nihilism is this declaration of meaninglessness, a sense of indifference, directionlessness, or, at its worst, despair that can flood into all areas of life. For some, this is the defining experience of youth— witness the deaths of numerous young romantics, whether John Keats, Sid Vicious, or Kurt Cobain—for others it lasts a whole lifetime. The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the Continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. For me, philosophical activity, the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by the militant resistance to nihilism . That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our devalued values require what Nietzsche calls revaluation or transvaluation. All the difficulty here consists in thinking through the question of meaning without bewitching ourselves with new and exotic forms of meaning, with imported brands of existential balm, the sort of thing that Nietzsche called ‘‘European Buddhism.’’ However, this essay is concerned with the other major form of disappointment that interests me, political disappointment. In the latter, the sense of something lacking or failing arises from the realization that we inhabit a violently unjust world, a world defined by the horror of war, a world where, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky says, blood is being spilled in the merriest way, as if it were champagne. Such an experience of disappointment is acutely tangible at the present moment, with the corruption and corrosion of established political structures and an unending war against terror where the moods of entire populations are controlled through a politics of fear. The experience of political disappointment provokes the PAGE 52 52 Ethical Experience, Ethical Subjectivity ................. 16993$ $CH4 09-11-08...


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