Hypatia 16.2 (2001) 97-99
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The Madwoman's Reason: The Concept of the Appropriate in Ethical Thought
The Madwoman's Reason: The Concept of the Appropriate in Ethical Thought. By Nancy J. Holland. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
The ethical consequences of Martin Heidegger's philosophy have become one of the most debated topics among scholars of Heidegger's work. Most philosophers who are interested in the Heidegger controversy, a controversy produced by Heidegger's close association with the Nazi party, attempt to derive the ethical consequences of Heidegger's philosophy from his discussions of the social and historical dimensions of human life. In her new book, The Madwoman's Reason: The Concept of the Appropriate in Ethical Thought, Nancy J. Holland looks instead to Heidegger's basic philosophical position, his view of the relations between human existence and the world, in order to develop the concept of the "appropriate" in a manner relevant to her search for a nonfoundationalist ethics. Holland's decision that a nonfoundationalist ethics is needed arises from her engagement with Jean Giradoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot. Giradoux's madwoman is a "sensible" woman whose task is to set to rights what is wrong with the world, in the course of an afternoon, not in accordance with any particular law or principle, but simply in order to rid the world of a variety [End Page 97] of apparent evils. According to Holland, the world of the madwoman and her friends is a world in which reasonable people can agree that certain kinds of things (capitalism, greed, overweening power) are wrong and need to be corrected. Such a world, Holland argues, is a more appropriate one than that created by the representatives of wealth, greed, and power. If appropriateness is the sense of the rightness of things shared by a group of people who have a common culture and many explicit moral values, then, Holland proposes, it is possible that appropriateness is not based on higher order principles about the meaning of life that are themselves based on metaphysical claims about the nature of reality. In other words, appropriateness is a nonfoundational ethic that is closer to aesthetic than to moral rightness. And simply because human life is not predetermined, and humans do not have preestablished criteria for judging their actions (but instead depend on the practical context to decide how to act), this does not mean that no moral judgments can be made.
The body of Holland's book is thus dedicated to determining how and why such judgments are still possible, even when they are not based on metaphysical and higher order principles. Holland aims to prove that ethical choice is based on the deepest possible understanding of the tradition to which one belongs and in which one lives. Given this, she will argue that "appropriate behavior" is an ideal that must be held constant. It is perhaps because appropriate behavior is an ideal that Holland also claims that when appropriateness is defined as a sense of the rightness of things shared by a group of people with a common culture and many explicit moral values, this sense of rightness depends on the "intuitions" of that group. It is important not to let this term go, but to examine its implications in the light of the rest of Holland's theory. Intuitionism has been defined as the doctrine that an irreducible family of first principles exists and that these principles have to be weighed against one another since they may yield contrary ethical prescriptions. But intuitionism also implies that the concepts of what is right and what is good are unanalyzable since, in the context of the situation of a particular group of people, specific ethical prescriptions are heavily influenced by customs and the expectations of that group. This is exactly what Holland seems to want to produce. She takes appropriate behavior to be a "formal" determination or limit on action (thus an ideal in this sense) that calls for determining ethical action on the basis...